Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders

The annals of logic do not lack for odd argumentative techniques. There’s the argumentum ad hominem, which relies on personal attacks. There’s the argumentum ad ignorantium, which suggests that what hasn’t been proven false must be true; the argumentum ad novitatem, which suggests that something must be superior by virtue of being newer; and the argumentum ad crumenam, which holds that the side with the most money can safely be judged the most correct, or why else would they have so much money?

The logicians forgot one, though. Cloistered in academia, which I’m told is very liberal, they may not have been often exposed to the argumentum ad Reagan, which holds that the side able to produce the most textual evidence associating Ronald Reagan with their position is the undisputed winner. That is the argumentative technique on display in much of Jason Riley’s new book on immigration, Let Them In. Riley, an editorial board member at The Wall Street Journal, has produced a manifesto against a conservative movement he fears is increasingly tripping into xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria. And so he begins his book, and peppers it throughout, with the only voice able to calm his comrades down: Ronald Reagan’s.

The first page quotes Reagan saying, “All of the immigrants who came to us brought their own music, literature, customs, and ideas. And the marvelous thing, a thing of which we’re proud, is they did not have to relinquish these things to fit in. In fact, what they brought to America became American.” Reagan’s other pro-immigrant utterances are woven throughout the text, and it’s a convincing case. So let it be said: Reagan, who passed an effective amnesty law in 1986, was inescapably open to immigration.

That should take care of many of Riley’s conservative readers. But the rest of us need something more. And Riley, thankfully, provides. The majority of the book is given to a clear-headed and painstaking demolition of the major myths used to scare the population into believing immigrants are working powerfully against their interests.

Riley begins — smartly, given his book’s ostensibly conservative audience — with traditionally liberal critics of immigration: population skeptics and environmentalists, both of whom fear that more people means more resource depletion means more environmental destruction means more scarcity means doom. A tour through the long history of such claims — they’ve always been disproven, as advances in technology easily outrace increases in birthrates — will convince even the dourest anti-modernist that history has a way of making earnest Malthusians look foolish and xenophobic in retrospect.

But though population skeptics and xenophobes cloaked in environmentalist garb may deserve a good thrashing, they’re cranks more than serious participants in the national debate: As such, Riley’s assault seems hardly worth the effort. The real meat of the book comes in its careful deconstruction of the relevant — and much more credible — concerns about the economic impacts of large-scale immigration of the unskilled.

Riley has clearly delved deeply into the subject, and his methodical examination of the relevant academic literature on wages and immigration is comfortingly comprehensive. In particular, I was glad to see that Riley engaged, at length, with the work of Harvard’s George Borjas, whose sterling reputation as a leading economist has made him the most compelling advocate for tighter borders. Borjas has found that immigration decreases the wages of unskilled native laborers by about 9 percent. That is indeed a negative impact, and if you’re one of those unskilled laborers, reason enough to advocate for closed borders. But the generally crude and sensationalistic publicization of Borjas’s findings tend to leave out other portions of his conclusions that rather complicate the picture. Riley, who’s read Borjas’s work closely, teases them out.

First, Borjas has found that immigration increases America’s gross domestic product by $22 billion a year. In other words, though immigration does hurt the worst-off, it has a net positive impact on the American economy. Second, Riley peers into the methodology Borjas uses and finds that the game is a bit rigged: Borjas assumes that physical capital is fixed: That the number and size of employers in the country is constant, and that the immigrants are consistently suitable replacements for native wrokers. That’s a questionable assumption at best. In general, when there are more workers and labor is cheaper, companies, for better or worse, employ more people in labor-intensive jobs: They have immigrants pick tomatoes, where they might otherwise use a machine or move the operation to Guatemala. The number of jobs changes as a result of the number of workers. When, in a later paper, Borjas allowed capital to adjust to immigration, he found the negative effect on unskilled wages had dropped to 4 percent.

Riley also looks into the work of Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California at Davis, who analyzed employment data in California and found that immigration increases the wages of almost all workers (though unskilled workers see the lowest gains). Peri’s work argues, essentially, that the traditional understanding of immigrant labor is awry: Broadly speaking, immigrants don’t just compete with native labor, they also complement it. They fill out industries, in other words, that wouldn’t exist without immigrants. To put it simply, if there were no Chinese immigrants, the result would not be Chinese restaurants staffed mainly by native Iowans: You wouldn’t have many Chinese restaurants at all, and folks who like Chinese food would eat at home more often. Additionally, you’d have more native workers laboring for low wages at the bottom of the occupational ladder rather than being pushed up into management and supervisory roles, as happens now. That’s not to say there’s no competition — there certainly is some — but Peri finds it’s outweighed by complementary labor, and thus immigration helps wages in the aggregate.

Moreover, whichever estimates you believe, the effects of immigration on native laborers are small, and if your concern is really the conditions of the worst-off, there are much more direct ways to help them (universal health care would be a good start). As Riley persuasively argues, however, the positive effects of immigration on the wages of immigrants are huge. That’s why immigrants choose what is, in many cases, an awful, lonesome, and frequently undignified life hundreds or thousands of miles from their families. For them, America is, as Reagan once put it, a shining city on a hill, and even a harsh existence in its shadows is bright with opportunity.