Thoughts On Immigration Reform

Now that the one-track mind of political discussion has shifted from gun control to immigration reform, I know you’re all dying to know what my opinions are, and how I hope to influence policy with the great reach of those opinions.

I’ll start out by saying that I think there are some fairly obvious low-hanging fruits that I hope get incorporated into any changes in law. Apparently it’s very difficult for a lot of foreign students who graduate American universities to remain in the US, even if they want to, say, start a business with their newfound skills, as many other foreign immigrants have done. It seems like a no-brainer that we should let these people become citizens and stay. (“What if Sergey Brin had been deported?” is almost the immigrant equivalent of “What if Albert Einstein had been aborted?”)

But what about the more generic issue regarding the millions of illegal immigrants roaming our lands, mowing our lawns, pressing 2 para español, and otherwise [insert missing stereotype here]? I used to take the hawkish conservative viewpoint, but I have incorporated more libertarian-ish ideals into my philosophy. I am more sympathetic to the idea of “open borders,” and I can even see a moral argument for taking in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, though I am not quite a Caplan-level evangelist. To illustrate my views, I think I shall address some of the common conservative objections, and how I feel about them now.

Social Damage

In my opinion, the weakest arguments against illegal immigrants are the ones that obsess over their being “illegal,” or arguments that illegal immigrants hurt us socially. Many conservatives see irony in defending the majority of non-violent, non-drug-trafficking immigrants as “non-criminal,” pointing out that their very presence in our country is a crime.

This is technically true (and the attempt to re-brand “illegal” immigrants as “undocumented” is pretty flagrant newspeak), but it turns a complex continuum into a binary black and white. There are millions of “law-abiding” citizens who often choose to break certain marginal laws that are very expensive to keep and very cheap to break, especially if there is no obvious victim and the law is weakly enforced.

While it may be generally true that criminals who break certain laws are likely to break others (a key anti-gun-control argument), it is not immediately clear to me that the American citizen who exceeds the posted speed limit or downloads copyrighted material is more dangerous to society than the illegal immigrant who wants to work hard and provide a better life for his family in the United States than the corrupt poverty of Mexico.

I can think of no greater example of a law that is expensive to keep and cheap to break than our legal immigration system, which can take years, money, and special circumstances to successfully navigate (see flowchart #1 and flowchart #2). It is clearly very easy to hop the border or overstay a visa because millions have done so. This does not justify the illegal immigration any more than it justifies illegal downloading; it simply means I would need solid empirical evidence to conclude that either group is inherently likely to be more dangerous to society than the other. (And at first glance, the empirical evidence may even favor the immigrants.)

Economic Damage

A slightly stronger body of arguments are the arguments that illegal immigrants hurt us economically. They “take our jobs” and use up our social services as a net drain on our economy, etc, etc.

Regarding the jobs, others argue that immigrants simply “do the jobs Americans don’t want.” It’s probably an issue that has some truth to both sides. Economists claim that immigrants may raise wages for the natives, though they admit there are some disputing studies about the matter.

I don’t think it’s immediately clear that an immigrant who “takes a job” equates to one fewer job for native Americans; that only looks at the income side of the immigrant and not the consumption side. Immigrants need to eat. Many of them probably like to buy iPhones. They are earning money to spend on things, and if they are working for lower wages than an American would, their employer has more money to spend on things; either way, demand is circulating right back into the economy.

(Some even want to increase immigration to boost the economy by stimulating demand for all these empty houses. I generally believe such interventions and counter-interventions lead to never-ending cycles of unintended consequences, but it’s nonetheless an interesting argument on its merits, and it reflects a belief that immigrants can contribute economically just like the rest of us.)

It’s possible that many immigrants are “sending money back home” at enough of a rate that they are consuming far more jobs than they are stimulating new supply for, but as long as they are engaged in voluntary, mutually beneficial trade, where their labor is worth more to the employer than wages paid, and vice versa, I’m not sure that the rest of us can come out hurting, though I may not be smart enough to see where those economic models conclude.

Regarding the use of social services, I don’t think it’s immediately clear that there’s a net benefit or loss, either. Even if illegal immigrants are sending their kids to public schools and who knows what else, if they’re buying food to eat, they’re paying sales taxes. Even if they use a fake Social Security number to get an over-the-table job, if they get that job, they’re paying employment taxes.

Given the generally progressive nature of our taxes and benefits and the general prosperity of illegal immigrants, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that on average they are taking out more than they are putting in, at least initially, but I do not think it is guaranteed, or at least as strong of an imbalance as some may think, especially if the lack of citizenship makes it marginally harder for many illegal immigrants to receive as many benefits as they would otherwise.

Political Damage

The strongest set of arguments against illegal immigrants, in my opinion, are the arguments that illegal immigrants hurt us politically (and thus, by extension, both economically and socially). This is concisely expressed by Sonic Charmer’s “How To Invade A Libertarian Nation-State.” (It uses a military example, which I prefer to take as a metaphor for voting.) If we decide to eliminate or severely weaken immigration restrictions because we have determined that all these illegal immigrants are not causing economic or social damage, then what stops a sufficient majority from marching over here and proceeding to vote in whatever policies they want?

Many conservatives see the repeated rounds of amnesty – actual past, proposed present, and inevitable future – as an underminded attempt to do just that. The majority of immigrants these days seem to lean Democratic, so of course Democrats want to integrate them into citizenship (though the proportions of cause and effect may be debatable)! Sure, we’re (almost) all descendants of immigrants, but we all squeezed through that Great Big Melting Pot. If we try to squeeze too many people in too fast, they’ll just clog up the whole Pot and alter the very fabric of the soup!

I don’t have a good response to the core argument. Sure, there’s a bit of hyprocrisy that goes both ways; if illegal immigrants leaned right, I’m sure more Republicans would be clamoring to welcome them in. But there may be a kernel of truth somewhere in there; if it’s true that certain groups tend to be “net takers,” and if it’s true that illegal immigrants are more likely to belong to those groups, than mightn’t it be reasonable to try to limit the influx of these unproductive persons?

I don’t know how true those premises might be, and I suspect they are less true than the most hawkish conservatives believe, but I also suspect they are more true than the most dovish open-borders advocates believe, and I can’t say I relish the increasing favor ’round these parts for big-government policies that seem to be mathematically unsustainable, infringing on individual rights, crowding out voluntary charity, doubling down on perverse incentives, etc, etc.

So where does that leave us?

Let us assume that there is an upper bound on the number of immigrants we want to add to our country. I may believe it’s a higher number than you do, and we may disagree about how many of them should be “high-skilled,” and we may both agree that the number should be higher than it is now, or we may not. Regardless, let us assume that we can all compromise on that number.

Even if we make the laws about immigration more reasonable and less expensive to follow up to that number, it is quite likely that there will still be more immigrants who want to get into this country than we want to allow, and unless we make the law more expensive to break, they will probably continue to do so. (This is why conservative politicians are talking about making reform contingent on some kind of border securing; they don’t want to address the stock of this “stock and flow” problem if we’re never going to address the flow.)

It is here that I begin to get a little bit of Libertarian Queasiness, because I’m not sure there’s a good way to make these laws more expensive to break without causing significant political damage that may be even worse than the political damage we’re trying to prevent. I’ve generally supported the efforts of states to enforce immigration laws where the government has not, but I’ve also felt a little squeamish about the particulars, such as Arizona’s “show me your papers” business (and I might feel even more squeamish if my skin was a little darker).

People talk about verifying the citizenship status of workers and punishing businesses that hire illegal immigrants. But the e-VERIFY system we already have is said to be rife with errors and false positives. They talk about building a border fence. But any fence good enough to keep immigrants out would be a little too good at keeping citizens in for my liking. And don’t get me started on the border drone patrol that seems inevitable…

The more effective a method is at preventing illegal immigration, the more likely it is to exacerbate the Oops Cost and infringe on the rights of private citizens who are already being pummeled by the triple wars on drugs, terrorism, and piracy. I do not rule out the theoretical possibility of an effective and non-infringing enforcement mechanism, but I am not generally encouraged by the kinds of proposals I have seen running around.


In conclusion, I am not sure what is my ideal immigration policy. I generally believe a looser immigration policy would be beneficial to all, especially with a focus on college graduates or DREAM Act style proposals and the like. At the same time, I am not convinced than an unlimited immigration policy is politically or economically desirable. Finally, I would strive for enforcement mechanisms on a limited immigration policy that are the least restrictive possible on the civil liberties of existing citizens. I would have to apply these general principles to any specific legislation to determine if I could endorse it, and how confidently.

Immigration is a complex topic. My views on the subject have evolved in the past and are likely to evolve in the future. I am open to rebuttals or pointing out contradictions in the points above. This is simply an honest attempt at describing my position today.

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