The Immigration Debate and American First Principles

Review: Encounter Broadside No. 41, ‘Open Immigration,’ by Alex Nowrasteh and Mark Krikorian

Immigration protest in California / AP
Immigration protest in California / AP

When Americans were busy in the 18th century figuring out what the first principles of their new nation would be, intellectuals and politicians used to produce ‘broadsides’—brief fliers meant to influence readers before getting tossed into the garbage. Encounter Books resurrected the form in 2009 and its 41st edition proves to be a rarity, and something well worth retaining after the first read: The publisher manages to hold an immigration debate free of any accusations of racism or hatred for America’s working poor.

That isn’t to say the debate between CATO Institute scholar Alex Nowrasteh and Center for Immigration Studies executive director Mark Krikorian is not spirited. Krikorian opens his chapter with "For the past five decades, America’s immigration policy has been based on poetry. It needs, instead, to be based on prose," before laying out the case that America is a buyers market when it comes to newcomers and should craft policy with the interests of its citizens—especially those at the lower rung of society—in mind. To which Nowrasteh replies, "restrictive immigration policies are government tools of social, demographic, and economic engineering that are unacceptably intrusive and contrary to … principles of liberty."

Both authors have given deep consideration to his respective case and analysis of the social, economic, and political effects of open immigration. Readers are free to choose their starting point as Encounter published the white papers in reversible format. There is no indication that either scholar received advanced copies of one another’s paper, but both know this issue well enough to understand the opposition and head him off at the rhetorical pass.

Krikorian argues that immigration hurt the earnings of low-skilled workers, and "increases the profit or the incomes by users of immigrant labor by $437 billion. In other words, mass immigration is an income-redistribution program that takes from the poor and gives to the rich …" But he does not fully address the fact that the lower prices for all consumers is a result of cheaper labor.

More complicatedly, and more persuasively, he argues: "By artificially holding down the natural process of wage growth in labor-intensive industries, mass immigration thus serves as a kind of subsidy for low-wage, low-productivity ways of doing business, retarding technological progress and productivity growth … In effect, mass illegal immigration is an unintentional, but very real, Luddite force in our economy."

When Nowrasteh writes that "immigration is not the government-funded or forced movement of people," many will note in protest that America’s welfare system and lax border security subsidizes the arrival of new immigrants. But Nowrasteh goes on to lay out a case that immigrants are far less likely to take advantage of welfare programs than native citizens and "when poor immigrants do use means-tested welfare, they consume a lower dollar amount than similarly poor natives. In an apples-to-apples comparison, noncitizen adults on Medicaid cost 42 percent less than native-born adults."

Krikorian’s critique that immigrants were a drain on taxpayer dollars seems hollow after being exposed to such facts. But Nowrasteh fails to address a crucial question: Will these same figures hold true once illegal immigrants are granted amnesty? Democrats advertise every welfare program in Spanish to capture as many dependents as possible. It defies belief that illegal immigrants will not take advantage of welfare programs at native rates once they receive legal status.

This book’s core strength is its civility.

Nowrasteh is just as committed to fluid borders and free travel as any liberal calling for ICE to literally abandon the ramparts, yet he never attempts to impugn the character of Krikorian, or others who disagree with him. Nor does Krikorian attempt to paint his opponent as a heartless technocrat preying on defenseless immigrants at the expense of vulnerable Americans. How is it that these two men can engage in a poisonous political topic free of personal attacks and straw men?

The answer may be that, as much as these interlocutors disagree, they have much in common, to include a respect for the earliest principles of the American experiment—even if they disagree on just which of those principles should be preeminent. Nowrasteh sees open immigration as an extension of the natural rights endowed by a Creator (like a good Libertarian, he doesn’t dare mention Him). Krikorian makes the Tocquevellian case that America’s ability to craft a vibrant civil society outside of the specter of government is essential to its identity.

The immigration debate one finds on CSPAN and in the popular press is defined by identity politics and resentment. The partisans are generally archetypes with a crippled, hard-working Hispanic-American shouting at a crippled, hard-working-though-unemployed blue collar American. It makes for good TV, but bad policy.

The theatrics derive from the fact that the two sides typically cannot agree on a starting point. On the one hand we have the cliché that "America is a nation of immigrants;" on the other, "America should look out for its own." Perhaps our policymakers should get to work educating Americans on their nation’s first principles before importing millions of people unfamiliar with the concepts of either natural rights or civil society. The quality of debate—and of policy and ultimately of American life—would be much improved.