Acton Commentary

Clear Thinking on Immigration


Amid the heated rhetoric and dubious claims made on both sides of the immigration debate - that any concerns about immigration are evidence of racism, that immigrants are ruining the economy - we should all take a deep breath and call to mind the following points:

There is a right to immigrate, but it is not absolute.

Immigrants are people of great dignity, most of them are very poor, and we should not exclude their interests from our discussions about immigration policy. They have a claim on the generosity of a generous people. Their claim is not absolute, however, if they impose large burdens on U.S. natives, who are also people of great dignity, some of whom are also poor. Even a generous nation may restrict immigration if it becomes too great a burden. The recent debate has focused on the nature and size of those burdens.

The economic stakes of immigration are small.

Immigration benefits employers who hire cheaper labor, and consumers who buy products made with that labor. The benefits are small, though - less than one half of one percent of national income. Neither are the education and healthcare burdens on states and cities particularly large -$10 billion, compared to state and local budgets of $1.5 trillion - but they are unfairly concentrated on a handful of states and localities.

The argument that the U.S economy will grind to a halt without immigration is simply not true. Neither is the argument that immigration is ruining the economy. Although it does put modest downward pressure on unskilled wages, the numbers are too small (3-4 percent over 20 years) to require a policy response. If immigration ceased tomorrow, some of the jobs immigrants do would disappear - farmers and businesses would find ways to produce without cheap labor, and more homeowners would mow their own lawns (or pay my kids to do it!). Some of the jobs would be taken by native workers, at modestly higher wages. Anyone looking for burdens from immigration will have to look outside of the economy.

Illegal immigration is the real issue.

One in 25 people in the United States (12 million) are here in violation of our laws. Such widespread flouting of immigration law is understandably disquieting; it strikes at U.S. sovereignty. We should either enforce our immigration quotas, or repeal them. The presence of so many illegals corrupts our law enforcement, our politics, and our economy, and it undermines our ability to protect ourselves from terrorists. This corruption is the biggest threat from illegal immigration.

We can address this problem by increasing the number of legal immigrants or by enforcing current quotas. The small economic stakes argue for a moderate increase in the number of immigrants we allow in legally.

Enforcement is crucial, even if we increase legal immigration.

The 1986 immigration reforms tied amnesty for illegal immigrants to a stricter enforcement regime, but the enforcement never materialized. As a result, we now have more illegal immigrants than ever. We won't solve this problem until we start making sure that employers are hiring legal immigrants. And for all the talk of “border enforcement,” we'll have to do more than build high fences - high fences without internal enforcement leads to permanent illegal immigration, because no one wants to jump the fence a second time. Internal enforcement without a fence will work much better than a fence without internal enforcement.

The sheer size of immigration flows, and their increasing illegal nature, make Americans feel as if we can't afford to be generous to the world's poor at our doorstep. A clear view of the issues contradicts this assessment. The biggest burdens from immigration are not economic - they are the turmoil caused by the large numbers of illegal immigrants. Most Americans are rightly concerned about the chaos that illegal immigration brings to our politics and our legal system. Addressing the problem of illegal immigrants will solve most of our immigration problems, and will allow Americans to give fuller rein to their generous impulses toward immigrants.