Barrier to entry
Posted by aogMonday, 08 May 2006 at 11:27 TrackBack Ping URL

I was thinking this weekend about the immigration issue, regularized1 borders, and differences in modern immigration vs. historic immigration. It occurred to me that much of the open immigration supporters seem to assume that the level of immigration would remain constant even if entry were easier. I don’t think that’s likely.

If getting a green card required only showing up at a border station and filling in some forms, then I don’t see why we should not expect something like the Muriel Mariel Boat Lift on a continuous basis. I doubt we’d get the level of criminality that characterized that incident, but one wonders why a significant fraction of the population of, say, Haiti, wouldn’t leave as fast as they could load up on boats. Could the nation handle yearly inflows on the order of 10% of the population? There are habits and social conventions that keep our nation the successful place that it is. Even if all these immigrants were willing to adopt, could they in that kind of flood?

As I have mentioned in the past, and I only feel more so as time passes, the USA seems to have a unique culture that, for some reason, just does not seem to take anywhere else in the world2. There must be some reason for that, and it’s not clear to me that whatever that is would survive the level of dilution that unrestricted immigration would create. I don’t think it’s completely narcissistic to think that the world is better off with the USA to which only a few can immigrate than a world without a USA.

Of course, the unrestricted immigration proponents will bring up the point that the USA had unrestricted immigration in the past without these dire effects. That’s true but irrelevant. I think there are several differences that are large enough to be qualitative.

  • Transport to the USA used to be fraught with risk, expense, and delay. That’s completely different now, when much of the world’s poor can afford an airplane ticket to get here. Previous immigrants had a much higher level of drive and perserverance, because only those types could overcome the hurdle of transport and isolation from their previous culture and homeland. Those people would still come, but would be diluted by a much larger number no longer daunted by the rigors of immigration.
  • The communication revolution hits on both sides. The wealth of the USA is no longer a rumour, but something that can be seen every day on TV. On the flip side, leaving home isn’t such a traumatic experience, when phone calls back home, chat rooms and weblogs make it less separating than moving to the next town used to be.
  • As we move to an information economy, a desire to work and a strong back is far less valuable than it was in the past. Immigrants can’t, for instance, go out and homestead their own farms.
  • We have far more of a welfare state, which provides a very undesirable set of incentives to potential immigrants.

This is not to say that the USA cannot and should not support much higher levels of legal immigration than it does now. It is to say that I don’t think the USA could handle unrestricted immigration without losing that vital spark that makes this nation what it is. Historically, the previous high water mark for immigration was in the 1900-1910 decade with a rate of 1.6%. I would be fine with something close to that, say 1.5% per year, or roughly 4.5 million. I think even that would be a severe strain, but on the other hand it might strain the socialist tendencies enough to help work for their rollback.


1 By “regularized” I mean the Orrin Judd style borders, strongly enforced but with a “must admit” stance. I.e., everyone is checked coming in (no sneaking) but the burden is on the border patrol to show why an immigrant should not be admitted. Without a specific reason, the immigrant gets a green card automatically.

2 With the arguable exception of Australia.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Andrea Harris Monday, 08 May 2006 at 17:18

[PEDANT] That’s “Mariel boatlift, not “Muriel.” [/PEDANT]

And what an… interesting time that was. It happened during my last years in high school. Suddenly we were flooded with people who not only did not speak a word of English — but we were used to that — but people who had no idea how to cope with things like electricity all day, traffic rules, and dinner napkins. And suddenly there were all these junk cars — I mean junk, like what had been rusting away in the junkyard — on the expressways and streets of Miami. And then there was the huge crime jump, as mixed among the legitimate refugees were the criminal contents of Castro’s jails.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 08 May 2006 at 17:42

Unfortunately, I am from far the only one to mispell it that way, so a quick netsearch made it look legit. I am sure it is President Bush’s fault, somehow. I must, however, thank you for your chastisement so that I do not lose my pedant license.

Joseph Hertzlinger Sunday, 14 May 2006 at 21:38

If we absolutely positively must restrict the number of immigrants, the obvious solution is to charge admission.

Would $1000 per person sound reasonable?

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 14 May 2006 at 22:00

Well, that’s less than the smugglers charge…

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