Immigration offers many potential advantages both for immigrants and for United States citizens. Many immigrants increase their human capital just by coming to our shores, because our superior laws allow them to earn more and retain more of what they earn. Many also gain more opportunities for collaboration with our highly educated work force. Still others escape from oppression and benefit from the freedom to practice their religion and avoid forms of state sponsored, invidious discrimination.
Our citizens gain advantages from immigration as well because most immigrants contribute to greater economic growth and many become forces for innovation. Welcoming people who choose to embrace our ideals can at its best also help renew the American project. Nevertheless, immigration can impose some costs, both to particular citizens and to the nation as a whole. Here are four categories of costs, two of which have grown with the decline of limited government and of our own confidence in American exceptionalism.
- Competition for Jobs. To individual citizens the greatest cost is increased competition of immigrants for jobs. But that competition benefits most other citizens as goods and services become cheaper because of pressure on wages. Thus, it seems to me that we should be most concerned about the effect of immigration on low-wage earners. There the concentrated costs on those least able to afford it could conceivably outweigh more diffuse gains.
- Growing the Welfare State. Many immigrants are poorer than the average citizen and may be tempted to vote themselves benefits from the government. This danger was much less acute when the United States had a limited government, but the welfare state forces us to take this problem seriously today.
- Changing the Culture.—The cost hardest to define lies in cultural change caused by immigration. Of course, culture is always changing but immigration may transform it more dramatically, particularly in areas with high numbers of immigrants. This change might create social problems of two kinds. The first is a decline of civic culture, including the culture of self-restraint needed for republican governance. The second is a decline of the culture of civic association—the capacity of like-minded individuals to provide public goods. Tocqueville saw this capacity as a peculiarly American virtue. There is some evidence that the diversity created by immigration is in tension with the willingness to engage in such joint enterprises. The costs to American culture were less likely, when America was more confident of its exceptionalism and thus generated social norms more demanding of assimilation.
- Terrorism—A new potential cost is the possibility that an immigrant is a likely terrorist. Very few will turn to terrorism, but that is a high cost if it happens.
Not all immigration is equally likely to create such costs. Mass immigration from a single poor nation that does not speak English is likely to generate the most difficulties. In contrast, permitting entry of English speaking workers with high skills will give us the benefits of immigration without substantial costs. Hillary Clinton has a point when she favors stapling a “green card” to those who come to America to get a PhD in STEM subjects. If she were to combine that idea with very careful vetting of those from nations with a problem of terrorism, it would be her most sensible policy proposal.