A thought entered my brain watching the so-called “caravan” arrive at the San Ysidro Port of Entry: “This looks like freshmen trying to hop the fence at an all-campus party.” Hear me out. My hope is not to demean the plight of immigrants or compare their struggles to those of bored Stanford students, but to illustrate why policy should target both rule of law and migration.
The left and right quibble if immigrants are fleeing violence or just poverty, but the distinction is a distraction. Is welcoming people who want to work really conservative, a key part of American exceptionalism, and an economic boon? Absolutely. When Ronald Reagan spoke of America as John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill,” he was keen to add, “if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Thomas Jefferson protested in the Declaration of Independence that King George halted immigration and naturalization. High-skill immigration obviously provides gains from innovation. Low-skill immigrants yield cheaper goods and services; free two-day Amazon delivery, a $10 Uber, and a $2.40 In-N-Out burger are possible because of immigrants.
These arguments do not justify open-borders but rather take secure borders as a prerequisite. Consider all-campus fraternity parties. Just as immigrants are important to a vibrant, growing nation, freshmen are critical to these drunken festivities. Since Stanford usually lacks enough upperclassmen looking to party on any given night, fraternities need freshmen to fill their parties. But, row houses do not leave their front doors wide open. For good reason, high schoolers and the belligerently drunk are not welcome. Criminals and terrorists pose an analogous threat to national order. A student who shows no interest in reading Enchanted Broccoli Forest’s consent rules is not entitled to attend EBF’s weekly parties; migrants who refuse to adhere to our laws are not entitled to cross our borders.
And as upperclassmen sometimes speak ill of freshmen, natives buy into fallacies about immigration. Critics bluster about job losses and wage declines. But immigrants also buy goods and services, increasing demand. Further, land and capital abound in the United States. Thus, the number of jobs is not fixed. Women entering the workforce did not cost men their jobs, black migration from the rural south to northern cities did not cause rampant white unemployment, and Texas does not try “saving jobs” by keeping out workers fleeing California’s high taxes and zoning restrictions. Closing the border even fails in the long run to subsidize low-skill paychecks since prohibiting migration incentivizes capital to move to other countries. Immigration restrictions backfire like any labor protection, be it the minimum wage, union shops, or occupational licensing. Here, both political parties are ideologically inconsistent.
Similar to a fraternity worrying freshmen are drinking all its beer, taxpayers voice reasonable concerns over unemployed immigrants bankrupting government coffers. But prohibiting working immigrants – who pay income, payroll, and sales taxes – is nonsensical. With a secure border, officials issuing work visas could simply require an immigrant to post an immigration bond, which is then forfeited if this worker is unemployed, commits a crime, or uses excessive social services. Companies which need employees could help immigrants pay this bond. Even if there is a net cost to welcoming certain economic migrants, a dubious assertion, we have two policy choices. Follow the Soviet model: quotas. Or, the time-tested American method: prices. Specify the terms on which people can come here and work, and let market forces determine number of work permits, such that migrants and natives are both better off.
Social arguments are also a contention. Will economic immigrants embrace American institutions? Those fleeing kangaroo courts, gang warfare, and socialism have first-hand experience to boost their appreciation for American economic and political exceptionalism. Look at Cuban-Americans who fled Castro and embraced Americana. To keep the analogy going, freshmen “caravaning” from Wilbur Hall to Kappa Sigma’s eurotrash-themed party want, just as much as upperclassmen, to bounce up and down to “Mo Bamba,” to shotgun Natty Light beer, and to hit some mango Juul. But in all seriousness, the “culture war” was not lost when entrepreneurial and hard-working immigrants docked at Ellis Island; it is not lost when migrants seeking a better life arrive at the South Texas border.
The analogy to a college party is imperfect, and not just because of a false moral equivalence. Fraternity houses do reach capacity, but America is far from filling up. A simple yet revealing statistic: The U.S. is home to 36 people per square kilometer, a long way from the United Kingdom’s 273 people per square kilometer. As for the national conversation, the immigration debate has taken on a xenophobic rancor on one side and naivete on the other. Next time these ineptitudes show up on television or Twitter, think of a college party. Then, remember economic migration is entirely compatible with the rule of law. Commentators in the 1970s noted “only Nixon could go to China,” because of his strong anti-communist stance. Hopefully President Donald Trump’s hard line on securing the border will allow him to build, in his words, “a big, fat, beautiful, open door” for legal immigrants.