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June 07, 2007

Immigration debate over at the National Review

David Frum over at the National Review poses an interesting line of argument:

I am often asked: how can you support free trade while favoring curbs on immigration? If borders are open to goods and capital, should they not be open to people as well? This argument used to impress me a great deal. (In the next NRODT I tell the story of how I came to change my mind on immigration.)  But can we please note that from a distributional point of view, immigration functions more like protectionism than trade?

Protectionists always do well in Congress because the benefits of protectionism are tightly concentrated while the costs are broadly dispersed. The beneficiaries clamor for protection; the victims keep quiet.

Isn't that exactly what happens with immigration? The benefits of open borders are claimed by a few tightly organized groups; the costs fall on the American people as a whole.

Immigration is an odd issue that cuts in odd ways in the body politic. The left tends to emphasize the individual dimension of immigration (i.e. families that have suffered from ICE raids, border policing, etc.) as reason to have more open borders to immigration, while this right advances cultural arguments (who is dem America? what language do dem speak?) disguised as economic ones (labor supply concerns). Still others emphasize that we're importing the "wrong workers," and that there would be more payoff to American families if we imported doctors and lawyers rather than putting our lowly paid manufacturing workers in race to the bottom competition.

All approaches have a grain of truth in them, but none of them are going to unify wide swaths of people living in America. People (especially because of America's religious and moral traditions) will always feel sympathy for the plight of the poor and downtrodden, but the same people will also have concerns about immigration's impact on wage stagnation (i.e. the labor supply argument). This includes many immigrants themselves! The "wrong workers" argument is intellectually compelling, but at a time when workers at higher and higher income levels are concerned about the offshoring of white collar jobs, it seems to divide a nascent coalition for fair trade just as it was getting off the ground.

A more promising approach would be to emphasize how bad trade and economic policy is generating the labor oversupply crisis (at at time when the end of the Cold War and the opening up of China and the former Soviet Union was already creating labor oversupply, PDF), which negatively effects the lives of (for example) individual immigrants forced from their homes in Mexico and elsewhere, as well as the nearly 50% of African-American men in New York who experience unemployment (PDF) as dishwasher and other low-skill jobs are filled by immigrants. Meanwhile, manufacturing workers in Ohio lose their jobs to manufacturing workers in Mexico, who in turn lose their job to China, and so on. This dynamic contributes to a situation where a worldwide coalition for job security can be built, from the blue to the white collar, from developing to developed country.

And this brings us back to Frum. While the lobbying strategy of fair trade and immigration groups may be concentrated in a few groups (anyone who has been on the Hill would know that this is nothing unusual), the costs of the labor oversupply problem are anything but concentrated. It is true that the benefits of NAFTA-style trade are widely dispersed, but so are the costs - which are recognized to outweigh the benefits. All you have to note is that U.S. wages have been stagnant for 30 years to see that labor deregulation and oversupply (both through trade, immigration, and other channels) is benefiting very few people - and that people on both sides of the border are being victimized.

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Comments

Reginald Windom

The Democrats have maneuvered themselves into a winning position at President Bush's expense once again. The immigration bill is doomed to defeat thus losing the Republicans the hispanic vote for 2008. Those mean old Republicans insisting that the rule of law be obeyed and that those who break the law be punished...well, they will feel the hispanic communities wrath in 2008.

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