Coming To America: The Benefits Of Open Immigration
For centuries, the American culture has been a beacon of hope to the oppressed peoples of collectivist economies and authoritarian or totalitarian governments throughout the world. Why then do the American people—descendants of immigrants, beneficiaries of open and unregulated immigration, whose culture, economy, government, and way of life are so deeply tied to open borders—exude such a passion against free immigration? Why do they wish so desperately to deny late twentieth-century immigrants the benefits to which their own eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors were privileged? What do Americans have against open borders?
Study after study shows that small proportions of illegals use government services: free medical, 5 percent; unemployment insurance 4; food stamps, 1; welfare payments, 1; child schooling, 4. Illegals are afraid of being caught if they apply for welfare. Practically none receive social security, the costliest service of all, but 77 percent pay social security taxes, and 73 percent have federal taxes withheld. . . . During the first five years in the United States, the average immigrant family receives $1404 (in 1975 dollars) in welfare compared to $2279 received by a native family.Some may disagree with these statistics. Others would no doubt argue that if immigration controls were eliminated and borders completely unpoliced, a massive number of immigrants would enter the United States and overload the welfare system, causing taxes and the national debt to skyrocket. Certainly this is a possibility. But, even if we grant this argument the benefit of the doubt and concede that unrestricted immigrants would indeed flood the welfare system, the answer to the problem lies not in closing off the borders or “beefing up” border security. The answer lies in eliminating the American welfare state, and prohibiting anyone, native or immigrant, from living at the coerced expense of another.
Immigration and Culture
A final argument against immigration comes surprisingly from those generally supportive of liberty and the philosophy of the limited state. These critics are concerned for the preservation of what they see as a distinct American culture and its traditional heritage of European-style limited government and market economies. Their fear is that this traditional culture is being sabotaged by an influx of immigrants who are unfamiliar with and perhaps even hostile toward its institutional framework. They contend that immigrants of the late-twentieth-century variety do not possess the same ethnic characteristics of earlier immigrants, and therefore do not have an appreciation for the “American way of life.” Such an argument suggests that recent immigrants who hail from Third World nations controlled by regimes of despotism have no understanding of the traditional institutions that have made America great. Allowing these immigrants of vastly different culture and ethnic heritage into the United States will result in a grave polarization of our society into racial enclaves that will run roughshod over our most sacred political and economic institutions.
To political conservatives, and even some libertarians, this argument may appear compelling at first blush. However, it is flawed. First, preserving “tradition” merely for the sake of tradition is pointless. The idea of tradition is meaningless unless we define the essence of that tradition in terms of the ideas that comprise it. Tradition alone is not what has made America great. Rather, it has been the reciprocal relationship between a limited state and economic and social liberty that has made the American way of life so coveted—in other words, the philosophy of liberty underlying the American tradition.
Expanding the power of government in order to preserve tradition is a sure path to the destruction of liberty. Americans ought to be particularly aware of this fact since the American tradition is bound together so tightly with the philosophy of freedom and limited government.
Yet, it is not the first time Americans have been down this road. U.S. public education began as a concerted effort to preserve the Protestant “traditions” of the American culture against the perceived threat of Catholicism. By subjecting the education establishment to the decisions of legislators and bureaucrats in local, state, and eventually national governments, Protestants hoped to stem the tide of Catholicism flowing into America on a nineteenth-century wave of immigration. As Samuel L. Blumenfeld relates,
There was another reason why the Protestant religionists decided to join the secularists [socialists] in promoting the public school movement. They shared a common concern with, if not fear of, the massive Catholic immigration to the United States during that period. . . . [It was] argued that Protestants had to put aside sectarian differences and unite to defend Protestant republican America against the “Romish designs.”By making schools public rather than private, Protestants sought to use the power of the state to exclude the teachings and influence of Catholicism on their children, thereby preserving the Protestant “tradition” in America by way of majority vote. In retrospect, the bankruptcy of the American public education system ought to serve as a somber reminder that expanding state power to preserve “tradition” is a sure path to statism.
There is another flaw lurking in the argument that open immigration leads to the decline of a nation's cultural and institutional framework. Contrary to the anti-immigration position, the American traditions of limited government and free market economies are not based upon ethnic or racial origins. They are based upon ideas. Western cultures cannot suppose themselves to have a monopoly on the philosophy of liberty, nor can Americans argue that the political values of the limited state cannot be inculcated in non-American immigrants. The ideas of freedom that have created the American tradition can apply to any ethnic or racial make-up.
But what happens if, over time, America absorbs so many immigrants that, through their influence, the ideas of limited government and the free market economy become diluted? What happens when our political system falls victim to immigrant forces that seek to expand government power? These are good questions. The fact remains, however, that these fears are now being realized, and the foes of liberty in America are largely home-grown. Twentieth-century Americans have turned their backs on the philosophy of the limited state. They have generally refused to acknowledge the advantages of a laissez-faire market economy. It is not the foreign element, but rather the domestic element that we should fear. Before we begin to castigate potential immigrants for the damage they may do to our freedoms, we need to acknowledge the damage we have already done on our own.
The answer is to return once again to a government “of laws and not of men.” In other words, the state must be radically limited in power and scope, with only minimal duties which are explicitly defined. This will put state power beyond the reach of those individuals or voting blocs that would seek to exploit it for personal gain. We then would have no reason to fear immigrants, regardless of their ideological or political persuasion. Their ability to “sabotage” our freedoms would be removed not because we expand state power to keep them out, but because we diminish state power in all areas and allow them in.
Immigration and Freedom
Immigration policy should not be viewed differently than trade policy: free, unregulated, unpoliced, open borders, devoid of taxes, tariffs, or any other barrier to entry. This is the policy of freedom to which America owes her heritage. Unilateral free trade, free immigration, and free emigration, where individuals possess unobstructed and unregulated mobility and trade, is a cornerstone of a free society. In fact, the free movement of peoples is no less important than the freedoms of speech, expression, and association. Liberty is indivisible; the laws of economics apply equally to all peoples.
Americans must begin to accept the fact that free trade and open borders are to their utmost benefit. By embracing the philosophy of free immigration and free labor mobility, we benefit from the productivity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship not only of those within are borders, but also of those from without. Expanding the division of labor into the international marketplace makes available a vastly enlarged array of resources, thus enhancing the living standards of everyone. 
1 John S. DeMott, “Immigration Policy's Double Impact,” Nation's Business, December 1994, p. 28.
2 See the compelling example offered by Jacob G. Hornberger in “The Case for Unilateral Free Trade and Open Immigration,” Freedom Daily, November 1994, p. 6.
3 Julian L. Simon, Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment, & Immigration (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1990), p. 265.
4 Perhaps the most developed argument from this position can be found in Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster (New York: Random House, 1995).
5 Samuel L. Blumenfeld, N.E.A.: Trojan Horse in American Education (Phoenix, Ariz.: The Paradigm Company, 1984), p. 27.
6 For those who would argue that the decline in American liberty during the twentieth century is related somehow to immigration and open borders, the reality is otherwise. Twentieth-century America has never practiced open immigration to the extent I am suggesting. Further, twentieth-century Americans have become more nationalistic than their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors, thus reflecting, at times, an extreme degree of suspicion or even hatred toward foreign peoples.
This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman, Vol. 45 No. 12 (December 1995).
Thomas E. Lehman for the Foundation for Economic Education is Adjunct Professor of Economics and Western Civilization, Adult and Professional Studies Division, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.
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