Immigration costs and benefits — in liberty and otherwise

I blogged below about the American high school students ordered not to display the American flag in school, because of a risk of violent attack by some Hispanic students. The story, I think, should remind us of something — something obvious, but something that’s sometimes forgotten.

Immigration has many possible benefits: economic, social, national security, domestic security, and liberty benefits. Indeed, I’ve argued that having much more legal immigration is necessary for America to maintain its standard of living and its position of world leadership (technological, economic and political).

Immigration also has many possible costs (economic, social, national security, domestic security, liberty and congestion costs). These benefits and costs vary by type of immigrant — well-educated vs. uneducated, rich vs. poor, single vs. family, old vs. young, from countries in which there is a substantial amount of militant hostility against the U.S. vs. from other countries, and so on — often in complex ways.

Unless one believes there is a categorical moral duty to allow in all immigrants, something that to my knowledge only a few people believe, one must consider all these costs and benefits in deciding on immigration policy. That applies both to the decisions about who may lawfully enter, from where, and on what terms, and to decisions about whether we should allow some who have come or stayed illegally to become legal.

And these benefits and costs also vary by our legal and political system’s reaction to the immigration. For instance, the more medical, educational and welfare benefits are available to immigrants, especially as soon as they arrive, the higher the costs and the risk that we will draw people who are less productive and more interested in those benefits (though it’s possible there may also be countervailing benefits as well). The more willing we are to deport non-citizens who commit crime, the lower the likely domestic security costs of immigration — of course, keeping in mind that there might always be perverse effects that one might miss in the initial cost-benefit analysis.

This is particularly true of liberty costs. If letting in immigrants leaves us as free as we ever were, that’s great. But the more it means our liberty must be restricted to accommodate immigrants — and even their descendants — the more we should worry about immigration, especially since we should rightly value liberty highly.

The California high school officials who sent kids home for wearing an American flag — incidentally, kids whose names suggest that they themselves are likely the descendants of relatively recent immigrants — was essentially concluding that immigration imposes substantial liberty costs, as well as domestic security costs (since the justification was a fear that the American flag T-shirts might provoke an attack, presumably by those who supported the Cinco de Mayo celebration). If the school officials are right, then that’s an argument against allowing more immigration. And whether or not the school officials are right, if their actions become common, those actions themselves would become an argument against allowing more immigration. And this is so even though the consequent reduction in immigration will end up being overwhelmingly borne by people who are law-abiding, and who have no desire to reduce the liberties of American citizens.

On the other hand, the more our system welcomes new immigrants but at the same time assures citizens that their liberty will not be reduced as a result of the immigration the more open American citizens ought to be more immigration. And the same is true if the government is prepared to take measures to reduce the other costs of immigration, too. Being too accommodating to the interests and demands of immigrants can thus rightly discourage support for allowing more immigration.

(By the way, I recognize that some Hispanics in California are the descendants not of immigrants to the United States but of Hispanics who were already living here when the U.S. acquired California and other western lands from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. But, as I understand it, this is a very small part of the Hispanic population.)

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.

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Eugene Volokh · February 27, 2014