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Immigration, the Free Market, and the Importance of Human Dignity

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Immigration is never a light topic to discuss, and even the proposition of a solution to the effects caused by immigration might well be considered radical. The idea of a harmonious multicultural society is idealistic, but in reality, is very difficult to achieve.

When looking at the advantages and disadvantages of immigration, relative to the nation receiving immigrants, the economy is a concern that often comes up. In a recent IEA (Institute of Economic Affairs) paper, Nobel Prize winner Professor Gary Becker proposes a way in which the economy and the government of the country receiving immigrants could benefit. He believes that governments should sell the right to immigrate. Becker says, “The government should set a price each year and anyone would be accepted, aside from obvious cases such as potential terrorists, criminals and people who are very sick and who would be immediately a big burden to the health system.”

Becker uses the United States as a model for how the solution might play out. The U.S. has been admitting about one million legal immigrants a year. He says, “At a price of $50,000 per immigrant, let’s suppose this would attract one million immigrants.” At a 5 per cent interest rate, it has a present value of roughly $1 trillion. Of course, different countries could charge different rates, and the option of offering loans to those who couldn’t pay the amount up-front is a possibility. Through this solution, Becker believes a country would get immigrants who are young, skilled, and have the greatest commitment to the country.

Becker’s use of the United States as an example seems to suggest it is experiencing a revenue problem. But in fact, the government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Immigration is not a new concept; it has been taking place since the dawn of time. Since the early days of Christianity, the welcoming of others has been encouraged.  In an interview with Thomas C. Oden in Religion & Liberty,” Oden notes, “Ancient Christian writers knew that all Christians were being called to receive strangers and travelers hospitably.” But this does not get to the question of whether the stranger is entering under lawful pretences. These two viewpoints often conflict. Oden goes on to say, “They conflict dramatically between those who would emphasize the hospitality in an absolute way, and those who would emphasize the moral requirement of following the law as a part of a just social order, including the duty to respect legal borders.” So even among late and present day Christians, there is great contrast in opinions regarding this issue.

But among Christians, policy makers, and all people for that matter, the key component to any decision should be based on human dignity. Becker’s proposal works to boost the revenue of countries, but seems to take lightly the rights of the immigrants themselves.  Sure, they will be accepted into the country and may eventually enjoy the same benefits as a natural-born citizen, but under the proposal, they are treated more as a commodity than a human being.

Although Becker’s proposal would work to moderate the illegal immigration problem, by offering a viable option for immigrants to enter legally, it does not address the cultural differences and religious factors that often play a large role in the discontent surrounding immigration. Germany, for example, has expressed great concern over the large influx of Muslim immigrants (coming mainly from Turkey) entering its borders. The predominant religion in Germany has long been Christianity, although church attendance rates have experienced a rather steady decline. The Turkish immigrants have proven to be very devout in their Islamic faith, which has made Germany question how strongly it wants to hold onto its Christian roots. These religious differences have fueled much of the debate which still continues.

The topic of immigration raises many questions about how it should be handled. Not every country holds the same stake in each issue surrounding immigration (culture, religion, economics, etc.), but each decision made should be premised on the dignity of the human person first. Becker’s proposal seemingly focuses on a solution based solely on revenue concerns. By doing this he fails to recognize immigrants who immigrate for humanitarian reasons (lack of resources, economic oppression, etc.)  For people yearning for freedom, having to pay a considerable amount to enter a county doesn’t exactly fit within the mantra of liberty. Use of the free market is in many cases a good thing, but when its use undermines the very freedom it attempts to foster, it is violating its own principles. This does not mean the immigration system should not be revised; restructuring the legal immigration system in the U.S. and other countries would help a great deal. But, in order for these changes to be truly positive, they should first and foremost be based on the dignity of the human person.


Matthea Brandenburg Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.


  • I think this is a good critique of Becker’s proposal.

    With regards to the dignity of the person, I think that this issue is further complicated by the fact that so many cases of illegal immigration are actually human trafficking, i.e., people who think they are entering the country legally but are actually being exploited for cheap (and, in effect, slave) labor. Too often I hear people equating illegal immigration with intentional criminal activity. Certainly that is sometimes the case, but it is not always and cannot be assumed. To presume that someone who may be a victim of modern-day slavery is a criminal and to divide families through hasty deportation due to this assumption–this too violates the dignity of the human person.

    NPR recently ran a story about a big illegal immigration bust that took place in Iowa three years ago. Anyone who is interested can listen to it here:

  • Matthea Brandenburg

    Dylan, thanks for your insight!  Immigration is a very tricky issue, and yes, one must be careful to not make generalizations.  Human trafficking is a terrible problem and it’s unfair to assume that all immigrants choose to immigrate under their own will.  Requiring immigrants to pay undermines the principle of freedom from many different angles. 

  • tz

    Physical capital and Human capital are rarely coincident.  Artists, poets, scientists, and other creators might not be able to pay the fee over the other costs of moving.

    It is hard for bureaucrats to judge, but perhaps instead of 50 thousand dollars, 50 letters of recommendation each with a guarantee to pay 1/50th of any fees or fines if they misbehave.

    Immigration is not so much an issue as ILLEGAL immigration – and changing the barriers to legal immigration won’t help unless they are so low as to make the illegals, legal, and that would include the undesirable as well as those who are merely desperate.

  • Caplan has made a similar proposal. Not sure which came first. Campolo is trying to promote something similar this week, too. 
    Part of the problem in analyzing effects of migration is in choosing the right baseline. If we only are looking at status quo vs. reform we are more likely to notice negative economic effects, however slight and isolated they actually turn out to be. 
    If, instead, we draw a baseline prior to first immigration laws in US, say 1850, and ask what would the world have been like with open borders all that time, we see how human dignity has been harmed by arbitrary generation of privilege through legislation. Migration quotas are protectionist.  Avoidance of competition through politics is cowardly. 
    That said, the Becker/Caplan/Campolo plan provides an opportunity. If believers would like to demonstrate the injustice of migration laws they can choose to sponsor directly additional migrants. Such a change analogizes as a switch from quotas to tariffs in trade restrictions. We could then rescue more people out of oppression and poverty by simply paying more sacrificially ourselves. The current law effectively prevents me from sponsoring additional Haitian, Iraqi, Sudaneese, or Salvadorian migrants, even if I were to let them live with me!  It prevents the good from doing good. 
    When imitation of Christ’s sacrifice and hospitality is not only not encouraged, but made illegal, it may be time for civil disobedience. 

    • I see your point about quotas, but I think tariffs can be equally oppressive. If you have space in your home for someone to stay, but you and your family or church or whatever still don’t have $25,000-$50,000 (which is probably quite likely in many cases) you will be equally unable to help someone, even though you have a place to stay for them, including food and maybe even leads on possible jobs. Tariffs would prevent the poor from helping the poor, though they might be preferable to quotas.

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