The realities behind the immigration debate

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Jeffrey Miron
Senior Lecturer, Harvard University
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      Jeffrey Miron

      Jeffrey A. Miron is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. His area of expertise is the economics of libertarianism, with particular emphasis on the economics of illegal drugs. Miron has served on the faculty at the University of Michigan and as a visiting professor at the Sloan School of Management, M.I.T. and the Department of Economics, Harvard University. From 1992-1998, he was chairman of the Department of Economics at Boston University. He is the author of Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition and The Economics of Seasonal Cycles, in addition to numerous opeds and journal articles. He has been the recipient of an Olin Fellowship from the National Bureau of Economic Research, an Earhart Foundation Fellowship, and a Sloan Foundation Faculty Research Fellowship. Miron received a B.A., magna cum laude, from Swarthmore College in 1979 and a Ph.D. in economics from M.I.T. in 1984.

Arizona’s new immigration policy, which requires aliens to carry immigration papers and directs the police to detain “suspected aliens,” has re-ignited debates over how to reduce illegal immigration. Most of this debate involves wishful thinking: the claim that stricter border controls or Arizona-like measures can make a real difference. The reality is that only four policies can significantly reduce illegal immigration.

The first is allowing more legal immigration. This point is obvious but worth emphasizing. The United States has an illegal immigration problem because it restricts legal immigration. So long as large wage differences persist between the U.S. and other countries, especially Latin America, the desire to immigrate will persist and occur illegally if it is not permitted legally.

Legal migration, moreover, is good for America and rest of the world. Immigration allows people in poor countries to seek a better life here, bringing ideas and energy with them, and it shows the world that many people still regard America as the land of opportunity. Many immigrants are far poorer than the poorest Americans, so helping them makes far more sense than operating a generous welfare state.

Restrictions on immigration are also costly, since they create black markets, generate violence, and spawn corruption. Fences and borders patrols are expensive, and they do not seem to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants. So any attempt to reduce illegal immigration should eschew enhanced enforcement and instead increase legal immigration.

The second way to reduce illegal immigration is to expand free trade. If goods can move freely across countries, the demand for low-skill labor will shift from the United States to poorer countries, raising wages there relative to here and reducing the incentive to immigrate. NAFTA and CAFTA, while steps in the right direction, still contain substantial impediments to trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Central America, and broader free trade agreements with South America do not yet exist. Since free trade makes sense independent of immigration concerns, this policy change is a no-brainer.

A more controversial way to shrink illegal immigration is de-escalate the war on drugs. Many Latin American economies are dysfunctional in part because of the corruption and violence that the war on drugs generates, and residents of those countries cross the U.S. border in part to escape that violence. Full legalization would be the most effective response, but even a major reduction in enforcement would shrink the violence significantly. Mexico’s drug trade has been violent for decades, but the explosion in deaths resulted from Felipe Calderon’s misguided escalation beginning in late 2006.

A further policy that might reduce immigration is scaling back the U.S. welfare state, although the impact of any such change is unclear. Despite common perceptions, immigrants do not make especially high use of the social safety net or migrate mainly to collect these benefits; most come to the United States seeking work. If immigration were substantially more open, however, large-scale migration in response to generous benefits would plausibly increase. So it makes sense to either reduce that generosity or condition benefits on legal residence for a significant number of years.

The policies that will do little to shrink illegal immigration are increased border enforcement, stiffer punishments for employers who hire illegals, or aggressive arrest policies such as those adopted in Arizona. These measures are ineffective because they do not change the fact that wages in the U.S. are attractive compared to wages in poor countries. And, for centuries, immigrants have endured amazing hardships to seek higher income or a better life in America. Longer or higher fences will not change that.

Instead, stepped-up enforcement will drive more activity underground, generate more violence along the border, impose costs on law-abiding employers, and embitter residents of poor countries toward the United States. Ramped up enforcement is a feel-good gimmick that allows politicians to claim they have done something about illegal immigration, even though they know the reality is different.

None of the options for addressing illegal immigration is perfect; each generates significant losers as well as winners. But the changes advocated here all improve the U.S. economy by reducing or eliminating policies that impose significant costs independent of immigration. So the U.S. should abandon its obsession with the anti-immigration policies of the past and instead address the real causes of illegal immigration.

Jeffrey A. Miron is Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. Miron blogs at http://jeffreymiron.com and is the author of Libertarianism, from A to Z, from Basic Books.


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  • guinnessman

    so simple to shut any conversion about AZ illegal immigration law. Ask if we should count Illegal as 3/5 American in the census. Because right now the illegal immgrates are treated like second class citizens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Evelyn-Lexo/100000995217599 Evelyn Lexo

    Arizona’s new immigration law may have been aimed at deporting as many illegal immigrants as possible, but an ironic side effect will allow more undocumented residents to apply for temporary work visas and permanent U.S. citizenship, according to research by the Arizona Capitol Times.
    As we know, Referendum requires filing 76,682 voter signatures by 90 days. Do you think they will do http://immigration.civiltalks.com/

  • fveder1

    Oh, surprise… RaceFan is a racist!

    I’m always amazed that someone can respond to a such a well-written, well-researched article with a line like, “Apparently you live in Wellesley, a liberal enclave where the only illegal aliens you are apt to see are mowing your lawns or cleaning your houses.” How about an actual rebuttal?

    I really do like, though, that you’re all for immigration, so long as the migrants come “from around the world – not just from south of the border.”

    Basically you’re saying, “I’m all for immigration, as long as they’re not dark-skinned.” Classy stuff.

  • RaceFan

    Additionally – if, as you say, the economy requires immigrants – fine. But bring them in legally. And bring them in from around the world – not just from south of the border.

  • RaceFan

    Apparently you live in Wellesley, a liberal enclave where the only illegal aliens you are apt to see are mowing your lawns or cleaning your houses. Illegal aliens certainly can’t afford to live in Wellesley. Instead, they live in towns like mine. We’re drowning in them where I live. It used to be a nice middle-class suburb. Now crime is rampant; emergency rooms are overrun; the school system can’t cope; gang fights break out at the local mall, etc., etc. I want them out of my community. Let them “migrate” to your community and let’s see how you feel about it then.

    Don’t tell me fences don’t keep them out until we’ve actually built the fence. Don’t tell we cannot secure our borders. I don’t believe you.