A Moral Case for More Immigration

This is a post outside of the typical urbanist issues we write about here, but one that I think is very important to cities. At Forbes, Adam Ozimek writes that economics bloggers are failing to make the case for the importance of permitting increased high-skilled immigration:

I think it is professional malpractice that economists see trillions of dollars in pareto improvements going to waste and don’t scream about it from the rooftops daily because it’s not as fun to argue about. I don’t think the public has a good sense of the extent to which more high-skilled immigration would help us, and part of the problem is precisely that we don’t scream this from the rooftops with the regularity and fervor it deserves.

 As urbanization is a process of migration, the issue should be of prime concern for urbanists as well as economists. Many of the world’s greatest cities were built through immigration, and the variety of cultures in cities creating diverse food, arts, and events are an important factor in making cities interesting places to live.

While I’ve been broadly in favor of more immigration as long as I can remember, through a few experiences I’ve become much more passionate about broadly increasing the number of immigrants allowed to move into the United States. High-skilled immigration is an economic no-brainer, but I think from a humanitarian perspective we should be allowing more immigration from all backgrounds.

I spent a semester in college in Guadalajara, Mexico. There I worked in a school for niños trabajadores, children who attended school for a few hours a day and also worked in jobs like selling flowers or gum.  The non-profit school was run by some amazing teachers, but it was difficult knowing that the prospects for these students in school and outside of school were difficult.

A few of the students were from families who had immigrated to the United States illegally and had been deported back to Mexico. Their parents were risk takers who were willing to do something illegal and dangerous for the chance to make their families better off, to give their children the opportunity to go to school full time rather than for a few hours a day while working to help meet their families’ basic needs with little chance of receiving an education beyond grade school.

The following summer, I spent some time working with migrant farmers in Colorado who received seasonal visas to pick peaches. This is the type of work that natural-born citizens have demonstrated their unwillingness to do. After a day of hard manual labor, the migrant workers would study English and study for the citizenship test they would likely never have a chance to take. It’s baffling to me that we wouldn’t want to allow people with this type of work ethic to stay here and bring their families if they wanted to.

These personal anecdotes are very trivial in the scheme of immigration policy but have meaningfully shaped my pro-immigration views. As Adam points out, the economic data that comes down clearly in favor of increased immigration has not proven successful in moving policy toward a more favorable stance on the issue. This issue seems to be one that people decide based on their morality, and I believe stories like mine demonstrate that policies limiting immigration keep out the most driven and entrepreneurial people who we should want to join our country and our cities.

As Bryan Caplan explains in his work on the topic, forcing those who were unlucky enough to be born in impoverished and unfree countries to stay there when they are willing to go to great sacrifice to leave is immoral, and immigration opponents face a high barrier to demonstrate that immigration has sufficient negative consequences to justify this immorality. While these opponents to immigration often suggest that permitting low-skilled immigrants into the country will put Americans out of work, the majority of research on the topic suggests that this impact is small. This is because jobs are not finite; immigrants of all skill levels can create economic opportunities for themselves and citizens as they move into the country by increasing the division of labor.

Immigrants are by definition an entrepreneurial and motivated group. Permitting more high-skilled immigration should be a given, and is probably the politically easiest place to start, but allowing more low-skilled immigrants the opportunity to move to the United States creates important opportunities for people not lucky enough to be born into a wealthy democracy. I agree with Bryan Caplan’s general approach to this issue, more moral than economic, even though the economic benefits are obvious, and maybe Adam is correct that the best way to bring attention to the issue is simply to write about it more.

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  • http://twitter.com/_Srijit Srijit Sanyal

    Love the post, but have to correct a small error: jobs (and resources generally) are finite, but they are not fixed.

  • http://bigcitysparkplug.com/ Scott Beyer

    Nevermind the economic benefits of high-skilled immigrants, which are evident. There is a moral argument for immigration that libertarians can get behind. It is is the belief that, while national borders are important, it should not mean the governments enforcing them should have arbitrary locks on who goes in/out. Of course it’s their role to protect citizens from the bad apples. But if a free human agrees to enter a country, follow its laws, pay taxes, and contribute postively to society–aka most high-skilled AND low-skilled immigrants–why should bureaucrats dictate her fate?
    And in response to Srijit: jobs are not “finite.” Population growth produces growth in demand and production, and in the economy. Hence, job growth also.

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