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Commentary

Immigration Reform that Both Sides Can Support


     
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Groups of private citizens calling themselves “Minutemen” are patrolling the U.S. border with Mexico trying to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country. Meanwhile, farmers and other businesses argue that they need an immigrant supply of labor. Both sides have some legitimate points. The good news is that the right immigration reforms could satisfy the valid concerns of both sides. The bad news is that Bush’s proposed temporary worker visas will not.

Common complaints against immigrants are that they depress wages and take away jobs from Americans. Both claims are unfounded. Economists studying the impact of immigration have not found conclusive evidence that a larger supply of immigrant workers lowers American wages. Furthermore immigrants do not create unemployment. The total number of jobs in our economy and the size of our labor force have tracked each other closely over the last fifty years despite significant changes in immigration policy. When we have more workers, we find more jobs for them to do.

Although there is little evidence that they harm U.S. workers, immigrants do bring economic benefits. Overall gains to the U.S. economy from current immigration are estimated at about $20 billion even by critics of immigration. Some estimates are much higher. Either way, allowing more immigrants into the United States would increase these gains even more.

In fact, although most of the immigration debate focuses on low-skilled workers, highly skilled immigrants face some of the strictest restrictions. No more than 65,000 H1-B visas per year are granted to immigrants possessing highly desirable skills in science, medicine, and engineering. In 2005 this limit was reached on the first day of the fiscal year. Microsoft’s Bill Gates recently said that eliminating caps on H1-B visas would make the United States more competitive and would encourage his company to outsource fewer jobs.

Despite the economic benefits of immigration, immigration foes do have one valid point: uncontrolled crossings on the U.S.-Mexican border have created real problems for local residents. Illegal crossings often damage local residents’ property and immigrants leave garbage behind. Residents should have their property protected because private-property rights come with the right to exclude people the owner doesn’t want on his property: immigrant, native, or otherwise.

However, private property also implies a right to freedom of association, a lesson immigration foes must learn. Freedom of association means that other private-property owners in the United States who wish to invite an immigrant onto their property to live or work should be free to do so.

Under current policy, the private-property rights and freedom of association of both groups—those who welcome immigrants onto their property and those who do not—are violated by government policy. Lifting our restrictions on immigration could enhance the property rights of both groups.

A policy that allows immigrants into the United States—if they have a place to stay, a desire to work, and no serious criminal record—would allow farmers and business owners who wish to hire them the freedom of association to which they are entitled. Simultaneously, illegal border crossings that upset the Minutemen would decrease dramatically because all immigrants would be allowed through the normal checkpoints.

Allowing larger numbers of immigrants into the United States will surely raise other concerns. Policy-makers should reexamine rules for welfare access and other transfer payments and possibly increase the waiting time before immigrants can vote. But these concerns are not intrinsic to immigration per se.

Bush’s proposal to increase temporary three-year work visas is a small step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it creates perverse incentives by requiring workers to go home after three years, and its effects will be too small to alleviate the concerns of the anti-immigrant Minutemen and pro-immigrant employers who wish to hire foreign workers. The only policy that is consistent with the private-property rights and freedom of association is one that allows free immigration for all who desire it—in other words, open immigration with full protection of property rights. Fortunately, such a policy also brings economic benefits to American citizens and is the most humane for the immigrants themselves.


Benjamin Powell is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, and former President of the Association of Private Enterprise Education. Dr. Powell received his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has been Assistant Professor of Economics at San Jose State University, Associate Professor of Economics at Suffolk University, a Fellow with the Mercatus Center's Global Prosperity Initiative, and a Visiting Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also the editor of the Independent Institute books, Housing America: Building out of Crisis and Making Poor Nations Rich.

Published in the San Francisco Business Times on 6/3/05, and the Phoenix Business Journal on 5/27/05.






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