15 Common Arguments Against Immigration, Addressed

Arguments against immigration come across my desk every day but their variety is limited – rarely do I encounter a unique one.  Several times a year I give presentations about these arguments and rebut their points.  These are the main arguments against immigration and my quick responses to them:

15 Common Arguments Against Immigration, Addressed
Photo by Britt Selvitelle

1.  “Immigrants will take our jobs and lower our wages, especially hurting the poor.”

This is the most common argument and also the one with the greatest amount of evidence rebutting it.  First, the displacement effect is small if it even affects natives at all.  Immigrants are typically attracted to growing regions and they increase the supply and demand sides of the economy once they are there, expanding employment opportunities.  Second, the debate over immigrant impacts on American wages is confined to the lower single digits – immigrants may increase the relative wages for some Americans by a tiny amount and decrease them by a larger amount for the few Americans who directly compete against them.  Immigrants likely compete most directly against other immigrants so the effects on less-skilled native-born Americans might be very small or even positive.

New research by Harvard professor George Borjas on the effect of the Mariel Boatlift – a giant shock to Miami’s labor market that increased the size of its population by 7 percent in 42 days – finds large negative wage effects concentrated on Americans with less than a high school degree.  To put the scale of that shock to Miami in context, it would be as if 22.4 million immigrants moved to America in a six-week period – which will not happen.  Some doubt Borjas’ finding (here is Borjas’ response to the critics and here is a summary of the debate) but what is not in doubt is that immigration has increased the wages and income of Americans on net.  The smallest estimates immigration surplus, as it is called, is equal to about 0.24 percent of GDP – which excludes the gains to immigrants and just focuses on those of native-born Americans.

2. “Immigrants abuse the welfare state.”

Most legal immigrants do not have access to means-tested welfare for their first five years here with few exceptions and unauthorized immigrants don’t have access at all – except for emergency Medicaid.

Immigrants are less likely to use means-tested welfare benefits that similar native-born Americans.  When they do use welfare, the dollar value of benefits consumed is smaller.  If poor native-born Americans used Medicaid at the same rate and consumed the same value of benefits as poor immigrants, the program would be 42 percent smaller.

Immigrants also make large net contributions to Medicare and Social Security, the largest portions of the welfare state, because of their ages, ineligibility, and their greater likelihood of retiring in other countries.  Far from draining the welfare state, immigrants have given the entitlement portions a few more years of operation before bankruptcy.  If you’re still worried about immigrant use of the welfare state, as I am, then it is far easier and cheaper to build a higher wall around the welfare state, instead of around the country.

3. “Immigrants are a net fiscal cost.”

Related to the welfare argument is that immigrants consume more in government benefits than they generate in tax revenue.  The empirics on this are fairly consistent – immigrants in the United States have a net-zero impact on government budgets (the published version of that working paper is published here).

It seems odd that poor immigrants don’t create a larger deficit but there are many factors pushing explaining that.  The first is that higher immigrant fertility and the long run productivity of those people born in the United States generates a lot of tax revenue.  The second is that immigrants grow the economy considerably (this is different from the immigration surplus discussed above) and increase tax revenue.  The third is that many immigrants come when they are young but not young enough to consume public schools, thus they work and pay taxes before consuming hundreds of thousands of dollars in public schools costs and welfare benefits – meaning they give an immediate fiscal boost.  There are many other reasons as well.

Although the tax incidence from immigrants is what matters for the fiscal consequences, between 50 percent and 75 percent of illegal immigrants comply with federal tax law.  States that rely on consumption or property taxes tend to garner a surplus from taxes paid by unlawful immigrants while those that rely on income taxes do not.

4.  “Immigrants increase economic inequality.”

In a post-Piketty world, the argument that immigration is increasing economic inequality within nations is getting some attention.  While most forms of economic inequality are increasing among people within nations, global inequality is likely falling due and at a historic low point due to rapid economic growth in much of the world over the last generation.

The evidence on how immigration affects economic inequality in the United States is mixed – some research finds relatively small effects and others find substantial ones.  The variance in findings can be explained by research methods – there is a big difference in outcomes between a study that measures how immigration affects economic inequality only among natives and another study that includes immigrants and their earnings.  Both methods seem reasonable but the effects on inequality are small compared to other factors.

Frankly, I don’t see the problem if an immigrant quadruples his income by coming to the United States, barely affects the wages of native-born Americans here, and increases economic inequality as a result.  The standard of living is much more important than the earnings distribution and everybody in this situation either wins or is unaffected.

5.  “Today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like previous immigrant groups did.”

There is a large amount of research that indicates immigrants are assimilating as well as or better than previous immigrant groups – even Mexicans.  The first piece of research is the National Academy of Science’s (NAS) September 2015 book titled The Integration of Immigrants into American Society.  It’s a thorough and brilliant summation of the relevant academic literature on immigrant assimilation.  Bottom line:  Assimilation is never perfect and always takes time, but it’s going very well.

The second book is a July 2015 book entitled Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015 that analyses immigrant and second generation integration on 27 measurable indicators across the OECD and EU countries.  This report finds more problems with immigrant assimilation in Europe, especially for those from outside of the European Union, but the findings for the United States are quite positive.

The third work by University of Washington economist Jacob Vigdor compares modern immigrant civic and cultural assimilation to that of immigrants from the early 20th century (an earlier draft of his book chapter is here, the published version is available in this collection).  If you think early 20th century immigrants

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