The Great Immigration Debate
by Ari Armstrong, March 27, 2006
Jon Caldara said he intended to foster "an open dialogue among conservatives" about illegal immigration. And, despite the heavy snow, around 200 people attended the March 20 event, "Invitation or Invasion: A Discussion on the Conservative Response to Illegal Immigration," hosted in Denver by Caldara's Independence Institute. It was an extraordinary debate.
One side of the debate, the economic protectionists, environmental fear-mongers, and cultural separatists argued for restrictions on legal immigration and the eradication of illegal immigration. While concerns about assimilation may reasonably be called "conservative," how protectionism and neo-Malthusian population scares so qualify was less obvious. On the other side of the debate were free-market advocates who want secure borders and less welfare but largely unrestrained legal immigration.
Below are summaries of the discussion, criticisms, photographs, and mp3 audio files. Individual audio files remain unedited in content, though Sheriff John Cooke's talk and a few comments by Caldara are not included in those files.
Listen to the audio recording of Frosty Wooldridge and Steve Moore.
Beginning the discussion was Frosty Wooldridge, a demagogue who displayed ignorance of basic economics. Wooldridge's basic reductionist thesis is that population density determines economic well-being. India's poverty is the result of its large population; over-population creates "misery," "human suffering," and starvation; and the U.S. must control its population growth in order to be a "sustainable society," Wooldridge argued.
Wooldridge's refried Malthusian nonsense, popularized by the modern environmental left, elicited gasps from some allegedly "conservative" members of the crowd.
Wooldridge's essential error is to see wealth as something over which humans necessarily fight, rather than as something created by thinking people in a free market. In reality, population density has practically nothing to do with economic well-being. The key factor is instead economic liberty, which allows the development of capital and thus a rise in real wealth per capita.
For example, Russia has a population density much lower than that of the United States, yet Russia has remained dramatically poorer. Wikipedia's list of population densities shows rich high-density countries and poor low-density countries. Notably, Hong Kong has one of the world's highest population densities, yet it is also one of the wealthiest places in the world.
Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton write, "Between 1870 and 1950 Britain's population nearly tripled" while "average incomes grew more than twofold" (World Ark, March/April 2006, page 9, reprinted from Fair Trade For All. I do not agree with all of the conclusions of those authors). In general, the Industrial Revolution led to massively larger populations and massively more wealth per capita. Wooldridge's account obviously does not square with the facts.
Thankfully, Steve Moore corrected some of Wooldridge's errors, chiding him for using unrealistic population projections. Moore pointed out that the population in many countries is declining. He predicted that the population of the U.S. will stabilize at around 400 million in the middle of the century.
Moore argued that "capitalism is the greatest contraceptive" because it makes people more educated and wealthier. However, he didn't include all the economic reasons why Wooldridge's projections are silly. For example, as population increases, some items like real estate become more expensive. And as more people immigrate to the U.S. to fill jobs, they increase the supply of labor in the U.S. and decrease it in their native countries.
Moore described three principles of a sensible immigration policy. The U.S. should welcome legal but not illegal immigrants by enforcing secure borders and adopting a guest-worker program. The U.S. should "say yes to immigration, no to welfare." Finally, people in the U.S. should encourage the cultural assimilation of immigrants.
Moore aptly described the main difference between his perspective and that of Wooldridge. "I believe that human beings are assets," Moore said.
Unfortunately, the discussion got a bit nasty during the question period. One woman called Moore a liar and suggested he's biased because of his high income. Wooldridge also mocked Moore for his income, at which point I hollered, "ad hominen."
Listen to the audio recording of Dan Griswold and Linda Gorman.
Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute argued that immigrants are an economic benefit. He also said, "We've tried enforcing existing law, and it's failed." He urged the adoption of a temporary-worker program.
According to Griswold, we should "wall off our welfare state, not wall off our country."
Linda Gorman pointed out that it is indeed possible to enforce current laws against immigration, contrary to Griswold's assertion. For example, the Soviet Union effectively controlled its borders by keeping people from escaping. (I wasn't sure if she intended her example to be ironic.)
Gorman also took seriously the idea of assimilation. She pointed out that immigrants used to be subjected to ideological tests. Immigrants who believe in America's founding principles are fine, she said, but granting visas to Taliban members is altogether different.
"I don't worry a bit about over-population," Gorman said. She also pointed out that wages depend on productivity; "it doesn't matter" how many people are in a region. "Growth is a good thing," she added.
It does matter, though, whether immigrants are skilled or merely related to somebody already here. It also matters whether natives are taxed to subsidize illegal immigrants. Another problem is the automatic granting of citizenship to babies born in the U.S. Thus, Gorman wasn't particularly happy with either established side of the immigration debate.
Sheriff John Cooke of Weld County talked about the difficulties for law enforcement posed by illegal immigration. He attributed a large part of the problem of overcrowded jails to illegal immigration.
There's "not much we can do" at the local level, Cooke said. "I am frustrated, and people in Colorado are frustrated."
Cooke said that not all illegal immigrants are violent criminals; the percentage is low, as it is with the native population. But some illegal immigrants do commit crimes. And a broader problem is that laws against immigrating illegally are lax.
Listen to the audio recording of Alex Cranberg and Yeh Ling-Ling.
Alex Cranberg, a local businessman, pointed out that all sorts of immigrant groups have been criticized in the past. He wondered whether the current wave of Mexican immigration is "really that different" from earlier ones. Earlier groups, whether Germans or Irish or Italian, always "were from the wrong countries and for the wrong reasons."
Cranberg argued that economic opportunity is what draws immigrants. He suggested that we "worry more about our welfare state" than about immigration.
Cranberg explicitly denounced the Malthusians and their anti-growth ideas, ideas that are "more fear-based than opportunity-based."
For Cranberg, "the conservative movement stands for growth" and optimism.
But Yeh Ling-Ling, herself an immigrant, would have none of it. She insisted that immigration especially from Mexico is "destroying the American culture."
She argued that welfare, bilingual education, and the idea of a "reconquista" of the American Southwest undermine assimilation, feed left-wing political agendas, and threaten to split American culture.
Ling-Ling did quote some academics who write about the "reconquista." However, she did not demonstrate that the movement is widespread or taken seriously by most immigrants. Cranberg again argued that current immigrants are no worse than were previous immigrants from other countries.
Juan Botero, who is challenging Congressman Tom Tancredo in the primary, provided a particularly colorful question period. Sporting an Arnold Schwarzenegger jacket -- apparently Botero worked on that campaign -- Botero challenged Ling-Ling's assertions about the threats of the "reconquista" movement. It's a small group, Botero said, and besides California's military is mighty.
Another question concerned English immersion versus bilingual education. Ling-Ling said that students "absolutely" need immersion. Cranberg played up the drama as audience members shouted out their answers to the question in a game-show atmosphere. Finally, Cranberg said, "The audience says." He explained that what he meant is that parents should get to choose the education system that works best for them. It's not appropriate for one person or party to declare "what the answer is for other people's children."
Listen to the audio recording of Dan Griswold and Tom Tancredo.
Griswold returned to argue that legal immigration is compatible with security. "Let's not commit economic suicide in the name of security," he said.
"National security... begins well beyond the border," Griswold argued. The appropriate policy is to "keep dangerous people well away from the U.S. before they get close to the border."
However, Mexico isn't the source of terrorist activity. So it makes little sense to divert resources to sealing up the Mexican border.
A system of legalized immigration would enhance security and reduce smuggling and document fraud, Griswold argued. Resources should be spent stopping criminals and terrorists, "not busting janitors."
Griswold invoked Hernando de Soto in saying that the law must be compatible with the organization of our lives. "Change the law to conform to a free society," he urged.
Tom Tancredo replied that secure borders can still allow international trade. And immigration policy is a distinct issue: "You can have immigration into this country, and you still can secure your borders," he said. The first priority, though, is to get control of the border.
Tancredo outlined the various problems associated with illegal immigration: problems of smuggling and gangs.
He also questioned whether the government could realistically establish a guest-worker program. He pointed out that the current green-card system is rife with abuse. However, Tancredo didn't explain how he expects the government to round up an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and ship them back to Mexico. Given that alternative, Tancredo's complaint about the paperwork of a guest-worker program seemed peculiar.
Griswold and Tancredo, then, agreed that the border should be secure and that all immigration should be legal. The difference is that Tancredo wants to get illegal immigrants out of the country and then severely limit legal immigration, while Griswold wants to allow those who want to work in the U.S. to do so easily.
Listen to the audio recording of Helen Krieble, Steve Moore, John Andrews, and Tom Tancredo (shown below), who joined the final panel in an effort to find "common ground" in the immigration debate.
Helen Krieble offered a possible solution to the problem of initiating a guest-worker program. She pointed out that it's very hard to come to the U.S. to work legally, so people come illegally. What's needed, then, is a "private-sector solution" to establish a guest-worker program.
"You can get money anywhere in the world," Krieble said," but you can't get a visa in the U.S. You need the private sector to do it."
Krieble's plan, described in a paper written with Greg Walcher, would authorize an independent organization to authorize visas for guest workers. Workers would then have an incentive to return home and apply for the legal visa. Employers would rather hire legal workers, if they were available, than face fines for hiring illegal workers.
John Andrews outlined competing visions of America. One is the "steady-state island." Another is the "lifeboat for mankind." The ideal model is the "shining city on a hill," which has both gates and walls to welcome some people but not everybody.
Andrews argued that the America's founders recognized "the moral conditions for citizenship." Immigrants should be taken selectively from different places and assimilated into American culture.
Andrews also said that those who call for open competition emphasize "theoretical economics" and an economic model of human behavior at the expense of cultural concerns.
Moore summarized his position and pointed out the benefits of immigration.
Tancredo added some arguments about economic protectionism. He countered Moore's claim that immigrants are an economic benefit, noting that there "isn't a direct-line" correlation between immigration and economic growth. Furthermore, "great inventions" can replace migrant labor. "I don't want legal immigration to be easy," Tancredo said. He worried about "people who will work for less" and said the government must "go after employers" who hire illegal immigrants. "There are billions of willing workers out there" who must be stopped from coming to the U.S., Tancredo said. However, he didn't account for how economic incentives draw some potential immigrants but discourage others.
So is there "common ground," as Caldara hoped to find? Yes. All the speakers agreed on three main points. First, the borders should be secure, and at least those with contagious diseases, criminal backgrounds, and ties to terrorism should be denied entry. Second, all immigration should on a legal basis. Third, welfare creates bad incentives for immigration.
Speakers disagreed on the size of the problem of assimilation and what should be done about it. And speakers split into two main sides concerning the huge issue of whether U.S. employers should be allowed to fill jobs with willing immigrants at will, or whether immigration should be limited below what the free market would otherwise encourage.
My position is that the proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights, which include rights to hire willing workers.