Immigrants are strangers, and we should treat them accordingly.

On the one hand, this means that we should consider all of the ways–good and bad–that immigrants affect us.  We shouldn’t merely consider the fiscal effects of immigration.  We should consider the broader economic effects, including those on innovation and entrepreneurship.  And we should consider the political effects–how immigrants will sway our future policies and priorities.

None of this means, however, that we may ignore the welfare of immigrants.  They’re strangers but still human beings.  No one is obligated to hire strangers, house strangers, or support strangers in the lifestyle to which they’d like to become accustomed.  When someone else offers to hire, house, or support a stranger, however, we are normally obliged not to interfere.  If you disapprove of your employer’s latest recruit or your landlord’s new tenants, you have every right to quit or move.  But to overrule other people’s agreements requires a very good excuse.

These moral observations may seem obvious, but they have a shocking implication.  Our current immigration policies treat immigrants worse than strangers, far worse.  Existing laws do not simply make immigrants ineligible for (most) government benefits, or protect your right to refuse to hire or house immigrants.  Instead, existing laws prevent anyone in the United States from hiring or housing immigrants unless the immigrant has government permission.  This permission is very difficult to obtain, especially for low-skilled immigrants.

The upshot: to treat immigrants like strangers, we would probably have to drastically liberalize our immigration laws – not just for high-skilled immigrants but for low-skilled immigrants as well.  Denying government benefits to immigrants is fine; they’re strangers, so we have no obligation to support them.  Denying immigrants the right to accept a job from a willing employer or rent an apartment from a willing landlord, by contrast, requires a very good excuse.

What would constitute a “very good excuse”?  First, we must know with high certainty that free immigration would have very bad overall consequences.  Second, if free immigration does indeed have very bad overall consequences, we need to carefully consider alternative remedies to show that immigration restrictions are the cheapest, most humane solution available.

In practice, these standards are very hard to meet.  My “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” reviews in the social science in detail.  Here, I will simply overview the weaknesses of the leading rationales for immigration restrictions.

Rationale #1: Immigration restrictions prevent economic disaster.  Popular fears notwithstanding, mainstream estimates of the overall economic effects of free immigration are all remarkably positive.  A standard conclusion is that open borders would roughly double world GDP.  Economically speaking, keeping most of the world’s population in the Third World makes about as much sense as keeping most of the world’s farmers in Antarctica.  What about the domestic distributional effects?  Native high school drop-outs probably lose out, especially if they do not own real estate.  But the losses are hardly catastrophic.  In any case, there is a cheaper, more humane way to address these concerns: charge immigrants an admission fee or surtax, then use the revenue to compensate natives who happen to lose out.

Rationale #2: Immigration restrictions prevent budgetary disaster.  Estimates of the budgetary effects of immigration are mixed, at least in the United States.  Still, given current progressive tax policies, very low-income immigrants pay less in taxes than they use in services.  But how low is “very low”?  Answers hinge heavily on assumptions about the effect of population on the total cost of government services.  Some important services–such as defense and debt service–can be provided to a larger population at no additional cost.  As a result, people who pay below-average taxes can still more than carry their own weight.  Regardless of your assumptions, though, there is a cheaper, more humane way to handle the fiscal costs of immigration: restrict access to benefits.  Many such restrictions are already on the books, and there is no reason these restrictions could not be far stricter.  If this seems unfair to immigrants, it is clearly far less unfair than excluding them altogether.

Rationale #3:  Immigration restrictions prevent political disaster.  Immigrants usually move from poor countries with bad policies to rich countries with better policies.  Many people, especially conservatives and libertarians, worry that immigrants will eagerly vote to turn their new homeland into another dysfunctional banana republic.  Empirically, however, these fears are greatly exaggerated.  Immigrants are markedly more likely to be Democrats than the general public.  But there is virtually no evidence that immigrants to the United States support radical policy changes.  Immigrants actually tend to be apolitical; they are markedly less likely to vote or take an interest in politics than natives.  In any case, if immigrant voters really pose a grave danger to our institutions, there is a cheap, humane alternative to preventing immigration: welcoming immigrants as permanent guest workers, entitled to live and work here but not to vote.

How can I begin with the premise that we should treat immigrants as strangers and end by embracing open borders?  Simple: Given how we treat immigrants now, “stranger” status is a big upgrade.  Strangers aren’t entitled to our charity, but if we’re going to deny them their basic rights to work for willing employers and rent from willing landlords, we owe them a very good reason.  And very good reasons are hard to find.  The good effects of immigration are amazingly good; the bad effects of immigration are only mildly bad.  Even if you disagree with these empirical judgments, however, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.  We can and should focus on fixing specific problems instead of hastily denying strangers the basic rights we take for granted.


Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center.  He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, named "the best political book of the year" by the New York Times, and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.  He has published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Economic Review, Economic Journal, Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence and appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. He blogs at EconLog, named a top economics blog by the Wall Street Journal.  Caplan is currently writing a new book, The Case Against Education.

overlay image