Where Should Libertarians Stand On Immigration ?

Over at The QandO Blog, Dale Franks expresses skepticism about the traditional libertarian view on immigration, which typically doesn’t go very far beyond the idea that there should be few, if any, restrictions on people who wish to come to the United States. In short, Dale argues that an open-borders philosophy doesn’t make sense in the present world, where the American welfare state means that immigrants, legal or otherwise, will become eligible for a host of taxpayer-funded benefits. Instead of simply wishing the welfare state away, Franks proposes the following:

[I]f your ultimate goal is to eradicate the welfare state at some time in the future, allowing unrestricted immigration in the present is self-defeating. If you wish to create a more libertarian state in the US, then you must prioritize immigration accordingly.

The first concern should be to vigorously enforce our current immmigration laws, to prevent the entry of immigrants who, once incorporated into our polity, will resist the libertarianization of society. Once society is appropriately libertarian, then immigration can be addressed in a more…uh…liberal manner. Before you can have open borders, you must eliminate the ability of immigrants to seek rent from the state. Once you have done that, you can open up immigration substantially, with some reasonable assurance that the type of immigrants that are drawn to the country will not try to capitalize on government largess that no longer exists.

I agree that we don’t want a world where people come to this country and end up becoming a drain on society. But is that always the case ? I don’t think so. Recent studies, for example, have shown that immigrants have been a driving force behind the growth of the technology industry:

About 25 percent of the technology and engineering companies launched in the past decade had at least one foreign-born founder, according to a study released yesterday that throws new information into the debate over foreign workers who arrive in the United States on specialty visas.

The report, based on telephone surveys with 2,054 companies and projections by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and at Duke University, found that immigrants — mostly from India and China — helped start hundreds of companies with estimated sales of nearly $50 billion. It was written by a former technology executive who was an immigrant himself.

This is something that’s been true throughout American history. Immigrants from Europe contributed greatly to the Industrial Revolution and the growth of American industry in the Early 20th Century. And the same thing is happening today. I agree that the welfare state needs to be dealt with, but to base the right of human beings to seek a new life on a political project that is likely to take decades to accomplish doesn’t make sense to me.

Franks also argues that libertarians mistakenly focus only on the economic aspects of immigration, and forget it’s impact on culture:

Many libertarians seem to assume—wrongly—that immigrants are homo economicus, motivated solely by financial concerns, divorced from the political or cultural traditions of their home countries. Of course, this is completely untrue. Immigrants bring with them a fair amount of political and cultural baggage from which they must be weaned through assimilation into American traditions. One only has to look at the almost nightly depredations of unassimilated Muslim immigrants in France to see what the eventual results are of failing to appropriately assimilate immigrants into the host society.

Immigrants are not simply fungible, predictable economic units. They are people, who bring to the table far more than a simple desire to find work. Failure to recognize that leads, it seems to me, to libertarians assuming that any potential cultural or political inclinations among immigrants are irrelevant. That is most certainly not the case. If it were, the La Raza types who call for the return of “Aztlan” to Mexico wouldn’t exist.

Well, I don’t disagree necessarily. Immigrants do bring with them much more than just their work skills. They bring their culture as well. American culture, though, has continually changed, adapted, and adopted, the cultural traits of its immigrants. We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even though most of us aren’t Irish. We eat Italian food, buy Christmas trees (originally a German custom), and, more recently, eat Asian, Mexican, and Indian food. These are just some of the small ways that immigrants have changed and energized the United States throughout it’s history. I, for one, welcome it.

In the same way that immigrants change America, though, America has changed immigrants. It may take a generation, or two, or three, but assimilation does occur. It’s happened here in the Northern Virginia area with the multitudes of Asian immigrants from Korea and Vietnam whose children are now attending high school, playing football, and going to the prom. And, it’s even happening with the children of Hispanic immigrants in the South.

My co-contributer here at The Liberty Papers, Brad Warbiany, wrote about this issue back in May and put it best in this closing paragraph:

Immigration is a thorny issue. But when we stand around and say “we don’t want you here”, I have to break ranks. When they say “these immigrants are damaging our economy”, I have to break ranks. I don’t have all the answers as to how to fix the problem, but I know that I refuse to close our country to people who want to live the American Dream. We have to enforce our laws, but when our laws are contrary to the very fabric of America, those laws need to change.

That, I think, is where libertarians, or anyone who believes in freedom should stand on this issue.