New Polemics on Immigration

By Michael Teitelbaum
Volume 2, Number 3 (Spring 1992)
Issue theme: "Words, symbols, and roadblocks in the immigration debate"

Every public opinion poll shows that large increases in immigration are opposed by exceptionally large majorities of Americans.

Nonetheless, the House of Representatives last month (October 1990) passed legislation, now in conference with the Senate, that would greatly increase immigration. Its backers range from the traditional ethnic activists, who can be counted upon to support increased immigration of the groups they claim to represent, to New Right (or 'Libertarian') think tanks promoting the writings of Julian Simon, a controversial Maryland business professor known principally for his ideological zeal.

Mr. Simon has asserted blithely - but thoroughly incorrectly - that an unassailable body of recent economic research proves that we are made richer by allowing people to enter freely. He has found an ally in the notoriously ideological editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which advocates 'open borders.'

...even those of us who support

generous immigrant and refugee

admissions must admit with dismay

that some immigrants and refugees

have played leading roles in the

destructive rise of the drug trade

and violent crime...

No balanced reader of the considerable literature on immigration would draw such reckless conclusions. The evidence is very much more mixed than the advocates would like their readers to know.

In economic terms, the impact of immigration depends heavily upon the economic situation into which the immigrants enter. The Turkish 'guest workers' imported into West Germany during the booming 1960s made positive economic contributions during that period, but those who stayed on or entered later have not, and now pose troubling social and political problems for German society.

Immigrants to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s did reasonably well, in terms of both economic well-being and modest dependence on the welfare system. But the much larger numbers of immigrants entering the more complex economic circumstances of the 1980s have not prospered, and welfare dependence has increased. Moreover, some nationalities fare well as U.S. immigrants, while others suffer, for reasons no one really understands.

While the advocates assert that there are (or soon will be) significant 'labor shortages,' labor economists overwhelmingly reject such claims. They point not to overall 'shortages' of workers but to mismatches between the skills needed by some growing occupations and the outputs of the troubled U.S. education system, coupled with unwillingness by some employers to offer market wages and benefits to would-be American employees.

Most immigrants and refugees are law-abiding and hardworking, as the advocates emphasize. But even those of us who support generous immigrant and refugee admissions must admit with dismay that some immigrants and refugees have played leading roles in the destructive rise of the drug trade and violent crime in cities such as New York, Washington, Miami and Los Angeles.

Some Americans benefit economically from large-scale immigration - the 'positive' emphasized by the advocates. But others certainly lose, especially minorities and women, particularly those in occupations with many immigrants.

In demographic terms, the advocates' campaign is equally distorted and one-sided. Their argument that immigration is low rather than high relative to historic rates is correct so far as it goes, but it deliberately neglects to add that this comparison applies only to a brief period before World War I, when immigration numbers were completely unlimited.

Similarly, the advocates emphasize that the percentage of foreign-born in the United States is lower than it was earlier in this century, but neglect to mention the equally true fact that immigration today accounts for a higher percentage of U.S. population increase - at least 30 percent nationwide, and much more in urban areas - than it has since perhaps colonial times.

No sovereignty is possible

for a nation with

'open borders.'

The advocates claim that increasing immigration can keep the United States from aging demographically. That assertion is simply wrong, unless immigrant visas are restricted to children. Promoting immigration as a source of new tax revenue to finance pensions and elderly health care ignores the reality that the immigrants, too, will age, and will have to be supported in their turn by younger generations of taxpayers.

These omissions and errors do not result from simple ignorance or inadvertence. They have been pointed out over many years. Yet the advocates of large immigration increases continue to repeat them forcefully, with no apparent embarrassment.

The views being espoused by the libertarian right and ethnic interest groups have nothing whatever to do with mainstream conservative or liberal principles, values or interests. It is a fascinating irony that these ostensibly 'conservative' arguments echo mainly the writings of radicals such as Karl Marx, utopians, and assorted anarchists opposed to the sovereignty of the nation-state.

No sovereignty is possible for a nation with 'open borders.' If Kuwait had followed such advice over the past decade, there would have been no need for an Iraqi invasion, as Kuwait would have been overwhelmed long ago by immigrants from its largest neighbor.

In my experience, most members of Congress are neither as naive nor as ignorant about such matters as the advocates apparently believe. Whether conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, most understand that a generous but balanced immigration policy can be a force for good, but that an excessive policy based upon flawed premises - such as those behind the House bill - will almost certainly produce deeply divisive problems.

A century ago, Mark Twain penned the most penetrating admonition for immigration advocates of today When in doubt, tell the truth.

About the author


Teitelbaum is a demographer with the Sloan Institute and was a member of the U.S. Commission

for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development.