The Immigration Issue: Good Folks on the Wrong Side

The Immigration Issue: Good Folks on the Wrong Side

Stephen H. Unger
October 18, 2011

I have written several essays about immigration to the US [Unger-1][Unger-2]. It is a complex matter and, all across the political spectrum, people are divided as to what should be done. Here, I will discuss what is to me a real puzzle, namely that many people greatly concerned about the environment and about people less fortunate than themselves, have views on immigration that are inconsistent with their basic societal views. And not for selfish reasons.

I will first summarize what I see as the problems caused, or aggravated by, immigration, and point out who benefits from immigration. Then I will explain why I think so many well-meaning people believe, in effect, that anybody who wishes to live or to work in the US be allowed to do so. (This is often referred to as an open border policy.)

Why Shouldn't Our Borders be Open?

Most immigrants, both legal and illegal, do work that would otherwise be done by the most disadvantaged US citizens. Since immigrants generally are willing to work for very little, under harsh conditions, those US citizens who are able to get such jobs, must accept the same pay and conditions. So immigration imposes real hardships on the poorest US citizens. This is particularly true now, when unemployment is rampant. (More about this below.)

Another obvious problem is the effect on population size. The fertility rate in the US is such that, if not for immigration, the population of the country would be essentially stable. Due to immigration, the population is growing at a significant pace, and is expected to increase by over 100 million by 2050 [Wikipedia]. The roughly 350,000 children born annually in the US with at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant constitute over 8% of all US births [Joyner]. Given our numerous social, infrastructure, and environmental problems, virtually all of which grow with population, this is a serious matter.

An influx of people at the poverty level imposes severe burdens on the receiving communities in the form of increased costs for schools, health, and social services.

There are billions of people all over the world who live under miserable conditions. Virtually all of them would have a chance to live better lives if they could come to the US. Most immigrants today are Mexicans, but the numbers (legal and illegal) originating elsewhere in the Americas, or in Asia, or in other continents are growing. Smuggling people into the US has become a big, profitable, business [ABCNEWS]. Clearly, we could admit hundreds of millions of such people, with devastating consequences to the US, without making a dent in the number of potential immigrants [NumbersUSA].

Better Ways to Help Poor People in Other Countries

Rather than have them come here, it would be better for the world's poor, and for us, if we helped them in their own countries. A top priority would be to stop hurting them with bad trade treaties. For example, many Mexican immigrants were farmers who could not survive competition with subsidized US corn under NAFTA [Relinger].

Most immigrants come from countries in which the great majority of people are badly treated; countries whose governments feature various combinations of corruption, incompetence and autocracy. We should stop supporting such governments.

Foreign aid programs should be increased and carefully focused to help poor people. For instance, people in rural areas where fuel supplies are problematic might be shown how to construct simple solar ovens. Instruction about the construction and operation of low-head hydro systems for generating electricity from local streams could be invaluable. Simple means for preventing insect-born diseases could be taught.

Real People Versus Abstract Numbers

The kind hearted people I mentioned above see immigrants as individuals with names and personal histories. Stories of their plight, usually in Mexico, where jobs are scarce, where economic factors pushed them off the land, and where their children were undernourished and ill clad are very real and moving. When, with great difficulty, they cross our border clandestinely (perhaps paying smugglers to transport them) and find menial jobs, struggling to support themselves, it seems cruel to uproot them and force them to return. It is certainly understandable to sympathize with these people.

But now consider the millions of unemployed US citizens who might be doing the work that the immigrants are doing. They are not so easy to visualize and sympathize with. It is hard to get emotional about numbers as opposed to identifiable human beings. You won't see pictures of US citizens with placards saying, "I am unemployed because the job I might have found was given to an immigrant". We can't say with certainty that any particular unemployed person would have a job if there were fewer immigrants. But we can say that, if immigration were shut off, then employers would have to hire US citizens to do the work, and they would have to raise wages and improve working conditions to get workers.

The actual situation is a bit more complex. Where farm or factory products are involved, if there were no immigrant workers, prices would have to be raised somewhat to cover the higher labor cost. The higher prices would, in many cases, make imports from a country that pays much lower wages more profitable. In order to protect farmers and manufacturers from such unfair competition, we would need to impose appropriate tariffs.

While those I am writing about do care about US citizens at the bottom of the economic heap, they do not seem to realize that their stance on immigration, motivated by a desire to help poor people currently outside our borders, is doing great harm to poor people already inside our borders, whether native-born or earlier immigrants. Actually, the number of US citizens harmed is even greater than the number of immigrants helped. Not only is each job taken by an immigrant a job not available to an American, but also those US citizens who do get such jobs are paid less because of the competition from immigrants, and must tolerate the same poor working conditions.

The same people usually also care about the environment, but they somehow overlook the substantial environmental damage resulting from immigration-driven population growth. Again, concern for identifiable individuals is more motivating than worry about generalized harm to large numbers of anonymous people.

A common defense of the open borders policy is that the immigrants take jobs that US citizens don't want. While literally true, this misses the point. US citizens generally do not want to work under the conditions, and for the pay, that people from poverty stricken countries are willing to accept. But, if there were no immigrants, these factors would be quite different. Conditions would have to be improved enough to make the jobs acceptable to US citizens. For example, if there were no immigrants available to do the work, the pay scales at meat packing plants would have to be increased enough to attract US citizens. At present, US citizens can get such jobs only if they are desperate enough to accept the low wages prevailing because of the availability of cheap immigrant labor.

An intermediate position taken by some is that, while we ought to restrict further immigration, we should grant amnesty to the 10-12 million illegal immigrants already here. This sounds good, as rounding up so many people for deportation would be a herculean task. But think about this. What would be a major consequence of such an amnesty?

It would send a clear message to huge numbers of the world's poor people (several billion) who would like to come here that they need not be concerned about legalities. Once in country, they can reasonably assume that eventually there will be another amnesty to regularize their status. This is not speculation. It has already happened. There was just such an amnesty in 1986, affecting almost 3 million people. It led to the mass of illegal immigrants now within our borders [North].

The argument that the amnesty would be accompanied by a renewed effort to seal our borders against more illegal immigrants is not credible. Determined people will always be able to get across. Furthermore, most of those advocating amnesty also oppose virtually all methods for effectively enforcing immigration laws, such as requiring suspected illegals to show ID.

The History-Based Argument

The US is a nation of immigrants. Throughout our history, the nation benefited from immigration. Why change now?

One obvious rejoinder is to ask if the original inhabitants of this country benefited from immigration?

A second point is that, even during the nineteenth century, immigration was by no means an unmixed blessing. As is discussed in my earlier article [Unger-1], immigrants were often brought in to depress wages and, on occasion, to break unions. The same tactic was used in the late 1960s to crush unions in the meat packing industry [Dyer], and is used today to keep wages low.

As one whose parents immigrated to the US as children of poor parents a century ago, I am not insensitive to the situation of their present day counterparts. But times have changed significantly. Encouraging immigration when the population of the US was 30 million, or 50 million, or even 90 million, is very different from opening the borders when the population is 300 million.

Those who leave for the US tend to be people with enough energy and initiative to take the drastic step of abandoning their homelands and starting new lives in strange surroundings. If the option of coming to the US were not open to them, many would be likely to focus their energy on reforming their homeland. Allowing them into the US relieves the pressure on their oppressors.

Beneficiaries of Immigration to the US

The rulers of backward countries with excess populations benefit by the export of surplus people who might otherwise be troublesome. Many of the immigrants do actually better themselves, altho many, and particularly many of their children, do not.

US corporations hiring immigrants to work on factory farms, in meat packing and in poultry processing plants, in hotel chains, in the construction industry, and the like are the big gainers. Small businesses of various types also profit from the availability of low-wage labor, as do individual homeowners getting their lawns mowed on the cheap.

Many people, such as small farmers, are under great pressure to hire immigrants, since the alternative is to pay higher wages and thereby lose out to competitors with much lower labor costs. Actually, the same may be said about some large businesses or farms. Even people having yard work done might have trouble finding non-immigrants to do the work, since most US citizens have given up trying to compete for such jobs. This is not a problem that individuals can solve in isolation.

Companies need to get together and demand that federal action be taken to relieve them of the pressure to hire underpaid workers, by clamping down on both legal and illegal immigration. They should also urge the passage of laws designed to impose appropriate protective tariffs as described above. Very few are taking this position.

The Alabama Law

The furor over the implementation of Alabama's new anti-immigration law [Alabama] is instructive. Its object is to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to, or remaining in, Alabama (my words). On 9/28/11 a preliminary injunction by a district judge held up enforcement of several provisions of the law in response to a suit filed by the federal government [Blackburn]. Other features—principally the ones discussed below—have been implemented. There will soon be a more decisive ruling, and the case will probably reach the US Supreme Court.

One provision of this lengthy law requires police who stop people for such matters as traffic violations and have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they are illegals, ask for proof of legal status (such as a drivers license). They may detain those unable to produce such proof. Outraged immigration supporters called this a Nazi-type tactic that will be used to harass legal residents who look Hispanic [Lozano]. I am not aware of any alternatives for enforcing immigration laws suggested by such critics. It is hard to imagine a requirement milder than asking people to carry a drivers license or some equivalent ID. How many countries require less of aliens within their borders? How many laws (e.g., traffic laws) cannot be used by abusive police to harass people?

Another provision requires employers to use E-Verify (an internet program) to establish that their employees are entitled to work in the US. This is very important as it is key to denying jobs to illegals and hence discouraging them from remaining in the country.

A third provision bars illegals from enrolling in public colleges. Elementary and high schools are required to obtain information about the status of incoming pupils, but the law does not stop the children of illegals from attending pre-college schools. The information is for statistics about educational costs; information about individual school children is to be kept confidential.

It was reported that, shortly after the law went into effect, many illegals were indeed leaving or preparing to leave. Most commentators deplored this, altho that is precisely the goal of the law. Not surprisingly, illegals and their employers were unhappy. News reports concentrated on the reactions of individual members of these two groups, treating the events as a minor disaster, or, as in the title of a NY Times editorial, "Alabama's Shame" [Editorial]. Despite this negative view by the media, polls indicate that most US citizens approve such laws for curbing illegal immigration [Polling].

Almost completely ignored were the unemployed Alabamians, black and white, mostly poor people, whose chances of finding work in construction, in poultry processing plants, on farms, and in other areas dominated by immigrants, became noticeably better. The one such person briefly interviewed by the Times said that he did not blame the immigrants for his problems, but rather those who brought them here to profit from their low pay [Robertson]. The Times editorial made much of the provision dealing with school children, incorrectly implying that the law called for expulsion of children who were not citizens.

I've seen no reports that Alabama employers losing their low-paid workers are increasing pay and improving working conditions. If the law is upheld and enforced, they will have to do this in order to stay in business.

An obvious problem with individual states attacking the immigration problem is that rising labor costs in those states will put farmers and manufacturers at a disadvantage with respect to competitors in other states (not to mention in other countries). We need action on the national level. But the Obama administration is moving in the opposite direction. Deportation of illegal immigrants not found guilty of conventional crimes is being suspended, and such people are being issued work permits [CBS]. Instead of vigorously enforcing existing laws, the president is implementing a form of amnesty. This reinforces the argument that states must enforce federal immigration laws, because the federal government is not doing the job.

A Sensible Policy

There are various circumstances under which immigration is clearly desirable, and where there are no significant drawbacks. These include individuals persecuted in their homelands, where there are no good alternatives. Another category would be individuals with special qualifications, such as outstanding scientists or performers. I am referring here to admission as permanent residents, with eventual citizenship an option. If the total number of such individuals does not exceed, say 100,000 annually, it would not pose any serious problems. Temporary admissions are also not problematic if the annual number is modest—i.e., not large enough to have economic consequences.

Laws against hiring illegals should be strictly enforced, especially against large employers, with substantial penalties for repeat offenders. Border controls should be tightened, but need not be taken to extremes. Local police should be authorized (as in Arizona and Alabama) to ask for ID in the course of stopping people for other legal purposes when there are reasonable grounds to suspect them of being here illegally. (Abusive police behavior in such situations should not be tolerated.) All should be treated humanely, and travel expenses for leaving the country should be paid for those who turn themselves in voluntarily. If the above steps are carried out in a reasonably competent manner, the population of illegals would probably fall significantly within a few years, mostly as a result of voluntary departures.

Due to current widespread use of illegal immigrants in agriculture and in many other occupations, there would be significant detrimental short-term effects if these workers were suddenly expelled. It would take time to get the word out that decent jobs at decent pay have become available. Training programs would be helpful to develop replacement workers. However, if, as is likely, the reduction of the immigrant population was spread out over a period of several years, there would be ample time for recruitment and training. The reduction in the ranks of the unemployed, and the significantly larger incomes for millions of the least well-off US citizens would surely result in a real boost for the economy.


ABCNEWS, "'People Smugglers' Whisk Illegal Aliens Into U.S.", ABC News

Alabama, "Text Of Alabama Immigration Law, HB 56", Latin America News Dispatch, June 9, 2011

Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, "United States of America, Plaintiff, vs. State of Alabama: Memorandum Opinion" Alabama District Court Ruling on Request for a Preliminary Injunction, September 28, 2011

Monica Campbell, Tyche Hendricks, "Mexico's corn farmers see their livelihoods wither away / Cheap U.S. produce pushes down prices under free-trade pact", SFGATE, July 31, 2006

CBS, "U.S. to let illegal immigrants seek work permit", CBS/AP, August 18, 2011

Joel Dyer, "Meatpacking industry has a long history of reliance on immigrant laborer", Greeley Tribune, December 26, 2006

Editorial, "Alabama's Shame", NY Times, October 3, 2011

James Joyner, "Illegal Immigrants 8% of US Births, 3.7% of Population", Outside the Beltway, February 2, 2011

Pepe Lozano, "Alabama's immigration law is hateful and racist, say opponents", People's World, August 12, 2011

David North, "A Bailout for Illegal Immigrants? Lessons from the Implementation of the 1986 IRCA Amnesty"Center for Immigration Studies, Backgrounders and Reports, January 2010

NumbersUSA, "NumbersUSA"Website

Polling, "Immigration",, 2010-2011

Rick Relinger, "NAFTA and U.S. Corn Subsidies: Explaining the Displacement of Mexico's Corn Farmers"Prospect, UCSD, April 2010

Campbell Robertson, "After Ruling, Hispanics Flee an Alabama Town", NY Times, October 3, 2011

Stephen H. Unger-1, "Immigration: Who wins? Who Loses?"Ends and Means, February 27, 2010

Stephen H. Unger-2, "The Immigration Struggle: Defending Arizona"Ends and Means, May 16, 2010

Wikipedia, "Demographics of the United States", Wikipedia

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Comments are invited and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

Don't forget to replace (at) with @ and (dot) with .

Return to Ends and Means