Why Immigration is Such a Hard Problem

Solving our Immigration Crisis, Part 1

By James Robison & Jay Richards Published on January 18, 2016

For the first time in a generation, immigration policy is a leading issue in the presidential campaign, and it involves not just immigrants to our south, but refugees from war-torn regions of the Middle East. Donald Trump has made it his signature topic, and many of the other GOP candidates are maneuvering to get on the good side of GOP primary voters, who are more and more skeptical of immigration.

Unfortunately, the debate has gotten nasty fast. After South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley addressed the issue of immigration in her response to the State of the Union speech last week, Ann Coulter tweeted (only half-joking) that she hoped Donald Trump would deport her.

It’s time for people of goodwill to step back from the partisan wrangling and think carefully about this issue. If caring and principled people ever needed to come to the table of reason, it is now. This is the first in a series of articles in which we’ll try to encourage thoughtful debate rather than heated rancor. 

For Christians, some issues, such as unborn human life and the nature of marriage, should be no brainers. But immigration policy is different. There’s no reason Christians must all agree on the details, because it involves genuine but competing goods that are hard to keep in balance. Reasonable people may weigh these competing goods differently.

One sign of the issue’s complexity is that views on immigration don’t divide up neatly into “liberal” and “conservative.” Some, such as the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, focus on the economic benefits to the free flow of labor, and so tend to be pro-immigration. On that narrow question, they’re right. Just as capital in a free market will flow to the places it is most valued, labor will do the same.

This has happened for centuries within US borders. Adding members to the population through birth and immigration may lead to short term job displacement for some — that’s why the rate of immigration matters — but it’s committing the “lump of labor fallacy” to argue that adding people to the population will cause long term job loss. If that were so, then virtually all of us would be unemployed. There isn’t a fixed amount of “work” to be done, so that once we get enough people to do it, then there’s nothing else for the rest to do. This is just bad economic thinking.

There is an infinite variety of ways for people made in the image of our creative God to create value for themselves and others. If you encounter an argument against immigration that would work just as well as an argument against free trade, then you can be pretty sure the lump of labor fallacy is lurking nearby. If someone can do something better and less expensively than you can, then perhaps that is a sign that you are supposed to do something else, not that the system is unjust. This is simply division of labor, from which everyone benefits in the long run.

The trouble with foreign immigration, however, is not so much economic (at least in the long term) as social and cultural. Labor, unlike capital, can’t be transferred by wire or shipped by Fed Ex. It’s not a commodity. Labor involves people — families, religious beliefs, virtues and vices, contagious diseases, political and personal histories. That’s why undisciplined immigration can have a negative cultural impact on a nation. In order to maintain our laws and culture, the flow of immigration must be gradual enough to allow immigrants to assimilate, and the government must have a policy of assimilation for it to happen at all.

In addition to those who support open immigration on economic grounds, there is a vocal minority who supports blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants, either because of their concern for the well-being of immigrants, because they think the Bible requires it (it doesn’t), or because they assume, somewhat cynically, that the beneficiaries will be loyal supporters of the politician, or political party, which granted amnesty.

Labor unions are harder to pin down on immigration. They are often suspicious of immigrants (legal or otherwise) because they fear immigrants will undercut their union wages. Nevertheless, unions often support immigration reform as long as it promises to increase union influence. 

Immigration Policy is the Main Problem

Apart from these competing concerns is the schizophrenic unofficial policy of the federal government. We should direct our frustration toward bad policy, not toward immigrants. Our immigration laws often make it hard for legal immigrants to maneuver — Microsoft has to petition the government annually to make it easier for the company to hire foreign employees — yet make it easy for an immigrant to overstay his visa or to swim the Rio Grande and stay here indefinitely.

We all know that in the last few decades the US has grown lax in securing its borders and enforcing immigration laws. It’s also become a vast entitlement state, so that even immigrants who want to make a life for themselves can end up on the public dole. Many of our institutions encourage relativism and treat assimilation as some sort of racist plot.

James C. Bennett boiled down the dilemma: “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism … pick any two.” These three policies are like territorial cats. You might get two to live under the same roof, but not three. Democracy (that is, popular vote) and immigration can co-exist as long as immigrants are assimilated and adopt the same constitutional values as their adopted country. Immigration and multiculturalism (that is, cultural relativism) can co-exist in a brutal dictatorship (without democracy) because, even if a million Mayflowers arrive with pilgrims and don’t assimilate, the pilgrims lack the political power to transform the country. And democracy and multiculturalism can co-exist if the cultural variety was present at the beginning, and no new immigrants with contrary values are admitted afterwards.

The key point is that immigration plus multiculturalism plus democracy are likely to give rise to dangerous ethnic and religious factions, which may even threaten society as a whole. This is obvious in the extreme: Imagine granting American citizenship to 100 million Islamists, all at once, who are opposed to individual human rights, representative government, and religious freedom. How do you suppose the next election would turn out? And the one after that? We should take no one seriously in this debate who refuses to recognize this simple point. Immigration policy cannot be a social suicide pact.

Add the unsustainable entitlements to the mix, and you get a deadly powder keg.

These different elements — lax enforcement of the law by the federal government, multiculturalism, and a vast welfare state — have caused many Americans to see immigration only as a liability. What we need is a solution that can transform immigration into a real asset. We’ll discuss that in our next installment.

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  • Gentlemen: Here you use the word “assimilate.” When you have a multicultural society, into which culture does a newcomer assimilate? These days that word is not heard very often because it has been replaced by the word “inclusion,” and there is a night and day difference between the two terms. You also speak of unions being “harder to pin down” on immigration. There was a time when unions were solidly behind American workers and strongly opposed the hiring of illegal aliens, but their long-held opposition officially ended during the AFL-CIO’s 2000 annual meeting in New Orleans. As you rightly point out, their move was prompted by their sagging membership. Finally, immigration is a jobs issue and nobody, especially the media, is paying attention to this aspect. When was the last time either of you heard or saw an immigration news story noting that while millions of Americans can’t find full-time work (15 million at this writing), our federal government continues to allow 7 million illegal aliens to keep their payroll jobs in construction, manufacturing, transportation and services? When will we see journalists focus on the issue of economic justice for those Americans who go to bed at night wondering what’s become of their search for a better life?

  • Charab

    “If caring and principled people ever needed to come to the table of reason, it is now.” For sure. Thanks for thinking this through, and I look forward to the next part.

  • Skillet Chitlins

    One quick nitpick and I’ll get on with a comment . There was an emphasis in this article “The trouble with foreign immigration,…” what kind of immigration could there be if it were not “foreign” gas anyone ever encountered “domestic” immigration? No? well why the emphasis.
    I am an immigrant, I have lived the process, I understand assimilation, I understand the reasonable requirements of naturalization and have done so. I don’t understand tolerating immigration anarchy, any nation that does turn a blind eye to this issue has abrogated its sovereignty. Any leader or government official that purposefully turns a blind eye is a traitor.
    Now let us reason as to why there is immigration anarchy. Remember birth control then Roe V Wade? What has been the net result of this regarding population growth? We have not been replacing lost productive members of our nation at a sustainable rate, plainly stated we are preventing sufficient human births within our national family to sustain a reason economy. Illegal immigrants, what a slick way to overcome the shortfall at rock bottom prices. It is not good, in fact it is destroying our nation but it is exactly what we deserve.
    As to the illegals, yes they suffer but they turn there own blind eye to our law from the start, after that of what importance are any other laws? In general they disrespect our culture in ways they would not tolerate in their own countries. They too are getting what they deserve.
    How are we going to fix this problem? Simple, we aren’t going to fix it, we are not able.
    What will then happen? We will become a radically different nation and culture and a very unpleasant one at that. Not good news, but it is what everyone deserves.

    • Actually the US sees substantial internal immigration annually! Except we call it “Californians fleeing high taxes…” or “New Yorkers moving south for warmer climes…” or something similar. About 1/3rd to 1/2 of the growth in Arizona is from this internal immigration. Currently, only about 40% of the people living in Arizona were born here!

      The weakness with your Roe v Wade argument is that in the same time period we have seen worker productivity jump by large amounts. For example, the number of farm workers needed has dropped as larger tractors and other equipment now allow a handful of workers to grow corn, wheat, and other crops. Yes, we still need many workers but not as many as back then.

      Car manufacturing has many jobs now done by robots, think the welding line, that have replaced people. Electronics have shrunk and that has also reduced the number of workers needed as these items have simplified manufacturing in many ways.

      What we should be doing is looking at the unemployment and underemployment rates when deciding foreign immigration numbers. We’re seeing some of these visa programs being misused to replace American workers with foreign and that makes no sense economically to our country.

      We need sensible immigration that benefits us and has a solid economic foundation for the numbers chosen.

      • RWS

        Movement from one State to another is internal migration, not immigration or emigration.

        The argument adducing Roe vs. Wade is crystalline: if there be a need for more workers, better that they should come from domestic and thus more easily assimilatable sources (the infants who were killed) than from foreign groups who, as illegally entering Mexicans or Chinamen, neither know the language or culture nor care for the laws and customs of the United States.

  • Allen Bovey

    It seems this discussion tries to lump together 3 groups…legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and refugees. But they are each vastly different. We all know now that the FBI says refugees are not being safely vetted (and thus immoral to be imposed on the public) and we already know that illegal immigration is immoral because it breaks the law in a country of laws. We dont need to pretend these are moral gray areas and we shouldn’t be ignoring our governments primary responsibility….it is not to give worldwide humanitarian aide….but to protect its legal citizens. When these issues conflict…we need to leave the humanitarian aide moral imperatives to humanitarian agencies.

    • Hzle

      Well there are 1000s of supposedly refugees coming from Syria through Europe, often to the UK.

      a) There is huge debate as to how many actually come from Syria, and how many are refugees. Up to an estimated 70% could be from elsewhere. We just don’t know.

      b) Once they get to Turkey (a very common route into the EU). They are safe, but can’t get a job. They then go to Germany or the UK to try and get a job. They are therefore correctly termed economic migrants, yet a few thousand self-righteous folk in the UK persist in calling them refugees.

      Even when I’ve oversimplified, it still looks like a muddle

  • Hzle

    In the UK we’re terrified of being called “racist”, we’re terrified of causing racism. A lot of left-leaning people think that any moment now racism will engulf the country. I think it’s fair to say that those to the right don’t think this will happen so easily.

    Many people in the UK are *obsessed* with “racism” – with all it’s ever expanding definitions: we seem to add a new definition every year, so that we can say black people can never be racist, white people are inherently racist etcetc.

    It’s a way of silencing debate, and so of course it immediately lends itself to the immigration debate. People are so sanctimonious about race that – to score points – they take the position that the only correct position is to allow virtually unlimited immigration, and who cares if white working-class British people can’t get jobs. It’s regularly asserted that to disagree with them is to be racist or

    This is what moral debate has turned into in the UK. The history of race is different – and more troubled in the US*, which already has a big problem with identity politics. For what it’s worth I think any country is absolutely within it’s rights to control immigration completely. Of course this will not be possible (look at the Mexicans in LA), but the moral debate is completely skewed, because of this sanctimonious bleating.

    * the religious fabric of the US and UK are also significantly different.

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