Monday, June 28, 2010

Immigration into the United States

One of the blogs I like to read is by Harrison Brookie (Bottlenecked: slowing down to move forward). Earlier this month he wrote a candid post about why he supports immigration, and also shares his concerns. He posted again on the topic almost two weeks later.

I commented on each:
On your point (1) Wages may be driven down only so far, due to minimum wage laws. Greater demand for jobs will lead to greater unemployment. Combined with your point (5) would mean government ruin.

On your point (2) There is a good lecture video from NumbersUSA (part 1, part 2) that applies queueing theory non-mathematically to the immigration problem (uses gumballs and jars). There is significant investment required to provide infrastructure (roads, schools, utilities, etc.) for new population (indigenous and migrant), and so total growth rates must be affordable (using savings--which there is little of municipally--and debt issuance--of which there is already a lot and which must be repaid through tax revenue). Hence the need to control the rate of migration (unless you are China and can also control indigenous population growth).

On your point (3) If migrants find enclaves (like Hispanics in the Southwest) large enough to avoid assimilation altogether, your point (4) kicks in. Are we really a nation at that point? Can we prevent this forseeable possibility through robust immigration policy?

On your conclusion: Would you want to be one of the ones bearing the cost of the transition? Would you want government policy to ease your pain by spreading it around?

My father-in-law legally migrated to the U.S. after WW2. Immigration policy that rewards law-abiders and punishes law-breakers creates the incentives and disincentives migrants need to succeed in our country. Letting illegal immigrants off scot free is an insult to the law-abiding migrants who worked with the system we put up to control the process. Immigration policy should also consider national security concerns. Both of these aspects are not embodied in the basic theory of immigration espoused by economics. It's an incomplete model, though, not a flaw.

And again:

I'll repeat one of my concerns from the earlier post: The government (at all levels) today has provided a regulatory and social welfare environment that did not exist in 1905. It is inconceivable that the immigrant today would assimilate the same way as a century ago. The level of investment required to provide infrastructure, and the level of taxation required to provide transitional welfare benefits, and the barriers to entry into small business, are all stacked against unlimited migration, for moral reasons or otherwise.

This morning, Steve Chapman posted in his column Citizenship Should Remain a Birthright on He writes in favor of "soil citizenship", but the comments ultimately proved more interesting.

There were four models posited in the comments for citizenship: 1) Soil citizenship, 2) Citizenship by choice at the age of majority, 3) Citizenship by parentage, and 4) Immediate Citizenship. (A fifth was alluded to, via a Gattaca reference: 5) Citizenship following service to the State.)

Some of the commenters raised my points concerning our social safety net. (Being a libertarian site, the commenters welcomed the cost as hastening the end of the welfare system.) This is I think the chief impediment to unlimited legal immigration (and by extension, unchecked illegal immigration). It all comes down to queueing theory, the mathematics of which are well established: The net intake rate cannot exceed the nation's ability to afford the transition period from net-tax drain to net-tax provider.

All very good reads. I lean to (3) Citizenship by parentage.


  1. I think you are really onto something here. But no matter how much the readers of Reason want the safety net gone, the reality is America doesn't. So what do we do about immigration?

    Oh, and thanks for the link!

  2. Immigration reform begins with gaining control of the system, however broken it may be. This means securing the border (for security reasons if for no other reason) and enforcing employment laws.

    Getting control of the system also includes defining to what extent our social safety net applies to non-citizens. I think emergency care (health, room, board) should be temporarily provided, and afterwards private charity or the home country should take responsibility. (I would advocate the same temporary nature of the safety net for citizens in a perfect right-libertarian world.)

    Independently, I think we need to define "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" in the Fourteenth Amendment to exclude children born to non-citizen parents visiting or dwelling in the U.S. This would disincentivize "anchor baby" activity and the ripple effect it has (limited or not) on future immigration.

    Afterwards, it is much simpler to discuss (with people like me) guest worker programs and modifications to immigration processes and quotas.

    The idea is to be fair to the citizens and to visitors to this country. But when push comes to shove, the citizens footing the bill for government take precedence, as would be the case during a transition between the current immigration system and some future evolution.

  3. I'll add this quote from Will Wilkinson on today (

    "Fortunately, we already have a model of sensible reform from a frequently insensible place – the European Union. By establishing a common labor market in which Americans and Mexicans (Canadians too!) may range freely, living and working where they please, we can channel the commercial energy of integration while maintaining distinctly separate citizenship. Indeed, the feasibility of this arrangement requires maintaining a clear distinction between the right to live and work in another country's territory and the right to the benefits enjoyed by its citizens. It is a fact of modern life that the redistributive nation-state offers all manner of goods to citizens. To be a citizen of a wealthy country is a lot like being a member of a private club. Yet even the wealthiest national clubs are straining to deliver the benefits promised to members. If a club's rules permit visitors, invited or not, to mint new members simply by giving birth, cash-strapped current members are bound to object."


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