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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Why Is Immigration Illegal Anyway?


As two economists interested in immigration, one an Alabamian by birth, we’ve kept an eye on the fury surrounding the Alabama’s new immigration law. Proponents tout it as a matter of law and order and promise it will “save jobs.” There’s a larger question at stake, though: Should we even be restricting immigration in the first place?

American immigration restrictions have a long history, but they have never been a good idea. Economist Thomas Leonard documents how even some Progressive Era economists supported immigration restrictions and minimum wages because they wanted to shut members of what they called “low-wage races” out of the American labor market. American reformers who pulled up the ladder in the early 20th century condemned many potential immigrants and native-born Americans to poorer, less fulfilling lives than they would have had if the United States had welcomed more immigrants.

Fears that immigrants will wreck our economy are probably the biggest reason substantial barriers to legal immigration remain on the books. But immigrants don’t take our jobs, lower our wages or depress the American economy.

Virtually all economists who study immigration find that it provides a small but positive impact on the economy. It should be obvious that immigrants don’t steal jobs from the native-born. Since 1950, the labor force has more than doubled but long-run unemployment is essentially unchanged. As we’ve added more workers, we’ve added more jobs.

Immigrants tend to be either high-skilled or low-skilled; Americans tend to be more toward the middle of the skill distribution. This means that immigrants aren’t substitutes for American labor but, instead, free up American labor to do jobs where it is more productive. That’s one reason economists don’t find that immigration depresses the wages of the native-born.

As a number of economists have pointed out, immigrants don’t “do jobs Americans won’t do.” They do jobs that wouldn’t exist if the immigrants weren’t there to do them. By making life harder for a population of undocumented immigrants, the state government has ensured that future generations of Alabamians will be poorer than they would otherwise be.

The last refuge of the defenders of the new Alabama legislation is to protest that this is not about immigration per se, but about illegal immigration. Perhaps you acknowledge that we are a nation of immigrants but protest that your ancestors came here legally. That dodges the issue. To move to the United States legally in the 19th century and to move to the United States legally in the 21st century are two very different undertakings. We are willing to bet that our ancestors—and yours—would find themselves in the same position as many potential immigrants today: effectively denied entry by layers and layers of red tape.

Defenders of restrictions might insist that the restrictions are still the law, but lots of immoral and unwise things—like slavery and Jim Crow—used to be “the law.” Simply repeating “what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?!” misses the real question: Why does the law make it illegal to migrate here? Immigrants are a boon to our economy and restrictions on immigration seem as immoral as many other past laws. Yes, the “illegal” part of illegal immigration is a problem. Alabama’s legislators are addressing it the wrong way. As our friend Mark LeBar, a philosopher at Ohio University, has put it, illegal immigration is one of very few issues that really has a magic wand solution: Legalize it.


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.

Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
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