Conservatives and a Libertarian on Immigration at CPAC

I spoke on a panel at CPAC with three conservatives—Scott Walter of Capitol Research Center, Ralph Hallow of the Washington Times, and Congressman Michael Burgess (R-TX)—moderated by Christopher Malagisi of Conservative Book Club (starts at 1:02:00). My main takeaway was that economics is not a major concern among the conference goers, though the congressman emphasized it. Both the audience and panel were overwhelmingly concerned with issues of assimilation, crime, and politics.

My View: Evidence Is Overwhelming in Favor of Immigration

In my opening statement, which you can watch here, I argued that conservatives should not act as liberals do on many issues. Liberals focus on mass shootings, not on the numerous cases of defensive gun use. Many liberals also ignore the incredible wealth that capitalism has created, preferring to highlight those people in capitalist societies who have been relatively less successful. In other words, liberals tend to focus on the exceptions to the rule.

Unfortunately, conservatives often act similarly on immigration. They focus on immigrant crime, even though the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that immigrants—including illegal immigrants—are about half as likely to be incarcerated in the United States. They highlight the fiscal costs of immigrants, even though the National Academy of Sciences 2016 report found that the average recent immigrant will pay at least $92,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their lifetime (in net present value terms).

On assimilation, English language comprehension at arrival is at its highest levels on record. Today’s immigrants integrate quickly into the labor market, acquiring jobs at higher rates than the U.S.-born population. Two-thirds of eligible immigrants have already become citizens. On policy, while there are a few differences between noncitizens and U.S.-born citizens, the General Social Survey finds no statistically significant differences between naturalized and U.S.-born citizens on almost any major policy area except immigration.

In conclusion, I argued that just as liberals want to grow the government and take away liberties to deal with exceptions in the free market or on guns, many conservatives want to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure to keep out people who would happily come to this country legally. They want to create an electronic national identification for every U.S. worker and every U.S. employer (called E-Verify), and they want government agents—as is already happening—to stop motorists and board trains and buses and demand that people prove their citizenship to them.

My message was simple: stop highlighting the exceptions as liberals do on guns or capitalism and pay attention to the big picture or it will inevitably lead to bigger government and less freedom.

Their View: Little Evidence Is Needed

In response, Ralph Hallow simply denied the fact that conservatives abuse civil liberties on immigration. Tell that to the ranchers on whose lands the wall is being built or the motorists and bus riders who Border Patrol targets for stops. Instead, he characterized my view as rejecting the idea that “we have a right to decide who comes into our nation.” I didn’t directly address that point, but it’s worth noting that in the U.S. tradition, governments have powers, while individuals have rights. In any case, I never challenged the government’s power to restrict entry of certain individuals to the United States.

Hallow also asserted (without evidence) that I could not give him “a shred of evidence” to indicate that immigrants are successfully assimilating. I will refer the reader above. He also implied that no one in the world appreciates “the ultimate worth of the individual” outside America and Western Europe, which I felt was odd given the common conservative view on Europe is that they are a bunch of socialists. Later, he emphasized that he felt immigration was problematic because “we used to worship our presidents” in public schools, but not anymore. If true, that seems like an improvement to me.

Scott Walter spoke about John Fonte’s work on “patriotic assimilation” without directly stating that immigrants aren’t patriotic, just that more attention needs to be paid to patriotism. I thought Walter’s tone and his discussion was completely reasonable, and I wish we could have discussed improving the naturalization process more. That said, Fonte’s work relies almost entirely on a single poll from 2008 and doesn’t compare the immigrant responses today to those in the past. In any case, Alex Nowrasteh has written about Fonte’s work here and here, showing that immigrants report the same level of trust in U.S. institutions and the same level of patriotism as U.S.-born citizens across a variety of measures.

The other major concern that came up repeatedly was purely partisan: that immigrants will vote for Democrats. I noted that in fact, Republicans only do well during periods when the share of immigrants is high. From 1935 to 1994—the entire period when the immigrant share of the population was below 10 percent—Republicans controlled the House of Representatives only twice. The rest of GOP history, it has dominated the House 70 percent of the time. 

Congressman Burgess made the only two concrete factual points that I noticed, neither of which I responded to directly. First, he claimed that the border security promised after 1986 never came. However, the number of Border Patrol agents has increased by 600 percent since 1986 and the Border Patrol budget rose in real terms thirteen-fold. The spending and money had little effect, which is maybe what he meant, but it is nonetheless the case that illegal immigration has fallen by 97 percent since then (mainly due to increases in legal immigration, not enforcement).

Second, the congressman claimed that the United States accepts more immigrants than the rest of the world combined. According to the United Nations estimates, the United States is home to less than one in five of the world immigrant population, and from 2014 to 2016, it accepted less than one-sixth of total net immigration. I attacked the question differently, pointing out that controlling for population, the United States has nowhere near the highest rate of immigration: among the top 50 wealthiest countries, the United States ranks in the bottom third. For some reason, the audience and two panelists really objected to controlling for population. I guess they consider Chinese three times wealthier than Germans because China’s total GDP is three times larger than Germany’s, even though China’s per capita GDP is five times smaller.

Congressman Burgess was the only one to mention economics, demanding that the growing economy be reserved for Americans only (without explaining why). But the response—though positive—was more muted than the excited cheering for negative comments about immigrant assimilation. People care less about economics than about cultural factors and personal fears. By contrast, the audience questions concerned crime (2) or language assimilation (2), relying mainly on personal experiences or misleading statistics.