What I like about “Alien Nation”

I’ve just finished reading Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, originally published in 1995 and made freely available in 2007 (the book is available for free download here and has a Wikipedia page here). The book is part of the anti-open borders reading list on this website.

I was expecting that I would disagree extensively with the book, given its advocacy of immigration restriction, but I was surprised to see a number of points where I was in agreement with the author. Further, the book was more pleasant and less polemical to read than I’d expected, given the standard fare at VDARE, an immigration restrictionist website that Peter Brimelow founded.

Below, I list some of the many points of agreement:

  • Brimelow points out that US immigration policy is pretty far from open borders. He critiques the term “immigration floodgates” and instead suggests the term “immigration scuttles” to describe the workings of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965:

    The 1965 Immigration Act did not open the immigration floodgates: it opened the immigration scuttles — the influx is very substantial, but it spurts lopsidedly from a remarkably small number of
    countries, just as when some of the scuttles are opened in one side of a ship.

  • Brimelow writes in the preface:

    There is a fundamental distinction to be made between immigration in principle and immigration in practice. Obeisance to the former is preventing observation of the latter. Readers may well disagree with much in this book. But I believe that they will also be left disagreeing with at least some of the workings of the post- 1965 immigration system.

    I think Brimelow is right to point out that support for open borders, or for freer immigration, is not the same as support for the status quo or for existing immigration policies.

  • Brimelow writes in the preface:

    Firstly, the emphasis placed by the 1965 Act on “family reunification” rather than the importation of workers to fill specific labor needs. Secondly, the magnet of the modern American welfare state.

    Both have served to uncouple immigration from American economic conditions . . . and, not coincidentally, from American economic needs.

    As somebody who thinks that immigration of all forms should be freer, I am reluctant to critique family reunification in favor of skilled migration because I don’t think that the “total number of immigrants” needs to be held fixed (see also high versus low skill). However, there is a reasonable case to be made that, assuming that the total number of immigrants is held constant (a highly questionable and artificial assuption), a greater emphasis on skills-based immigration would be best for the welfare, both of the immigrant-receiving country, and of the world at large. Alex Tabarrok, who generally supports freer immigration, also makes the same point.

    Brimelow’s critique of the relationship between immigration and the welfare state is also important, though (I think) overstated. See the welfare objection and contraction of welfare state pages for more.

  • Brimelow is right to critique some elements of US immigration policy, such as (about Page 80):

    Every country treated equally. All are entitled to contribute a maximum number of immigrants (recently 25,620) to the United States. (Regardless of size — compare India with Monaco! Regardless of historic contribution to the American population — compare Britain, Ireland and Germany with Mexico, the Philippines or Dominica! Regardless of whether the country splits up, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which promptly doubled their entitlement — again, putting U.S. immigration policy in foreign hands!)

    In a world with open borders, there wouldn’t be limits on the number of immigrants from any country.

  • Brimelow rightly points out that immigration is not “necessary” for economic growth, though it may boost economic growth. He also correctly critiques some pro-immigration arguments that simply claim the expanded size of a local economy as a benefit of immigration, and suggests two alternative approaches: the analytical nationalist perspective that compares per capita measures before and after immigration, and the citizenist perspective that compares the “with immigration” and “without immigration” scenarios for those who are currently citizens. He writes (about Page 58-59):

    What does “economic growth” mean anyway? Basically it can be viewed three ways:

    1. growth of overall national income — literally, any increase in the size of a country’s output. Of course, if immigration increases the workforce at all, it must cause such an increase, even if it’s just one immigrant mowing lawns.

    2. growth in national income per capita — increase per head of the population, including the new heads that have just immigrated. This could happen, for example, if all immigrants earned more than the national average … as perhaps they might if they were just those Ph.D.s. Immigration of this sort would be a real economic luxury. Government policy could easily arrange it. It just hasn’t.

    3. growth of the national income received by native-born Americans — that is, the Americans already here increase their standard of living because of the presence of immigrants, even if the immigrants themselves don’t rise to the same level.

    Thus the American lawn-owner is happy to pay to have his lawn mowed. The lawn-mowing immigrant is happy too (presumably). And national output will rise by the amount of the wages he receives. But national income per capita will fall — because those wages are far below the national average.

    Obviously, immigration that results in point 2, everyone getting richer on average, is the easiest to defend. And immigration that results in point 3, native-born Americans getting richer, is at least
    rational in economic terms. But it might be socially disturbing if it led to a racially distinct, lawn-mowing servant caste.

    Immigration that just results in point 1, some (possibly minimal) growth in overall output, is the most questionable. How much growth are we talking about anyway? One mowed lawn’s worth? And why should native-born Americans put up with immigration at all if they themselves don’t get significant— make that significant — benefits?

    Unfortunately, point 1, some (possibly minimal) growth in overall output, is just about the only thing we can be sure that immigration achieves. It does generate instant population growth. The host country can’t achieve instant population growth by other policies. And an instantly larger population can be very useful if you are seizing a continent or fighting a war (at least before high-tech weapons).

    Thus it’s possible to imagine all kinds of awful things if the United States had not increased its population quickly in the late nineteenth century. Just think: the Southwest might have been reoccupied by Mexico!

    But, from an economic standpoint, instantly acquiring more people is not so obviously useful. A country’s living standard is expressed by its output per capita, not just by its sheer output. The
    economies of Britain and China had about the same output in the early nineteenth century. But Britannia could afford to rule the waves while China was starving, because British output was fifteen times higher per capita than Chinese output.

  • Although this doesn’t make it to his final list of policy recommendations, Brimelow considers favorably the possibility of more open immigration from countries of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. He writes (about Page 86):

    In addition, there was the wholly unexpected unfreezing of a sea of potential immigrants in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, as the long Communist winter came to an end.

    Not that those Eastern Europeans can get into the United States even if they want to.

    And this is a profound tragedy. For there is no more important foreign policy problem facing the United States than the stabilization of the lands comprising the former Soviet bloc, to ensure that no further dragons arise there to trouble the final years of this most troubled of centuries. And there could be no surer way of binding that region into the civilized world than allowing, for a period at least, the immigration to the United States of hundreds of thousands of its tormented (although, incidentally, highly skilled) populace.

    This is not quite the same as, but fits in well with, the material at emigration: escaping communism.

  • Brimelow’s critique of the restrictive immigration policies of countries other than the US, and his argument that the moral case for open borders should apply to all countries, not just the US (Page 251 onward, Chapter Doing The Right Thing? The Morality of Immigration):

    While we’re on this subject of the morality of immigration, let’s ask a question of our own:

    • If immigration is such a moral imperative, why don’t the Mexicans/Chinese/Indians/Koreans/ Japanese (fill in any of the other recent top-ten suppliers of immigrants to the United States) allow it?

    Don’t say: “These countries already have enough people.” The United States already has more than all of them except mainland China and India.

    And don’t say: “They’re too poor.” As we have seen, the whole economic theory of immigration, as developed by immigration enthusiasts, is that immigration does not displace workers: it complements them. Well, it should work both ways.

    Moreover, most of these countries are lacking in the very skills that Americans have in abundance — both technical and entrepreneurial. Finally, it’s precisely in these low-income countries that the returns to these skills are relatively the highest. That’s why George Borjas argues that Third World immigration to the United States is “negatively selected,” with the unskilled having more incentive to come. (See page 144, Chapter 7.) And it’s why there are thousands of young Americans in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, running small businesses and helping it develop — between 30,000 and 50,000 in the Czech Republic alone, according to some estimates.[11]

    But there is no equivalent young American community in China — although its economy has recently been growing at a sustained real rate of 10 percent a year, the fastest recorded growth rate in history and enough to make a lot of millionaires.

    For comparison, note that there are about 28,500 Americans living in Hong Kong (population: 6 million). 12 If you project a similar ratio for all of China (population: 1.2 billion), that suggests a possible total of 5.7 million American expatriates.

    Well, why not? After all, there are 1.6 million U.S. residents of Chinese origin.

    This is why not: if you phone the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, D.C., and ask about immigrating, you get this answer:

    Chinese embassy official [laughs]: “China does not accept any immigrants. We have a large enough population. A foreigner can visit on a tourist visa that can be extended for up to six months. Then
    you must leave. To apply for a temporary work permit, you must first have an official letter of invitation from a company authorized by the Chinese government.”

    In 1992, mainland China was the sixth largest contributor of immigrants to the United States — sending 38,907, about 3 percent of the total.

    Americans get laughed at a lot when they ask about emigrating to the countries whose citizens are immigrating here. Or worse:

    Mexico (number one 1992 immigrant contributor, with 91,332— plus 122,470 legalized under IRCA): “Unless you are hired by a Mexican company that obtains a temporary work permit, or are a retiree older than sixty-five who can prove financial self-sufficiency, you must get a six-month tourist visa and apply in person to the Ministry of the Interior in Mexico City. If your visa expires before the process is completed, you must get a new visa and begin again.”

    Not surprisingly, there are only about 25,000 legal immigrants to Mexico each year. Mexico also devotes a lot of energy to hunting down illegal immigrants, mainly from Central America. They are deported — 80,000 in the first six months of 1990 alone — without right of appeal. Foreign residents are bureaucratically discouraged from becoming Mexican citizens. But guess what? Natives of Spain and other Latin American countries get special treatment. [13]

    South Korea (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 19,359): “Korea does not accept immigrants.”

    Philippines (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 61,022): You need to be married to a Filipino or have capital to invest. Otherwise: “Put your request in writing and mail it to the Immigration Department in Manila.”

    Taiwan (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 16,344): “Wow! I can’t answer that question. Let me transfer you to my supervisor.” You need Taiwanese relatives by blood or marriage, or investment capital.

    Jamaica (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 18,915): “You cannot simply immigrate to Jamaica. You can only enter Jamaica as a tourist [for a maximum of six months] or as a worker. To obtain a work permit, you must first have a job offer. Either the company or you must fill out the necessary documentation for a work permit. After working in Jamaica for more than five years, you can then apply for permanent residency status — but you must submit numerous personal records proving your financial stability and good character. Such records include an annual report of total income, bank statements and an estimate of the value of all the property you own in Jamaica and overseas and your police record. It is quite a process.”

    Egypt (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 3,576): “Egypt is not an immigrant country. We do not permit immigrants. While work permits exist, when the specific assignment is completed, the individual must leave the country.”

    And my personal favorite:

    India (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 36,755): First official: “Are you of Indian origin?” [Told no.] “Submit your question in writing to the embassy.” [Hangs up] Second official: “Are you of Indian origin?” [Asked if important.] “Yes.” [Transfers call.] Third official: “Since you are not of Indian origin, while it is not impossible for you to immigrate to India, it is a very difficult, very complex, and very, very long process. Among other things, it will require obtaining clearances from both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs.”

    Note that these Indian officials are asking not about citizenship, but about origin. For those unaccustomed to recognizing such things, this is racial discrimination. It is even more stringent than the 1921 Quota Act — an outright “brown-India policy.”

    The world is laughing at America.

    This hypocrisy on the part of the major emigrant countries may be only a theoretical issue for most Americans — as yet. However, it’s perfectly possible that the American children of immigrants from these countries might one day want to take their skills back to their ancestral homelands. The liberation of Eastern Europe has already attracted some third-generation Americans to take a look. And tens of thousands of Brazilians of Japanese origin have returned to Japan.

    Currently, however, this hypocrisy most hurts the other, poorer, Third World countries. For example, in 1983, Nigeria (immigrants to the United States in 1993: 4,327) expelled up to 2 million illegal immigrants who had come from Ghana, Niger and its other neighbors. In 1985, it expelled another 700,000.

9 thoughts on “What I like about “Alien Nation””

  1. OK. A few responses.

    1. Very true that the US has nothing like open borders right now.

    2. Re: “There is a reasonable case to be made that, assuming that the total number of immigrants is held constant, a greater emphasis on skills-based immigration would be best for the welfare, both of the immigrant-receiving country, and of the world at large.” Family reunification is a human rights issue. It’s cruel and inhumane to forcibly separate families. By all means, advocate more economically-motivated immigration, but don’t suggest that curtailing family reunification migration is acceptable.

    3. “And why should native-born Americans put up with immigration at all if they themselves don’t get significant— make that significant — benefits?” That this question seems to be asked rhetorically is an indication of the low level of morality that prevails among immigration restrictionists. It’s as if it has never occurred to Brimelow that we might allow immigration for the benefit of migrants. That would certainly be a sufficient reason for any people that is at all moral to favor immigration, though I think immigration does confer significant benefits on natives. The phrase “make that significant” is strange too. Why on earth should anyone think the benefits to natives being small would be any ground whatsoever for restricting immigration? If it benefits them, and benefits us too (albeit not much), there’s no downside! More fundmentally, “why should we put up with it?” is the wrong question. There must be at least a weak presumption against the use of force.

    4. Re: “If immigration is such a moral imperative, why don’t the Mexicans/Chinese/Indians/Koreans/ Japanese (fill in any of the other recent top-ten suppliers of immigrants to the United States) allow it?” The notion that Brimelow is promulgating here is certainly partly mythical, though I’m not sure exactly how much so. Having traveled extensively in the developing world, I know first-hand that it’s much easier for an American to go virtually anywhere than it is for most foreigners to get into the US. Of course, I’m talking about ordinary tourism; no doubt immigration— moving with the intention of permanent settlement– is different. Though some countries, like Russia, probably beat the US on that dimension of openness too: a million-plus Tajiks work in Russia, for example, who would never be able to get into the US.

    But here’s the thing: few if any want to immigrate to China or India. Immigration tends to go up the GDP per capita ladder. While some versions of economic theory would suggest that high-skill people should earn more in poor countries where those skills are scarce, that generally doesn’t occur in practice. So a comparison of numbers of migrants in various source countries says nothing about the migration policies of those countries; it reflects, so to speak, “demand,” not “supply.” I think it would be good to compile an index of the difficulty of migration to different countries worldwide. I suspect that the US would prove to be one of the most difficult to get into.

    However, I do regard the case for open borders as universal, not only, or even particularly, applicable to the United States. And I wonder whether some other countries may be persuaded to be the pioneers of open borders. The very fact that they are less attractive to migrants might make it easier to liberalize their policies, if they could get some good publicity for it.

    1. Hi Nathan,

      I don’t actually mean that I agree with every word of the passages from Brimelow that I quote. I actually agree with you regarding points (2), (3), and (4) (mostly). At the same time, regarding point (2), I think that *if* the total number of immigrants is held constant (a dubious assumption) then a case could be made for a greater focus on skills-based migration over non-nuclear family reunification. I don’t think that a person’s brother being in the US creates a greater claim to migrate to the US than the person having a job offer from an employer who is really keen to hire him/her. Actually, I think that both should be allowed to migrate, as I’m sure you do too.

      With (3), it ultimately comes down to a question of whether you adopt a citizenist or universalist moral perspective. Brimelow is firmly in the citizenist camp. You and I are in the universalist camp (while we also believe that freer immigration can be justified in citizenist terms). That said, I think Brimelow’s point about the benefits being small was that the economic benefits are sufficiently small that they may be outweighed by the non-economic harms of immigration, or even the economic harms arising due to intranational distributional consequences (which he elaborates upon elsewhere in the book). Also, Brimelow gives some weighting to people’s preferences about immigration in his analysis of the consequences of immigration (so the fact that people don’t like immigration is itself a point against immigration, even if their dislike is based on false information). I think his overall analysis is incorrect, but his point isn’t prima facie as invalid as my quote may have made it appear.

      As for (4), I again agree with you. In fact, I was planning to make a similar point, but decided to postpone it to a subsequent blog post so that this particular blog post could be focused on the areas of agreement.

      1. You definitely should have put some bait in your most recent media-related post, maybe something like: like noble immigrants struggling to evade the INS, bloggers struggle to get acceptance from bigger media sources.

  2. Does Brimelow really argue that we should get our sense of what’s moral by looking at how things are/were done in communist China and Mubarak’s Egypt?

    Even including the more democratic countries in his list, Brimelow’s moral argument here reminds me of my mother asking if I’d jump off a cliff if everyone else was doing it too.

    1. Expected Optimism: In defense of Brimelow, this is not, in fact, the main core of his anti-immigration argument. His book is chock full of the (by now) standard anti-immigration arguments. This particular quote of his appears near the end of his book as an attempt to tackle the moral case for open borders, and is not the crux of his anti-immigration case.

      The way I read Brimelow is that he’s saying that in so far as there are generic economic and philosophical arguments for open borders, these should apply to countries other than the United States too. In so far as that’s his argument, I agree with him. The quote I presented does not make the case that the United States should copy the policies of the other countries. Brimelow does propose some form of immigration reciprocity later in the book, but that’s not the part of his book I’m quoting in agreement.

    2. He can withdraw his supprot, but only the government gets to say who does and does not get to legally immigrate.Lucky,Miliatry bases and embassys are owned by the government operating them. US army bases ARE U.S. SOIL.Karma, no. Actually that’s a very accurate analogy.midcenturydesigner, My ancestors came here after the civil war (except the Cherokees that where already here). Please note that this land never belonged to the Mexicans. It belonged the the Native Americans. Mexicans are a newly formed race which came from Spain.

  3. No, ITALIANS are as brown as Latinas. So are many other immigrant gorups now considered White . Hispanics just like to think that they’re special . I also wonder what race Ms. Sotomayor puts on her Census form, as Hispanics may be and are of ANY race.

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