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

In addressing the immigration issue, all too many members of Congress 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 those 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 that had been here 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 the new immigrants (including my grandfather) were work-oriented and family-oriented, were not a burden to others, and, within a generation, were fully assimilated Americans.

Aside from the fact that so many are Hispanic, most current immigrants are very much like those who made 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 births to single mothers, and an unusually low incarceration rate. So far, the one major difference between current and prior immigrants is that few Hispanics have yet taken advantage of the opportunity for continued education. With this exception, there is every reason to expect most of the new immigrants to be good workers, good neighbors, and fully assimilated Americans within a generation.

The major difference between present circumstances and those of a century ago is that the United States is now a substantial welfare state. Illegal immigrants appear to be net taxpayers to the federal government, because most of them pay payroll taxes but receive no benefits. They are likely to be net tax burdens to state and local governments, however, especially if they have children in school, even though they pay sales taxes and the imputed property taxes on rental housing.

The primary solution to this problem is to build a wall around the welfare state, not around our national borders. That would be much easier to enforce, because immigrants would have to appeal for help rather than try to evade the border controls. For new immigrants, access to tax-financed social services could be limited to emergency health care. Access to public schooling could be limited to children born in the United States. Access to the full range of tax-financed social services could be limited to, for example, the families of immigrants 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 unusually high number of immigrants. This approach should substantially reduce the opposition to immigration by residents and public officials in the border states. Current U.S. immigration policy is much like building a modern multilane freeway and imposing a speed limit of 35 miles per hour. Almost everyone breaks the law, and those few who obey the law are a traffic hazard. The solution to the problem is to raise the speed limit, not to try to enforce the law. Members of Congress who assert that the essence of sovereignty is to control the borders and enforce the law miss this point; they would be quick to propose changing most other laws that restrict behavior that imposes no cost on other parties.

Building a wall around the welfare state would eliminate most of the costs of increased immigration to the rest of us. Building a wall around the country, in contrast, is unnecessary, futile, and morally offensive.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2006 edition of Cato Policy Report

<em><a href=”/people/william-niskanen”>William A. Niskanen</a> is chairman emeritus of the Cato Institute, the contributing editor of </em>After Enron: Lessons for Public Policy<em>, a former member and acting chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, and a former chief economist of the Ford Motor Company.</em>