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Fifteen years ago I wrote a little volume for the Acton Institute titled Inhabiting the Land. In this book, I argued that the United States’ generous immigration policy benefitted poor immigrants, was a net benefit to U.S. natives, and had a small aggregate impact on state and local governments—although burdening certain states and cities. In light of these facts, I argued that there were no economic reasons to restrict immigration, even from poor countries.

Although immigration was and still is a net benefit to natives, I noted at the time that the benefits and costs were distributed unevenly. Even good policy creates winners and losers. The employers of low-wage workers and the natives who use products made with low-wage labor (almost everyone) benefit from immigration, while the costs fall heavily on unskilled workers (both natives, and previous waves of immigrants), who compete most directly with new immigrant workers. Fifteen years ago, and today, the empirical evidence suggests that immigration has a small but negative effect on the wages of unskilled natives. But compared to the massive benefits for the immigrants themselves, the small negative effects on poor natives seemed hardly worth mentioning. Dollar-for-dollar comparisons of costs and benefits clearly favor immigration.

In Inhabiting the Land I concluded that we could only argue against immigration if we were willing to “weigh the wage decrease for native unskilled workers more heavily than the significant increase in wages that is enjoyed by immigrants from much poorer countries.” In other words, we would have to be willing to count the costs to native unskilled workers more than the much larger benefits to poor immigrants. I wrote this somewhat dismissively—surely we shouldn’t prevent poor immigrants from quadrupling their incomes simply to keep unskilled natives' wages from stagnating?  

In light of the well-documented plight of low-wage native workers today, I have found myself returning to this passage frequently. Should I have cared more about the predicted effects of immigration on the native poor?

The plight of the native poor has many interrelated causes, and immigration may be the least important: family breakdown, a terrible educational system, free trade, and technological change have all contributed to the stagnation. Also, immigrants may be willing to do jobs that natives don’t want to do—at least, at the current wage. I’m also aware of the argument that immigration ought to be a win-win for unskilled natives and immigrants; a dynamic economy that is open to everyone can be good for everyone. Appropriate transfers (funding for retraining, welfare payments) can compensate poor natives for lower incomes and lost work. Indeed, many government programs have attempted to alleviate the plight of the unskilled working poor in just this way. And yet, it hasn’t worked out that way—at least, many unskilled natives don’t think it has worked out in their favor. Their consumption may be higher, but a better paying job would be better than a package of transfer payments.

The empirical arguments can distract us from the underlying question of valuation, so I will state the question as a hypothetical: If we were to agree that immigration imposed costs on poor natives, would we ever be justified in restricting immigration, even though the benefits to poor immigrants were greater than those costs?

We can only reach this conclusion if our poor, our unskilled, count for more in our deliberations than the poor and unskilled of other countries. Is it ever defensible to value the interests of our poor fellow citizens more than the interests of poor from other places? This is the question that goes unasked; it makes us uncomfortable.

It is difficult to find arguments in support of policy preferences for our fellow citizens; these preferences are often characterized as dangerously nationalistic, chauvinistic, and bigoted. On the cosmopolitan left, citizens of the world view national boundaries as barriers to a just world community. From this perspective, claims that there are tradeoffs between the poor of different nations are distractions from the structural changes needed to lift up all of the poor. On the free trade right, global marketeers see national boundaries and national loyalties as barriers to trade and more efficient world markets. From this perspective, pleas for our poor are mere smokescreens masking a cynical struggle for inefficient restraints on trade.

We are not in danger of excessive partiality toward our citizens. Some on the left and right seem to favor immigrants over natives. We expect immigrants to be hardworking, enterprising, and full of promise for the future, while we are more familiar with our poor's blemishes—trapped in rural and urban poverty, enmeshed in historical injustice and misguided policy. The recent rise in employment and earnings among the native poor, and the labor shortages that accompany this improvement, has generated some rejoicing at the good fortune of our fellow working-class citizens, but it has also led to calls for increased immigration, for the sake of “the economy.”

The right to migrate has never been absolute, except for those in direst need. Even in Catholic social teaching, migration can be curtailed when it becomes a threat to a country's common good. Yet claims that a nation has a common good have been increasingly dismissed in view of the universalizing imperatives of world citizenship and world markets. What claims of solidarity and justice do our fellow citizens have on us and on our government, relative to foreigners' claims of justice and solidarity?

I hesitated as I chose the term “foreigner” in the last sentence, for the term has fallen into disuse among the “enlightened” educated. Supposedly, the word distances us from “the other,” assaulting the dignity of our brothers and sisters from other places. Our universities brag that they produce “citizens of the world”; no one is “foreign” to us. The distaste evoked by this term highlights our challenge. Those inclined to world citizenship and world markets are too often unable to explore the moral distinctions necessary to grapple with the claims of citizenship, and censorious toward those who try.

This instinct to reject the claims of nationalism and patriotism as unacceptable is dangerous and destabilizing. Anyone making reasoned, humane arguments in favor of nationalism and for particular obligations toward fellow citizens ought to be engaged, challenged, and encouraged. They are claiming intellectual ground from those who have no qualms about using the term “foreigner” pejoratively. Autocratic populists often appeal to nationalism and the bonds of citizenship for illiberal, inhumane ends. If their appeals go uncountered, they will continue to gain strength.

Andrew M. Yuengert is an Ordinary Professor of Economics and Social Thought and a Fellow in the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

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