The Volokh Conspiracy

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My New "Regulatory Review" Article on How Immigration Restrictions Harm US Citizens

Would-be migrants are not the only victims of immigration restrictions. Natives also suffer in a wide variety of ways.


Regulatory Review, a publication affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania Program on Regulation, has just posted my new article on how immigration restrictions harm US citizens, as well as would-be immigrants. Here is an excerpt:

Immigration policy is often framed as pitting the interests of would-be immigrants against those of native-born Americans. It is indeed true that immigration restrictions seriously harm potential migrants, many of whom end up being relegated to a lifetime of poverty and oppression based merely on having been born to the wrong parents or in the wrong place. But restrictions also often inflict severe economic harm and injustice on current American citizens. These harms are often given short shrift in public discourse, and they are often excluded from standard estimates of the burden of government regulation on the U.S. economy. But they are real nonetheless…

The successful development of two COVID-19 vaccines (one just approved by regulators in the United States and elsewhere, and one that will likely be approved soon) could put an end to the epidemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives in the United States and around the world. Importantly, both vaccines were developed by firms led by immigrants or children of immigrants…

Few immigrants are likely to make contributions on the scale of the COVID-19 vaccines. But the exclusion of large numbers of migrants inevitably means barring some who could make extraordinary advances. And the loss of even those few is a huge cost.

Moreover, even "ordinary" immigrants collectively make enormous economic contributions….

Perhaps we should let in migrants who seem likely to become valuable workers but keep out most others. This reasoning, however, assumes that government can do a good job allocating labor and predicting which people will make useful contributions. That assumption is unlikely to be true. If it were sound, the Soviet Union would have been a great economic success.

Many of the greatest immigrant scientists and entrepreneurs came from humble origins and would have been excluded under current proposals for so-called "merit-based" immigration. The world is full of people with modest initial credentials who could achieve great things in a society that offers them a meaningful opportunity to do so. By excluding them, we shoot ourselves in the foot….

Economic harm is far from the only cost of migration restrictions to American citizens. The law enforcement apparatus established to keep out and deport undocumented migrants unavoidably threatens the civil liberties of all Americans.

Because of weak due process protections in the immigration enforcement system, the federal government detains and sometimes deports thousands of U.S. citizens every year after mistaking them for undocumented immigrants….

The last part of the article briefly summarizes ways in which potential negative effects of migration can be addressed without excluding people. I discuss that issue in much greater detail in Chapter 6 of my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.