Build a Wall around the Welfare State, Not around the Country

Most of the members of the conference committee on the immigration bill seem to have forgotten our own heritage.

Compared to the present, the United States had a higher rate of immigration just prior to World War I when we had no significant immigration controls (except against the Chinese) and no federal welfare programs. Most of these immigrants were from Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and other poor European countries; most spoke no English and had only crude manual skills. Many Americans from families who had been here for more than a few generations were prone to speak disparagingly about the status and prospect of the new immigrants. For all that, almost all of these new immigrants (including my grandfather) were work-oriented, family-oriented, no burden to others, and, within a generation, fully assimilated Americans.

Most current immigrants, other than being Hispanic, are very much like those who chose to make their future in the United States a century ago. The record of recent immigrants is impressive: a relatively high employment rate, a relatively low rate of birth to single mothers, and an unusually low incarceration rate. So far, the one major difference from prior immigrants is that the Hispanics are less education-oriented. Given the opportunity, there is every reason to expect them to be good workers, good neighbors, and fully assimilated Americans within a generation. 

The one major difference from a century ago that affects this issue is that the United States is now a substantial welfare state. Illegal immigrants appear to be net taxpayers to the federal government but net tax burdens to state and local governments, especially if they have children in school. 

The primary solution to this problem is to build a wall around the welfare state, not the U.S. nation-state. For new immigrants, access to social services could be limited to emergency health care. Access to public schooling could be limited to those children born in the United States. Access to the full range of social services could be limited, for example, to those who have four years of legal work experience, a record of full payment of taxes, and no felony conviction. 

A supplementary solution to this problem would be a federal transfer to those states and local governments with an unusual number of immigrants. This approach should substantially reduce the opposition to immigration by residents of the border states.

Building a wall around the country, in contrast, is unnecessary, futile, and offensive.