Immigration – what’s the limit?

Dean Baker replies to my post:

I may give a longer response later, but just out of curiosity, would you support a system of complete open borders in the United States. If so, given that we have 12 million people who were willing to go through months of hell to get over the border, do you have idea as to how many immigrants the United States would see if anyone who wanted could come to the United States and had the same right to work as native born citizens? If that is not the policy you are supporting, then how would you restrict immigration?

My initial response was:

I sometimes have trouble reconciling my views on this. On the one hand I’m in complete principle support of ‘open borders’, on the other, I know within the current system that would lead to chaos. I think immigration without assimilation is bad for a country and society, largely what has created a cohesive “American” culture is rapid (by international standards) assimilation towards our culture. I think a path to citizenship is also critical for all immigrants. So I would limit immigration at the point where our bureaucracy (not political framework) can’t support the infrastructure necessary for such assimilation and/or process citizenship requests in a sane manner fast enough. At the margin, for reasons you note, I would always pick the ‘skilled’ over the ‘unskilled’.

Because of vast inequality, we may already be reaching that limit, I don’t know.

But it still left me thinking. I don’t like the idea of arbitrary guidelines (“5 million is okay, but 10 million isn’t”). We would all prefer some general principle on which restrictions can be designed.

After a bit of thought, I think I was pretty close on. I came across a Pew Study that notes that 61% of children of Asian and Hispanic immigrants think they are ‘typical Americans’:


The similarity between Asian and Hispanic children really struck me. Initially, I thought inequality was a big deal as far as assimilation is concerned, but maybe it isn’t. As I noted in my reply to Dean, when our social system can’t support immigration, protectionism might be valid. Systems that work to this end are highly accessible and robust public education systems, libraries, strong ESL programs, and interaction with ‘traditional’ customs.

Inequality erodes pretty much all those entities. Schools get bad, communities get segregated, and libraries get torn down. Asians are rich and latinos are poor, and both react very similarly, so I must have been wrong somewhere…

My gut tells me the long-term effect of today’s inequality has yet to be felt, especially as many Asians still live in the ‘poor man’ mentality (high savings rate, humble beginnings, etc.)

But every society has its breaking point. I don’t know what the number is, but if all of Africa suddenly came to the US well, then, there’s a problem.

I’d also like to know what Dean thinks about population density, in relation to land, but also in relation to overall natural resources. India is projected to have 1.5 billion people on land far smaller than the US. Doesn’t it make sense that some come over, it would seem to be more productive overall…

This is something I haven’t fully thought about, and expect to blog about soon; would love to hear opinions in the mean time.

  1. Here’s some data on immigration as a share of existing population in US history:

    And from the census, we have had rates of foreign-born residents as a share of population nearly double what we have today:

    I think America’s institutions survived those levels of immigration just fine. Seems to me we could absorb at least 3 million people every year without any cause for concern, and probably substantially more.

    I think the reason a completely “open-borders” policy wouldn’t really work in practice is less that it would fundamentally change America’s character than that the administrative burden of trying to accomodate so much demand at once would tax the capacity of the state to respond. So there are plenty of good reasons to accept some arbitrary cap on annual inflows of new residents even if you think the ideal policy might be total openess; something like a lottery system that allows in some millions of new residents every year, with extra weighting based on skills, education, etc, might be the best real-world approximation of total openess one could hope for.

    • arra95 said:

      Right, I think the US can support far more immigration than we are now. Mexico is really at a net zero, and we spend more on border security than any other law enforcement agency, which is ridiculous.

      I agree that from an administrative standpoint, immigration becomes untenable, eventually, which is why I said bureaucratic capacity and not political whims should determine how much inflow we can tolerate.

      I’d support a lottery system to some extent, but it wouldn’t work for high-end work. Lab benches need specific people, and would be exposed to too much uncertainty under a lottery system. Farms can work with it, because it’s just the person, not the human capital in that person, that matters.

  2. deanbaker1 said:

    This issue inevitable raises two distinct set of questions, first what is politically possible, second what is moral. I tend to focus more on the former than the latter for time constraints.
    I keep pushing on more high-skilled immigrants (i.e. doctors, lawyers, economists) as an equalizing force that will also benefit people in the developing world. All economists all say they agree with me, but for some reason the policy never moves. These economists, even though they all agree with me, never seem to spend much time beating up on the politicians who don’t do anything to remove the barriers to high end immigration. They would rather spend time pushing for cuts to Social Security benefits for middle income workers, which leads me to question their sincerity.
    In other words I could easily design an immigration policy would have the support of the vast majority of the public, and provide large benefits to people in the developing world, but this is blocked because economists tend to line up with elites and only support policies that hurt people at the middle and bottom in the United States.

    On the moral side, abstractly I would like to see everyone in the world treated equally, but that is not going to happen. Differences across countries are huge and I’m afraid that is not going to change. I have pushed lots of things that would allow for rapid improvements in living standards for people in the developing world (let’s end patent and copyright protections — huge dividends there), but i don’t think that people in Congo will on average enjoy the same living standards as people in the U.S. anytime soon.

    Does that bother? Yes it does, but it also bothers me that people from privileged backgrounds in the U.S. will enjoy hugely better living standards than people from middle class and poor backgrounds in the U.S. This is true even ignoring the large inheritances than they stand to receive.

    I grew up in a solidly middle class household and went to very good schools, yet I can see an enormous difference in the preparation that my friends from more upper crust or professional families enjoyed growing up. This preparation gave them an enormous head start in getting into top notch colleges and universities. The gap between their preparation and what a kid from a working class or poor family would receive is a canyon.

    I don’t see anywhere to equalize these enormous differences in opportunity by class. That bothers me morally too. I don’t have time to decide which one I find more offensive because it really doesn’t matter. The one thing I will say is that I see absolutely zero morality in improving the lot of the world’s poor at the expense of the less advantaged in the U.S. If someone can’t think of a way to help the world’s poor that either does not benefit everyone or comes at the expense of the most advantaged in the rich countries, then I suggest that they do more thinking.

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