Nation of Immigrants

Can America rediscover its open-borders roots?


Every country has its mythology. America's is that we are a "nation of immigrants." The Statue of Liberty, the country's most iconic monument, stands tall in New York Harbor, welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." If the United States had been true to these ideals, its history would have been a simple tale of openness and acceptance. The real story is far more complex.

For the first half of its existence, America had virtually open borders. That stopped in the late 19th century, when the first major restrictions were introduced to stem the tide of incoming Asians. The country then slammed its doors shut around 1925 after anti-immigration animus, which had always bubbled beneath the surface, boiled over in the form of quotas based on national origins, among other things. For the first time, federal bureaucrats inserted themselves between willing American employers and willing foreign workers, placing strict limits on both the total number of immigrants and the number from each country. 

Ever since then, every time the country has opened its door to one set of immigrants, it has rebuffed another. The upshot is a mishmash of contradictory laws that can't keep up with the desires of individuals or the needs of the American economy.

Since the 1960s, immigration laws in theory have favored family reunification and labor-force augmentation. In practice, naturalized Americans have to endure up to a two-decade wait before they can bring even certain blood relatives into the country. High-tech employers can't meet even half their need for foreign workers, who also have to wait decades to gain permanent residency. 

Yet the tech sector has it easy compared to the agricultural, hospitality, and construction industries. Their demand for foreign laborers is even greater, but the work visas available are both fewer and less usable. And contrary to popular belief, there is no "line" for poor or low-skilled foreign workers seeking to gain permanent residency.

All of this has helped create a massive unauthorized population whose fate is polarizing the country. In short, virtually every aspect of the U.S. immigration system is broken. It is out of sync with American ideals and American needs. 

We have a choice between raising the barricades further and ejecting people already here or moving toward a more open system that allows more human and labor-market freedom. If we go the first route, the price will be paid not just by poor foreigners who are literally dying to make a better living but also by the economy. Civil liberties will be degraded, along with our sense of humanity. 

According to a recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy, immigrant deaths at the border rose by 27 percent in 2012 to nearly 500—a result of the crackdown on border towns that has pushed Latin American risk takers ever further out to the dangerous and inhospitable desert. As reason contributor Malia Politzer has noted, between 1997 and 2007 the U.S.–Mexico border was about 10 times deadlier to immigrants than the Berlin Wall was to East Berliners in its entire 28-year existence.

It is impossible to get a grip on the full economic costs of restrictionism. How does one calculate, for example, the businesses that never form because labor is too expensive? Still, the Texas comptroller estimated in 2006 that although low-skilled unauthorized workers cost the state treasury $504 million more than they paid in taxes in 2005, without them the state's economy would have shrunk by 2.1 percent, or $17.7 billion. 

But the biggest toll restrictionism takes is on the civil liberties of Americans. You cannot track every movement and activity of every immigrant without imposing similar restrictions on natives who benefit from these immigrants. Abandoning its commitment to welcoming immigrants enshrined in the Statue of Liberty will cost Americans dearly.