Immigrants and Welfare
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest- tossed to me;
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
VERSE ENGRAVED ON THE BASE OF THE STATUE OF LIBERTY
One possible response to the observation that the U.S. had effectively open immigration for most of its history and it turned out pretty well, one made by a commenter to my previous post, is that the U.S. was not then, and is now, a welfare state. As long as immigrants came to work and produce, they were a net benefit. The problem comes from the risk that poor immigrants today will come in order to live off our welfare system at a level considerably better than they could manage, even with hard work, in the countries they came from.
That is an old argument, one I discussed in my first book some forty years ago. There are a number of possible responses.
The first is the empirical question—is there evidence that immigrants in fact impose net costs on the U.S. tax and spending system? I think the answer is no, although it is not a question I have looked into in any detail. Immigrants tend to be young and healthy, hence impose lower costs than the average of those already here. And some of our governmental costs, most notably national defense and interest on the national debt, are independent of population, so easier to pay the more people are helping to pay them.
A possible response is that current legal immigrants are better educated and richer than those who would come if restrictions on immigration were relaxed or eliminated, so not a relevant sample. That does not apply to illegal immigrants, however. A possible argument there is that the very fact they are illegal makes them less able to take advantage of government services. Most obviously, an illegal immigrant who provides his employer with a bogus social security number is paying money into the Social Security fund and is never going to be able to collect. Grant them all amnesty, and who knows what will happen?
One might see that as an argument for what a cynic would view as current policy—let them come and keep them illegal. A more attractive alternative, in my view, would be to let them come, make them legal, but have restrictions on what benefits immigrants who are not yet citizens are entitled to. Immigrants pay taxes, direct and indirect, so it should not require a very sharp reduction in access to government services to keep them from being a net drain. It might not require any at all—that is an empirical question.
A more extreme version, which I proposed a long time ago, would be to provide new immigrants with none of the services that go to recognizable individuals, as opposed to services such as the existence of roads or national defense—no welfare, no public schooling, no unemployment compensation. Of course, to be fair, the immigrants should also be exempt from whatever part of taxes pays for those services—raising the possibility that some well off citizens might conclude that their current benefits were not worth what they cost, and alter their status accordingly.
Unless we want to maintain a permanent class of non-citizen residents corresponding to the metics of classical Athens, non-citizen immigrants will eventually receive citizenship, entitling them to all the benefits (and burdens) thereof. But by that time they will have been supporting themselves, and adjusting to their new environment, for long enough so that they should be no more likely to be a burden than anyone else. Perhaps less, given the personal qualities required to choose to make a new life in a new place. Living on welfare might look like a good deal for someone whose only experience is trying to survive in an impoverished third world country, but less so after a decade or so living and working in a first world country at first world wages.
There is one more argument I have offered in the past, one that ought to appeal to libertarians, perhaps to conservatives, but not to some other people. The existence of a welfare state may be an argument against freer immigration. But freer immigration is also an argument against the welfare state. Increases in the level of welfare will have some tendency to pull in poor immigrants, increasing the cost of those increases to those already here, which should make increases less politically popular. That is an argument for freer immigration from the point of view of those opposed to the welfare state.
It is also an argument against freer immigration for those in favor of a welfare state, which suggests that perhaps it ought to be the Democrats, not the Republicans, opposing any reduction in current immigration restrictions.
Having let myself slide back into a very old argument, I will show my true colors by quoting the end of the chapter on immigration from my first book:
It is a shame that the argument must be put in terms of the economic or psychological 'interest' of the present generation of Americans. It is simpler than that. There are people, probably many millions, who would like to come here, live here, work here, raise their children here, die here. There are people who would like to become Americans, as our parents and grandparents did.
If we want to be honest, we can ship the Statue of Liberty back to France or replace the outdated verse with new lines, 'America the closed preserve/That dirty foreigners don't deserve.' Or we can open the gates again.
Welcome, Welcome, Emigrante
To my country welcome home.
(The Machinery of Freedom, Chapter 14)