How to think about increased gun control and other possible political effects of immigration

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


In a thoughtful recent post, Eugene Volokh considers the possibility that increased immigration might lead to greater gun control. Like Eugene, I agree that, in evaluating immigration levels, we must consider the potential impact of immigrants on public policy issues. I also agree that if these effects are large enough and negative enough, that would justify restricting immigration more than might be defensible otherwise. Furthermore, Eugene and I are both supporters of strong Second Amendment rights and generally wary of most gun control proposals. The potential effects of immigration on gun rights and other important freedoms is a legitimate issue.

I. Balancing Possible Dangers to Freedom.

But in evaluating the effects of immigration on freedom, we must not forget the immense negative impact of immigration restrictions themselves. The biggest such effects are on the freedom of would-be immigrants, many of whom would be forcibly consigned to lives of poverty and oppression in the Third World, if not allowed to come to the United States or another relatively free society. It is unjust to ignore the effects of immigration policy on immigrants themselves, including on their freedom.

Furthermore, debates over immigration policy too often ignore the reality that immigration restrictions have large negative effects on the freedom of natives, as well as immigrants. Among other things, they forcibly prevent numerous Americans from forming engaging in voluntary transactions with immigrants that are often of great value to both sides.

The enforcement of immigration restrictions has also resulted in massive use of racial profiling by federal and state law and enforcement agencies, much of which ends up targeting US citizens. This extensive racial discrimination should be of great concern to both liberal advocates of minority rights, and conservative champions of color-blind government. If we truly believe, as Chief Justice John Roberts famously put it, that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," we cannot allow a giant exception to this principle when it comes to law enforcement, including in immigration law.

In most cases, negative effects of immigration restrictions on freedom are virtually certain, or at least highly probable. They are readily foreseeable direct effects of the use of government power to restrict freedom of movement. By contrast, most of the negative political effects are conjectural, and depend on contestable assumptions about the likely views of immigrants and their descendants, the amount of political power they will have, and the potential reactions of native-born citizens to their political influence. For example, it turns out that increased immigration does not increase the size of the welfare state, in part because it leads to greater skepticism about welfare programs on the part of natives.

A sufficiently catastrophic low-probability risk can still sometimes outweigh a more certain, but much smaller, consideration on the other side. A nearly certain hernia is a lesser danger than a 1 in 20 chance of death. But we should not ignore relative probabilities in making such comparisons.

II. Why the Political Risks of Immigration are (Usually) Likely to be Small.

Several factors greatly diminish the risk that immigration might lead to harmful political change. Immigrants' political views are closer to those of natives than is usually thought, and the gap between them mostly disappears when it comes to the second and third generations. Mexican immigrants, the group whose political influence is most often an object of fear, in fact assimilate at much the same rates as other immigrant groups in our history, including European whites. For a variety of reasons, first-generation immigrants also tend to exercise very little political influence, relative to natives. Among other things, many lack the right to vote, those who do have it turn out at lower rates, contribute far less to campaigns, and have fewer of the sorts of informal connections that influence government policy. Thus, their political views generally have little effect on public policy. They are particularly unlikely to have much impact on an issue like gun control, which is rarely a high priority issue for all but the most attentive of voters, and on which public attention usually focuses only in the immediate aftermath of a high profile tragedy, after which the distribution of opinion quickly goes back to its previous pattern.

If, nonetheless, we still conclude that immigrants' political influence is too great, there are usually much less brutal ways to diminish it than building walls across the Mexican border and consigning millions of people to lives of Third World poverty. For example, we could increase the length of time before new immigrants are entitled to voting rights, and increase the stringency of the citizenship test required for naturalization, which already requires applicants to know more about the American political system than many native-born Americans. We could even, if necessary, give some immigrants residency rights without ever allowing them vote at all. That might be unfair to the immigrants. But it is still a lesser injustice than forcing them to endure lives of Third World poverty and oppression.

All of this, of course, implicitly assumes that the political influence of immigrants causes more harm than good. On some issues, of course, immigrants might actually change our politics for the better. To that extent, the relatively low political influence of immigrants and the various strategies for reducing it still further, should be lamented rather than celebrated. But most immigration restrictionists tend to assume that the political impact of immigrants is likely to be harmful rather than beneficial.

There can indeed be cases where the "political externalities" of immigration are great enough to justify restricting immigration, despite the harm inflicted by immigration restrictions themselves. But such cases are likely to be far less frequent than most restrictionists believe.