A Search for Common Ground, Part 2: Liberalizing Immigration
Despite what our polarized political leaders would like us to believe, making it easier for immigrants to enter the U.S. legally should appeal to everyone across the ideological spectrum.
This multi-part series explores policy issues that have the potential to unite people across the ideological spectrum and how empirical research and shared values can bridge political gaps on vital matters. The first essay focused on a policy to end exclusionary zoning rules that artificially suppress the housing supply. This series draws inspiration from a piece by Ilya Somin, a Cato Institute scholar who suggested that libertarians should focus on constitutional aspects of three issues that traditionally align with progressive policy priorities. By seeking common ground on issues that break partisan barriers and align with compelling evidence, the series argues for the potential to catalyze profound and meaningful social change. Through discussions on economic, philosophical, and constitutional perspectives, this series aims to find solutions that appeal to multiple ideological values and foster unity on critical policy matters.
In January 2022, the president of the Tennessee Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) told The Tennessean that the state was short 200,000 construction workers across all trades. The national ABC also predicts that there will be an additional 546,000 job openings nationwide in the construction sector this year. The ABC also estimated the industry would need 342,000 new workers in 2024 to meet demand above normal hiring expectations.
Further, nearly 1 in 4 construction workers are older than 55, meaning that construction professionals will soon retire and leave the workforce. Go Build Tennessee is a 501(c)(3) that attempts to connect students to training and jobs in the construction industry. Its website states, "For every 5 tradesmen who retire, only 1 apprentice is training to fill their position.”
As major cities like Nashville struggle to keep up with the demand for housing, this potential labor shortage in construction and similar trades will only exacerbate the problem. While we should encourage more young people to enter the skilled trades, we could also quickly solve this problem by freeing up our extremely complex immigration system to allow more workers into the country to fill those gaps.
Nationally, 30 percent of construction workers are foreign-born. Despite being only 7.2 percent of Tennessee’s workforce, 18.1 percent of construction workers in our state are immigrants. Many more workers with construction backgrounds would like to work here, but our system has made it virtually impossible for them to do so. Construction industry advocates have called for comprehensive immigration reform to allow more foreign-born workers, but Congress has failed to act.
Policy Solution #2: Liberalizing Immigration
Let anyone take a job anywhere. George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan proposed this radical idea in a 2013 debate over immigration. This slogan represented a nuts-and-bolts policy proposal to simplify America’s extremely complex immigration system.
For most people, immigration to the United States is impossible. According to a new study from Cato Institute scholar David Bier, “fewer than 1 percent of people who want to move permanently to the United States can do so legally.” Let’s look at the only ways that immigrants can become a legal resident of the U.S. via Bier’s paper:
The refugee program: Qualified refugees have less than a 0.1 percent chance of being selected for resettlement, and only a few nationalities are even considered.
The diversity lottery: Diversity applicants have a 0.2 percent chance of receiving a green card, and because the lottery excludes the top origin countries for legal immigrants, a majority of the world’s population is ineligible to apply.
Family sponsorship: Aside from the spouses, minor children, and parents of adult U.S. citizens, family sponsorships are capped. The years of waiting caused by these caps mean that—except for sponsors of spouses and minor children of existing green card holders—most sponsors in these categories will die before their relatives can immigrate.
Employment‐based self‐sponsorship: These categories are only for those who are, in legal terms, “extraordinary,” have work of “national importance,” or can afford to make at least $800,000 in investments in the United States—not options for many.
Employer sponsorship: An almost insurmountable barrier of bureaucratic red tape restricts employer sponsorship, and these restrictions exclude nearly all workers without college degrees, while low caps will result in many applicants dying before they can receive green cards. Employers make only 1 in 1,500 hires through this system.
Those who express concerns about illegal immigration fall back on the common refrain that immigrants should come through the “front door” or via the legal process. But as David Bier’s report points out, the legal process is unavailable for the vast majority of immigrants that want to come here, so it’s unsurprising that many people risk entering the country illegally to meet labor market shortages and attempt to raise their standard of living.
Here is a helpful, albeit highly complex, diagram from the Cato Institute explaining the complicated and arduous process for becoming a legal resident in the U.S. Cato has also developed an interactive Green Card Game in which you can see if you can legally obtain a green card or permanent residence (spoiler alert: it’s tough).
In most cases, due to significant backlogs, we don’t even know the actual wait time for most immigrants to receive their green cards. For many, including high-skilled workers, the wait could be half a century or more, meaning many will die before their green card is approved.
In this essay, I will make a case for liberalizing our immigration system by making it easier for anyone who wants to work here to do so. If an employer wants to hire a worker from El Salvador, the United Kingdom, or India, they should be able to do so with relative ease. If there is a shortage of low-skilled agricultural workers, we should make it easier to meet that demand.
Like Caplan, here’s what I’m not arguing: I am not proposing completely open borders with no controls or security checks. I am also not suggesting that we grant every immigrant immediate citizenship, voting rights, or social welfare benefits other than access to emergency medical services, public schools, or social security benefits if they pay into the system.
Whether the reforms include more temporary/seasonal work visas or long-term visas with a path to legal residency, I am advocating for a system wherein labor supply can more easily keep up with the demand for labor. Regarding specific policy proposals, I recommend another paper by David Bier that lays out a series of reforms that could improve our policies.
Ideological Concerns Over Immigration
Conservatives are typically the loudest opponents of immigration. They worry that immigrants will steal jobs from American workers. Others fear that immigrants will threaten American culture, vote for Democrats, or import socialist ideologies. They worry that immigrants will drain welfare benefits from Americans. They also worry about crime and drug cartels, mainly from Central and South America.
I recognize that a lot has changed about our political landscape since 2013 with the rise of Trumpism and far-right nationalism that has shifted the Overton window on immigration reform. And like my previous essay, these arguments are unlikely to appeal to the MAGA wing of the Republican Party.
This essay will also not address xenophobic arguments. If you are worried that immigration will lead to the subjugation of white supremacy in the United States, there’s likely nothing I can say that will convince you. However, I do not want to completely dismiss the anxieties of working-class voters who think that immigrants might threaten their economic security.
While progressives generally support higher levels of immigration, there are still concerns that low-skilled immigrants could take away the jobs of working-class Americans. Although rare today, pro-union activists occasionally put forth these arguments. Progressives are also concerned that corporations will exploit immigrant workers or pay them under the table without benefits.
Finally, there is a growing contingent of libertarians, particularly those who run the Mises Caucus of the Libertarian Party, who believe immigration is incompatible with a truly free society. While there is also an underlying xenophobia to these arguments, mainly those brought forth by Hoppeans, some argue that, as long as there is a welfare state, the government should restrict immigration. Others present the twisted argument that immigrants violate the property rights of native-born citizens.
I will address these objections in the following sections.
The Economic Case
Surveys have consistently found that economists overwhelmingly support immigration, with a recent poll finding that 97 percent of professional economists believe that “immigration generally has a net positive economic effect for the U.S. economy.”
A 2017 consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine titled The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration found that “second generation [immigrants] are among the strongest fiscal and economic contributors in the U.S.” and that “immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.”
But the size and scale of that positive effect is often overlooked. Harvard Kennedy School economist George Borjas, often cited by immigration skeptics, estimates that, as of 2012, the “presence of all immigrant workers (legal and illegal) in the labor market makes the U.S. economy (GDP) an estimated 11 percent larger ($1.6 trillion) each year.”
After reviewing the literature on the estimated economic gains from removing barriers to migration worldwide, George Mason University Professor Michael Clemens finds that the global economy could grow by 50 to 150 percent of world GDP. In other words, tight restrictions on labor mobility cost the global economy trillions of dollars annually.
Further, these estimates don’t assume that everyone in low-income countries would emigrate to higher-income areas. The considerable gains in global GDP would occur even if only 5 percent of people living in low-income areas relocate, according to Clemens.
Migrants contribute significantly to our economic well-being, even under America’s strict immigration regime. In a 2006 paper, Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano (University of Bologna) and Giovanni Peri (University of California, Davis) find that “in the long run the average wage of U.S.-born workers experienced a significant increase (+1.8%) as a consequence of immigration during the 1990-2004 period.” They also find modest increases in the short run.
These gains may seem modest, but as Texas Tech University economist Benjamin Powell argues, “the current level of benefits that natives derive from immigration is directly related to the U.S. government’s restrictive immigration policies. If greater numbers were let in, if the U.S. government didn’t severely limit the number of skilled-worker H1-B visas, and if illegal immigrants had better access to formal-sector employment, the net gains could be larger.”
We artificially constrain the labor supply and potential economic growth based on arbitrary controls, quotas, caps, and legal red tape. Any economic stimulus from government infrastructure or jobs programs would pale compared to the gains we would experience by loosening immigration restrictions.
The Progressive Case
Less restrictive immigration is humanitarian. A more open system wherein people can easily obtain legal status within a new country prevents the “othering” of human beings by labeling certain people as “illegal” or “undocumented.” It recognizes all human beings' value, dignity, and rights to pursue economic prosperity. Freer immigration also provides a welcoming home to those fleeing despotic regimes, natural disasters, or other atrocities.
Immigrants can also create a more prosperous and diverse cultural environment. A cosmopolitan society of people with varying backgrounds and experiences creates more opportunities for exchanging new ideas, innovations, skills, cuisine, artwork, and beliefs. This dynamism fosters both economic and cultural growth in a society.
In addition to significantly increasing the incomes of those that migrate to countries like the U.S., immigration also can decrease global poverty. Even if most countries do not open their borders to realize the massive gains predicted by Clemens, immigrants to open countries can still have an impact back home. Foreign-born workers in the U.S. help stimulate development in their native countries by sending remittance payments to family and friends, or a share of the gains they receive due to the higher earning they receive here.
Remittance payments from immigrants in the U.S. far exceed our federal foreign aid budget. In 2017, according to Pew Research Center, total remittance payments from immigrants to their home countries totaled $148.5 billion. By contrast, that same year, the State Department and USAID requested $50.1 billion, which included only $34 billion for foreign assistance programs and activities.
The most common objection to a higher influx of immigrants raised by progressives stems from concerns that immigrants may harm native low-skilled workers. However, a comprehensive survey of the economic literature by Rachel M. Friedberg and Jennifer Hunt concluded, “The popular belief that immigrants have a large adverse impact on the wages and employment opportunities of the native-born population of the receiving country is not supported by the empirical evidence.”
The paper by Ottaviano and Peri referenced above finds that the least educated U.S.-born workers “only lost 1.1% of their real wage due to the 1990-2004 immigration. Even in the short run (as of 2004) the negative impact was a moderate 2.2% real wage loss.” They argue that previous models showing more significant effects on native-born wages did not account for the fact that “uneducated foreign-born do not fully and directly substitute for (i.e., compete with) uneducated natives.” They find that previous immigrants face the most significant adverse effects on their wages from more immigration in the short run.
In summarizing the economic literature on the effects on wages, Benjamin Powell argues that
[W]hen the immigrants have different skills than the native-born population, they complement the native-born labor rather than substitute for them. Many of the immigrants to the United States are either extremely highly-skilled or very low-skilled. Yet most native-born labor falls somewhere in between. The native-born population makes up around one third of adults in the United States without a high school diploma. A large portion of new Ph.D.s is awarded to foreign-born people. To the extent that immigrants are complementing U.S. labor, they can increase, rather than decrease, the wages of the native-born.
Legalizing more immigration would also bring undocumented workers out of the shadows of the black market and decrease any exploitation that may be occurring.
The Libertarian Case
Since I do not believe I could make a better argument, I will let Cato Institute scholar and immigration policy expert Alex Nowrasteh summarize the libertarian case for immigration:
We have a presumption of individual liberty. People have inalienable and individual rights. Immigration restrictions require the government to use violence and the threat of violence to stop the voluntary movement of people across borders. This use of government power restricts the inalienable rights of Americans and immigrants. Those who oppose free immigration should have to show that government force, which is funded coercively at taxpayer expense, should be used to stop the peaceful, voluntary, and mutually beneficial interactions of willing individuals. The presumption, the starting point, must be free immigration and the government can only restrict immigration if it has a very good reason.
There is also a robust free-market case for liberal immigration. In the same way that libertarians would not want the government to restrict the free flow of goods between countries—since doing so would grant undue market protection to domestic producers while harming domestic consumers with higher prices and distorting the economy—so, too, should libertarians not want the government to arbitrarily distort labor markets by artificially limiting the supply of labor. In the same way that tariffs prevent fair competition for domestic producers, immigration restrictions prevent fair competition for domestic workers.
From a constitutional perspective, legal scholar Ilya Somin contends that the Supreme Court decision that recognized the federal government’s power to restrict immigration—the 1889 Chinese Exclusion Case—was “based on highly dubious reasoning and tinged with racism.” He also argues that the courts have exempted immigration restrictions “from many normal constitutional constraints on government power” with “no basis in the text or original meaning of the Constitution.”
While the courts have not recognized the First Amendment rights of noncitizens, I would also like to add that a general principle in the Constitution—freedom of association—should be considered by libertarians when thinking about the rights of American citizens to freely associate with foreign-born people, especially when it comes to employing them on their property, renting to them, or engaging in market exchanges.
Finally, there is a common objection from anti-immigrant libertarians that we should not allow more immigrants in as long as there is a welfare state. This argument stems from an infamous line from Milton Friedman that you cannot have free immigration if you have a welfare state. Of course, anti-immigrant libertarians leave out the rest of that discussion in which Friedman explicitly states that illegal immigration from Mexico is “a good thing for the United States.”
It’s also odd that the welfare state never comes into play whenever libertarians advocate for drug legalization, which could very well burden the Medicaid system or publicly-provided emergency services with drug overdoses and other externalities. Also, as I will discuss in the next section, immigrants (both legal and illegal) are not net drains on the welfare state.
Other libertarians subscribe to the bizarre belief that as long as the state exists, it should act as a de facto owner of public property and therefore be allowed to restrict immigration. But this is a gross distortion of property rights and negates the property rights of people who wish to hire, rent to, or sell to immigrants. Worse, this argument stems not from serious libertarian or classical liberal thinkers or academics but is most vociferously advocated by a known xenophobic, racist “philosopher” named Hans Hermann Hoppe.
The Conservative Case
Traditional conservatives typically embrace free markets, competition, and creative destruction when it comes to businesses but ignore these benefits regarding immigration. Conservatives abandon the argument that the economy is not a zero-sum game of winners and losers. But they should recognize that, instead of taking away from the economic pie, immigrants’ contributions to the economy increase the size of the pie. That’s because immigrants increase demand for other goods and services that must be produced or provided, thus creating more jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.
In fact, immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to become entrepreneurs. A recent study found that 0.83 percent of U.S. immigrants started a company between 2005 and 2010, compared to only 0.46 percent of native-born Americans.
Immigrants are also innovators. At the top 10 patent-producing universities in the U.S. in 2011, 76 percent of patents had at least one foreign-born inventor, according to a 2012 report from The Partnership for A New American Economy. The report continues,
Foreign-born inventors played especially large roles in cutting-edge fields like semiconductor device manufacturing (87%), information technology (84%), pulse or digital communications (83%), pharmaceutical drugs or drug compounds (79%), and optics (77%).
As David Bier argues, skilled immigrants currently on temporary H-1B visas are essentially trapped, unable to contribute fully to the economy by starting businesses or changing job categories to areas where their labor may be more valued. As a result of our massive backlog in the green card process for these workers, Indian workers are choosing to migrate to Canada instead, as the number of Indians immigrating to Canada has tripled since 2013.
For conservatives (and libertarians) worried about the burden on the welfare state, immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Alex Nowrasteh states, “Immigrants pay $1.38 in taxes for every $1 that they consume in government benefits.” A 2023 study by Nowrasteh and Michael Howard found that “immigrants consumed 27 percent less welfare and entitlement benefits than native-born Americans on a per capita basis in 2020.” Contrary to popular belief, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for means-tested welfare, except for rare circumstances like emergency Medicaid.
Immigrants also commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. A study by Nowrasteh, Andrew Forrester, and Michelangelo Landgrave looked at crime data in Texas and found that, in 2018, “the illegal immigrant criminal conviction rate was 782 per 100,000 illegal immigrants, 535 per 100,000 legal immigrants, and 1,422 per 100,000 native-born Americans.” In other words, undocumented immigrants were convicted for 45 percent fewer crimes than native-born Americans in Texas.
Another study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Michael T. Light, Jingying He, and Jason P. Robey found that, compared to undocumented immigrants, native-born Americans were “over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.”
Finally, some conservatives worry about the political economy implications of more immigration. They are concerned that immigrants from socialist countries will push our political institutions in that direction or, if granted the right to vote through citizenship, will elect politicians that favor more leftist or socialist policies. They also worry about terrorism.
However, the literature on the topic finds that immigrants either have minor or positive effects on the economic institutions within their destination country. Higher immigration is not associated with more corruption, has no negative and some positive impacts on institutions like property rights, the rule of law, and economic freedom, has been shown to improve institutional quality, and is not associated with the rise of populist political figures.
Regarding terrorism, a more legal immigration system would lead to fewer people coming across the border illegally, meaning that we can focus our border control efforts on stopping actual criminals or terrorists from entering. Additionally, the chances of an American being the victim of a terrorist attack by a foreigner on U.S. soil is 1 in 3.8 million per year and zero for an illegal immigrant.
Whether undocumented or legal residents, immigrants are, on net, better, more upstanding citizens than native-born Americans. Given their economic contributions, conservatives should welcome them with open arms.
The bottom line is: we don’t just need immigrants to fill jobs in the U.S. that we are unwilling to take; we need more immigrants to replace us so that the U.S. can continue to exist. As older generations age and younger generations are slow to replace them, the population - particularly the working-age population - will continue to decline. This slowing population growth could have disastrous economic impacts, including severe labor force shortages.
Of course, as with any policy, there are costs and trade-offs to such a radical change in direction. We will need to work through cultural impacts and some economic losers in the short-run. But the long-term benefits of free immigration far outweigh the costs.
Like zoning reform, liberalizing our immigration system is another “easy button” we could press in the near future, providing immense benefits to both the U.S. and the global economy. It would bring millions of productive workers who are already here out of the shadows and allow them to contribute fully to society. And it would provide us with the labor necessary to keep our economy growing while addressing other problems like housing shortages.
For all ideological perspectives in the U.S., liberalizing immigration is a win-win-win.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.