December 01, 2005

The Case for Open Borders

The "tough" new immigration proposals put on the table by the Bush administration look like a mix of bad and good: appeasing the base with beefed-up border security measures and comforting Hispanic voters with amnesty for illegal immigrants and the like. I don't know whether it will pass or not. On the policy side, punitive border security rarely seems to work, but that's what the American people seem to want. Over in Democrat land, meanwhile, the McCain-Kennedy provisions for amnesty, guest worker quotas, and citizenship tracks for immigrants, while imperfect, are perhaps the best "liberal" policies one can realistically hope for right now.

So that's what Congress is up to. But maybe it's worth drawing up a wild-eyed, far-left position on immigration, if only to broaden the debate a bit.

Immigration, as we know, has very large benefits—not only does it provide a colossal subsidy to the destination country, which is freed from the expensive task of creating labor power, but it also helps the source country as well: remittances benefit many developing countries much more than foreign aid or free trade does. (Nancy Birdsall has estimated that proposals to boost labor mobility could transfer some $200 billion or more to poor countries, along with skills, work experience, and, when immigrants return home, the creation of a middle class that could agitate for better governance.)

That said, workers who worry that immigration can put downward pressure on wages in the United States have a point, although the evidence that it actually does so is often ambiguous. True, some of these worries are motivated by xenophobia or racism, but the underlying economic concerns shouldn't be dismissed. Immigrants, meanwhile, are heavily exploited by the current system. Both are problems. Mainstream liberal policies, such as national health care and worker retraining, may soothe the pain caused by all this "creative destruction," but ultimately the balance of power needs to shift towards the worker and wage-earner. That's our guiding populist principle here.

Point one: "Guest worker" policies and quotas, ala McCain-Kennedy, are problematic, in that they give business undue power over labor, both because "guest workers" will always have very little leverage against the employers that bring them in, and because quotas will allow businesses to control the flow of labor and import additional immigrants illegally as needed—and those workers have no leverage. The Cornyn-Kyl proposal to allow guest workers to stay here for five years before they have to leave is even more impractical, since workers will inevitably stay on illegally when their time expires, and business will have greater power over the workers they bring in. That depresses wages and leads to exploitation.

In contrast, open immigration, allowing workers to come and stay legally and indefinitely, with amnesty for all and open paths to citizenship, is both legitimately pro-growth, just like population growth, and better for wages, by giving immigrants more leverage and autonomy—including the ability to organize. That brings us to…

Point two: Open immigration will only work alongside policies to promote full employment and labor rights. So long as businesses can take advantage of immigration as a way to create "slack" in the labor market, they will be able to hold wages down. Full employment policies shift the balance towards the worker, and are perfectly realistic—it's not as if there are only a fixed number of jobs in existence, so in theory there should be no upper limit to how many immigrants can come in, although in practice limits would be set. Immigrant organizing is also crucial here.

There is no reason to think we'd necessarily be "swamped" with immigrants with looser immigration controls. Just because more people can immigrate doesn't mean everyone will. Teresa Hayter noted that in the postwar period England had open borders with its former colonies, and only 0.6 percent of the population migrated to the industrial countries, despite the obvious attractions. Obviously opening the floodgates from Mexico would be different, but it still seems manageable. And on the plus side, it would reduce our billion-dollar immigration-control costs and eliminate the deadly trade in human trafficking, along with bringing down the worker-to-retiree ratio in the United States, alleviating our Social Security and Medicare imbalances.

Point three: Immigration must be open for white-collar workers too. Dean Baker is very good on this. The medical profession, through licensing, hinders immigrant doctors who trained abroad from working in America. Why? If I need brain surgery, sure, I'll go see a Harvard Medical School grad with AMA credentials, if I can afford it. If I just have a sore knee, I'd rather pay $20 to see the immigrant doctor who just came over from Bangladesh. She can treat me. The same goes for an "uncredentialed" immigrant lawyer who can offer basic legal advice. Good stuff all around. Ending white-collar protectionism will also lead to less income inequality.

Point four: There must be better enforcement against employers who exploit immigration. No matter what our immigration controls, undocumented whistleblowers should be protected from reprisals. The threat of an investigation from INS or Department of Labor discourages many immigrants from complaining about unpaid wages or illegal overtime.

Point five: Voting rights for immigrants. Why not? They work here. They have kids enrolled in our schools. Local policy affects them. I agree with Jamin Raskin that there is no reason why non-citizen residents should not be allowed to vote at the very least in local elections. (He would limit voting at state and federal levels to citizens only.)

Granted, all of those steps are wildly, wildly unrealistic at present—although #4 is something that should be pushed for no matter what—but as eventual goals to aim for I think it's a good outline. It's not at all complete—I've said nothing about security issues, which are both real and very hard to reconcile with an "open borders" immigration policy, or how to deal with the "brain drain" in emigrating countries. And perhaps some of the above is flat wrong. Comments welcome, as always.

One serious challenge, it seems, will be damping down animosity against, say, immigrants from Central and South America. This is daunting in the best of times. Even where Hispanic immigrants aren't affecting native wages, on account of immigrants getting slotted into unskilled jobs no one else wants, native backlashes are cropping up. It's everywhere. This has been the case throughout history. Rationally speaking, there is no reason for "cultural discomfort" with immigration, as Dan Drezner argued here—within a few generations Hispanic immigrants have assimilated just like centuries worth of (also reviled) European immigrants did before them. Still, xenophobia is an absurdly powerful impulse, and as Digby says, liberals should try to avoid feeding into the uglier populist currents here.

Continue reading "The Case for Open Borders"
-- Brad Plumer 9:06 PM || ||