Market Approaches to Immigration Restrictions

By Vedder, Richard; Gallaway, Lowell | Journal of Private Enterprise, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Market Approaches to Immigration Restrictions


Vedder, Richard, Gallaway, Lowell, Journal of Private Enterprise


The recent history of the United States has been marked by what seems to be an increase in concerns about immigration. An example is a very sharp bit of rhetoric provided by Peter Brimelow in his book Alien Nation (1995, xv), where he talks of "a renewed mass migration, so huge and so systematically different from anything that had gone before as to transform-and, ultimately, perhaps, even to destroy- ... the American nation." Apart from its tone, this remark betrays a lack of understanding of the history of American immigration.

What Brimelow ignores are at least two other mass migrations that were of substantially larger magnitude when measured as a fraction of the resident population. First, there was the flood of Irish and German immigrants in the thirty years preceding the American Civil War. The annual influx of aliens in this period at times reached a level equal to one percent of the resident population, two to three times the current volume of immigration. And, it was not well received. Many critics, including Samuel F. B. Morse, fretted about the impact of immigration. In fact, Morse tided his 1835 broadside, Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration. Apparently, Morse saw the immigrants of that time through the same lens that Brimelow employs in examining contemporary immigration to the United States.

A major complaint about the Irish and German settlers of this era was that they were not of the same "good stock" as previous immigrants (who were predominantly English). Sixty years later, when annual immigrant flows again reached one percent of the resident population, during the second great mass migration, the very same complaints were being registered concerning immigrants from eastern and central Europe, although now these immigrants were being contrasted unfavorably with the earlier Irish and German settlers. A prominent historian, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1894, 1283) wrote about immigrants as follows: "So far as these people came to us from Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany, experience shows that little or no perturbation of our society is likely to arise from their presence among us ... It is otherwise with the immigrants who come to us from eastern and southern Europe, and who are from states whose history has been so different from our own that the people have had no chance to acquire the qualities which are needed by our American people."

This brief historic summary suggests that Brimelow is speaking in the same tradition as Morse and Shaler. In this, he is accompanied by others, particularly George Borjas (1990, 1994a, 1994b, 1998, and 1999), who claims that today's immigrants are less skilled than those of the past. What is puzzling about these positions is the extent to which they ignore a generalization that seems to run throughout the American immigration experience, namely, that each new generation of immigrants is viewed in an unfavorable light compared to earlier immigrants. Of course, the converse of this proposition is that over time, previous generations of immigrants are perceived in an increasingly favorable fashion. There are sound reasons underlying these notions:

* Immigrants have typically come to the United States relatively poor and unproductive but learn quickly to adjust, with average income approximating those of native-born Americans within a decade or so after arrival.

* Immigration does not reduce job opportunities for native-born Americans (Vedder, Gallaway, and Moore, 1990). Nor is there evidence, either earlier in our history or today, that immigration leads to increased unemployment.

* The notion that immigrants are a significant net burden on the resident population is fallacious, particularly in today's world (Vedder, Gallaway, and Moore, 2000). If anything, the opposite is probably true, as a relatively young immigrant population reduces the social burden of providing for older Americans. …

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