Federico was kind enough to send me “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will” (Atlantic). I think that the article might answer the question that I raised in https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2019/03/06/why-werent-families-coming-over-the-border-to-seek-asylum-30-years-ago/. If our laws haven’t changed and Central American countries are experiencing less violence than 30 years ago, why do we see more immigrants from those countries today?
immigration is accelerating so rapidly in the 21st century less because of pervading misery than because life on our planet is improving for so many people. It costs money to move—and more and more families can afford the investment to send a relative northward. “Every boat person I’ve met has been ambitious, urban, educated,” says Doug Saunders, a Canadian journalist who has reported extensively on global population movements. “They are very poor by European standards, but often comfortable by African and Middle Eastern ones.”
The article reminds us that the best way to build a high-achieving society is via a flood of unskilled immigrants:
This massive new wave of immigration has brought many benefits to the United States. Of the 122 Americans who won a Nobel Prize from 2000 to 2018, 34 were immigrants.
In other words, it wasn’t a handful of targeted visa applications by universities bringing in graduate students or faculty that resulted in these 34 folks settling here, but rather a “massive new wave of immigration” that blessed us with their presence. We can never know which caravan member will suddenly become a tenured professor of physics, so one sensible approach to dominating the Nobel scoreboard is to start by admitting unlimited caravans.
The author doesn’t say how many of these 34 were undocumented immigrants versus how many got in through relatives, a visa lottery, or any of the other programs that Donald Trump has tried to scale back. Nor does he raise the question of whether there might be cheaper ways to lure Nobel winners to the U.S. We spend $18.5 billion per year on health care for the undocumented (Forbes). What if we offered Nobel winners and anyone who seemed to be on track for a Nobel the opportunity to split $18.5 billion per year on condition that they move to the U.S.?
The article makes it plain that the U.S. has been transformed and will eventually be unrecognizable:
In the 60 years from 1915 until 1975, nearly a human lifetime, the United States admitted fewer immigrants than arrived, legally and illegally, in the single decade of the 1990s.
By 2027, the foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population is projected to equal its previous all-time peak, in 1890: 14.8 percent. Under present policy, that percentage will keep rising to new records thereafter.
… When natives have lots of children of their own, immigrants look like reinforcements. When natives have few children, immigrants look like replacements. No wonder that, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, nearly half of white working-class Americans agree with this statement: “Things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.”
The author reminds us that Barack Obama, at one point in his life, had to talk to a car mechanic!
Barack Obama, in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, lamented, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”
(It was too audacious for him to hope that he could learn a language besides English?)
The author proposes a fuzzy line and a policy that is as clear as mud:
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have called for abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Gillibrand denounced the agency as a “deportation force”—as if it were possible to enforce immigration laws without deportation. While it would be destabilizing and impractical to remove all the people who have been living peaceably in this country for many years, it does not follow that any nonfelon who sets foot in the U.S. has a right to stay here.
People who got over the border a month ago have a better entitlement to permanent residence and citizenship than people who got over the border this morning? What’s the logical basis for this and how can this kind of reasoning be applied in practice?
Donald Trump and the people who voted for him are idiots:
The Trump-era debate about a wall misses the point. The planet of tomorrow will be better educated, more mobile, more networked. Huddling behind a concrete barrier will not hold the world at bay when more and more of that world can afford a plane ticket. If Americans want to shape their own national destiny, rather than have it shaped by others, they have decisions to make now.
But at present, the most important immigration decisions are made through an ungainly and ill-considered patchwork of policies. Almost 70 percent of those who settle lawfully in the United States gained entry because they were close relatives of previously admitted immigrants. Many of those previously admitted immigrants were in their turn relatives of someone who had arrived even earlier.
Every year some 50,000 people are legally admitted by lottery. Others buy their way in, by investing a considerable sum. In almost every legal immigration category, the United States executes its policy less by conscious decision than by excruciating delay. The backlog of people whose immigration petitions have been approved for entry but who have not yet been admitted is now nearing 4 million. (Only spouses and children are exempted from annual numerical caps.)
On average, a settled immigrant will sponsor 3.5 relatives to follow him or her into the United States.
Why is it obvious that most people who apply for a tourist visa should be given one and that, afterwards, anyone who shows up in the U.S. by plane can, as a practical matter, stay forever? (see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2015/04/29/au-pair-to-green-card/ for one current technique) What would stop the U.S. from tracking residents more intensively such that it was practically impossible to live and work as an undocumented immigrant?
Atlantic raises some of the same questions that I raised in https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2017/04/12/how-much-would-an-immigrant-have-to-earn-to-defray-the-cost-of-added-infrastructure/:
Under present immigration policies, the U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2050. Nobody is seriously planning for such population growth—building the schools and hospitals these people will need, planning for the traffic they will generate. Nobody is thinking very hard about the environmental consequences, either. The average American causes the emission of almost 17 tons of carbon dioxide each year, quadruple the annual emissions of the average Mexican and 45 times the emissions of the average Bangladeshi.
The article makes the same point as Milton Friedman, i.e., that you can’t run a Welfare state and open borders:
Too little immigration, and you freeze your country out of the modern world. Too much, or the wrong kind, and you overstress your social-insurance system—and possibly upend your democracy.
But why is it obvious that there is a risk of being frozen out of the modern world? China has a low rate of immigration. Is China frozen out of the modern world? Newark is modern (27 percent foreign-born) and Shanghai is old and crummy?
All of the choice spots in the U.S. will eventually be primarily populated by immigrants, albeit in crummy cramped living conditions:
Americans in the 2010s are only half as likely to move to a new state as their parents were in the 1980s. What has changed? Economic researchers have refuted some possible explanations—the aging of the population, for example. The most plausible alternative is directly immigration-related: Housing costs in the hottest job markets have grown much faster than the wages offered to displaced workers. Simply put, a laid-off Ohio manufacturing worker contemplating relocating to Colorado to seek a job in the hospitality industry is likely to discover that the move offers no higher pay, but much higher rent. An immigrant from Mexico or the Philippines faces a very different calculus. Her wage gains would be significant. And while her housing options may seem lousy to someone accustomed to an American standard of living, to her they likely represent a bearable sacrifice for all the other opportunities offered by life in the United States—and possibly a material improvement over living conditions back home.
(see also https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2017/03/27/tyler-cowen-says-weve-lost-our-mojo-but-maybe-it-is-just-welfare/ for why the mobility stats may be coming down; it is tougher to switch states when you’re receiving means-tested welfare benefits, such as a subsidized or free house)
Wikipedia lends support to the theory that the places in the U.S. that were formerly considered the nicest are heavily settled by immigrants. Miami, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Boston, and San Diego have foreign-born populations between 25 percent and 56 percent.
After reminding readers that Trump voters are stupid, the author inadvertently suggests that they are likely rational:
… the gains from immigration are divided very unequally. Immigrants reap most of them. Wealthy Americans claim much of the rest, in the form of the lower prices they pay for immigrant-produced services. Low-income Americans receive comparatively little benefit, and may well be made worse off, depending on who’s counting and what method they use.
Estimates from the National Academy of Sciences suggest that on average, each immigrant costs his or her state and local governments $1,600 more a year in expenditures than he or she contributes in revenues. In especially generous states, the cost is much higher still: $2,050 in California; $3,650 in Wisconsin; $5,100 in Minnesota.
Immigrants are expensive to taxpayers because the foreign-born population of the United States is more likely to be poor and stay poor. Even when immigrants themselves do not qualify for a government benefit—typically because they are in the country illegally—their low income ensures that their children do. About half of immigrant-headed households receive some form of social assistance in any given year.
Assertions that federal tax revenue from immigrants can stabilize the finances of programs such as Medicare and Social Security overlook the truth that immigrants will get old and sick—and that in most cases, the taxes they pay over their working life will not cover the costs of their eventual claims on these programs. No matter how many millions of immigrants we absorb, they can’t help shore up these programs if they’ll need more in benefits than they can ever possibly pay in taxes.
The author says that immigrants are making Americans less self-destructive because immigrants are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or commit suicide: “white people commit suicide at nearly three times the rate of ethnic minorities.” But this is semantics. The definition of “Americans” is not held constant. The people who were “Americans” before the immigration wave aren’t experiencing a life free of drugs, alcohol, and suicide. They’re just being diluted statistically.
American workers, even as many demand Socialism to ensure that they are paid more, are less educated and lower skilled and therefore have less value to employers:
In 2007, ETS—the company that administers the SAT—warned of a gathering “perfect storm”: “Over the next 25 years or so,” it said, “as better-educated individuals leave the workforce they will be replaced by those who, on average, have lower levels of education and skill.” This warning shows every sign of being fulfilled. About 10 percent of the students in U.S. public schools are now non-native English speakers. Unsurprisingly, these students score consistently lower on national assessment tests than native speakers do. In 2017, nearly half of Hispanic fourth graders had not achieved even partial mastery of grade-level material. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, these children are at significant risk of dropping out of high school.
But here’s something more surprising: Evidence from North Carolina suggests that even a fairly small increase in the non-native-speaking presence in a classroom seriously depresses learning outcomes for all students.
Perhaps indicating a huge advance in functional MRI, the author and editors are able to see inside Donald Trump’s brain:
Trump talks about a wall because he thinks about immigration in terms of symbols. Keep out, he wants to say, and what symbolizes that truculent message better than slabs of concrete arrayed like incisors in a line running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean?
Obviously, Trump is a moron obsessed with a worthless symbol (unlike his predecessors who built 580 miles of border fence). What do the comparative geniuses at Atlantic suggest that we do? Continue our top-down centrally-planned approach, but have the experts in Washington, D.C. tweak the rules. Cut the legal intake by half. Shift from family reunification to try to get high-skill workers who will pay more in taxes than the benefits they receive from our welfare state. In other words, after citing statistics about how the average American is trending toward lower levels of education and skill, the author proposes that American immigration bureaucrats will become smarter and more effective every year. And there will be a massive expansion of government policing in the workplace:
But employers of unauthorized labor should face and fear fines sufficient to deter lawbreaking. If employers stop hiring undocumented workers, those workers will not be induced to cross the border in the first place.
Even more urgently, employers who take advantage of immigration status—to cheat workers of their pay, or harass or abuse them sexually, or force them to work in unsafe conditions—should be prime targets for criminal prosecution. As states raise their minimum wages, the temptation to hire people of precarious immigration status will intensify. It is the workplace that most needs additional enforcement resources.
After 100 years of ineffective policing of employers and immigration status, we’re going to get good at it.
Federico asked for my thoughts. Here’s my main one: Instead of better central planners, why not figure out what the cost of an immigrant is to existing residents of the U.S. and then charge employers at least that much to bring in as many immigrants as they want? We’re already running a fee-for-residence system, except that the money is going to universities (charging tuition to foreign students who will later stay on as immigrants) and lawyers (the going rate for handling an “investor visa” is about $70,000). It is not going to defray the tax bills that have to be paid by current residents.
Universities can have their foreign-born Nobel winners. Fortune 500 companies can have their foreign-born CEOs. Silicon Valley can have its army of foreign-born coders. Each one just has to pay the U.S. Treasury whatever the going fee is. Individuals can also buy family reunification slots. Instead of a central planner in D.C. figuring out some kind of point system for age, education level, English language proficiency, etc., let employers decide whose productivity will justify paying the fee. Presumably these will be people that are unlikely to end up on welfare.