Yuengert – Immigration Rights and the Burdens of Immigration
Rights and the Burdens of Immigration
National Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
What Is An American?
April 30, 2005
I want to make three points about immigration in the US.
One, there is a right to migrate, but it’s not an absolute right.
Two, the economic stakes of immigration policy are relatively small; if
there are any real stakes, they are cultural.
Three, illegal immigration, with special emphasis on the qualifier
‘illegal’, as opposed to ‘undocumented’, is the source of our most
severe immigration problems, and is our most urgent challenge.
Let’s begin with rights. My
dissertation research was narrowly focused on the economics of immigration and
assimilation. Several years ago I
was asked to write a paper on Catholic Social Teaching and immigration, so for
the first time I read what the Popes have said about it.
I was shocked to find in Catholic Social Teaching a very clearly
annunciated right to migration. Now,
in my research on this topic I had never come across this term, ‘rights’, in
the context of immigration. Since I
am a product of American rights culture, the claim of a right to migrate was
bracing; rights language is fighting words in America; rights are employed as
rhetorical trumps, or clubs, in the US, and often indicate an unwillingness to
compromise. Appeals to rights are
You don’t have to look far beyond the narrow boundaries of economic
research to discover the important rights context of US immigration policy.
The 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which made possible the mass migration
of the last forty years, should be understood as part of the Civil Rights
movement of the sixties.
It was an international counterpart to the Civil Rights Act
and the Voting Rights Act: just as all citizens were to be treated as equals
before the law, regardless of race or creed, all those seeking to become
citizens should be treated equally. Today
rights language is as out of control in immigration policy discussions as it is
everywhere else in American life: we hear about the right to driver’s licenses
for illegals, even the right to citizenship.
So what do the Popes mean when
they assert a right to migrate? It
turns out, they are speaking from a tradition in which rights claims need not be
absolute — which is more comfortable with tradeoffs among rights.
In this tradition, the right to migrate is not absolute; the purpose of
rights-language is not to end public policy debates and disagreements, but to
orient them toward the common good of all persons, natives of the host country
and immigrants alike.
In this tradition, rights are simply the flip side of justice — to have
a right means that someone else has an obligation toward you in justice.
To claim that someone has a right is to claim that something is due him.
The value of looking at rights from the side of justice is that it allows
us to talk more naturally about the necessary balance among our obligations —
we can’t determine what is just towards one person without considering our
obligations towards others and our scarce resources.
In fact, since rights language is
so unhelpful in US discourse, it is more helpful to approach this topic from the
direction of justice. In the US,
when we say immigrants have a right to migrate, it becomes difficult to consider
abridging those rights in favor of the rights of natives — we speak of clashes
of rights. But translate
rights-talk into justice-talk, and we can more naturally speak of the balance
between our just regard for immigrants and our just regard for common goods of
economy, culture, and security.
Our just obligations toward others arise from their dignity as human
persons — made in the image of God, placed in the world according to his
purposes. It is in this sense that
we are all created equal — we have a common destiny.
Anything that bears on a person’s development as a human person
deserves our just respect, even solicitude.
When seen from the perspective of justice, the right to migrate is not
absolute. An absolute right, like
the right to life, involves access to a human good that has no substitute —
when we abridge someone’s right to life, we can’t expect that he will be
able to pursue his happiness through other means — without life, there can be
no human development. When we
abridge someone’s right to migrate, however, we are foreclosing only one
avenue for his development. Many
immigrants can feed their families, and find fulfillment without migrating to
America. Those for whom migration
is a crucial avenue of development — refugees and those trapped in grinding
poverty in dysfunctional economies — have a stronger claim on us, and a
correspondingly stronger right.
If our obligations in justice toward migrants puts at risk our common
goods as a society — our economic order, our culture, our security — then
our just obligations to our own citizens and to ourselves may force us to
curtail the right to migrate. It is
important to note that restrictions on migration need not imply a denigration of
the migrants themselves, or of the value of migration to them.
The benefits of immigration to immigrants themselves — the economic
benefits of higher pay, remittances, and the potential benefits to dysfunctional
nations of having an overseas community experienced in the benefits of a free
society — should figure into our policy deliberations.
If we self-protectively curtail immigration, it is fitting that we do so
with a sense of regret and reluctance. We
should not do so lightly, without consideration for those who stand to benefit
from our generosity. A healthy
rights perspective allows us to balance our generous welcome of immigrants
against the burdens of immigration.
It is to these purported burdens of immigration that I now want to turn.
These fall under three headings — economic, cultural, and security
concerns. In the economic realm,
both the estimated costs and benefits of immigration are small.
The National Academy of Sciences estimated that immigration increases the
incomes of natives by $10 billion dollars a year, which seems like a lot of
money until you compare it to an 11 trillion dollar economy.
Immigration is neither destroying nor enriching our economy.
Its continuation does not make us particularly richer, and its
curtailment will not ruin our economy, no matter what it does to farming in
California, to chicken processing in Arkansas, or to the nanny market in New
York. The numbers are simply too
small to matter much.
The supposedly alarming estimates of the net cost of immigration to
government at all levels are similarly small, although they are trumpeted as if
they are outrageously high. Careful
estimates of the net fiscal cost of illegal immigration to the federal budget
(not counting the modest benefits of immigration to social security) suggest
that illegals impose $5 billion more in costs than they pay in federal taxes.
Again, this seems like a large umber, especially when the ‘b’ in
billion is pronounced with explosive emphasis: “Billion!”
This number must be put in perspective, however.
Five billion is .2% of the 2.1 trillion dollar federal budget.
It is 1% of the federal deficit. The
loses five times that amount annually — the item in the federal
budget for unreconciled transactions was 25 billion in 2003.
Employees at the agriculture department were tallying up $5 billion a
year in credit card fraud until recently. The
federal government gives $80 billion dollars a year away in corporate welfare,
$30 billion to agriculture. Farmers
in the Central Valley in California alone receive as much as $400 million a year
in just in water subsidies. Waste
and fraud in Medicare eat up $20-30 billion annually.
The $5 billion cost of illegals to the federal budget is simply not a
terribly large number. It is not on
the face of it too large a cost to bear; there are other, more alarming costs to
illegal immigration than its effect on the federal budget.
The only economic numbers that come close to being significant are the
fiscal burden of immigration in California, and the effect of immigration on the
wages of uneducated native workers. The
$5 billion fiscal burden on state and local government in California — the
Medicaid and education costs – is large when compared to the state’s
structural deficit of $6 billion. But
even this can be put in perspective when compared to total state and local
spending in the U.S., which total one and a half trillion dollars a year.
Because the fiscal burden of illegals is concentrated in a handful of
states, those states where the burden is heaviest have a strong case for federal
Perhaps the most troubling economic effect of immigration is its modest
effect on the wages of unskilled workers. Immigration
has decreased unskilled wages by at most 3-4% over the last 30 years.
This is a small effect over three decades, but it falls on the most
vulnerable workers — those adversely affected by trade and information
technology — so it should be troubling to those who place native interests
above immigrant interest. However,
compared to the gains to immigrants from immigration — a quintupling of wages
for unskilled workers from Mexico, tens of billions of dollars sent back to poor
Latin Americans each year — the losses to unskilled natives are small.
Moreover, a reduction in immigration will not protect native unskilled
workers from the effects of free trade and information technology, which have
combined to account for much of the stagnation in the wages of the unskilled.
It should also be noted that the stakes are small in the debate over
choosing skilled vs. unskilled immigrants.
Native workers do not benefit as much from skilled worker immigration as
they do from unskilled worker immigration, and the gains from unskilled workers
are small. Even the gains to GDP
per capita are dubious — Canada, whose skilled-based immigration system is
cited as a model for the US, has experienced growth rates in GDP per capita
which are significantly smaller than US rates during the last two decades, when
the US inflow of unskilled workers was greatest.
After catching up to developed nation living standards in the 70s,
no-immigration Japan has suffered stagnation, not increased growth.
Skilled immigration may boost living standards, but does not appear to be
the most important factor in economic growth.
So the economic stakes in immigration are small.
The cultural stakes, whether they are large or small, generate the strong
emotions that overshadow immigration debates.
There seem to be two major cultural concerns:
1 — Are immigrants from non-European cultures in some way
less suited for healthy democracy? Do
they lack the habits — habits of compromise, self-reliance, and association –
that support US institutions?
2 — Is a multiethnic society necessarily prone to
division? Is immigration a threat
to national unity?
My expertise is the economic aspects of this issue, so I do not have as
much confidence addressing the cultural aspects.
Nevertheless, I have a several observations to make on culture.
First, it seems strange to me that
we should favor immigrants from white Europe on cultural grounds.
Should we really prefer, say, 100,000 devoutly secular, globalistic
French over 100,000 religiously devout Mexicans?
Perhaps we should, but I need to hear more discussion about what habits
Europeans can bring to our democracy. The
answer is not obvious. Perhaps
devout Mexicans carry more healthy western traditions into the US than do
Germans, Brits, and Italians.
Second, an important piece of data on assimilation, economic and
cultural, is intermarriage rates. Intermarriage
has always been an important route for assimilation, as well as an indicator of
assimilation. High rates of
intermarriage played an important role in assimilating the inassimilable Irish,
for example. These rates are
generally high for Hispanics (45%), which bodes well for their assimilation.
Third, the English language is obviously crucial to assimilation.
A basic knowledge of English should be a requirement of immigration.
Fourth, this is not the first time a non-white immigration has occurred
in the US. Southern Europeans were
not identified as whites in the 1920s — they hailed from alien cultures, alien
religions, and were thought to be unsuited for the American experiment.
The fact that we lump Italians, Greeks, and Hungarians together with
Germans and English into a category we call ‘white’ is a testimony to the
assimilation of the inassimilable.
To discuss the security stakes in immigration brings to the fore the most
troubling aspect of our immigration problems — the large numbers of illegal
immigrants who live among us in plain sight.
There is a long tradition in Western political thought that demands that
laws be enforced, even to the point of recommending against the passage of laws
that either are not enforced or are unenforceable.
Laws which are universally ignored tend to undermine all respect for law,
and corrupt the culture.
We should either enforce our immigration quotas, or repeal them.
The presence of twelve million or so illegals in the US is corrupting our
law enforcement, our politics, our economy, and undermines our ability to
protect ourselves from terrorists. This
corruption is the biggest threat from illegal immigration.
The corruption begins with the consciences of the illegals themselves.
Millions of otherwise good people are living a lie, pretending that they
belong here, have rights here, and denying that there is anything wrong with
their being here. Their illegal
status undermines their ability to bargain for better wages, to resist abuses by
employers, and their incentive to learn English and assimilate into US culture.
Illegals are more likely to remain in immigrant enclaves, seeking safety
Illegal immigration corrupts our politics, since it forces us to pretend
that laws we have passed democratically are not worth enforcing.
Illegal immigrants even have their own lobbying groups; some
illegals vote, no doubt. The
advocates for illegal immigration insist not only that we tolerate their illegal
presence, but that we pretend that the breaking of our laws is a trivial matter,
not to be brought up in polite company.
We are even forced to pretend that the biggest problem caused
by illegal immigration is the lack of documentation, not illegal status — it
is not politically correct to call illegal immigrants ‘illegal immigrants’;
we must instead call them ‘undocumented’ workers.
Instead of deporting illegals, we must develop new forms of ID for them
— matricular consular IDs instead of passports; driver’s licenses just for
them. We must treat them like they
are legal, granting them in-state tuition to our public schools.
Our lack of desire to enforce immigration laws corrupts the immigration
service. One often hears complaints
about how awful the INS used to be, and how it would not be possible to enforce
immigration laws without a complete overhaul of the immigration service.
Much of the dysfunction at the INS was due to the impossible task it was
given: to pretend to enforce the immigration law while not really enforcing it,
to catch and release illegals, to go through the farce of informing illegal
immigrants of their right to make bogus asylum claims.
The immigration services are demoralized not because they are
incompetent, but because they are not allowed to do their jobs, although they
must pretend they are being vigilant.
The desire to appear to enforce immigration law while not really
enforcing it has led to our policy of building fences at the border, but not
looking for illegals internally. This
lopsided enforcement has been counterproductive.
Before the era of vigorous border enforcement the typical illegal
immigrant stayed in the US for about a year, and did not bring his family.
Illegals cycled into and out of the US.
After the border became more difficult to cross, the average
stay in the US lengthened considerably, to about three to four years.
Immigrants who got across the border were less likely to go home, and
were more likely to bring their families, to settle down, demand driver’s
licenses and schools for their kids.
Most importantly, the presence of an underground market for smuggling and
fake IDs undermines our security. Drug
smuggling and human smuggling go hand in hand.
Terrorists may use the well-worn illegal entryways, and take advantage of
the false ID infrastructure already in place.
I suspect that addressing the problem of illegal immigrants will solve
most of our immigration problems. To
the extent that immigration depresses wages, it is most often the wages of legal
immigrants. The ability to actually
enforce that law would reinvigorate the immigration service.
Legal immigrants are more likely to assimilate than illegal immigrants.
If there are fewer illegals, and we are not bashful about searching for
them, there will be fewer ways for terrorists to hide in plain sight.
Of course, one can accept that illegal immigration is a big problem, and
suggest different ways of dealing with it.
One might eliminate all illegal immigration by opening the borders and
giving out free green cards, or one might actually enforce the laws on the
books. I favor the second option
— I am not concerned about the large volume of legal immigration, although I
would make some changes in our current legal system, putting more emphasis on
English language proficiency, but I believe the illegal immigration burden is
much more urgent.
Let me end by reiterating my points.
One, there is a right to migrate, but it does not mean open borders;
instead, it means that the dignity and welfare of immigrants should figure into
our policy debates. Second, the
economic stakes in the immigration debate are relatively small; restrictions on
immigration should not turn on the economic costs or benefits.
Third, the most important trend is the large increase in illegal
immigration. Illegal immigration is
a systematic flouting of the rule of law; it corrupts our politics, our culture,
and threatens to undermine our national security.