Why Our Restrictive Immigration Policy is Just Plain Wrong


by Barbara Altman

My strong opposition to the American policy that radically limits immigration has always been based on a combination of historical fact and my view of right and wrong.  After all, unless we’re full-blooded members of an indigenous tribe, every one of us can trace our ancestry to a land outside the borders of the United States. With the exception of those whose ancestors came here involuntarily as part of the slave trade, we can all find someone in our family tree who came to America looking for a better life.  Given these historical facts, who are we to tell the current crop of foreigners looking for a better life that they can’t come to “our country”?  It may strike you as naïve, but I long for us to live by the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty and “lift the lamp beside the golden door.”

Generally, when I try to support these views with policy arguments, I can come up with only anecdotal evidence.  Look at all the immigrants who contributed to the ascendancy of this nation in the 20th century, I say – Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi. Madeleine Albright, I.M. Pei, George Balanchine – the list is endless. And why, I’ve always asked, do we bring foreign students to the United States to study at our colleges and universities, only to make it impossible for them to remain in this country and apply that education to improving our nation?  Finally, I reason that, excepting those with nefarious intent, immigrants tend to be the cream of the society they’ve fled.  That is, it’s the very people who have the courage and the grit to risk everything to leave the familiar and travel to a foreign land where they may not even understand the language who have the most to offer their adopted country.

So imagine my delight to read the economic argument that supports my open-border bias in The New York Times Magazine for March 29.

According to economist Adam Davidson, writing in his weekly “On Money” column, those who oppose open borders in the belief that immigrants take jobs that otherwise would go to workers already in the United States have got it not just wrong, but actually backwards.  Jobs, Davidson explains, are not a “lump,” and employment is not a zero sum game.  Every new worker in the United States, just by being employed, stimulates the creation of additional jobs—jobs for the people who rent her an apartment, who check him out at the grocery store, who sell her a car and gas to run it, who teach his children…well, you get the idea.  Davidson says that it’s a fact that population growth stimulates economic growth and that, therefore, whether the population grows because birthrates increase or because of immigration, the result is essentially the same. Certainly, it stands to reason that if one of those foreign students we allow to remain in the United States starts the next technically innovative business, she will create innumerable new jobs for those of us already residing in this country.

Also, according to Davidson, an influx of workers at the low end of the wage scale makes the economy work more efficiently.  He gives examples using the construction industry, arguing that everyone is better off if the skilled craftsmen on the job aren’t also the workers hauling and sweeping.  Haulers and sweepers can be paid less per hour than skilled workers, and employing them will free up the higher-earning skilled workers to focus on the tasks that demand their skills.

So my wish is that we stop expending political energy on thinking of ways to stop immigration and start focusing on the best way to open up our country to immigrants—while weeding out criminals and anyone else intending us harm, of course.  It turns out that not only would such a policy constitute a return to fundamental American ideals, but it would also be good economics.

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