U.S. Immigration Policy in the 21st Century: A Market-Based Approach

By Hall, Joshua C.; VanMetre, Benjamin J. et al. | The Cato Journal, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

U.S. Immigration Policy in the 21st Century: A Market-Based Approach


Hall, Joshua C., VanMetre, Benjamin J., Vedder, Richard K., The Cato Journal


On most issues of public policy one can predict the position that individuals will take based on their ideological orientation. Immigration policy, however, is one topic where ideological perspective is historically useless in predicting individual positions. The decision of whether or not to liberalize immigration policy or to place greater restrictions on it is something that creates a divide not only between political parties but also within the parties themselves. Peter Brimelow (1999) is one prominent voice from the right who believes that the current immigration policies not only second-guess the American people but threaten the American nation. Brimelow is a strong supporter of placing restrictions on immigration at levels that are much lower than those that currently exist. A similar position is taken by the libertarian political philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Specifically, Hoppe (1998) argues that the United States will continue to suffer until policies are implemented that subject all migration to the condition of legally binding contractual invitations between the private domestic persons and the arriving immigrants.

Yet other important voices on the right have supported past efforts to liberalize government restrictions on immigration, including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Mehlman 2000). These liberalization efforts stem from the argument that markets work as efficiently in the area of human mobility as they do in other forms of economic activity. Additionally, important voices from the libertarian movement, Walter Block in particular, support liberalized immigration policy by defending the argument that "like tariffs and exchange controls, migration barriers of whatever type are egregious violations of laissez-faire capitalism" (Block 1998: 168).

Liberals have also found themselves divided on issues surrounding immigration. Labor unions and their leaders have historically opposed immigration, although this view is beginning to change as they are realizing that the number of immigrant union members has been rapidly increasing (Migration Policy Institute 2004). Also, the increasing dominance of public sector unions in the labor movement has reduced the influence of private sector unions, which have historically opposed immigration (see Norcross 2011 for more on the distinction between public and private sector unions). But as the anti-globalization movement has shown, many on the left favor reductions in the international movement of not only goods, services, and capital but human labor as well (Bhagwati 2004). However, there are others on the left such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who have generally favored efforts to expand immigration to the United States (Kiely 2009).

When examining these various views on immigration it's important not to fall subject to the all too common misperception that one's immigrant status dictates one's position in the debate, viewing immigrants as pro-immigration and nonimmigrants as anti-immigration. This is dearly not the ease as Brimelow (1999), Hoppe (1998) and Borjas (1999) are some of the most prominent skeptics of immigration and are immigrants themselves--anti-immigrant immigrants. In fact, the anti-immigrant immigrant is not a new phenomenon. It stems from the growing instinct for individuals to think that their generation is the Great Generation and that those who follow are somehow inferior. So it goes with immigration. One can speculate that the individuals who arrived on the Mayflower lamented newcomers arriving to Massachusetts on subsequent boats in the 1620s as lacking the motivation, the ingenuity, or some other positive attribute allegedly possessed in abundance by those arriving earlier.

In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin lamented the allegedly deleterious effects of new German arrivals to Philadelphia by disparagingly speaking of how Pennsylvania was being "Germanized. …

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