The "immigration issue"

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1 July 2006

Matt mentioned the “immigration issue” in a comment to my last post. I’ve never really sat down and thought through what I think about it, so I’m taking this as the chance to do so.

I’m also going to do a public mental experiment. I’ll write the first section of this post without doing any research at all. It will just be unadulterated spew from my brain. Then I’ll do some research on the actual issues, and finish the post with any changes or new ideas I have. I’m curious to see what happens :)

Part 1: unfounded belief

I’ve never understood what the issue is, in the “immigration issue.” Why is is that we distrust Mexicans1 so much? What makes them worse than Arizonians or Oklahomians or Ohioans? They’re people, and they’re crossing an imaginary line in the sand, and we see that as a problem. Why? Why do we see that as a problem when we don’t see it as a problem when an American crosses between states in the U.S.?

Why do they cross that line in the sand? I don’t think it has anything in particular to do with the sand on one side of the line or the other. In fact, I think it doesn’t have anything to do with the physical properties of either place. They cross over because they want to be in a place where the people they’re going to (Americans) will treat them differently than the people they were with (Mexicans).

What is it about Americans that makes us so desirable? I postulate that it’s the beliefs, attitudes, politics, and general behaviours of the Americans that makes America so desirable. We have democracy, freedom, a strong economy, justice, safety, etc. etc. etc., and those are much better than whatever they have where they come from. That makes it worthwhile to them – they want to be in a better place. (Sounds familiar – I know a person or two with those same goals!)

So why are we so afraid of these people who want to come be with us? I think the word “afraid” is important here – it’s a clue that the issue is emotional, not rational. And I think that’s true. Like most topics in American politics today, the winner will be whomever sways the most hearts, not the most minds. (And the hearts aren’t generally listening to the minds.) Because of that, I postulate that the fear exists because it serves somebody’s interest for it to exist. We fear because we’ve been told to, not because we should. (For example, why are we afraid of terrorists coming into the country via Mexico, when there’s lots of evidence that they have much better ways to do so?)

Fear aside, what are the rational issues? Matt mentioned healthcare costs, and I can certainly see that illegal aliens aren’t going to be paying taxes, and will therefore be using resources (roads, water, land, etc.) that they didn’t contribute to. Both seem like legitimate problems.

What would an economist think, though? I’ve heard (numerous times) that the southwest wouldn’t have an economy if it weren’t for Mexicans who were willing to work minimum-wage and below-minimum-wage jobs. If they’re responsible for propping up the whole economy, we should thank them for providing the healthy exchange of money that our government depends so dearly on for its taxes. So maybe they do contribute to the roads, water, etc. :)

To follow the economic question further, I’ll use my simple touchstone that I use for all economics: where is the value (money) being created? To apply that here, I simply ask: do Mexicans create more value then they consume? Do they wash more dishes than they drive their cars? Do they clean more houses than they flush the toilet? Do they earn more money than they spend?

I don’t know the answer, for sure. My guess is that they do. And if they do, it means that they’re coming to this country and adding value to the overall pool, not taking it away. Regardless of the details, if they’re adding more value than they’re consuming, I count that as a good thing.

So: I reject the fear argument. I (tenatively) reject the economic argument. What’s left?

I can see a social argument: Americans might not want their kids to be raised with Mexican values, Gods, traditions, etc. I can’t take that argument seriously, though – every American, ever, has an immigrant ancestor. I can’t see how we can say “these immigrants are bad, but these over here are good” with a straight face.

I can also see a security argument: Mexicans without identification are dangerous, because we can’t… can’t do what? Arrest them? Track them? Electronically follow their every purchase? Tell if they have a bomb when they get on a plane?

There’s lots, and lots, and lots of depth to the security argument. It also happens that security is a hobby of mine, so I know quite a bit about real security. If I start writing about it I won’t ever stop, so I’m going to skip it here. My summary, though, is this: any security that depends on accurate identification of all people is weak security.

Anything else? I’m not seeing anything obvious, so I think I’ll stop here and pretend like I’ve won the argument, and declare that Mexicans are actually good for this country.

If so, now what?

A slight tangent: if we, the people, of The United States of America could somehow agree that Mexicans are good for our country, what might we change? It’s easy to imagine that we’d open the border and allow anyone in, so long as they could identify themselves. It’s easy to imagine that we’d let them stay, so long as they agreed to pay taxes and abide by our laws. It’s easy to imagine that we’d give them honest jobs and support and help them spread across the country. And it’s easy to imagine that a giant group of people who were accepted and supported and given opportunity would be much less of a drain, and much less of a risk, then they are today. All we have to do is accept that they aren’t scary :)

1 Please, please, please, don’t take this to mean that I do or don’t like Mexicans, or think that they’re the root of all evil, or think that they’re the only illegal aliens, or think that all Mexicans are illegal alients, or that I’m going to eat your children, or think anything else that gets your blood boiling. It’s easier (for me) to use an example, so I am. I could have happily talked about people from the moon and made the same points. (But I didn’t because I thought it would confuse the issue even more.)


Part 2: learnings

I’m back!

As usual Wikipedia is the best place on the ‘net to learn stuff. For this stuff, I used the Immigration page, the Anti-immigration page, and the Illegal immigration to the United States page.

Major learnings:

  • I was right about the major reasons people want to come here. Generally, they come for economic, social, or geographical (think volcanoes/earthquakes) reasons. It’s my belief that economic reasons are essentially social reasons, so I was right in my assumptions.
  • There were a few new problems raised that I hadn’t thought of:
    • Immigrants don’t always want to integrate – sometimes they avoid learning English and American ways of life
    • Immigrants might depress wages for everybody
    • A massive, fast influx of immigrants would overload local infrastructure (housing, hospitals, environment, etc.)
    • We might be hurting the source country by taking all their best/smartest people
    • Immigrants bring their children, who can be especially hard to educate
  • There were a few new benefits that I hadn’t thought of:
    • Freedom of movement (across borders) is considered, by some, to be a basic human right
    • It is hypocritical to desire equal opportunity for Americans without desiring it for all humans
    • Immigrants do pay taxes, at minimum in the form of sales taxes, and often they pay property taxes and social security tax
    • Young immigrants paying social security tax are supporting retirees and reducing the social security deficit
  • I learned two new perspectives on immigrants taking “American jobs”:
    • It is often the case that the jobs they take are largely open because Americans don’t want them
    • Many jobs would be automated away or outsourced if they weren’t so cheaply fillable (by illegal immigrants), so those “American jobs” aren’t really available to Americans, anyway
  • And finally, there is a list of common reasons people argue against immigration on the Anti-immigration page. The arguments are dumb and wrong-headed (ha!), and I’m not going to bother to refute them here. They are refuted on that page.

Part 3: less-unfounded belief

Wow. I imagined that I’d arrive here feeling like I’d really learned something… but I haven’t. I’ve simply strengthened my basic argument: “illegal” immigrants are people, too, and there’s no reason to fear them. The only rational reason for fear (that they might hurt the overall economic health of me) seems like poppycock because I believe that (on average) people try to add to the world, not be a burden to it. Immigrants are no exception to that rule. All the other reasons are essentially irrational.

I’m very glad I did all that research, though. I now know enough to justify reasonably stong opinions about this subject. Those opinions, in turn, give me a touchstone against which I can measure politicians… and we all know that they need measuring :)

As usual, please comment below:

  1. Matt says:

    It’s a slippery slope to frame an opposing viewpoint as originating from fear. By doing that, you attack the arguer rather than the argument itself. There’s a debate term for that: ad hominem.

    Fear is a natural (good) aversion to a predicted unpleasant future outcome. However, when fear is irrational or all-consuming, it is, of course, a bad thing. And while using the word fear is likely correct here in the strictest definition of the word, it is simultaneously inflammatory and dismissive of a perfectly valid opposing viewpoint.

    While I agree with some of your conclusions, I think you’ve done yourself a disservice by trusting wikipedia only as your primary source of (mis)information. There are lots of other sites out there which bring to light some of the nuances of the broader issues. Other sites are more forthright about their bias making it easier to discern that you aren’t getting the full story rather than Wikipedia which makes you think you are :-)

    Ultimately, I don’t really know that I have a fully formed opinion on the whole topic – I believe our borders should not be porous, and in fact be heavily secured. However, I don’t have a strong opinion on what to do with those already here. I suppose we ought to actually enforce the laws we have in place for awhile and see how that works for us before making new, equally ineffective laws.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Just a couple of thoughts/opinions/questions….

    I recently read an article that Mexico is having some difficult issues with immigrants crossing their southern border into their country. Brings up all sorts of interesting and random musings.

    Education – the impact of educating immigrants, if your children go to public school, is significant. It does spread our limited resources further. We have Somalian children coming into our district as old as 14 or 15 who have never been in a school nor had any formal education, in addition to not speaking English. It takes an enormous amount of staff time and energy to help those children get acclimated to our educational system and culture and to begin to learn English. Learning English to an academic level is significantly more challenging. Our resources also are stretched to provide interpreters for conversations with the parents, etc. If the immigrant children need special education services, then that is another whole layer of cost and services. Do they pay property taxes? Yes, but often to a very limited degree. Many immigrants, legal and illegal, are living in subsidized housing and may have 10 or 12 family members in one apartment. Their rate of tax payment does not equal their consumption of services that those taxes provide. But at some level, this echoes the concept that I will pay for the education of generations of children beyond just my own children and that is fine. Generations before me helped to pay for your education.

    A significant number of the immigrants who I know, legal and otherwise, send money back to their families in their native country. That money does not support our economic growth.

    If your taxes are paying for the education of children from another country, is that fair? That happens clear through doctorate degrees and post-doctorate work. A friend was telling me that his post-doctoral students used to work with him and then stay in this country to work. Now they are returning to their countries as those economies are improving. Many of those students are getting their educations with significant amounts of scholarship dollars. Do immigrants pay more in taxes than they consume? I think it depends on how long they have been here. Initially, the answer has to be a resounding “no.” Long-term, maybe.

    The bigger question for me, though, is that with legal means to enter this country, understanding that there are issues and hardships involved in those legal means, do we continue to support the people who are breaking our laws the minute they step foot over the border? My basic philosophy has always been that if it is a law/rule, then it should be enforced. If it’s not working, change it. But we shouldn’t get to pick and choose which laws we have to abide by and which ones we don’t.

    This has come out sounding as if I am anti-immigrants and that’s simply not true. But the bigger issue for me is legal vs.. illegal immigration.

  3. Nathan Arthur says:

    In reply to Matt:

    It’s a slippery slope to frame an opposing viewpoint as originating from fear.

    Agreed, but that wasn’t my intent. I wanted to point out that much of the heat in this debate is fear-generated, and not based on rational thought. I ended up tying it to the “terrorists crossing our borders” issue, and I probably shouldn’t have (even though I don’t think that’s a valid issue.)

    There are lots of other sites out there which bring to light some of the nuances of the broader issues.

    What makes you think that Wikipedia isn’t giving a balanced view? At minimum, Wikipedia has dozens of citations for the statements contained therein, which is a feature lacking from the first two of your links. I agree that those links make their bias known, but I’m not sure how that helps me.

    For the last two links you posted, I see that there was an argument I missed: if there are no illegal immigrants, then people won’t be killed/injured/robbed/etc. by them. Morally, I don’t see how their immigrant status has anything to do with their other crimes. The fact that we don’t enforce the immigration laws is a problem with our system, not with the immigrants. The fact that illegal immigrants commit crime is just that: a fact. Americans commit crime also. I don’t see why being an illegal immigrant makes that worse.

  4. Nathan Arthur says:

    In reply to Marilyn:

    I think you have a good point about educating immigrant children who have already missed out on the early years of American education. I see that it must be a near-impossible problem. Given that, though, I think there ought to be a tradeoff between our values: we believe that all Americans should (be forced to) get a formal education, but we also believe in letting (some) immigrant children into the country. It may be that we can’t have both, and/or that we’re not willing to spend the money to have both. Assuming that we can’t, I’d suggest that the problem isn’t in the immigrants, it’s in our wanting to have the impossible. We need to decide whether we are willing to let them be under-educated, or whether we are willing to put minimum education limits for immigrants.

    A significant number of the immigrants who I know, legal and otherwise, send money back to their families in their native country. That money does not support our economic growth.

    I think it does still support us, although certainly not as much as money reinvested in the U.S. The key is to recognize that money represents created value, not a fixed amount of a scarce resource. Given that, the fact that the immigrant earned money (e.g. created value) implies that they gave something to this country that had more value than the money they received. That helps our economy.

    On the issue about post-doc students returning to their countries: who paid for their education? Why? Did we get more value out of them, before they left, than they got out of us? My guess is that the appropriate answers are “taxes” and “to encourage people to get more education” and “it depends.” I can certainly see an argument that if we didn’t have tax-supported higher education then we’d all be much worse off, in which case the risk that some students will leave is simply a part of the overall cost/benefit balance. I don’t have enough information to know if we come out ahead, though.

    do we continue to support the people who are breaking our laws the minute they step foot over the border?

    I assume that this is about the question of whether to offer amnesty to existing illegal immigrants, and not about whether to allow them in in the first place?

    I haven’t really addressed the amnesty issue yet, but given that I think we ought to just allow immigrants in, I think it doesn’t matter to me if you want to kick the existing ones out, because then they could just turn around and walk right back in :) So I’m generally in favor of amnesty, because I’m generally in favor of letting immigrants in.

  5. Nathan Arthur says:

    If you’re interested in formatting your comment posts the same way I have been (with bold, italics, block quotes, etc.), check out the little “Textile Help” link below. It tells you how to do everything except block quotes. To do those, leave a blank line, and then start the next line with “bq. ” and then the quoted text. So, for example, if I put a line in this comment like so: “bq. This is a block quote” then I’d get

    This is a block quote

    Try it out, and use the “preview” button to tweak it if it doesn’t work to your liking.

  6. akatsuki says:

    Most arguments about immigration for me have boild down into some pretty simple things:

    1. Racism- it is definitely a major factor. White people want this country to stay majority white. They might disguise it under some argument about “their values”, but they aren’t willing to accept that “their values” are not “my values” and I was born in this country too. And values are instilled by education, so the best solution would be to reform education so that everyone receives a top-flight education, including immigrants.

    2. Economic protectionism- this is another common one. Someone is working in a job in which they might be replaced. Instead of becoming more competitive, training out of their current position, they seek to protect their little job as if it was a right. They are basically using government to seek a handout in the form of protectionism, thereby avoiding the appearance of what they really are: welfare recipients.

    The costs of educating and caring for immigrants is not that big of a deal for the children. Presumably if we let them stay legally they will pay back in taxes the cost of their education. The problematic ones are the elderly who are not working and seeking to drain health care resources. I admit that there is no real solution for this unless you merely set an upper age bar on immigration (which I would be unwilling to do morally).

    Immigrant crime would first of all be lower if they got better education. Also if they were registered and integrated into the system, this would make it easier to track and take care of.

    Closing off our borders to immigration would render us completely uncompetitive from a labour pool market. It would expose the huge weaknesses in our higher education when we couldn’t brain-drain other countries. It would leave America foundering against the remainder of the country and would make the people of this country more insular to their detriment.

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