Open Borders Day 2016—some thoughts on immigration and conservatism

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York

Today is Open Borders Day, an international event created for the purpose of focusing attention on the injustices inflicted by government-imposed restrictions on international migration. On the last two Open Borders Days, I set out the general case for Open Borders and provided some links addressing various possible questions related to the issue.

This year, even more than before, immigration seems to be splitting Americans along ideological and political lines. While liberal Democrats have become more supportive of freer immigration, conservative Republicans are increasingly opposed. As Shikha Dalmia puts it, "whereas Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are beating each other up for being insufficiently nice to immigrants in the past, Republicans are beating each other up for being insufficiently harsh." Thanks in part to the rise of Donald Trump, even many GOP leaders who have favored greater openness in the past have now adopted more restrictionist positions. Open Borders Day 2016 is a good time to consider some standard right of center justifications for immigration restrictions.

I. A Simple Conservative Case for Free Migration.

It is ironic that so many conservatives who consider themselves free market advocates also forcefully oppose free migration. Immigration restrictions probably interfere with the free market more than any other US government policy. They literally prevent many millions of people from freely seeking jobs and engaging in numerous other market transactions. Free migration throughout the world could potentially double world GDP, leading to more additional economic growth than almost any other potential policy change. And would-be immigrants are not the only ones whose freedom is severely constrained by immigration restrictions. The same is also true of numerous native-born Americans. If you don't think government can be trusted to decide what types of food we should eat or what kind of health insurance we should buy, there is reason for similar skepticism about giving it the power to determine which potential immigrants we should be allowed to work with, rent housing to, and otherwise interact with.

In addition to being free market advocates, many conservatives are also supporters of color-blindness. They—rightly, in my view—take a principled stance against government policies that discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, because these are morally irrelevant attributes that should not determine how much freedom anyone is entitled to. The same criticism applies to immigration restrictions that discriminate on the basis of where you were born—a characteristic no less arbitrary than race or ethnicity.

If you are committed to individual liberty, free markets, economic growth, and color-blindness you have good reason to view immigration restrictions with great suspicion. Considerations such as these help explain why such Republican icons as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Ronald Reagan took a very different view of immigration than most of today's GOP.

Still, it's possible that even these important objectives can be outweighed by other considerations. In most cases, however, the issues raised by conservative immigration restrictions don't even come close. They are either overblown, or can be addressed by means less draconian than excluding large numbers of would-be immigrants completely.

II. Some Common Conservative Objections.

Many conservatives fear that increased immigration will lead to increased welfare spending. But the available evidence strongly suggests otherwise. To the extent this is a problem, there is an obvious remedy: simply make immigrants ineligible for whatever welfare benefits we conclude they should not be allowed to have (as is already true of many such benefits under the 1996 welfare reform act).

Restrictionists also often worry that immigrants will change public policy for the worse. Because of their lack of appreciation of liberty, limited government, or other important American values, they might even end up using their votes to kill the proverbial goose that produces the golden egg that attracted them to America in the first place. This danger can't be categorically ruled out. But immigrants' political views differ from those of natives a lot less than we might expect. Moreover, recent immigrants—for obvious reasons—tend to have a lot less political influence than established natives. To the extent this is still a problem, there are many ways to address it short of excluding the immigrants in question altogether.

Another common fear about immigrants is that they will refuse to assimilate, or learn the English language. This concern is not a new one. Nineteenth and early twentieth century restrictionists issued dire warnings about how the Chinese, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews could never become "real" Americans. Those warnings turned out to be greatly misplaced. The evidence strongly suggests that modern immigrants assimilate at roughly the same rate as those of the past. This is even true of Mexican immigrants, the group that is most often cited as a concern in that respect. Most immigrants recognize that learning English is an essential prerequisite for the economic advancement they seek.

If you are nonetheless still worried, there are alternative solutions, such as giving immigrants incentives to learn English and study American culture. For example, the US could impose a special surtax on immigrant incomes that will be lifted if they pass an English test and a test of cultural knowledge (though it may not be easy to get even native-born Americans to agree on what qualify as "real" American culture worthy of inclusion on the test).

Donald Trump famously opined that immigration leads to increased crime, because Mexico is sending us "criminals" and "rapists." But the truth is that immigrants have much lower crime rates than natives do, as recently confirmed by a major study by the National Academy of Sciences. And we could reduce crime rates still further by reallocating some of the large sums currently spent on immigration enforcement to combating violent crime.

What is true of crime is also true of the risk of terrorism from Syrian and other similar refugees: the risks they pose are not zero, but are greatly overblown. Moreover, letting in such refugees can actually help diminish terrorism by strengthening our hand in the war against ISIS. Don't take my word for it. Take that of the ISIS leaders themselves, who say they prefer that Syrians not flee to Western nations because such migration deprives ISIS of valuable manpower and resources, and makes it likely that these Muslims will be seduced by Western liberal values. Ironically, ISIS has greater confidence in the appeal of Western values than many Western conservatives do.

Finally, some conservatives opine that they have nothing against immigrants as such, but only object to illegal immigration, because violating the law is intrinsically wrong. I think there are strong reasons to conclude that most illegal immigrants are actually justified in their actions, the law notwithstanding. But if concern about breaking the law is really your main objection, there is a very simple solution: just make the immigration in question legal! Just as the disrespect for law caused by widespread bootlegging was ended by the repeal of Prohibition, so any similar danger created by illegal immigration can be alleviated by making it easier for immigrants to enter legally.

For a more comprehensive overview of possible "keyhole" solutions to potential risks posed by immigration that do not require excluding people, see this helpful article by economist Bryan Caplan.

I don't claim that we must allow unlimited migration in all conceivable cases. At the very least, we can restrict immigrants' mobility in cases where we would be justified in restricting that of natives (as in the case of terrorists, spies, or carriers of deadly contagious diseases). Open Borders does not require completely unlimited mobility, but merely a strong presumption against restrictions based simply on a person's country of origin. There can also be extreme situations where differential restrictions imposed on immigrants alone are the only feasible way to prevent some great evil—one that outweighs even the enormous benefits of international freedom of movement.

But the sorts of considerations typically raised by conservative critics of immigration don't come anywhere close to justifying the the vast bulk of current immigration restrictions. Like most other types of freedom, immigration is not costless. But conservatives should, at the very least, consider addressing those costs with the scalpel of keyhole solutions instead of the meat cleaver of walls and mass deportations. The resulting increase in freedom and prosperity might even help make America great again.