A semester of immigration policy crammed into an hour, with the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh.
Follow my on-going series, “Make Immigration Legal Again,” debunking populist misconceptions about immigration:
The Legalism Fallacy, Alex Nowrasteh’s Substack
Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions by Benjamin Powell
Bob Zadek: Alex, you presented the legalism fallacy as an impediment to the nation's conversation about immigration. Please explain if you would.
Alex Nowrasteh (02:59): The legalism fallacy is the assumption that a policy is good simply because it is legal. In the context of immigration, this means that people focus on the prevalence of illegal immigration, but do not address the underlying causes of why people are coming to the country illegally. Instead of considering what can be done to make immigration more legal, the assumption is that the law is right and any debate about what policy should be is silenced.
Bob Zadek (03:58): As an example, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution made drinking alcohol illegal. Nobody believed prohibition was a really good idea simply because it was a law. Slavery was legal. The law is neither good nor bad per se—it's good or bad if it complies with our view of what society and life in our country should be like. In this case, immigration fails miserably.
What's wrong with the law regulating immigration now? The Constitution says very little about immigration. It lists as the power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization. That's it.
“Uniform” is the opposite of immigration policy today. Congress has abdicated its power and doesn't want to go near it. The President from time to time steps into that quagmire and stretches executive powers to fill the void in what Congress has failed to do. Give us a very broad picture on what passes for immigration policy today.
Alex Nowrasteh (07:38): There are two big parts of immigration law. The first part is naturalization—who can become a citizen. That is clearly within the power of Congress.
The other part is who can come here to live or work, not become a citizen. The Constitution is silent on that. Beginning in the later part of the 19th century, Congress started to pass laws restricting the peaceful movement of people to the United States even if they didn't want to become citizens. Since then, this body of laws has grown through successive congresses and executive actions to be the second most complicated portion of American law. The only portion more complicated is that of the income tax according to many law professors who study this topic.
The general starting principle of American law and immigration is that nobody is allowed to come here except for a handful of people who fit into very specific categories that Congress has established.
In every other area of law, we think everything is legal except for a few things that are specifically spelled out as illegal in the law. Immigration is the opposite. Everything is illegal except the few things that the government says is legal. If you're a foreigner who has an immediate relative or a close family member in the United States, it's relatively easy to come here. The government sets aside about 140,000 green cards a year for highly skilled workers and their family members. It sets aside about 50,000 green cards a year through a lottery system that is very complicated and only applies to some people.
And then it sets aside some refugees and asylum seekers—usually about 100,000 to 200,000 per year. On top of that, there are a large number of different types of visas for low skilled temporary workers, for others. But the overall effect of this is to create a highly restrictive system that is under an enormous amount of government control and oversight with a bloated bureaucracy that costs Americans and immigrants an enormous amount of time and money to navigate.
U.S. immigration law blocks out the vast majority of people who want to come here lawfully. In the days of Ellis Island, 2% of people were sent back from Ellis Island, and it was called the Isle of Tears. Nowadays, only around 5% of people who want to come here are able to apply and do so in the first place. It is far, far worse than anything we've experienced in American history.
The Severity of Modern Immigration Restriction
Bob Zadek (10:44): So in the late 19th century, we started to enact legislation for the first time to limit immigration. What you left out is that the adjustment was done out of racial animosity—the ugliest of motives. That attitude continues through today.
The first regulation of immigration policy was the Chinese Exclusion Act. We didn't like having so many Chinese. Expand on the ugly motives drive immigration
Alex Nowrasteh: In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was followed by an agreement in 1906 that blocked Japanese immigrants from the US. In 1917, laws were passed barring African and Asian immigrants. From 1921 to 1924, Congress passed two laws that imposed severe restrictions on Southern and Eastern European immigrants, mainly to keep out darker-skinned Italian and Greek immigrants, as well as Eastern European, primarily Jewish immigrants. Labor unions also pushed for immigration restrictions to protect their workers in the US.
The early 20th century saw a rise in American nationalism and a belief that some ethnicities, religions (mainly Jews) and Asians would not be able to assimilate into American society and were thus subject to immigration restrictions. This was mainly due to the popular eugenics movement of the time, which strongly influenced the laws and ended the period of free immigration.
It is an unfortunate truth that much of our current immigration policy is rooted in racial and ethnic bias. While the discussion often focuses on the impact of immigrants on the US, we must not forget the rights of the immigrants themselves. All humans have the right to travel and seek a better life for themselves and their families. We must not deny them the opportunity to improve their circumstances, and instead consider policies that will both protect their rights and serve the interests of the American people. It doesn’t get discussed.
Alex Nowrasteh (17:15): That's right, it's not discussed at all how severe these restrictions are.
For example, a Mexican immigrant can increase their income by a factor of three, a Guatemalan by a factor of six, and a Haitian by a factor of 10, taking into account cost-of-living adjustments. These policies are having a devastating effect on the future potential and incomes of people who wish to leave their countries but are unable to do so, and constitute a gross violation of their human rights.
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How Immigration Makes Americans Richer
Bob Zadek (19:03): Lest anything think that Bob is proposing a wealth transfer from those already living in the country to immigrants, I am proposing the opposite - wealth creation. I want to dispel the concept that immigrants take away jobs from those already living in the country. People don't have a right to a job, but instead a right to try to get a job and to maintain it. Help me explain how increasing the number of immigrants will not only increase their own wellbeing, but will also not be at the expense of those already living in the country.
Alex Nowrasteh (21:07): The economy is not a fixed pie. Immigrants increase the size of the economic pie; they create more goods and services, and they create opportunity.
Immigrants have different skills than native born Americans, so they're not competing so much as they are complimenting each other. It generally bumps up Americans’ wages and productivity.
Native-born Americans take higher-paying jobs due to their better English communication skills. Together, the two groups create more productivity, resulting in higher wages and productivity for native-born Americans.
Immigrants are also twice as likely to start a business, leading to more job opportunities. Ultimately, the presence of immigrants leads to an increase in the size of the economic pie, and benefits everyone.
The Founders Abhorred Immigration Restrictions
Bob Zadek (23:55): Immigrants don't have the same privileges as native-born Americans due to the accident of their birth. The founding generation rejected the British system of peerage and nobility from birth, which was important enough to be included in the Constitution.
Alex Nowrasteh (25:44): In the Declaration of Independence, one of the complaints against King George III was that “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
One of the complaints of the founders was that the British didn't allow the American colonies to increase immigration. How far we have fallen. Today, American politicians who claim to support the Constitution support immigration restrictions that our ancestors rebelled against.
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
– Declaration of Independence
Bob Zadek (26:30): Alex, how should policy balance what's good for the country and immigrants? A decade ago, I was naive and thought "let them all in." But a poll in India showed 80 million people wanted to move to the US. How could I reconcile this with my views? Help us balance policy considering both perspectives.
Alex Nowrasteh (28:52): It's a valid consideration, but one thing to note about the poll you mentioned is that talk is cheap. It's easy to say one would take the expensive undertaking of moving to the US, but even if we had that policy, and everyone meant it, they wouldn't all come over immediately. It would be difficult to transport 80-90 million people into the US in a day. But when we have free immigration policies, like those in the EU, immigration increases steadily. It may be 80 million people over 40, 30, or 20 years, which is a far more manageable number.
The US economy would adjust quickly to an influx of productive people. The construction sector would experience a boom, particularly in areas where new housing is allowed. For example, Puerto Rico has open immigration with the US and is much poorer than any other state. Yet, it took a century of open borders for a majority of Puerto Ricans to be in the US. Millions still remain in Puerto Rico, despite the potential for higher wages.
Ideally, people should be allowed to come to the US, provided they are not criminals, national security threats, or have serious communicable diseases. But, it is unlikely that they would all come at once. Immigration would increase in the short term, but it would be spread out over time.
The World’s Biggest Job Fair
Bob Zadek (31:14): Proponents of a more enlightened immigration policy suggest that we should be more welcoming to immigrants who can directly contribute to our prosperity. This could include engineers, doctors, and other healthcare professionals, as we are currently lacking in these areas. We should focus on what jobs we need and create a nationwide job fair to attract immigrants, as there is a clear benefit to all of us in having them. To what extent should this be part of the immigration matrix policy?
Alex Nowrasteh (32:09): Well, that would be better than the current system, which doesn't consider [the issue] hardly at all. But the big problem with that is that policy makers, politicians, and bureaucrats would be the ones deciding which types of occupations, jobs, and wages are in the national interest. This is a major issue.
If there was a system that required immigrants to have a job offer before coming to the United States, it would be far preferable to the current system. However, there are still many people who want to come here and become entrepreneurs, start firms, and the government is not very good at identifying these people before they arrive.
I work at Cato, and while I have my ideals and principles, I'm willing to compromise and work with people to get a better outcome. So, some kind of system that allowed more immigrants to come if they had a job offer from an American company would be an improvement over the current system.
This is not ideal, though, as we have seen great entrepreneurs like Sergei Brin, who co-founded Google. He came to the US as the child of a refugee in the 1970s. Nobody knew he would eventually create a multi-billion dollar company. We can't expect the government to do a good job of identifying these individuals in advance because he was just a kid.
If we had a system that tried to get people here once they were offered a job, it would still be a vast improvement over the current system.
Immigration & the Culture Wars
Bob Zadek (34:26): The typical American immigrant can't hold a candle to an immigrant who has bet everything on their own ability to succeed. They come to a country where they may not speak the language, have only what's in their suitcase, and their determination to give their kids a better life—yet they still have a likelihood of success. So, if I were debating, I would accept your opponent’s standard of immigrants demonstrating a likelihood of success—which means totally open borders.
Now, there's an interesting part of the debate: the so-called culture wars. What a strange concept! The Constitution has no interest in anyone's view of culture—it does not legislate culture. Culture is the result of a bunch of people interacting with one another, not a goal. Yet, the culture wars are a disproportionate part of the conversation. So, let's talk a bit about the fear that the nativists have about losing something which, in reality, doesn't even exist.
Alex Nowrasteh (38:06): One of the most unique aspects of American culture historically is our welcoming of immigrants and our assimilation of them into our culture and society, treating them as Americans and having them think of themselves as such. This continues to this day, with immigrants and their descendants showing great success in assimilating to the American norm, often even better than a century ago. This means that the idea of needing a government assimilation bureau or policy to achieve this is unnecessary, as we have already had success in assimilating people.
The recent controversies in the culture war mainly revolve around the issue of wokeness and this new idea of racial essentialism. However, this is not an immigrant import. Wokeness was created by Americans and is an indigenous cultural evolution. It is not a good thing, in my opinion, but immigrants are far less woke than native-born Americans when polled. Therefore, for all the nativists complaining about the culture war and changes to American culture, if they truly believed what they said, they would be supportive of more immigration, as these people have attitudes more similar to Americans in the 70s and 80s than Americans today.
Bob Zadek (40:25): Those who oppose immigration often claim that immigrants are slow to assimilate. I have two comments on assimilation:
First, there are some groups who never assimilate, such as the Amish in Ohio. Somehow, I don't feel threatened by the fact that they refuse to drive EVs, or that they remain insular and live by their own lifestyle. I don't feel threatened by Chinatowns in New York City, San Francisco, nor by Japan Town in Los Angeles. I actually like it and enjoy walking in the streets. I respect the fact that they are seeking to retain their culture.
And let's not forget Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, New York. They refuse to assimilate, but still integrate into New York City's economic life and participate in it. They then go back to Brooklyn and live a very insular, almost medieval lifestyle in some ways. I say this with respect and curiosity, not as a pejorative.
So, assimilation lumps together two concepts: cultural assimilation, which I'm not threatened by and welcome, and political assimilation. The fear is that many immigrants come from authoritarian regimes, socialist societies, communist societies, and collectivist societies, and bring with them those political views, thus representing a threat to, as nativists say, "our way of life". I hate that phrase.
Alex Nowrasteh (43:29): Yeah, that's right. When it comes to assimilation broadly, I don't have an issue with people trying to retain unique aspects of their culture, such as Haru Jews in New York, the Amish, or Chinese, as you mentioned. However, the fear from a nativist perspective is that, when you look at the big picture, the vast majority of immigrants and their children do move towards American norms and values, even in terms of political issues.
When you look at polls of new immigrants to the United States on various political issues and policies, they are usually within the standard of error. This applies to tax policy, welfare policy, and other policies.
Interestingly, many immigrants come from countries with authoritarian or socialist governments. People who leave these countries are generally different from those who stay behind. They are usually open to new experiences and ideas.
For example, Cubans, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Venezuelan, and Iranian immigrants in the United States all vote against the policies of their home countries. This is explored in Benjamin Powell's book, Wretched Refuse.
The general finding is that, when immigrants go to a new society, they have no effect on economic freedom or result in more free market policies. In the United States, the most socialist period was from 1930 to 1970, when immigration was closed off.
My theory is that immigrants, by coming into a country, undermine labor unions, which are the most effective big government voting and lobbying block in the Western world. This has resulted in less growth of government in the United States since the 1970s.
Bob Zadek (47:28): Assimilation is a two-part concept. On one hand, it's healthy and fun to have pockets of different cultures that people can visit and experience. On the other hand, there is the fear of political assimilation, which is the opposite. Historically, immigrants have always come to this country to gain a seat at the table. To do this, they will run for office and be part of the system, not fight it. Assimilation is a reason to support open immigration rather than opposing it.
Alex Nowrasteh (49:12): Birthright citizenship in the United States has added to the good kind of assimilation. The children of immigrants born here are automatically American citizens, unlike in many countries in Europe and East Asia where they are a legal underclass. This was not the intention of the 14th Amendment, but it has been beneficial in preventing the rise of an American-born legal underclass.
Immigrants and Welfare: Paging Dr. Friedman
Bob Zadek (50:00): Now, we mentioned it earlier in the show and I want to touch upon it before we run out of time because there is another gross misperception. It's the opposite of a data-driven conclusion.
The threat is that immigrants will come here to take welfare dollars. Milton Friedman acknowledged that a welfare state cannot accommodate open borders. He said the problem is not the open borders, it's the welfare state. Since you can't undo either one, just have immigrants come here and deny them welfare benefits, which in fact we have done.
Put that issue in proper data context.
Alex Nowrasteh (51:02): Are a few different things to consider. One is, Cato has released a report this week on immigrant welfare use in the United States. Immigrants are barred from accessing welfare for the first five years they are in the US, with very few exceptions.
On a per capita basis, immigrants consume about 26% less welfare than native born Americans. Even though immigrants are 14.6% of the US population, they consume only 11.1% of all welfare benefits.
If Americans used welfare at the same rate as immigrants, the welfare state would be approximately 600 billion dollars smaller.
In my opinion, we need to build a higher wall around the welfare state, not the country. We need to have more exclusions, and ideally shrink and eliminate the welfare state for everyone.
Contrary to popular belief, immigrants are not using more welfare than native born Americans. The law does not allow it, and even when they have access to these benefits, they use them at a lower rate and dollar value than native born Americans.
Bob Zadek (52:39): I'm hopeful that when our listeners discuss immigration, they can separate emotion from data. Doing so will lead to a more enlightened conclusion that is more welcoming to those who wish to join our society lawfully. We've been speaking with Alex Nowrasteh, who can be found on Twitter at @AlexNowrasteh, as well as on Substack: