Tom Cotton

Tom Cotton's Immigration Restrictions Are Delusional and Counterproductive

Cotton's idea that a flood of immigrant labor is to blame for depressed low-skill wages is just flaky


Erik Mcgregor/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The junior senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, appeared on Fox News Sunday on New Year's Day and was asked about The New York Times op-ed piece about immigration that had appeared under his byline a few days earlier. The Fox News anchor Shannon Bream asked Cotton "whether you're saying, we also need to slow legal immigration?" Cotton's answer was unequivocal: "Yes, absolutely. … our immigration system for too long has brought in too many unskilled and low skilled workers which has undercut wages for working Americans."

Cotton spelled out his reasoning in his New York Times op-ed: "As immigrant labor has flooded the country, working-class wages have collapsed… No doubt automation and globalization have also affected wages, but mass immigration accelerates these trends with surplus labor, which of course decreases wages."

Cotton wrote: "companies in labor-intensive industries want to sustain or even increase current immigration flows. It's not hard to understand why. Cheap labor helps the bottom line. It is hard to understand why so many politicians would go along. The short-term interest of businesses isn't the same as the long-term national interest."

He concluded with a call for "a large reduction in legal immigration."

I've been a fan of Cotton's criticism of President Obama's foreign policy, but on this one, he is so thoroughly wrong that it's hard even to know where to start.

Begin with the bizarre scenario of a politician openly advocating lower corporate profits— i.e., a stock market decline, and along with it plunging values of retirement funds for the very ordinary Americans Cotton claims to represent.

It's not even clear that the higher wages Cotton advocates would achieve his sought-after result of reducing corporate profits. It's also possible that firms would respond to increased labor costs by holding profits steady and instead passing along price increases to customers, or by moving even more aggressively toward offshore or robot labor.

Cotton's idea that a flood of immigrant labor is to blame for depressed low-skill wages is just flaky. A whole series of other factors have had much greater effects on both the size of the labor force and on wages. The labor force swelled because of both the post-World War II Baby Boom and the increase in women's participation that was a result of the feminist revolution. What's next, a call by Cotton to shrink the American labor supply by promoting small families and stay-at-home motherhood?

To call the current population of immigrants a "flood" is a misnomer. It is more like a trickle. From 1905 to 1907 America absorbed more than 1 million immigrants a year into a nation with a population of about 85 million. We're now accepting about 1 million immigrants a year into a country with a population of about 320 million. Keeping proportionally even with historic growth levels would require quadrupling current levels of legal immigration, not reducing them.

Many of our nation's greatest gateway cities have still not recovered from the ravages of the restrictive immigration policy wrought by the nativism of the early 20th century. My home of Boston, for example, is about 200,000 souls emptier than it was before the immigration door slammed shut. Baltimore has lost 200,000 residents since its peak, too. The city of Detroit has lost more than 1 million residents. Chicago has lost half a million. Buffalo, N.Y. has lost 300,000. Cleveland lost 400,000. Some of these losses are the result of other things—suburbanization, the population shift South and West to the Sunbelt, and government welfare, transportation, and slum clearance policies that damaged cities. But restoring the full vibrancy of these places will require either an influx of immigrants or more children than Americans are used to having.

The long view of history can help us understand how relatively small is the current influx of immigrants. It can show us how empty our cities currently are. And it can demonstrate how nonexistent is the evidence for Cotton's claim that restricting immigration would translate into wage increases for American workers.

Look at the years in which legal immigration plunged. From 1914 to 1915 it went to about 327,000 from 1.2 million. From 1924 to 1925 it went to about 300,000 from about 700,000. From 1930 to 1931 it went to about 97,000 from about 242,000. From 1991 to 1992 it went to about 1 million from about 1.8 million. Does anyone remember 1992, or 1931, as a boom year? Historic U.S. wage data is sketchy, especially for early in the 20th century, but Cotton's promised wage increases from immigration restriction have failed to materialize in any meaningful way when such policies were tried in the past.

As a political matter, would-be immigrants may be a tempting target. The foreigners applying to come here, after all, don't vote in our elections. But as economics, the idea that the best way to help American workers is to keep out immigrants is just delusional. Had earlier generations of politicians implemented such a counterproductive policy, Rupert Murdoch might still be stuck in Australia, and there wouldn't even be a Fox News Sunday program to provide Sen. Cotton a platform.