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In Defense of Free Migration

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Not long after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the natural right which 0 men have of relinquishing the country in which birth or other accident may have thrown them, and seeking subsistence and happiness wheresoever they may be able, and hope to find them.

For most of America’s history, our country’s door was open to many of those desiring to breathe free and find happiness. Between 1840 and 1940, almost 40 million people came ashore and began a new life. In 1900, 10 million people of foreign birth resided in the United States. Out of a total population of 76 million at the turn of the century, 26 million were the children of foreign-born parents. During the period 1900-1920, another 13.5 million people found a new home and a new beginning in the United States. And between 1931 and 1945, 900,000 more found a haven in America.

This multitude of humanity was not the product of any one culture, but rather of many. In vast numbers, the immigrants came from Britain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, eastern Europe and the Balkans, Russia, Mexico and various parts of Asia. America was not the child of one racial or cultural strain, but the offspring of many relatives who faced starvation, and to purchase a plot of land in their native village so that their earthly remains could eventually be buried with their ancestors. The Jews of Poland and Russia came to escape religious persecution and pograms.

Like a flood, these millions descended upon the coastal cities and then, over time, dispersed across the immense American continent. They began the plowing of the prairies and the building of new towns and cities. Life was often difficulty and many failures and disappointments were faced along the way. But still they came. And they endured. Because even when they discovered that America’s cities were not paved with gold, they knew that life was better — and freer — in their new home. And even when their own lot was not one of perfect tranquility and prosperity, they were confident that their children’s lives would be — compared to everything they had left behind in the old country.

In the 1970s we saw a similar wave of migration to the United States. Our television screens were filled with thousands of Vietnamese boat people who faced drowning, starvation and attacks by pirates in order to escape from the Communist regime in Hanoi. And we also witnessed their rise from literal rags to increasing riches as they made a new life for themselves and their children in America in a matter of a few years.

And we may soon witness another mass exodus — this time from the Soviet Union. The Soviet government has said that it will issue passports to anyone who desires to leave. The estimates of the number who will want to escape from the collapsing Soviet slave state run from 2 million to 8 million.

Generally, Americans take pride in viewing their country as the melting pot of the world and as the refuge for those escaping from political tyranny and economic disadvantage. But they also often express fear with the arrival of new waves of immigrants. These fears are totally unfounded. People are America’s greatest strength and the source of its continuing prosperity. Let’s examine some of these fears.

1. Immigrants steal jobs away from Americans. The premise behind this concern is that there is only a finite amount of work to be done in the American economy and, therefore, a finite number of jobs to be filled. If an immigrant gains employment, therefore, he does so only by displacing an American who previously held that job.

But there is always more work to be done as long as scarcity exists. The ability to supply the various goods and services consumers desire to purchase is limited by the available supply of resources with which those goods and services are produced. Increase the supply of resources at the disposal of the market, and the supply of finished goods and services can also be increased.

Immigrants, Therefore, rather than stealing away jobs, in fact enable the market to fill jobs for which the labor supply was previously too small. All in the society tend to benefit as the general standard of living goes up through the increased quantity and improved quality of all of the marketable goods for which there is a demand.

2. Immigrant labor causes wages to go down and thereby lowers the standard of living of Americans. The way sellers often make their product more attractive to buyers is to offer a lower price. For immigrants to find employers, they have to offer themselves at lower wages than American workers are presently earning. And if Americans are to keep their jobs, they have to match these lower wages.

It is true that when immigrants try to enter particular occupations, they may find willing employers only if they offer themselves at a lower wage than that which existing employees are receiving. But this totally ignores the beneficial secondary effects which will then be operating in the market. Costs of production will now be lower in these particular sectors of the economy (because of the lower wage costs). The lower costs will mean greater profits to be earned; and as employers expand their production, prices of consumer goods in these parts of the market will tend to decline over time as businesses compete for consumers to buy their greater output. The consuming public as a whole will be beneficiaries of the cheaper labor costs.

Furthermore, since some consumer goods will now cost less to buy, this will leave extra dollars in the pockets of consumers. They will now have the financial wherewithal to increase their demand for other products they previously could not afford to buy. This will raise the demand for workers in those sectors of the economy in which consumer demand will have gone up. To attract workers into these parts of the economy, employers will have to offer potential employees higher wages. Thus, for consumers in general, numerous goods and services will be less expensive; and for many workers, there will be an increased demand (and higher wages) for their labor services.

3. Large numbers of immigrants cannot easily be absorbed into American society and culture. It is argued that if large numbers of immigrants are permitted entry into the U.S., it will be difficult to absorb them because of the language and cultural differences that would arise. Better to limit immigration to an annual small number, it is said, so that they can more easily be assimilated.

But with every previous wave of immigrants, the concern was expressed that the new group would not be able to adapt to American life. In the middle of the 19th century, for example, the concern was that “those Germans” would not learn English and that they tended to live in ethnic enclaves with other Germans. Yet history has demonstrated that within one generation, both the immigrants and their children have rapidly become “Americanized.” A recent case is the Vietnamese. In the span of just a few years, Vietnamese children have not only learned English, not only have become champions in the school spelling bees, but are also often found at the top of their classes.

The only things that can hamper the economic progress and cultural assimilation of immigrants are bad governmental policies: licensing restrictions that make it difficult to begin small businesses and enterprises; heavy tax burdens that destroy savings and investment incentives; welfare programs that draw people into the dead end of economic dependency upon the state; government schools, with their mandatory bilingual programs and socialist educational methods, that more often that not, make it difficult for the children of immigrants to learn English rapidly and to adapt to their new country.

But the evils of government policies should not be a rationale or excuse for denying human beings the right to migrate and live where they wish. Rather, such evils provide the arguments for eliminating those governmental interventions.

The German free-market economist Wilhehm Röpke once suggested that “modern nationalism and collectivism have, by the restriction of migration, perhaps come nearest to the servile state ….. Man can hardly be reduced more to a mere wheel in the clockwork of the national collectivist state than being deprived of his freedom to move…. Feeling that he belongs now to his nation, body and soul, he will be more easily subdued to the obedient state serf which nationalist and collectivist governments demand.”

We can only hope that Röpke’s pessimism is ill-founded, that the spirit of freedom will never be extinguished, no matter how controlling and encompassing the power of the state. But how much better it would be if the United States once again completely embodied the glorious vision of the right of free immigration expressed by the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).