Tag Archives: then versus now

Thomas Sowell on Immigration

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog and is republished with the author’s permission.

Thomas Sowell is an influential and prolific writer whose books span the social sciences.  My shelves are full of them, decorated with underlines, marginalia, and dog-eared pages.  But in his recent columns and comments on immigration, Sowell has not approached that topic with the same rigorous attention to detail that he has in his books.  His reliance on incomplete historical examinations in his columns leads him to seemingly support a vast array of government interventions.  In these writings, Sowell makes the same mistakes that he accuses the “anointed” of making in many of his books.

In the column I’ll focus on, professor Sowell’s claim that today’s debate about immigration reform is not as fact-based as previous debates.  The implication is that a lack of facts will lead to poor policy decisions today whereas the policy changes 100 years ago were well thought out and fact-based.  He wrote:

A hundred years ago, the immigration controversies of that era were discussed in the context of innumerable facts about particular immigrant groups. Many of those facts were published in a huge, multi-volume 1911 study by a commission headed by Senator William P. Dillingham.

First, Sowell’s description of the Dillingham Commission’s commitment to facts is inaccurate.  It was a bi-partisan committee formed in 1907 to investigate the impacts of immigration on the United States – especially the so-called “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The Commission was staffed by Progressives who believed that scientific managerial methods could effectively plan large parts of society and the economy by using the power of the government.  With the exception of one member, William S. Bennet of New York, the commission was stacked with members who had previously supported immigration restrictions. 

The Dillingham Commission produced 42 volumes by 1911, arguing that the “new immigrants” were fundamentally different from old immigrants who came from Western and Northern Europe.  Their culture, rates of economic success, and assimilative potential were supposedly severely constrained.  Those are the same claims made by today’s immigration opponents.  The Dillingham Commission suggested that immigration restrictions (ranging from relatively modest literacy tests to outright quotas and other massive interventions) could solve this “problem.” 

Information gathered by the Commission that showed new immigrants succeeding and assimilating was ignored or explained away because it contrasted with the world view of the commission members.  When charitable societies started to report on questionnaire slips that large numbers of Western and Northern Europeans received aid, “the slips were returned to societies for further information or for corrections.” The Commission defined retardation for children as being behind in school – an absurd definition designed to exaggerate retardation among non-English speaking immigrant children.  In American schools, the Dillingham Commission found that 66.9 percent of Polish Jewish students and 63.6 percent of Southern Italians students were retarded.  The Dillingham Commission was intensely worried about Asian immigration. 

Today’s immigration debate is better off without these types of “facts” produced by a commission designed to reach a certain conclusion. 

The Commission’s findings were similar to Sowell’s comment: “The immigrants of today are very different in many ways from those who arrived here a hundred years ago.”  Literally, Sowell is correct, but the implication that they are different in ways that make them less suited to modern American society doesn’t follow.  Immigration restrictionists 100 years ago said the same thing about Southern and Eastern European immigrants, looking back fondly on the Germans, Nordics, and Irish immigrants who came before.  Brutal terrorist bombings carried out by Italian anarcho-communists, including 38 mail bombs in 1919 and numerous attempts on the life of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, confirmed the pessimism. 

Before the Dillingham Commission, immigration restrictionists in the early and mid-19th century thought the Germans and Catholic Irish were unassimilable compared to the Scots-Irish and Huguenots who came before.  One worry about the Germans was that their collectivist culture and political struggles in Germany would clash with the individualism necessary to make freedom flourish in America.  Catholics were considered to harbor a deep anti-republicanism and a culture inimical to liberty.  Time has shown how absurd those worries were.

Thomas Sowell wrote two books explaining the flaws of supporting massive government interventions based on the recommendations of elites – especially in the face of so much historical and economic counter-evidence.  In the Vision of the Anointed, Sowell rightly criticizes the Ralph Naders of the world for spinning tales of doom and gloom that call for government intervention based on very little evidence.  He humorously calls these people Teflon prophets.  But Sowell is acting as a Teflon prophet when it comes to immigration.  In a cagey way, he predicts that great harm will come to the United States due to immigration.  He does not propose a policy solution but because he describes a supposed problem with such a dire tone the reader is meant to feel that he should oppose immigration liberalization. 

Did the Dillingham Commission’s fears that new immigrants and their descendants would fail to assimilate come true?

Asians and their descendants, a group viciously criticized by the Dillingham Commission, have culturally assimilated and their rate of economic success exceeds that of other Americans.  You don’t have to take my word for it, just read what Thomas Sowell has written on the issue.  Italians, Jews, and other immigrant groups criticized by the Commission also culturally assimilated and their descendants have been very successful.  The Dillingham Commission was clearly wrong about these immigrant groups.  Immigration restrictions inspired by that Commission imposed large costs on America: We likely lost an opportunity to have at least tens of millions of more productive citizens from Europe, Asian, and elsewhere – unintentionally sentencing many to death.   

The Dillingham Commission also claimed that there were just too many people and the economy could not create enough wealth to sustain a high standard of living – a ludicrous proposition thoroughly demolished by Julian Simon.  With a population of just over 92 million people in 1910, the Commission concluded that too much immigration was slowing America’s economic growth and that large numbers of new people were not necessary for industrialization because that phase of economic expansion was behind us … in 1910.  Such grandiose claims of the future that call for government intervention could only come from the self-proclaimed anointed

The Dillingham Commission was severely criticized when it was released and was not accepted as fact as Sowell claimed.  A criticism of the report famously questioned its entire statistical methodology and conclusions.  That criticism, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, dismissed the “popular delusion” that immigrants displace American workers by writing: “[i]n the long run … supply and demand approximately balance each other.”  Just as then, similar disagreements have continued to this day over other immigration studies.     

The Dillingham Commission’s immigration restrictionist recommendations were based on poor statistical methods, an undue faith in the ability of Progressive social-reforms to guide social development, and a rejection of labor market economics.  The Dillingham Commission was not an honest study to determine the facts of immigration as Professor Sowell described.          

Second, Sowell brings up the Boston terror attack as a warning against immigration of people with cultures that are incompatible with Western values.  He has a point about security, but it’s not that immigration should be curtailed.  As much as this is painful to consider, some criminals and terrorists will always be able to sneak in regardless of our immigration policy.  The question is not whether we want no criminals or a lot of criminals, the relevant question is: which system will prevent more criminals and terrorists from entering at an acceptable cost? 

A legal system that prevented all immigration and tourism would prevent some criminals from coming in and could have prevented the Boston terror attack, but at a gargantuan economic cost not to mention the violation of individual liberties such a policy would entail.  But a more open immigration system that screens people for criminality but lets peaceful people through will reduce the size of the haystack and make it easier for law and immigration enforcement to catch the criminal and terrorist needles.  Public policy should be based on facts and not anecdotes.  There is evidence that there should additional screenings and investigations for some immigrants but that does not mean blanket bans on the immigration of certain ethnic or religious groups should be instituted.

Thomas Sowell’s trust in the findings of a Progressive immigration commission that recommended massive government interventions based on manipulated statistics – a near textbook example of a Teflon prophet – is in blaring contrast to the rest of his work that produces many reasons to be skeptical of such schemes.  In 100 years, will Americans look back fondly on today’s immigrants and their successful assimilation as they have in other periods of American history?  Or will this be the first time that immigrants and their descendants don’t become Americans?  Given the rapid rate of assimilation across the board, with varying rates of success, there is little to distinguish today’s immigration experience from that of our forefathers.   

Barry Goldwater’s vision of open borders

Goldwater is a name synonymous with the rebirth of American conservative, right-wing politics. But it is also a name that should be synonymous with open borders. In 1962, Barry Goldwater jotted down some thoughts on where his beloved Arizona would be in 50 years. On immigration and Mexico, he said:

Our ties with Mexico will be much more firmly established in 2012 because, sometime within the next 50 years, the Mexican border will become as the Canadian border, a free one, with the formalities and red tape of ingress and egress cut to a minimum so that the residents of both countries can travel back and forth across the line as if it were not there.

To a certain degree, his vision came true ahead of time. Stories of lively cross-border interactions pre-9/11 abound. After the post-9/11 crackdown on border movement, it became much harder to cross the Mexican border with the US without enduring much lengthier delays than existed before. Goldwater’s vision plainly does not exist today.

Of course, to some degree, one can argue that Goldwater wasn’t really arguing for true open borders (though I find it interesting that Goldwater pointedly refers to the “residents of both countries,” as opposed to just citizens). Canadians themselves face a fair number of immigration restrictions in the US. The popular television show How I Met Your Mother has made fun of this by depicting a Canadian character’s issues with her work visa forcing her to consider a sham marriage with a friend. This theme is fairly popular in the media, actually; Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock starred in The Proposal, a film based on a very similar storyline, also about a Canadian woman forced into a sham marriage to hold down her job in the US.

These pop media depictions have a basis in reality. My current employer used to hire non-US residents frequently. It stopped doing this a few years ago not just because of the cost, but because of the immense uncertainty about whether a work visa would actually come through. It’s no use hiring someone only to have to bid goodbye to your tens of thousands of investment in that person’s training thanks to immigration enforcement. Canadians at my firm were no exception to this; I met someone who transferred to my office from our Toronto office very shortly before we stopped sponsoring work visas; he told me he actually decided to work for us in Toronto because he wanted to work in the US in the first place.

So no open borders for Canadians. But looking at Goldwater’s statement, I don’t think he would have expected the kinds of restrictions my Canadian colleagues put up with. One can hardly describe a convoluted work visa process as an immigration law that cuts the formalities of ingress and egress to a minimum. One can hardly say that Canadians can cross the US border as if it were not there! Maybe Goldwater was only imagining open borders for tourists, but that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing someone dreaming about the next 50 years of progress would be focused on.

Modern US conservatives would do well to hark back to Goldwater (and Ronald Reagan, for that matter, considering his willingness to embrace “amnesty”). The nature of North American trade and physical borders means closed North American borders are legislating against economic and geographic reality. Instead of trying to build an expensive and unrealistic wall, the sensible thing to do is to allow those acting in good faith to come and go — and monitor these legal movements carefully to filter out those with ill intent. In fact, this is a lesson from another famous US conservative’s Operation Wetback. Reflecting on Dwight Eisenhower’s policy, Alex Nowrasteh writes:

By the early 1950s many unauthorized migrants were entering alongside Braceros to work, mainly in Texas. The government responded with the now infamous Operation Wetback that removed almost 2 million unauthorized Mexicans in 1953 and 1954. Unlike today’s removals and deportations, the migrants were only required to step over the border into Mexico and could then step back in and lawfully sign up for the Bracero program. As a result, the number of removals in 1955 was barely 3 percent of the previous year’s numbers and those who previously would have entered unlawfully instead signed up to become Braceros, which was the intended purpose of Operate Wetback. The government did not tolerate unlawful entry but made it very easy for migrants to get a guest worker visa and used Border Patrol to funnel unauthorized migrants and potential unauthorized migrants into the legal system.

US immigration policy consciously makes it difficult for Canadian white-collar professionals to work in the US, and essentially impossible for Mexican blue-collar professionals to work. Is it any surprise that the white-collar professionals of the world would rather go elsewhere, while the blue-collar professionals sneak in to work?

Restrictionists and those critical of open borders contend that Operation Wetback “succeeded” in the sense that it deported millions of people, and most of them did not come back. Calls for Operation Wetback II or variants of it are not uncommon; they appear on FOX News and on stage at presidential debates. But US law then, unlike now, was not prejudiced against previous deportation victims. You could still re-enter as a Bracero legally right after you were deported; the whole point of deportation was to encourage you to re-enter legally, not to erect further barriers to your entry. After all, if you were able to get in unlawfully before, you could certainly try again!

Conservatives need to recognise physical and economic realities, and use the legal system to work within them, instead of trying to pretend there’s some perfect form of “border security” that doesn’t involve doing battle with the fundamental realities of the North American map. Modern border enforcement proposals take for granted that it’s possible to control in totalitarian fashion large swathes of border territory. That may be so, but only if the state assumes a totalitarian form itself. As the American Civil Liberties Union would put it, to enforce the border, you’d need to erect a Constitution-free zone.

The photograph featured in the header of this post is of Americans and Mexicans playing volleyball over the border, circa 1979. Via RealClear.

Open borders is a radical proposal

After poring through some of the data on the foreign-born proportions in the US during my spare time this past weekend, I came to the conclusion that other than radical open borders advocates and restrictionists, most people don’t really have an idea of just how radical open borders would be. Many pro-immigration people are quick to point to the US’s experience with open borders in the 19th century. But there’s a lot of difference between then and now. On a variety of numerical metrics, the US as it stands today comes fairly close to where it was when borders were most open. This table goes up to 1990, but the 2010 census data puts the total population at 310 million and the foreign-born population at 40 million, so the 1970-1990 trend is geometrically continued in the 1990-2010 period.

  • The foreign-born population as a fraction of the total US population as per the 2010 census is about 13%. This is quite close to the 1910 historical high of about 15%.
  • The foreign-born population in the 1970-2010 period has been roughly doubling every two decades in absolute terms (it went up from about 10 million in 1970 to 20 million in 1990, then again to 40 million in 2010). Compare that to the US’s heyday of open borders: the 19th century. The foreign-born population from 1850 to 1890 grew at a comparable rate: up from 2.2 million in 1850 to 5.6 million in 1870, and then again to 9.2 million in 1890. Note that the Chinese Exclusion Act and related restrictions started kicking in the last quarter of the 19th century. It’s true that the period from 1920 to 1960 saw little growth in the foreign-born population, due to closed borders.

If the foreign-born population in the US continues to grow at roughly the same geometric rate as for the last 40 years, it will be about 55 million in 2020 and about 80 million in 2030. Possibly by 2020 and definitely by 2030, this would mean that the foreign-born share of the population would be well past the 1910 peak.

What would happen under an open borders policy today that mimicked the pre-1875 immigration policy of the United States? I think it’s safe to say that the growth rate will be notably higher than under today’s business as usual scenario. Even people friendly to open borders worry about getting swamped, which is why many propose a gradual opening of the borders. On the upper end of the estimates is David Henderson’s speculation that up to 300 million people could migrate to the United States in the first two years after open borders. But even a moderate view would involve about 10 million people migrating (many of them temporarily) to the United States in the first year following radical open borders. Since the exact smoothing of the flow will depend on the precise policy contours, I’d say that an increase in the foreign-born population of the United States by about 50-100 million in the first decade following open borders (or something close to open borders, such as DRITI) is a fairly conservative, low-end estimate. If you applied the lowest end estimate of this range, 50 million, assuming that the borders opened in 2010, then in 2020, the foreign-born population of the United States would be at about 85-90 million (give or take a few existing foreign-born people dying), which would make the foreign-born proportion in the United States between 20% and 25% — way higher than at any time in US history. If you took the higher end of the (still conservative) estimate of 100 million more foreign-born people in the United States after a decade of open borders starting 2010, that’d be about 135-140 million foreign-born in 2020, out of a total population of somewhere between 400 and 450 million, which would be 30% or more of the population. (Note also that, for comparison, according to polling data on migration, about 135 million people claim they would move to the US in the near future if the US allowed them to do so legally, and this is approximately in line with the above estimates).

[I’m starting 2010 because that’s the last year for which census data is available, though of course one cannot travel back in the past to open the borders].

How does this compare to other countries? Here’s a chart of the foreign-born shares of OECD countries (it’s a few years old, unfortunately). The only countries that have a ~20% or higher population share are Luxembourg, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Luxembourg is extremely small, and is part of the EU, so its anomalously high value may be worth discarding. With the exception of Luxembourg, none of the foreign born shares crosses 25% (though this might have changed since 2006, for which the data was available). Chile’s inclusion in the OECD is misleading for the purposes of this comparison, since its per capita GDP is less than $20,000, so less than half that of the United States. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have extremely low population densities overall. According to Wikipedia’s summary, the US ranks 76th in population density with a density of 34 people/square kilometer. Canada (4 per square kilometer), Australia (3 per square kilometer), and New Zealand (16 per square kilometer) fail to make it to the top 200 in the list. If you exclude all of these, you’re left with basically no country.

But even if you keep Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in, the most ultra-conservative estimate for the foreign-born share in the United States under an open borders type policy is comparable to the highest foreign-born currently seen in the OECD, and more realistic estimates of what would happen in the US under open borders with respect to the foreign-born population place us literally in uncharted territory.

All these data are of course well known to most people in the migration debate. Restrictionists often embrace statistics and factoids of just the sort described here to paint open borders as truly lunatic. And in a sense, they’re right. Open borders is a truly radical, unprecedented proposal. Historical analogies can get us this far, but they simply don’t cut it quantitatively when describing the potential effects (good or bad) of open borders today.

Note that the reason I focused on the United States is simply because I’ve been looking at US-related data in the recent past. However, the case for open borders is universal, so one might wonder if there are other countries for which open borders would be less unprecedented. I don’t know an answer offhand, but it’s also true that many other countries are much smaller (in area and population) compared to the US, so their enacting open borders wouldn’t quite mean the same thing as the US doing so. However, I don’t see how the stats would look less dramatic for most other countries. If Canada announced open borders, then given that the population of Canada is about 1/10 that of the US, a much smaller migrant inflow would have a much larger impact on the foreign born proportion. In fairness, though, it may be argued that since Canada has a much lower population density, some of the overpopulation-related arguments touted by restrictionists have far less force in Canada.

What I think this points to is that when open borders advocates rely on historical precedent regarding open borders, they need to determine the appropriate adjustment factors for a reasonable comparison between the past and present, and justify what these adjustment factors should be. A naive copy-and-paste of population growth rates between the past and present suggests that the current immigration policy of the United States (and possibly of many other countries) already produces results similar to the heyday of open borders. This also raises the question of why we intuitively expect far larger migration flows today, in both absolute and proportional terms, compared to 19th century open borders. Falling transportation and communication costs are the obvious culprits that come to mind, but other technological and social changes might also be involved (for instance, a society that’s far more welcoming of different races and cultures may reduce the perceived and real costs of migrating for people from these different races and cultures — independent of the role of government policy). The next question would be whether all aspects of society have become faster at equal rates, or whether some aspects (people’s ability to physically migrate) have become much faster compared to others (the ability to form new industries and residential areas to accommodate large population influxes), along with the implications of these different degrees of speeding up for the effects of open borders.

In defense of the Pilgrims

By what right did 100 English Puritans, remembered as “the Pilgrims,” arrive at Cape Cod late in the year in 1620 and establish a new settlement called Plymouth Plantation? None was needed. Or if you prefer, by the right over the earth which God granted to all mankind when He told Adam and Eve:

Be fruitful and multiply: fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven, and over every living thing that moves on the earth… Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb that sows seed on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. I also give every green plant as food for all the wild animals of the earth, for all the birds of heaven, and for everything that creeps on the earth in which is the breath of life. (Genesis 1:28-30)

The Pilgrims came to North America, not with the intention to harm anyone or to take the fruit of anyone else’s labor, but rather, to provide for their own sustenance through their own labor, and to practice their religion in peace. They had no authorization from the English king to settle in New England. They did have authorization from the English king to settle in Virginia, which had been carefully procured through their contacts in the Virginia Company. It seems clear, however, that they had few scruples about acquiring such authorization, regarding it rather as a guarantee that the monarch wouldn’t physically destroy any settlement they might establish. They had considered settling in Guyana, and ruled it out partly because the Spanish would likely destroy such a colony militarily, especially if it flourished. They had no authorization from the native Americans to settle. That is not because they regarded the natives as inherently inferior or as lacking human rights, as a certain detail in William Bradford’ history Of Plymouth Plantation makes especially clear. Having just reached Cape Cod, late in the year and short of supplies, at one point the Pilgrims took some food from the Indians after these had run away in fear:

After this, the shallop [a light sail-boat] being got ready, they set out again for the better discovery of this place, and the master of the ship desired to go himself, so there went some 30. men, but found it to be no harbor for ships but only for boats; there was also found two of their houses covered with mats, and sundry of their implements in them, but the people were run away and could not be seen; also there was found more of their corn, and of their beans of various colors. The corn and beans they brought away, purposing to give them full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them (as about some six months afterward they did, to their good content). And here is to be noted a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that hear they got seed to plant them corn the next year, or else they might have starved, for they had none, nor any likelihood to get any till the season had been past (as the sequel did manifest). Neither is it likely they had had this, if the first voyage had not been made, for the ground was now all covered with snow, and hard frozen. But the Lord is never wanting to his in their greatest needs; let his holy name have all the praise.

In short, they stole.

About the later end of this month, one John Billington lost himself in the woods, and wandered up and down some five days, living on berries and what he could find. At length he lit on an Indian plantation, twenty miles south of this place, called Manamet, they conveyed him further off, to Nawsett, among those people that had before set upon the English when they were coasting, whilst the ship lay at the Cape, as is before noted. But the Governor caused him to be inquired for among the Indians, and at length Massassoyt sent word where he was, and the Governor sent a shallop for him, and had him delivered. Those people also came and made their peace; and they [the Pilgrims] gave full satisfaction to those whose corn they had found and taken when they were at Cape Cod.

Clearly, the Pilgrims did not regard their moral rules as applying only among themselves. They didn’t feel too guilty of a theft of food that they desperately needed, rather thanking God for the opportunity. But they were determined to repay it, and they did so. Indians and whites alike were men, and had the rights of men. The Pilgrims came neither to enslave, nor to dispossess. They did not initiate violence, and though heavily armed and not afraid to use force in a just cause, they sought a path of peace amidst the endemic warfare of the Indian tribes. They were not particularly resentful when the Indians did resort to violence, for they held themselves to a higher moral standard than they expected of the Indians, having benefited from the light of the Gospel, as the Indians had not. They were not violating the rights of the native Americans of those times by settling among them, just as undocumented immigrants today are not violating the rights of native Americans today by settling among us. Human rights consist in the safety of one’s person and property. Against this, one might suppose that there is some sort of a collective right over a slab of territory, which is controlled by the “sovereign” government or the majority or whatever, such that unauthorized immigrants like the Pilgrims or Mexican fruit-pickers are violating. But there isn’t. That’s why the Pilgrims did nothing wrong, and why it’s quite right that Americans continue to take pride in them and celebrate them.

If you accept this, you can accept the story of the First Thanksgiving in the proper spirit: as a sort of national epic for America, a great and heroic adventure leading to the founding of a nation, with this distinction from most other national epics: that it is (a) true, and (b) peaceful. It is a story of great faith and courage, but also of humility. Its heroes are common men. They take no credit but give it to God. It began with some rural Englishmen who took it upon themselves to be more devout than was fashionable at the time. They wanted to restore pristine Christianity. They began to assemble in certain congregations, and to be persecuted. Having heard that there was religious freedom in Holland, they resolved to emigrate. It is interesting to compare their twelve years’ sojourn in Holland with their arrival in America. From Bradford’s account, they seem to have asked no one’s leave to settle there, nor to encountered any hindrance to so doing. Bradford does not specially remark that Holland had open borders. It suffices to say that Holland was a “civil [civilized] country.” The Puritans had fears about moving to Holland: Continue reading “In defense of the Pilgrims” »

Abe Lincoln would be a Russian now

The subject of 19th-century immigration almost inevitably comes up in open borders debates. Open borders advocates see a lot to desire and emulate in the 19th century approach to immigration — namely:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The 19th-century-related counter-example I’ve seen here from restrictionists is “Where are the Native Americans/other aboriginal peoples of the world now?” A related, more specific, example is how Mexico’s open borders allowed whites from America and Europe to enter their state of Texas, and eventually secede altogether from the country. These aren’t very convincing examples for many reasons, but the biggest one I can think of is that 19th-century contemporaries, by and large, took cognisance of these problems, and nevertheless agreed that keeping borders open remained the just, humane thing to do. Continue reading “Abe Lincoln would be a Russian now” »