Trump on Immigration: Claims vs. Reality

Release Date
December 16, 2016



As tensions increase over immigration policy, misconceptions abound. Listen in as David Bier of the Cato Institute separates fact from fiction.

Nativists created our immigration problems—they can’t fix them (blog article): David Bier explains that strict restrictions on immigration have created illegal immigration. 
2016 Presidential Election: Immigration – Learn Liberty (video): Don Boudreaux explains both sides of the debate about reforming immigration.
Immigration’s Impact On Economies & Culture In 2 min – Learn Liberty (video): Steve Davies argues that immigration is good for the economy and that we shouldn’t be concerned about its effect on culture.

Evan S.: Welcome to Learn Liberty Live. I’m Evan Swarztrauber. Today, we’re talking about immigration, an issue that has really shaped the election, especially in the Republican Primary, given comments that Donald Trump has made about immigration and some strong stances he has taken on the matter. Joining me to discuss this is David Bier, policy analyst at the Cato Institute.
David, thanks for joining.
David Bier: Thanks for having me.
Evan S.: A lot of Americans are anxious about immigration, in particular immigration from the Muslim world, especially given concerns about terrorism, and you’ve seen Donald Trump capitalize on these fears. To start, should Americans be worried about immigration, in particular Muslim immigration?
David Bier: I don’t think that they should. We’ve had a long history of assimilating immigrants from all parts of the world. When it comes to terrorism, in particular, you need to take a look at what are the actual risks here, and that’s one of the things that we did at the Cato Institute. We released a paper last month that evaluated your chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a foreigner on U.S. soil, and what we found in that study was that the odds of you dying in a terrorist attack by an immigrant are one in 3.6 million. We’re talking about a period from 1975 to 2015, so we have a long sample period to take a look at, and that’s really low odds. To put that in context, your chance of dying in a regular homicide are one in 14,000 over that same period.
Evan S.: Essentially, it would be more rational to be afraid of your fellow native-born citizen, if you were born in the United States, than to be afraid of someone coming to the United States and killing you?
David Bier: Yes, absolutely. Further than that, it’s really to the point where you don’t rearrange your life when you’re dealing with such incredibly small risks in this space. I don’t think that’s the only concern when it comes to Muslim immigration that people have. People also have concerns about their political views, their social views. One of the other things that we did at Cato was take a look at how do Muslim Americans compare to other Muslims around the world and to Americans and their views.
What we found was that they are remarkably more liberal and socially tolerant than Muslims in other countries, including in Europe. A lot of people make a false comparison between the United States and Europe in this respect. You have to understand that Muslim Americans, 81% of them are recent immigrants to the United States or the children of immigrants. Really, we would expect their views to reflect their home countries, but the reality is that they overwhelmingly reject ideas like Sharia law being imposed in the United States. A majority, 55%, say that they would reject having their religion influence policy in any way, even as a partial source, which is something that U.S. Christians do not agree with when it comes to the Bible. They take a very strong separation of church and state stance, more so than other Americans, even.
Evan S.: If you’re watching this, you’re on Facebook, and you know we love to get your questions, so please don’t hesitate at any time throughout the show to ask questions simply by putting them in the comment box. You could also reach us on Twitter. We’ll look forward to those and try to get to all of them before the end of the show.
David, you mentioned how it would be silly to rearrange your whole life based on such a small risk. Maybe that raises the question of whether we should be arranging policy based on such a small risk, especially when the study that Cato did asks policymakers to weigh the values that immigrants bring to the country, not just the risk. Maybe you’ve debugged the notion that they’re bringing a big risk with them, especially Muslim Americans who do share our values more so than you would expect from recent immigrant.
David Bier: Yeah.
Evan S.: But are they also bringing … or are they benefiting America?
David Bier: Yes.
Evan S.: Are they benefiting native-born Americans who might be concerned about job loss, things like that?
David Bier: Yeah, absolutely. In the study that you reference, we took a look at how much the United States benefits from immigration, and it’s in the order of tens of billions of dollars. If we were going to have a moratorium on immigration in order to deal with the threat of terrorism, what the study did was it looked at the costs of terrorism in the United States and calculated how many more terrorist attacks would you need to happen on a regular basis for it to be worth it to shut down the borders in that way.
What it found was you’d need an attack on the level of 9/11 every single year; actually, larger than the attack on 9/11 every year over the last 40 years that the study took a look at in order to make it worth it to shut down the borders. It’s really economically, it makes very little sense. There are a lot of other reasons why, in particular, discriminating against Muslim immigrants is a really bad idea, especially when you’re trying to convince them to adopt your values of freedom and democracy. Having that type of attitude could have negative repercussions in that part of the world that we’re trying to reach.
One of the analogies that I like to use is if you look at our Cold War strategy when it came to immigration, it was, “Bring as many of them in as possible. If anyone wants to flee a Soviet-dominated country, a communist country, let them in. We’ll take them in. We won’t send you back to communism.” That’s because we wanted to embarrass those people. We wanted to demonstrate what a wrong path this was and show ourselves as that light on a hill, as Reagan put it. The reaction of that, the benefit that we got from that was that we really did embarrass them and ultimately put pressure on them to change their policies over time.
Evan S.: And even that view, that one of the biggest embarrassments to ISIS, to the caliphate, is the people that are fleeing, that people are willing to risk drowning in the Mediterranean to get away from this paradise that ISIS has marketed the caliphate as. When in Europe they close up borders because of the attacks in Paris or in Brussels or when the United States closes up its borders, are we not playing directly into the hands of our enemies?
David Bier: I would agree with that. If you look at what the Islamic State’s publications say about the refugees, they call them apostates. They call them traitors to the so-called caliphate. I think we want more traitors. I want to encourage people to be apostates to a terrible form of Islam that they’re trying to establish there. Really, it’s had a positive impact already. If you read the stories … I went through and documented a whole host of cases of Syrian refugees who came to the United States, and they all said, “We were skeptical. We wanted to get out of our camps, but we were skeptical of the United States. We had heard the propaganda. We had heard the stories of depravity and sinfulness and all these things, and then we’ve experienced the overwhelming kindness of the American people.”
I documented more than a dozen families who came over just on the East Coast, Syrian families, and all of them had nothing but nice things to say about Americans, that they never experienced any kind of discrimination. Despite all of the things you hear on the news, despite knowing what Donald Trump is saying on TV about them, they felt that this was a positive thing, and they said, “We’re transmitting that back to our families and our friends overseas.” It’s a really positive thing for the United States.
Evan S.: One more question about the refugees. You’ve made a utilitarian argument that bringing in immigration on balance benefits the United States, that the benefits far outweigh the costs, and that’s very logical and you can back that up with data, but, of course, when you deal with such a thorny issue like immigration or like terrorism, you’re often dealing with emotions, not facts and logic. You’ve seen an argument that has really taken off online, the idea that if you were given a bowl of jelly beans or Skittles and you knew one of them was poisonous, would you take all of them in? The idea being that all it takes is one Syrian refugee or one Muslim immigrant that is bad for it not to be worth it. What do you think about that argument, especially when you’re dealing with politicians who are more worried about what they have to say to the family of a victim of a terrorist attack than maybe what is right for the country as a whole?
David Bier: Yeah. I look at immigrants and refugees very similar to any other kind of population group. Any time you have new people, there are new risks. If you have a child, he could turn out to be Hitler, he could turn out to be a murderer. Does that mean we should stop having children because of that fact? You have to balance the costs and the benefits, and that’s what we do. In the example of refugees, your chance of dying is one in 3.6 billion, so you’re talking about a whole lot of Skittles in that scenario, several swimming pools of Skittles before you’d have much of a chance of dying. I think there are many benefits to immigration, and those benefits far outweigh the costs.
Evan S.: We’ve touched on how the concerns around Muslim immigration and refugees is mostly about terrorism. There’s the other group that has been vilified in this election, which is Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans.
David Bier: Sure.
Evan S.: The concern there is less about terrorism and more about crime and jobs. One of the most famous speeches that Trump ever gave, that really catapulted his rise to power in many ways was when he famously said that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, they’re murderers.” He, of course, offered the important caveat that some of them are probably nice people, but it was a hell of a generalization and he got a lot of flak for that. Is there any reason to think that Mexican immigration increases crime or exposes Americans to crime? Then we can tackle jobs next.
David Bier: There are two different ways in economics literature to estimate the impact of immigration on crime. One is to take the big picture, look at a city and see how much it’s grown as a result of immigration, and then compare it to other cities that haven’t seen as much of an increase in immigration and see which does better in terms of crime reduction, controlling for a lot of different factors, of course. What those studies have all found is not only does immigration not increase crime; it actually reduces crime. Immigrants tend to be less crime-prone apparently than the native-born population. The other way of taking a look at it is just look who’s in our jails. The census actually does document who’s in our jails, and immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than the native-born.
There’s actually a third argument that a lot of people don’t understand, but it’s reflected in the fact that during the 1990s we had the largest increase in immigration in recent years, mostly from Mexico, and we had the largest reduction in violent crime over a generation during that period of time. What ends up happening is that immigrants, because they’re less likely to be incarcerated and they’re less likely to commit crimes, they actually reduce the crime level of the native-born population. That’s because when you throw in lower crime population, fewer criminals can make contacts with other criminals. You actually reduce the crime level by disrupting criminal networking, and that’s actually a really important benefit of Mexican immigration as well.
Evan S.: You’ve mentioned how there have been previous populations that have assimilated into the United States and they went through similar challenges, where there was skepticism, you know, Irish Catholics, Italian Americans, Asian immigrants, take your pick. Is one of the differences here that they’re not white, to be blunt about it? Is there any difference between the situation with Irish Catholic immigrants, Italian immigrants, and Muslim immigrants, Mexican immigrants other than the color of their skin?
David Bier: I don’t think so. If you look back and see how Eastern European immigrants were described, they weren’t described as white. They weren’t included in the statistics of white people. Really, they viewed them as a different race, a lower race of people who were going to disrupt the gene pool of the United States and make us all much more like their home countries. The other thing that you have to take into consideration is that there were some valid concerns about Catholic immigration in the early 20th century, and that’s because the Popes … You go back and read what the Popes were saying in the early 20th century about democracy, individual rights, and freedom of religion, they were vehemently against all three.
Evan S.: Those founding values, the values of the Enlightenment.
David Bier: Yes, right. The Protestant majority in the United States negatively reacted to this and said, “Look at these people who are coming in. They’re going to destroy our way of life.” What ended up happening, of course, is that they ended up being champions of those values as time went on, and JFK eventually became president despite being a Catholic and it was a big deal, and that’s why it was a big deal. We actually have a pretty good precedent for assimilating a group of people who had presumably values that were very different from our own and ultimately resulted in a cohesive melting pot, if you will. Not only that. If you look at the Catholic example, Catholics in America actually changed the Catholic church. In 1965, the Catholic church flipped its position on religious freedom and said, “No, we actually agree with this principle of separation of church and state.”
Evan S.: That’s a really interesting argument because you could analogize that to Muslim Americans and say if Muslim Americans are more in favor of American values than Muslims in the Arab world or Muslims in Europe, then maybe us being leaders in accepting more refugees and allowing more immigration, the Muslim American population could be a shining city on the hill for that religious group as people can see the success we’ve had here as opposed to places that are more problematic that people might be concerned about.
I do want to get to jobs a little bit later in the show, but we have a couple of questions from the audience, so thank you, viewers. Nathan Woodruff asks, “Are closed borders compatible with liberty?” Nathan, thanks for the question.
David Bier: I do not think so. I think as American citizens, we have the rights to associate with people born throughout the world. The idea that somehow we can limit freedom of Americans to interact in this way and we still have a free market and a libertarian society is just something that I don’t understand. I think that there are many rights that we lose out on when we suddenly say we’re going to prevent people from entering the United States. Just to use one example, if you couldn’t allow any immigration, your right to marry would be severely limited to only people who were born in the United States. That’s just one of many rights that would be circumscribed by such a policy.
Evan S.: Yeah, and then freedom of movement, too, freedom of labor. The tech industry talks a lot about the challenge of not having enough high-tech immigration visas, whereas a lot of the concern in some of the parts of the country that have been disrupted by globalization is more about low-skilled immigration. Tech companies are saying, “Yeah, there are plenty of Americans out of work, but maybe there aren’t enough engineers among unemployed Americans and we need to open that up.” Closed borders might be incompatible with the idea of work needing to be able to travel to where it is needed.
David Bier: Yeah, absolutely. I think any time you’re talking about limiting the ability of employers to hire the people that they want to hire, you’re limiting the free markets, obviously limiting the ability of workers to go where the work is most demanded.
Evan S.: In terms of the election, I talked about how Donald Trump once called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. He has softened that position to an extent, but it would still involve some type of very burdensome check, and he said things in the most recent debates about Muslims having to report on their fellow citizens, which I’m not sure that any type of reporting requirement would be workable or enforceable. I’m sure there are already incentives for any group to report on bad members within its group. You don’t want them to paint a negative picture of you, but in contrast, a lot of e-mail hacking has been going on involving Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff. An interesting tidbit came out that she, I think, told donors at a fundraiser that she had a dream of an open borders society. Should pro-immigration folks take some solace in Hillary’s behind-closed-doors position?
David Bier: Maybe, but when I take a look at that, I look at her record, and she’s really not been someone who’s been a champion of immigrant rights or of open borders, whatever that means. If you take a look at her vote that she cast in the Senate in 2007, she was voting against having a large guest worker program with Mexico and other countries that would have allowed this open flow of immigration that she supposedly championed in the back room.
When she was secretary of state, she had control of how many refugees that we brought in. When the refugee crisis first began in Syria, she didn’t raise the refugee limit. She actually lowered it. The idea that she is secretively pro-immigration or pro-open borders … I think she’s mildly, moderately pro-immigration, but the idea that she’s somehow a radical on this issue is just not borne out by her record, even if that is what she privately believes.
Evan S.: Got another question from the audience, from Joseph Kass. Thanks for the question, Joseph. “What is the best argument against a more open immigration policy?”
David Bier: I think the best argument is the argument that they’re going to come to our society and change our values in such a way or change our institutions in such a way that would reduce our liberty. I think our liberty is what produced such a great society that we have, this free markets-oriented place that we live in, this socially free place. While I think that that is the best argument against it, we haven’t found any evidence for this position.
The Cato Institute did a study that looked at societies with high rates of immigration and have found no relationship between the level of immigration and free markets. In fact, not only is it not a negative; it’s actually positively correlated with more economic freedom. While it’s the best argument, it’s not an argument that I think libertarians should buy into. If you look at just American history, there’s one period in American history where we had truly closed borders. That was during the Great Depression, the New Deal, the Great Society in the 1960s. We had very low immigration, a declining immigrant population during that period of time. When the borders were closed, government grew faster than at any other point in American history. I would be very skeptical if I was a libertarian, which I am, closing the borders as a solution to eroding liberties.
Evan S.: I just want to make clear that when we talk about the political candidates here, we’re just talking about their positions on immigration, how that relates to certain values. We’re not here to make endorsements in the election. No dog in this fight, but we do want to talk about how what’s being discussed in the election relates to this issue.
Let’s get to jobs, because, of course, one of the big arguments against immigration and one of the big anxiety-producing things about immigration is the idea that if people come here, they will take jobs away from Americans and that when there are Americans out of work or struggling, especially because of globalization and free trade, cheaper goods, cheaper manufacturing, manufacturing requiring fewer people. Should Americans be worried that a more liberal immigration policy will lead to job loss or prevent them from getting out of poverty?
David Bier: Yeah. Like I said before, I think immigrants are just like other people, and the idea that new people or more people are somehow going to make us poor, really, when you think about that, you have to say, “Well, if we started getting rid of population, if we had a smaller group of people, eventually we’d all be Robinson Crusoe, doing it all by ourselves.” I think more hands makes the work lighter. That’s the expression.
I think the idea that bringing in new people are going to somehow make us poor, which is really the concern, is just not borne out by logic, but if you look at the data over the last 120 years … I took a look at the unemployment rate and compared it to the rate of immigration, and in years in which the immigration rate was above the average, we had a 1.5% lower unemployment rate, meaning immigrants come when unemployment is low and that firms are hiring these immigrants when unemployment is low and when they’re hiring other Americans, meaning they respond to market incentives just like anybody else.
The other thing is if you look at the history of wages in the United States, people often talk about how we’ve had wage stagnation since the 1980s and this is a big problem as a result of immigration because we’ve had immigration since the 1980s.
Evan S.: There’s also the idea that all the gains since the great recession have gone to the top and that while we have had somewhat of an economic recovery, that the average person is not seeing the benefits and maybe immigrants are a scapegoat there.
David Bier: Yeah, certainly. One of the things that I took a look at was it’s not right to just look at immigrants, because immigrants are just a subset of the new workers who are entering the labor force. What you need to look at is both Americans and immigrants. Is there a influx of new competition into the labor force? If you look back in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, when you did have wage growth, very strong wage growth in the United States, you actually had more people entering the labor force every year than you do now despite high immigration. That’s because of the baby boom and women entering the labor force. When we had this high rate of wage growth, we had more people entering the labor force than we do today. That’s just one example of how this argument is flawed and misleading.
Evan S.: There are practical considerations, too. Just imagine you’re a business owner, whether you’re a small tech company in California or Apple, what’s cheaper, hiring someone who’s sitting right outside of your office, an American citizen who doesn’t need a visa and doesn’t need any type of expensive paperwork done or getting an immigrant? If the tech companies are saying they need immigrants to fill the jobs, it probably means they’ve already checked to see if there were Americans available, because one of those things is more expensive than the other.
I guess it’s difficult to make these arguments when there’s so much hysteria over job loss, but, really, it’s very expensive, and the process is not simple. Anyone who has a friend who was born in another country who wants to work in the United States, they know that it’s expensive and onerous. Really, there are practical reasons why Americans would be the first choice for any company, because it’s easier.
David Bier: Yeah, it’s interesting. When they dispense the high-skilled visas, they have a period of time where companies can apply for these visas. What I did was compare how long it takes before we reach the limit on the number of visas and look at the unemployment rate in the industries that are requesting them. It’s always inversely correlated. High unemployment means very long time before we reach the cap. When it’s low unemployment, the reverse is the case. We use up the visas like that. That means that market forces are acting. We’re hiring people when we’re hiring Americans. When we’re hiring immigrants, we’re hiring Americans. It’s just not correct to conclude that somehow high-skilled immigrants are replacing American workers.
Evan S.: We’ve got more questions from the audience. Mark Scribner asks, “Why has much of the American Right latched onto an anti-immigration philosophy that originated on the anti-population growth environmentalist far Left?” I guess his question is, how did this anti-immigration thing, which started out as just more people equals worse environment, but now it’s so closely associated with the Right and the Left is so pro-immigration? Thanks, Mark, for the question.
David Bier: Two things happened. The Left moved more towards the pro-immigration side in the 1990s and in the 2000s as a result of the fact that they had many immigrants moving into their districts and they had to choose between the anti-immigrant environmentalist Left like the Sierra Club, who were saying, warning of the dangers of over-population. The other thing that happened that was on the Right, you had several groups who sprung up as a result of the radical environmentalist movement, the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA, which is all about the number of people in the United States and wanting to reduce it. These groups were founded by a radical environmentalist named John Tanton in the late 1970s, and his whole idea was that we can reduce the population of the United States, but we need to appeal to these essentially nativist people in the United States who oppose immigration.
Evan S.: It’s an alliance of convenience-
David Bier: Yes.
Evan S.: … between people who otherwise probably don’t agree on much, but on this one issue-
David Bier: This one issue.
Evan S.: … they saw that they could promote it together.
David Bier: Yeah, so they essentially reached out and made this an issue among the Right, saying that it’s going to destroy the Republican Party, it’s going to destroy conservative values, because immigrants aren’t conservative, supposedly, and so they ultimately pushed the Republican Party to adopt a much more hard line on immigration that we’ve seen in this election. It’s sort of a dual thing, both parties moving in opposite directions.
Evan S.: It’s interesting that there is that fear among Republicans and Conservatives that immigrants will tip the scales towards Democrats, because we saw at least in, I think, the election in 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush won 40% of Hispanic voters. That was a fairly high margin given that he was a Republican. Then that went down significantly when Mitt Romney lost. Maybe there is a trend where if you talk poorly about immigrants, they tend not to vote for you. It’s not so much about whether you let them into the country but how you treat them when they arrive.
We’ve got another question from the audience from Jim [Feldkircher 00:29:04]. I apologize if that is not how you pronounce your name. “Only 19 terrorists …” Oop, sorry, screensaver. “Only 19 terrorists took down the World Trade Center, Pentagon attack, and Flight 93. This devastated the free world and drew us into a never-ending world. The vetting process is not perfect. Therefore, what is the acceptable margin of error with vetting?”
David Bier: Most of the terrorist attacks that have been carried out in recent years were actually carried out by either permanent residents who came over as children, young children … the Boston bombers is a good example … or native-born Americans. It’s just not correct to say that the vetting is the main problem. Now it’s true, on 9/11 many of them used tourist visas in order to come here. We have updated our vetting process since 9/11 to include biometric background checks, fingerprints and so forth when they arrive in the United States, and that’s good. We have improved on the vetting side. I think that would have prevented many of those people from getting through.
Like I said before, in this study where we took a look at the risk of terrorism, it’s one in 3.6 million your chance of dying. The study took a look at the financial benefits and the financial cost, and it’s not close. Immigration is a huge benefit to the United States and tourism, too, so we wouldn’t want to shut that off either.
Evan S.: Got another question from the audience from Christopher [Kaminezzi 00:30:41]. Again, apologies for the butchering of last names. “When it comes to culture, isn’t there an argument to be made for restrictive immigration, especially considering that Mexico has shared a border with us for a very long time, but their culture has not allowed it to develop the institutions we have and has led to a culture of corruption?”
There’s an assumption in the question that Mexico doesn’t … There’s this problem where they don’t share that value. Assuming that’s true, do you think there is a good argument for restrictive immigration in order to protect your institutions and to protect your values?
David Bier: Yeah, it’s very similar to what we were talking about before as far as the institutions of liberty, of free markets and so forth. What we found is that immigrants do assimilate. Another study that the Cato Institute did took a look at the actual issue-by-issue positions of immigrants versus the native-born, and they’re statistically insignificant. Now it is true that a lot of studies, they talk about Hispanics and treat them as if they’re representative of the entire immigrant population in the United States, and that’s not the correct way of looking at it.
A lot of immigrants from Latin America actually stop identifying as Hispanic over several generations, so you really need to dial in and look at the generation. Was their parent born overseas or not? That’s what we did as opposed to looking at ethnicity, which is not the same thing as immigration. As far as Mexico is concerned, what we’ve seen in Mexico as a result and at the same time that they’ve had this huge influx of immigration is that they have modernized to a great degree as a result of our open trade and open immigration policies and have hugely benefited from our policies. If we want to have a developed neighbor, having immigration is a great way to do that.
Evan S.: Yeah, especially when you have things like remittance payments. There are countries all over the world whose economies depend on people coming to the United States and sending money home, and that’s not to say that they don’t contribute to the American economy, because there are taxes and the money they spend while they’re here, but, like you said, if you want countries to develop and fewer of their people feeling like they need to leave, then you want to allow them to come here and work.
David Bier: An important point on Mexican immigration is that we have a very long history of relationships with northern Mexican people. That’s who primarily came over in the big wave during the 1990s, where immigrants from this region in the north of Mexico, right along the border, and they are the most libertarian of any group in Mexico. We really benefited from having this entrepreneurial free market-oriented class from Mexico come to the United States and really have seen how hard-working they are. They have higher than average labor force participation rates and employment rates, so we’ve really benefited from Mexican immigration to the United States.
Evan S.: Got another question from the audience from Ares Nunez. Ares, thank you for the question. “What about national security or people from countries with pandemic diseases? Do you support no borders? Question.”
David Bier: National security we talked about to a pretty good extent already. I do support restricting instances in which individuals have pandemic diseases. I think health screening is a legitimate part of immigration enforcement. Ultimately, some people may get through. There’s always that risk. But what we’ve seen is in general, we overreact to these types of scenarios rather than underreact. I think we have to weigh both the cost and the benefits again of saying no immigrants at all versus some risk that they might have a disease.
Evan S.: Would you say that the hoopla over the Zika virus is an example of an overreaction or an appropriate reaction?
David Bier: I haven’t studied the Zika virus enough to know whether … and our response … to say whether it’s an overreaction or an underreaction.
Evan S.: I haven’t studied it either, and that’s probably because it hasn’t made its way to D.C. yet, so fingers crossed. We’ve got another question from Josh Oldham. Josh, thanks for the question. “How does freer immigration influence foreign countries’ politics? Is there good evidence that it has a liberalizing effect on countries that are losing citizens and taxpayers?”
David Bier: Yes. There is good evidence that competition in borders has a positive impact on sending countries. A really good example of this effect is during the 19th century, it was the United States who really took a strong position on open emigration from Europe and fought these regimes in Prussia and Italy and said, “No, you have to allow your citizens to leave.” That ultimately resulted in huge numbers of immigrants coming from these German areas and Italian areas, and those governments reformed and moved toward democracy during that period. That’s a really good example.
During World War I, we actually did the opposite thing. We restricted immigration. We cut off the flow of open immigration and Germany and Italy moved the opposite direction towards fascism. Not saying that fascism was necessarily a result of our border controls or limits on immigration, but it certainly did have harmful effects nonetheless on certainly Jews who were fleeing those countries. I absolutely do believe that immigration can have a positive impact on sending countries’ institutions.
Evan S.: We’ve talked about a lot of things. One issue we did not get to is the safety net and this notion of anchor babies. You’ve heard this pejorative used a lot, mostly from a lot of nativist circles and many on the Right. This idea that because we have in the Fourteenth Amendment this provision that anyone born on U.S. soil is automatically a citizen, that that’s created a moral hazard and people are coming over to the United States specifically with the goal of having a child so that they can leach off of the welfare state.
There’s this fear that people are coming to the United States not to work necessarily, but to take advantage of things like emergency rooms, public education, and welfare programs. Is that a valid concern? You make good arguments that immigrants contribute to the economy and don’t steal jobs and don’t commit crime and don’t commit terrorist attacks, but what about this notion that immigrants come and bog down the welfare state, burdening taxpayers?
David Bier: Yeah, this is an argument really that Milton Friedman started when he said that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state, but if you look at all of Milton Friedman’s comments in the speech in which he said that, he said, “Illegal immigration is good because we know that the people who are coming are not eligible for welfare benefits, so as long as they’re in that illegal status.” Really, the only disagreement that I have with Milton Friedman on this subject is whether or not you can have a legal status in which people come and aren’t eligible for benefits just like as if they’re in an illegal status.
The question is, does that status exist now? Yes, it does. We have many temporary guest worker programs in which people come over. They’re not eligible for benefits. Any tourist who comes over, not eligible for any kind of welfare benefits. There’s a variety of mechanisms for bringing in immigration where they’re not eligible for any types of means-tested benefits. The other thing that is already in current law is that legal permanent residents who first arrive, permanent immigrants who come here are barred from any benefits for five years, so they have to work before they’re eligible for any types of benefits.
These are all good restrictions, and the end result of them … The National Academy of Sciences just did a report on the fiscal effects of immigration, and what they found was that for all skill categories, whether it’s high skill or low skill, they’re fiscally beneficial to the United States. Overall, they pay more in taxes than they cost in revenue. The only class that’s not is the lowest class, which is the high school dropouts, but even for them during their working period, they are fiscally beneficial, so if we had a work visa, an expansive work visa program rather than the small ones we currently have, they would be able to come to the United States and we would get the benefit of them during their working years, and then they move back home to their families when they were done working. There are options there to increase the benefit that already exists under our current system.
Evan S.: The anchor baby is almost a cartoonish notion in many ways. Does anyone know a Mexican immigrant who was one day away from her due date and got a foot over the United States border just in time for citizenship? People who come to the country illegally often go through horrific circumstances using so-called coyotes, smuggling thousands of dollars, often ending up in really bad situations. This idea that people have the luxury of perfectly timing their birth in order to get an anchor baby. If that phenomenon exists, it’s mostly with wealthier immigrants who come along on tourist visas and maybe over-stay the tourist visa, or they can afford an expensive plane ticket.
David Bier: Yeah, so the whole idea of an anchor baby is not borne out in the law. You don’t get legal status by virtue of having a child in the United States. If any immigrant believes that, they’re misinformed. Their child will get citizenship, but that doesn’t mean they’re legally eligible to be here. Tourists who come here and have children in order to get U.S. citizenship, they go home. The Chinese, for example, who do this in order to avoid the one-child policy or now the two-child policy in China, they come here and then they return home. Then maybe their child comes in college, which is actually great fiscally for the United States because then we get them all during their working years but not during their costly childhood years, so that’s actually a net benefit. For the illegal immigrants who come across the border, there’s no benefit for them. They don’t get any legal status as a result of coming here and having a child.
Evan S.: We have another question from Christopher Kaminezzi. Chris, thanks for the question. “Since there’s roughly 42 million legal immigrants from Mexico and possibly between 30 to 60 million illegal immigrants from Mexico, is assimilation less likely compared to having tighter immigration and allowing more time before allowing foreign cultures to come in and learn the culture of the host country?” Hong Kong is an area we hold up as libertarians in that regard, so I’m not sure about that 30 to 60 million illegal immigrants, but maybe the 42 million number is right.
David Bier: There’s 42 million immigrants total in the United States, and there’s only 11 million of them are without status. Then only a subset of them are from Mexico. The numbers are a bit off, but the question is sound whether we would have better assimilation if we had less immigration. That’s really not borne out. It’s actually good to have a diverse flow of immigration from a bunch of different countries, because then you don’t end up with sort of enclaves of specific groups being … They need English in order to talk to each other. They need that unifying language.
National Academy of Sciences again did a big study on assimilation that they released last year, and we found that this is the most assimilated group of immigrants that we’ve ever had in the United States. Second generation rates of proficiency in English are near universal levels. They’re the highest educated. It makes sense that this would be the most assimilated group, because when you think about it, early 20th century immigrants had no knowledge of America whatsoever. They had no experience with English. They never heard our music. They never interacted with our culture.
Evan S.: Some of them were surprised to find that the streets were not paved in gold, as was rumored back in the old world.
David Bier: Right. They had no experience with democracy. They had no experience with free markets really. You’re talking about a huge dramatic change, whereas today, Mexican immigrants have experience with democracy. They have experience with markets. They’ve experienced American culture. It makes sense that this generation would be the most assimilated of any.
Evan S.: You have basic things like Mexican food being the most popular cuisine in America. At a certain point, the cultures are blurring together, and that’s part of the beauty of the melting pot and the idea that America is a culture built up of other cultures. As much as we do have our own identity, too, maybe the hysteria over our culture being diluted is unwarranted.
As we’re coming up towards the end of the show, do you have any final parting thoughts for our viewers, things you really want people to take away from this discussion?
David Bier: There’s some things that we haven’t touched on, and I think one of them that’s very common, especially in this election, is the fear of partisanship, that really immigrants come over here and they vote Democratic, and Democrats favor bigger government and that ultimately has a negative consequence for the country. I don’t want to get into what party is better than the other party on liberty. I think they both have mixed records in that regard, but one of the things that’s interesting to take a look at is if you actually look at who controls Congress when immigration is high, when there’s a large number of immigrants, the Republican Party pretty much only controls Congress when immigration is high.
During the period from 1930 until 1995 when the immigrant population was less than 10%, they only controlled Congress two different times during that entire period, whereas outside of that period, they controlled it about 90% of the time in the House of Representatives. Whatever the explanation is for that, it just isn’t borne out that Republicans do worse when immigration is high. It could be that voters are reacting negatively to immigration. I think that probably holds true in the 1990s, but it doesn’t hold true today, where we actually have the most pro-immigrant results in polls of any time in American history, when more people are saying, “We want to keep the same level or higher immigration.”
The other possible explanation for this is that if you chart the power of the unions compared to the number of immigrants, these are inversely correlated, meaning we have lower union membership when immigration is really high. That makes sense because immigrants show up, but they’re not part of the union, and they actually create more labor competition and a more competitive labor market, and unions are a big part of the Democratic coalition.
Evan S.: That kind of gets to the generational split and the old Left versus the new Left. You mentioned how there’s a disagreement on environmental policy and how that relates to immigration. There’s probably also a disagreement between old labor unions-
David Bier: Yeah.
Evan S.: … whose primary concern is protecting their membership as opposed to the new, younger Democrats who might think that unions are outdated and that immigration is a net gain, even for anti-immigrant politicians who seem to be able to get elected as a result of high immigration.
David Bier: Yeah, absolutely. You know, why is the fear out there? I think part of the reason why the fear is out there, and if you look at where it’s most intense, it’s really among the older generation who is very concerned about assimilation. They’re concerned about the number of immigrants. Really, part of the problem is they have a distorted memory of the 1960s, when the immigrant population was so small in the United States and they had been there for so long that, yes, of course, they’re going to be more assimilated when there’s hardly any immigrants and they’re a very small parentage of the population.
If there are no new immigrants in your country, then you don’t have anyone to assimilate. They have this memory of immigrants being really … Immigration wasn’t a big deal, and they were really assimilated into our culture. We’re dealing with a memory that’s really not applicable to the current scenario, and that’s really what we’re up against.
Evan S.: Yeah, and in fairness to the United States, we’ve obviously talked about the U.S. and its immigration policy, but this is a global phenomenon. We’re seeing this all over the world. It’s not just Donald Trump talking about this. You have Marine Le Pen in France. You have parties in Germany. You had Austria go through something. The Brexit was motivated in part by immigration. Globalization, job loss, immigration, these are things that are affecting a lot of countries. While we’re coping with it in different ways, America is not unique in this discussion. This is something that’s happening all over the world, and it’s a great topic of discussion and I’m really glad you joined the show to talk about it.
My guest has been David Bier, policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Thanks for joining, David.
David Bier: Thanks for having me.
Evan S.: See you guys next week. Thanks for watching.