Everybody likes to criticize New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. From his often-comic writing style to simplistic sound bites about interviewing taxi cab drivers, he’s earned humorous criticism over the years. But Friedman’s recent column titled “We Need a High Wall With a Big Gate on the Southern Border” was correct in many libertarian-adjacent ways. Much of his column could have been based off original Cato research.
Friedman began with the admission that at least three factors are driving the surge of migrants at the southern border and he doesn’t know how to apportion blame among them. He singles out seasonal trends, President Biden’s actions, and the recovering U.S. economy. There are other factors, to be sure, such as actions in the last two years of the Trump administration and Mexico’s changing laws and policies, but Friedman identified some of the broad potential causes for this specific surge. It’s refreshing to read Friedman say he doesn’t know which of those causes is dominant because we don’t yet know either. Frankly, they all play a role.
Friedman then writes that the more than 170,000 apprehensions of migrants along the border in March 2021 is evidence that the U.S. needs a “high wall with a big gate.” Friedman then goes off the rails when he writes that, “Only by assuring Americans that we have a high enough wall to control illegal immigration — or its equivalent in terms of border controls and repatriation measures — can we maintain a public consensus for a big gate.” He gets the causality reversed: A big gate protects us more than a high wall. As my colleagues and I have noted, expanding legal immigration is the only way to get sustainable control over the border as new visas channel would-be illegal immigrants into the legal system.
From 2000-2018, when the U.S. increased the number of lower-skilled H-2 visas issued to Mexican migrants, the number of illegal immigrant Mexicans who crossed the border dropped dramatically. We estimate that every three visas issued to Mexicans reduced the number of Mexican illegal immigrant apprehensions by two because they were driven into the legal market.
Friedman later writes:
Without proper border controls and simultaneous investments in stabilizing weak countries — which Biden has smartly proposed — we and the European Union will face many more surges. And you can be sure that another Trump-like figure will emerge to exploit them — and undermine support for legal immigration right when we need it more than ever.
Sending taxpayer money to poor countries won’t reduce emigration and may actually increase it, even if it’s effective at increasing development, but Friedman’s emphasis on enforcement is also misplaced. The only way to get sustainable and enforceable border controls is to have a big enough gate that draws in large numbers of would-be illegal immigrants into the country legally. One reading of Friedman’s piece argues that enforcement must occur first and then Congress can increase legal immigration as a benefit second. It should be reversed: Legal immigration will increase the enforceability of our immigration laws.
Friedman’s writing should be contrasted with Never Trump restrictionists like David Frum who argue that immigration is mostly bad for the United States and that immigration policies that are too liberal and ineffective enforcement will result in voters electing authoritarians to enforce immigration laws. According to Frum, the U.S. should have less immigration and more enforcement for many reasons, but one big benefit is that doing so will forestall the election of authoritarians who will close borders. Friedman thinks the U.S. government should better enforce immigration laws because that will allow an expansion of legal immigration that will benefit the United States. My position is that expanding legal immigration is good for the United States and is the only sustainable way to have immigration enforcement policies that work, reduce chaos, and increase the perceptions of government control over the border.
Friedman then writes that, “I wish we could take in everyone suffering in the world and give each a shot at the American dream, but we can’t while maintaining our own social cohesion, which is already fraying badly enough.” This is exactly the topic of my new book (with Benjamin Powell) Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions. Using original empirical research, peer reviewed papers by others, and a mass of qualitative evidence, we seek to answer the question of whether immigrants undermine the political, economic, and social institutions of the countries where they settle.
We examine broad global trends in how immigration affects economic freedom in countries, political and economic systems in case studies like Israel, Jordan, and the United States, as well other sources of immigrant-induced cultural change, effects on corruption, and terrorism. We find that immigrants either don’t affect the underlying quality of economic, political, and social institutions or they improve them on a few margins. While there are many arguments against large-scale increases to legal immigration, how immigrants affect American institutions and social cohesion should probably not be one of them. Unfortunately, our social, economic, and political problems are produced domestically and not imported from abroad.
Friedman then raises his most important political point: Border chaos reduces support for legal immigration. That is consistent with what we’ve written and the academic literature. More people oppose immigration when they think it’s chaotic and the government has lost control over the border. That is certainly what’s happened now on the U.S.-Mexico border. Friedman errs in calling for more enforcement because that will only increase chaos, but he also calls for a “big gate” through liberalized immigration, but he doesn’t make the connection that a big gate will create a high de facto wall that will make immigration enforcement more effective. Expanded legal immigration will increase the perceived order and government control over the border and it’s fair to say that Friedman mostly indirectly makes that point. Friedman would probably agree with the sentiment that Biden should strive to make immigration boring again.
Friedman makes a partly good point when he writes “that would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers need to get in line, ring our doorbell and enter legally, and those who don’t should be quickly evicted.” Friedman’s critics rightly point out that the current asylum system is broken, entering illegally to ask for asylum is lawful, and doing so is the only way currently allowed along the border, but Friedman’s quote here is aspirational rather than descriptive. We should have an immigration system that allows people to enter lawfully and to ask for asylum at ports of entry. In his worldview, tearing down enforcement measures without increasing legal immigration will just boost chaos. He should have explicitly written just how ruined the current legal immigration system is and why the vast majority of illegal border crossers don’t have an option to enter legally, but a charitable reader could have inferred that reality from his points.
Friedman rightly points out that most of the migrant increase along the border is driven by single adults – many of them Mexicans coming here to work after being incentivized to do so legally from a lack of H-2 visas and Title 42 restrictions. A well-functioning guest worker visa program would have channeled the majority of them into a legal market if such a program were not gutted by the Trump administration and only slowly being restarted now.
Lastly, Friedman emphasizes that more legal immigration will help secure American prosperity in the growing geopolitical conflict with China. My recent policy analysis on the threat of espionage from Chinese immigrants and travelers puts the risk in proper context. Combined with pieces about the need to liberalize immigration from China, Friedman is taking a view that could be inspired by Cato. Friedman and I likely disagree about how much of a danger China poses to the United States, but we agree on many of the immigration policies that should be pursued in response.
Friedman makes many dubious points about the Cold War, national threat assessments, and other drivers of immigration that I won’t touch on. But some of his core points and evidence could have been written by me or other Cato scholars:
- We need more legal immigration,
- More legal immigration is related to increasing security at the border (but probably not in the way Friedman claims),
- Perceptions of government control and chaos at the border are important drivers of public opinion and policy, and
- Increasing legal immigration will help the United States in the growing geopolitical competition with China.