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More immigration, more government?

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 25, 2002

ImmigrantsA number of libertarians and not a few conservatives - including loyal ESR writers and readers - believe relatively unfettered immigration, if not outright open borders, is characteristic of a free society. In theory, since immigration restrictions must be enforced by government, one can see how this might be so. But what if in practice it isn't?

This is a difficult question many are beginning to grapple with. The foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population doubled from 4.7 percent in 1970 to nearly 10 percent in 1997, the highest since percentage since it stood at 11.6 percent in 1930. Only about 35 percent of these immigrants were citizens, down from nearly two-thirds in 1970. About half of today's immigrants are centered in five major metropolitan areas, two of which are located in California. Although there remains some debate over the numbers, it appears that the United States admitted as many as 1 million immigrants per year during the 1990s and is home to some 8 million illegal immigrants.

This was not a free-market phenomenon. Since the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1965, immigration levels have increased as immigrant skill levels relative to the US labor force have declined. This is in part due to the 1965 act's emphasis on family reunification, which by some estimates takes up 85 percent of available slots and crowds out skilled immigrants.

Evidence is beginning to mount that the post-1965 immigrant wave has had a more difficult time assimilating and increasing its living standards relative to the remainder of the U.S. population. The result is more income inequality and more trends that favor greater government intervention in the economy.

For example, about 20 percent of those who lack either private or government health insurance are immigrants. Immigration was a primary cause of the percentage of uninsured people in Texas we heard so much about during the 2000 presidential campaign. It is these numbers of uninsured that are used to justify a federal government takeover of health care.

By 1990, 13.1 percent of cash welfare benefits were consumed by immigrant households, with 9.1 percent of such households then on welfare compared to 7.4 percent of native-born households. While the gap has narrowed since welfare reform, a just released study by Harvard's George Borjas - touted by the pro-open borders Wall Street Journal as the nation's "leading immigration economist" - demonstrated that nearly all of this is attributable to a decline in welfare participation by immigrants in California. When non-cash welfare benefits are factored in, about 25 percent of immigrants receive some form of federal assistance.

According to the Census Bureau, immigrant men on average earn 25 percent less than native-born Americans while immigrant women earn 14 percent less. Part of this is because immigrants account for more than 30 percent of the high school dropouts in the U.S. workforce. While immigrant households increased as a percentage of the U.S. population by 68 percent from 1979 to 1997, they increased their share of the poor population by 123 percent over the same period. The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council found that immigration was responsible for 44 percent of the decline in wages paid to high school dropouts from 1980 to 1994.

Thus, current immigration policies encourage the growth of the welfare state in two important ways: The post-1965 influx has a higher welfare use rate and its primary economic effect has been to redistribute income from unskilled workers and poor people to owners of capital. Both trends in their own way feed the statists' tax and spend impulses. Similarly, it helps entrench affirmative action by simultaneously increasing the number of people eligible to benefit from it and depressing the wages of less skilled workers who are disproportionately minorities.

To say nothing of how recent immigrants vote. In a recent issue of National Review, editor-at-large John O'Sullivan questioned President Bush's advocacy of amnesty for illegal immigrants - now opposed by a clear majority of House Republicans, led by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) - as a strategy for increasing his Hispanic support. For starters, there is no evidence that either naturalized or native-born Hispanics disagree that significantly with the overwhelming majority of Americans who would tighten rather than liberalize immigration laws. But there is also reason to doubt symbolic gestures are all that is needed to win Hispanic Americans, especially post-1965 immigrants, to the GOP column.

Democrats lead Republicans by significant margins among every Hispanic group except for Cuban-Americans, where the traditional GOP advantage was fading pre-Elian and could resume fading as younger generations are further removed from the politics surrounding Castro and communism. Although many conservatives held high hopes that devoutly Catholic Hispanics would be drawn to the GOP's social conservatism - and Hispanics did overwhelmingly oppose same-sex marriage in a recent California ballot initiative - liberal writer Harold Meyerson has noted that when it comes to voting for candidates for public office "their economic progressivism has consistently trumped their moral conservatism." O'Sullivan cites the research of political scientists James Gimpel and Karen Kaufmann that showed Hispanics becoming more Democratic the longer they stayed in the U.S. and discovered that while Republican identification did increase with income, Democrats retained a 10-point advantage at the very highest income levels.

As with previous immigrant groups like the Italians and Irish, it is possible that continued assimilation and upward economic mobility might someday reverse the Democratic edge. But current immigration levels are high enough to forestall this. It is also true that some Republicans have done very well with Hispanic voters, most recently in mayoral races in New York City and Houston. Of course, it is equally true that some Republicans have done well with more overwhelmingly Democratic African-Americans (such as Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers, himself black, and Tom Keane, who carried the black vote in his successful 1980s New Jersey gubernatorial bids), but these are exceptions in which there were frequently extenuating circumstances.

There are many reasons people might like to see more Democrats elected, but shrinking government most assuredly is not one of them. If you are dissatisfied with the Republicans' record on limited government, the Democrats are even worse. Their agenda includes higher taxes, national health care and a host of new spending and regulatory initiatives in excess of anything either the Bush administration or congressional Republicans would propose.

Whatever the philosophical merits of relatively open immigration, which can be debated, if current immigration tends to exacerbate trends likely to increase the role of government and swell the ranks of those who would vote for more government, it is difficult to see how opposing reform truly limits government or expands freedom. More immigrants will not necessarily lead to less government, while more government could result in fewer economic opportunities for immigrants who do arrive on these shores. It is at least time to start asking the question.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Wal-Mart, immigrants and Thomas Jefferson by Eric Miller (April 23, 2001)
    Three weeks earlier in the pages of this magazine, Alan Caruba called for a massive reduction in immigration. This week, Eric Miller argues that America needs the exact opposite
  • Out of control immigration by Alan Caruba (April 2, 2001)
    Not that he has anything against immigrants given that he's a descendant of some, but Alan Caruba says America might have to close its doors for a while to ask itself some questions
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