As two economists interested in immigration, one an Alabamian by birth, weve kept an eye on the fury surrounding the Alabamas new immigration law. Proponents tout it as a matter of law and order and promise it will save jobs. Theres 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 dont 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 dont steal jobs from the native-born. Since 1950, the labor force has more than doubled but long-run unemployment is essentially unchanged. As weve added more workers, weve 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 arent substitutes for American labor but, instead, free up American labor to do jobs where it is more productive. Thats one reason economists dont find that immigration depresses the wages of the native-born.
As a number of economists have pointed out, immigrants dont do jobs Americans wont do. They do jobs that wouldnt exist if the immigrants werent 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 ancestorsand yourswould 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 thingslike slavery and Jim Crowused to be the law. Simply repeating what part of illegal dont 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. Alabamas 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.