The US: A Special Case for Open Borders

I respect the point that Will made last week in his post arguing against open borders and for a sort of mild restrictionism.  Will sums his argument up thusly:

So the West is both successful and difficult to emulate (I suspect this would be true even if we could identify the exact precursors to liberal democratic capitalism). This suggests that the best poverty alleviation program is to let as many people across the border as possible to share the fruits of our historical good fortune. On the other hand, the frailty and complexity of the Western model suggests that a massive influx of foreigners could place an unbearable strain on the social, cultural, and political norms that allow the United States to function. In short, the very complexity that makes us so difficult to emulate also makes it difficult to absorb wave after wave of new arrivals.

There is a lot of surface plausibility to this, particularly if you accept the assumption that the Western model is frail and complex.**  Rapid changes to social, cultural, and political norms arising from a sudden, massive influx of foreigners – especially non-Western foreigners – could certainly pose a threat to a given Western country’s ability to remain a cohesive liberal institution.  Moreover, if the cohesion and comparative liberalism of Scandinavia or the Low Countries or whatever is largely a function of the norms, the sense of nationhood if you will, that have developed over the centuries in those countries, then anything that would tend to dilute that sense of nationhood would be a threat to cohesion and stability.

But I don’t think this line of thinking can really apply to the United States, and particularly with respect to the primary source of immigrants that the US now faces.  Here’s why:

  • Our cultural norms in the United States are directly tied to the notion that the US is a “nation of immigrants.”  Indeed, perhaps more than any other factor, this notion is what distinguishes the United States from other liberal democracies.  Our very sense of nationhood is tied up in the fact that American culture is, for the most part, not terribly set in stone.  Even if we don’t consciously accept that our national identity is intrinsically tied up in the “nation of immigrants” history, that history has ensured that our cultural, social, and political norms are remarkably flexible.  Outside of perhaps rural Appalachia, we don’t have a lot of traditions that go back much more than a century, and as a country we’ve never been dominated by a single religious sect in the way that, say, Scandinavians are likely to be Lutherans, Italians to be Catholics, etc.  The traditions that we do have also tend to constantly change and adapt to new circumstances.
  • We are a massive country, both in terms of geography and population.  We are currently a nation of over 300 million people; including illegal immigrants, we seem to average about 1.3 million immigrants per year, or less than half of one percent of our total population in a given year.  Compare this to just about the entire period during our immigration boom between 1880 and 1930, when an average of half a million legal immigrants arrived every year into a country with a population of between 50 million and 123 million, meaning that, for virtually the entirety of this period, fresh immigrants were a larger percentage of the population than in any year now.  Between 1900 and 1910, the average annual rate of immigration as a percentage of the existing population was indeed almost triple the current rate.  While it’s not worth pretending that this period was all sunshine and roses, the point is that the American system survived intact.  By comparison, a substantial influx of immigrants could theoretically have a dramatic impact on a geographically and demographically smaller country.  There’s no reason to think that a more-or-less open borders policy in the US would result in such a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants that they’d be less capable of assimilation than was the case at the high point of immigration.
  • The immigrants most likely to come to the United States in the foreseeable future fit well within the existing American culture.  Obviously, those far and away most likely to come to the United States nowadays are from Central and South America.  These immigrants are particularly likely to be Catholic (a denomination that already has the largest following in the US), and to have at least some history living in a semi-functioning representative democracy.  They are also coming from countries that have largely fallen within the historic American sphere of influence.  And, of course, there have long been sizable non-immigrant Latino communities within the US that long ago started to leave their mark on American culture.  Yes, there are cultural differences, including language barriers, but Latino immigrants have significantly less of a cultural gap to bridge than, say, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, or Catholic immigrants from Poland and Italy, or Chinese immigrants in earlier periods of American history.

In short, to the extent the American-specific “model” is indeed fragile and complex, its success has long been predicated on the dynamism of the constantly changing demographic makeup by large-scale immigration.  There is often a tendency, when one discusses the old “melting pot” analogy, to view the US as a giant assimilation machine.  What I think we tend to forget about this is that, although immigrants to the US do typically assimilate, this process is made significantly easier by the fact that the US tends to adopt part of that immigrant culture as its own.  American culture is, quite often, little more than the amalgamation of various immigrant cultures.  Limitations on the number of immigrants we can accept thus do more harm than good to the American “model” by depriving it of some of the oxygen upon which that model has thrived, perhaps even causing it to stagnate.

**I don’t accept this assumption, but I wouldn’t know how to refute it, either, at least not as applied to the Old World West.  So, for purposes of this piece, I’ll accept the assumption as valid with respect to those countries.

Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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20 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    I agree with this in terms of broad outlines, though I would point out that the U.S. also has a long cultural tradition of recently-arrived groups turning quickly anti-immigration themselves and generally being equally anti-other as any other American cultural group, but that of course doesn’t make it good.

    But what I’d say this all really does depend upon is growth. Expecting anti-immigration sentiment not to rise when the economy falters is like hoping for the tide not to rise and fall. It’s simply going to happen. When we need bodies, we happy to have them;when positions are a t a premium, mpre bodies are not welcome. but our immigration policy can’t fluctuate *quite* that freely and it shouldn’t. So good immigration policy depends on good economic policy (i.e appropriate to conditions) over the long run. Not to beg another extremely contentious, debate that is unresolved even among the “experts” or anything…

    • @Michael Drew, I generally agree with all this, but one point that I like to make when the relationship between anti-immigrant sentiment and the state of economy comes up is that the existence of a weak economy is precisely when open borders would have the least effect, particularly considering as the current crop of immigrants (and the crops of immigrants for the foreseeable future) are not, generally speaking, fleeing political oppression but are instead primarily seeking economic opportunities. We can thus expect the flows of this immigration to correlate very closely to the state of the economy. In other words, anti-immigrant sentiment winds up being highest at precisely the moment in time when the number of immigrants is hitting a trough rather than a peak.

      I’d add that this inevitably creates a huge political problem for advocates of open borders. When anti-immigrant sentiment is highest (and the economy is thus at its lowest), anti-immigrant legislation gets passed. Since this is all more or less simultaneous with the decrease in immigration flows, it leads to the inexorable conclusion that immigration restrictions (rather than the crappy economy) caused the drop in number of immigrants. Worse, when the economy inevitably starts to turn around right at the lowest point of immigration, it will be plausibly said that the decline in immigration (which of course is in turn assumed to be a result of the new restrictions on immigration) played a role in the turnaround of the economy. As such, it will be logically concluded, immigration restrictions are good economic policy.

      • Michael Drew says:

        @Mark Thompson, Totally true, but I’m sure you understand I’m not making a policy argument but a political argument – that it’s when people can’t find work that they feel most sensitive to perceived challenges. And in places like Arizona, I’m guessing the feeling of being swamped by low-wage illegal workers, however accurate it ever is, doesn’t diminish much when jobs are short merely because the numbers of immigrants coming in plunges. Fear and frustration, when ascendant, rule rational thought and even perception of objective reality nearly every time.

        • @Michael Drew, Absolutely understood – I’m just riffing off your point, and generally bemoaning the way in which perceptions (however reasonable) and reality don’t line up and how, on the immigration issue, this creates a politically impossible position for open borders advocates.

          Thinking on it a bit more….this dilemma winds up making the immigration issue one in which having a consistent, uniformly enforced immigration policy of any sort becomes untenable and impossible.

          • Michael Drew says:

            @Mark Thompson, Hmm. I’m not actually sure I’d go that far. I’m just describing the effects on attitudes, which in turn affect politics, which in turn affects policy. But if a good moment came where we could pass a decent law, I’d at least hold out hope that enforcement could be kept reasonably uniform through the inevitable swings in public opinion. (I guess I just really want to maintain hope that public passions are subject to some reasonable level of procedural and legal check in their influence on law enforcement behavior.) Now, if you’re simply saying that the immigration issue itself is inherently one in which there is no fully enforceable law other than basically open borders, that view is one I’m very open to.

  2. Cascadian says:

    The fact is that what worked for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is not necessarily applicable today. We’ve had a “jobless recovery” last go around and what appears to be fewer jobs for the future. It’s simply not the case that the US is still a vast region waiting to be beat into submission by waves of laborers.

    Though immigration is part of the broader myth of America, it’s not true across the board. Oregon has been for managed growth and insular since the first farmers started arriving. Today, the NW has a strong culture of secularism with a strand of environmentalism that values sustainability. Reclaiming urban agriculture and creating a sustainable society is more important than rampant growth.

    For all the talk of diversity, it should be admitted that it has limits. It seems that we are migrating within the US to live with others more like ourselves. With our recent culture wars, I’m not sure that an influx of religious immigrants are going to be welcomed simply because they’re brown and have cute accents.

    The US is indeed huge. I’d argue that it’s grown too large to function politically or socially. Many states are comparable to Western European countries. One could argue that a shot of fresh blood might be the answer. I’d say that until we get our house in order and functioning again we should avoid additional challenges.

    • @Cascadian, I concure with Cascadian on the jobs point. We don’t have an exploding manufacturing economy capable of absorbing waves of immigrants.

      I Googled ‘race riots’ and got this timeline:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_racial_violence_in_the_United_States#Timeline_of_events

      That’s a LOT of violence during our period of heaviest immigration. We don’t see that today, possibly because people just behave a bit more civilized, but also probably because we are geting immigrants at a rate that doesn’t spark too many feelings of anger. Ramp that up dramatically and things may change.

    • @Cascadian, The jobs point is, of course, a different issue than what I’ve laid out above, although I somewhat get into it in my discussion with Michael. In particular, I think it’s important to emphasize that immigration patterns right now are very much a function of whether and what employment is available. In other words, I’d probably argue that, to the extent the US is no longer ” a vast region waiting to be beat into submission by waves of laborers,” legislation and immigration restrictions are of somewhat minimal significance, and indeed create distortions in the labor market by inhibiting its ability to adjust to changing economic conditions.

      On the cultural front….I get your point about what I wrote above not being terribly true of immigrants to particular localities, but it seem to me that the areas where a large number of Latino immigrants (not including seasonal migrants) are likely to end up are almost always fairly cosmopolitan areas or areas where there is a well-established Latino element to the local culture or both.

      Indeed, I’ve noticed a tendency that the areas nowadays (outside of the border states, where the issues are significantly different) with the strongest anti-immigrant sentiment are typically areas with comparatively few immigrants, though I’m willing to be proven wrong on this.

    • Michael Drew says:

      @Cascadian, This is indeed the dark, foreboding side of the point I make above. We need growth, to include job growth. And this is getting away from the immigratoin question somewhat, because if it is the case that what we have is a real structural adjustment where the entire paradigm of a situation where full employment can be expected flow from successful firms in the context of genera economic growth can no longer be reliably assumed, then a whole lot of policy questions even more fundamental than immigration (which is pretty fundamental) whose previous equilibria relied on a certain social contract’s validity will (could) suddenly be thrown into considerable doubt, since the current, or perhaps it’s better to say most recent, social contract (which is to say post-war industrialist) relies very heavily on the assumption that success for firms broadly within strong economic growth (notwithstanding cyclical downturns) will result in full employment in the land.

  3. I think a lot of the disagreement rests on just how much we expect immigration to rise with open borders. I think a lot of people have in mind that we’ll be seeing a massive longterm influx of hundreds of millions, since conditions in affluent countries are so much better than they are in the have nots. It’s pretty unlikely we could absorb all of those immigrants. Myself, I don’t think current immigration restriction regimes are terribly effective and I highly doubt that we’ll see immigration even reach the historical highs as measured by percentage of current citizens outlined in this post if we did open the borders completely. While allowing more people to reap the benefits of America’s historical good fortune is undoubtedly an excellent side effect, I think the primary effect of allowing more legal immigration will be to ensure that these people are protected by the full force of law and participate in the American polity.

    • @James Vonder Haar, I think this hits it on the head.

    • Simon K says:

      @James Vonder Haar, I think this is absolutely correct, and its born out by the experience of migration between member states of the EU. When the more liberal “old” member states opened their labour markets to migrants from the “new” member states there was a lot of uncertainty about just how many people would move. The poorest of the new members were not much wealthier than Mexico at the time. As it turned out, the numbers were quite high, but not overwhelming by any stretch of the imagination. Most of these migrants were also not permanent – as wages have equalised and the new members economies have grown many of the Polish plumbers and Czech hotel receptions in the UK have gone back to Poland and the Czech republic.

  4. dexter45 says:

    There has been a severe downward trend in pay for Americans that actually make things since the 1960’s. The horde of illegals has done nothing to alleviate that problem and outsourcing 8 million jobs overseas has not helped in the least. Anybody who thinks that America will once again be the economic engine that drives the rest of the world is not paying attention. Monteray, Mexico is a boom town with a very low unemployment rate. The problem is that people only make 8,ooo per year in that city working in the plants. In China they average is 87cents per hour. Why would a soulless corp think America would be a good place to build a plant? If we are going to allow legal immagration to America, I think we should only allow in doctors, engineers and people like that. If we could flood the market with dentists maybe I could afford to see one. Another thing I, think of America as an organic entity and such has a maximum carrying capacity that was reached years ago. One other weird possibility–why not have a world wide miminum wage of say 15 dollars per hour?

    • lukas says:

      Absolutely the US should let in more high-skilled folks, since the low-skilled are going to come anyway. It’s just that those high-skill cartels have lobbies that are effective enough to prevent anything more than a trickle of highly-skilled immigrants.

      I don’t think America has reached its natural carrying capacity, whatever that means. Look at places like the Netherlands or South-East England, they manage decently with population densities well above America’s.

      World-wide minimum wage? 15 dollars an hour? That wouldn’t even work well in America, never mind the economic havoc it would wreak in developing countries faster than you can say “replacement of labor by capital”.

  5. dexter45 says:

    The reason that the low skilled workers come to America is because they know there is little or no chance of being caught. They know the corps want the cheap labor. I don’t want to live in southern England or Holland. I want space. Carrying capacity is what the environment can handle without serious problems and if you don’t know what something means, how can your argue against it. As for the minimun wage, that was a joke to see how loud the liberatarians would scream. Think Swift.

  6. dear sir
    i am from sudan snd i have family we cant live in my countrey iwould like to immigrate to usa forever can i do that????