Economics of Immigration Are at Odds with Politics


I do not like arguments from authority. That’s one reason why I typically do not sign open letters by economists. It’s also one reason why I tell my students they can call me by my first name rather than “professor” or “doctor.” But experts do possess some authority by nature of their expertise. When a wide ideological cross-section of experts on a topic all agree that political discourse is at odds with good science, it is a strong sign that politicians should pause and reconsider.

The broad consensus that “the benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh their costs” is reflected in the open letter. Some signatories are Republicans, some Democrats, and others are unaffiliated and even unregistered to vote, like me. Regardless of ideological leaning, economists largely agree that immigration, like international trade in goods and services, makes the native-born population wealthier.

We do not deny that immigration imposes costs on the native-born population, and in particular, those with lower levels of education. Rather, the signatories maintain that “smart immigration policy could better maximize the benefits of immigration, while reducing the costs.”

If you asked all 1,470 signatories what “smart” immigration policy would be, you would likely get 1,470 different answers. But the ways our answers would vary are fundamentally different from how we as a group would differ from the politicians and general public.

Economists who study immigration realize that, in addition to increasing the wealth of the native-born population,immigrants on net do not steal jobs from native-born workers. Nor, with the possible exception of those without high school diplomas, do they generally depress the average wages of native-born workers.

Some of us believe that immigrants are a fiscal drain, while others believe they are a fiscal gain. But the vast majority of us would agree that tweaking fiscal policy to turn any drains into gains is much smarter than shutting off immigration anywhere one finds a drain.

My recent book, The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy, documents the consensus among social scientists on these issues and then illustrates how experts differ in their favored public policies in light of this social science. Nowhere among the favored policies do we see the current policy or the reforms touted in Washington today.

Consider the recent deportation of Roberto Beristain, which made national headlines. Roberto, who had been in the United States for 20 years with no criminal record, owned and managed an Eddie’s Steak Shed in Granger, Indiana. He employed American citizens and served American consumers. I can’t imagine any one of the 1,470 signatories, or the economists featured in my book, thinking that his deportation made the United States better off. Yet his deportation is consistent with current immigration policy.

Arguments should never be accepted simply because they come from an authority. Experts often pontificate on topics far beyond their expertise. Any argument, then, must stand or fall on its own merits. As this open letter indicates, politicians would be wise to give the arguments of economists, from all political persuasions, a better hearing if they want to create an immigration policy that would “make America great.”

Benjamin Powell is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. He Independent Institute books include The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy, Housing America: Building out of Crisis, and Making Poor Nations Rich.

  New from Benjamin Powell!
THE ECONOMICS OF IMMIGRATION: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy
Few topics in current affairs are as contentious as immigration. Yet despite the controversies, social scientists who study immigration largely agree about its effects, whatever differences they may have about how a nation should change its policies. Their findings, however, have been buried in academic journals accessible only to other scholars—until now. With the publication of The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy, edited by Benjamin Powell, readers can now easily access the substance of the vast scholarly literature about a subject that touches millions of lives.