March/April 2012

Is Immigration Good for America?

The controversy over America's immigration policies has only become more contentious in recent years. In this special issue of the Cato Journal (made possible by the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation), various experts consider the instrumental role immigration has played throughout U.S. history. "More than any other major nation, we are defined by our immigrant past, present, and future," Daniel Griswold, Cato's former director of trade policy studies, writes in the introduction.

In his lead article, economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University opens with a basic philosophical question: Should we restrict immigration? Those who answer yes, he says, must first overcome "the moral presumption in favor of open borders." The alleged ills that these restrictions prevent, in other words, should "be at least comparable to the injustice and harm that [they] impose." But even this is not enough. The next threshold question is whether or not there are better options than limiting the free movement of people. Indeed, Caplan reveals a number of alternatives that are both cheaper and more humane. "Whatever your complaint happens to be," he concludes, "immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy."

In light of the "continuing torpor of the U.S. economy and mounting government debt," economist Gordon H. Hanson of the University of California–San Diego considers the impact of immigration on the supply of labor, the pace of innovation, and the integrity of public finances — and ultimately finds that it benefits the country as a whole, not just those willing to take the risk of moving. Giovanni Peri of the University of California–Davis added further clarity to the economic debate by "considering migrants mainly as workers and analyzing the gains and costs that they generate" within labor markets. Similarly, in examining its contribution "to our overall economic and demographic vitality," scholars Joel Kotkin and Erika Ozuna conclude that immigration has been "one of the country's greatest assets." In fact, given declining birthrates, it "may prove more important in the future than in the past."

With these benefits in mind, why has public opinion recently been characterized by such anti-immigrant hostility? "For most of its history, the United States had only the loosest sort of border controls," writes Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Over the last several decades, however, the government has ramped up its border security initiative — an effort requiring "one of the most ambitious expansions of government power in modern history." Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, describes the incoherent body of immigration law that has evolved in the United States as a result. One of the latest iterations in the misguided effort at greater internal enforcement is EVerify, an electronic employment eligibility program. According to Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, E-Verify has the potential to expand into a national identity system. Once in place, such a system would likely "metastasize" — laying the groundwork for greater government control over virtually all areas of our lives.

Other contributors focusing on the current U.S. immigration system include Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny on "The Economic Consequences of Amnesty for Unauthorized Immigrants," Margaret D. Stock asking "Is Birthright Citizenship Good for America?" and Daniel Griswold analyzing "Immigration and the Welfare State."

The issue concludes with two articles calling for a better immigration system. Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor at the University of California–Los Angeles, criticizes two decades of failure under the status quo, in which the federal government's policy has been "to step up its enforcement-only strategy without creating a path to legalization." After analyzing various policy scenarios, he concludes that comprehensive immigration reform "would help lay the foundation for robust, just, and widespread economic growth." Joshua C. Hall, Benjamin J. VanMetre, and Richard K. Vedder review the history of U.S. immigration policy and — in summarizing the economic case for immigration — outline an alternative system based on market incentives rather than government quotas.

The thread that runs continuously throughout each of these articles — and within the social fabric of American history — is the intimate tie between freedom of movement and a system of natural liberty. An open policy toward migrants is one of the bedrock principles of a free society. "The United States is the light of the world, a beacon of opportunity," Hall, VanMetre, and Vedder conclude. "Immigration is both a cause and a consequence of this reality."