Immigrants? Let them in

In discussing migrants alongside goods and services, Jason Riley allows the needs of the market to trump the case for unfettered freedom.

Nathalie Rothschild

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This article is republished from the October 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Jason Riley, author of Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders and a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, misses Ronald Reagan. He remembers fondly that ‘The Gipper’, as Reagan was known, once said of America: ‘Any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange land and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here.’

As a free market conservative, Riley finds the contemporary debate on immigration in the US depressing. ‘[T]he nativist noise that has saturated so much of talk radio, cable news, and conservative print journalism in recent years is about as far from the Gipper’s style as you can get’, he writes in Let Them In.

He bemoans how shrill, right-wing commentators and modern-day restrictionists in the Republican Party scapegoat immigrants for America’s social and economic ills, at times as a misguided election strategy. However, not only is immigration rarely the issue that determines Americans’ votes, says Riley, but unlike Reagan – and George W Bush – today’s restrictionists don’t understand that immigrants in fact help the US stay ahead in the global marketplace.

For Riley, open borders ought to be part and parcel of the free market outlook. He laments that while ‘no self-respecting free-market adherent would ever dream of supporting laws that interrupt the free movement of goods and services across borders… when it comes to laws that hamper the free movement of workers who produce those goods and services, too many conservatives today abandon their classical liberal principles’.

Let Them In is, as the title suggests, a positive interjection into the American immigration debate. It is a clear-headed defence of the benefits of opening up the borders. The book puts today’s anti-immigration and overpopulation schools of thought into historical perspective, and shows how shockingly little has changed in terms of the language, tone and prejudices of those who subscribe to these schools.

Today, as in the past, foreigners are widely seen as damaging the social fabric; they are said to steal jobs, depress wages, burden public services and natural resources and to threaten national security and American identity. Where, in the past, the accused have been European and Asian immigrants, today Latin Americans are the targets.

Riley’s pet hate objects are talk radio and cable news commentators who rail against illegal immigrants over the airwaves, but ‘reactionary populists’ on the right and in radical environmentalist movements are also held to account in Let Them In.

Yet there is a schism between Riley’s exaltation of homo economicus and his admiration for the ideals and values which Lady Liberty and her beacon of hope represent. Just as for Reagan, Riley’s argument for immigration is not a moral but an economic one. It is not a defence of immigrants’ rights, but of business’ needs. His celebration of the idea of America as an enlightened land of the free comes across as a patriotic claim of superiority rather than the basis for an appeal to universal freedom of movement.

At a discussion hosted by the International Policy Network in London in September, Riley started his introduction with a disclaimer. While he is for open borders in the US, he does not believe that is a viable model for the European Union. Europe’s welfare system is not compatible with free movement, he argued, as it helps keep immigrants away from the labour force, weakening their incentive to assimilate.

In the US, Riley said, poverty is seen as a condition to be overcome through hard work, but in Europe there is a very different attitude towards the poor. Quoting Peter Salins, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Riley explains that immigrants are attracted by America’s economic opportunities as much as by its values and ideals. ‘Foreigners like the fact that you can make more money because you are hard-working or diligent or clever’, he writes. In his view, the key to the success of America’s assimilation model lies in the fact that it is ‘less about immigrants adopting our culture than about immigrants adopting our values’.

While Riley effectively picks apart long-held prejudices and misconceptions around immigration in America – including the ‘welfare magnet’ argument – he fails to recognise that such views are misguided in Europe, too.

As in America, illegal immigrants in Europe are likely to try to avoid contact with the authorities and foreigners are anyway excluded from social security entitlement across a wide range of benefits. In Britain, for instance, temporary migrants, non-EU workers and those on family reunification visas are not eligible for social benefits, except, in some cases, housing assistance. Those deemed to be subject to immigration control, including migrant workers on managed migration schemes, have no entitlement to welfare benefits.

Asylum seekers have the right to register as patients with the National Health Service, and migrant workers can register if they intend to stay in Britain for six months or more. Illegal migrants, however, will only be treated in cases of emergency.

When immigrants are offered government subsidies, it is understandable that they take advantage of them. For instance, asylum seekers in Britain are not allowed to work, but they get £35 per week in vouchers. Though the vouchers are barely enough to get by on, they are the only source of income for asylum seekers. It is hardly fair to blame them for ‘living off the welfare state’, as they are often accused of doing, when the state prevents them from being productive and gives them a pittance instead.

Even where immigrants would earn more money from welfare in Europe than they would if they stayed at home, they would earn even more by working in their new country. Where migration is costly, risky or emotionally difficult, it doesn’t pay to move to a richer country simply to try to claim benefits. It is a myth that living off welfare is more lucrative than working and, while there may be exceptions, few move across the world simply to claim small amounts of money from a foreign state.

People leave their home countries for a variety of reasons. Some are escaping persecution or discrimination, others move to study or work abroad or to be reunited with loved ones. What migrants have in common, though, is a search for a different, hopefully better, life. To say that immigrants would go through all the trouble of leaving their homes, sometimes risking their lives in the process, just to claim a few pounds per week in unemployment benefits is really to downplay the ambition and drive which Reagan – Riley’s hero – apparently so admired.

Riley has a point that the access to social benefits can encourage dependency or dissuade people from being diligent and ambitious, but this reveals the flaws of the welfare state rather than being a reason for restricting freedom of movement.

When it comes to America, Riley believes fear of ‘freeloaders’ is a legitimate concern, but that the welfare magnet argument ‘has always been farfetched’. Overall, immigrants – legal and illegal – are not ‘snouts in the trough’; he presents data showing that, contrary to common perception, immigrants do not receive more public benefits than natives.

Riley believes that the disparity between the total government spending in Europe (50 per cent of GDP) and in the US (30 per cent of GDP) reflects different attitudes towards the poor. In Europe, says Riley, they are viewed as ‘hard-luck cases’; in America welfare recipients are seen as ‘shiftless cheats’.

‘The United States and Europe’, writes Riley, ‘are both “welfare states” in the same way that Tiger Woods and the teaching pro at a country club are both golfers. It’s technically true, but the orders of magnitude that separate them deserve more precise explanations.’

As well as supporting his points with hard facts, Riley often conveys his message through colourful analogies and anecdotes. In relation to border security, for instance, he writes: ‘Militarising the border to stop the next Mohamed Atta is like taking a laxative to treat psoriasis.’

The notion that illegal immigrants pose a threat to homeland security is one of six common arguments against immigration in America that Riley denounces in Let Them In. He points out, commonsensically, that providing more legal ways for immigrants to enter the US would reduce illegal entries and that it would free up border security resources to ‘concentrate on real threats’.

In relation to economics, he says immigrants are an asset, not a liability, explaining that they contribute to America’s productivity and economic growth, and complement rather than replace the native US workforce. Riley calls the immigration issue ‘the fool’s gold of American politics’ and says that scaremongering about its supposedly corrosive effects does not win elections.

In relation to assimilation, he points out that race and ethnicity have always informed the immigration debate, outlining how the often shrill arguments today about Latinos being unable to integrate simply rehash the panics and prejudices that surfaced during previous immigration waves in American history.

Another common argument against any open-borders policy is that it will have an adverse effect on the environment. Riley effectively dispels neo-Malthusian myths of overpopulation, and exposes their anti-human impulse.

He writes: ‘As the economist Thomas Sowell has noted, “In reality, the entire population of the world today could be housed in the state of Texas, in single-story, single-family houses – four people to a house – and with a typical yard around each home”. Don’t believe him? Do the math: 7,438,152,268,800 square feet in Texas, divided by the world population of roughly 6,600,000,000, equals 1,126 square feet per person. And in terms of population density, Texas would still be less crowded than the Bronx is today.’

Riley’s defence of open borders makes a refreshing change to the monotonously negative immigration debate, where migrants feature either as scroungers, human pollutants or victims of circumstance. He shows, through upholding the American experience, that a society that is confident in its own values and direction will also be able to welcome and absorb newcomers.

The problem is, Let Them In fails to show the human face of mass migration. The motivations and aspirations of migrants are hardly considered because the book is not making a case for unfettered free movement.

Riley chides his conservative colleagues for not adhering to the free market ideology when they argue in favour of keeping borders open for goods and services but not for people. People are not comparable to goods and services because humans can affect and shape society in a way that inanimate objects cannot. That is why a moral and political case must be made for open borders, not simply an economic one.

People are not simply objects to be imported and exported according to the swings of the market. The case for open borders must be based on the principle of freedom of movement. Otherwise, as soon as the maths doesn’t add up, the borders might as well be shut.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, by Jason L Riley, is published by Gotham Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the October 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

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