Acton Institute Powerblog

The Poison of Anti-Immigration Protectionism

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As the number of Republicans vying for the presidency reaches new levels of absurdity, candidates are scrambling to affirm their conservative bona fides. If you can stomach the pandering, it’s a good time to explore the ideas bouncing around the movement, and when necessary, prune off the poisonous limbs.

Alas, for all of its typical promotions of free enterprise, free trade, and individual liberty, the modern conservative movement retains a peculiar and ever-growing faction of folks who harbor anti-immigration sentiments that contradict and discredit their otherwise noble views. For these, opposing immigration is not about border control, national security, or the rule of law (topics for another day), but about “protecting American jobs” and “protecting the American worker.”

Consider the recent shift of Scott Walker. Once a supporter of legal immigration, Walker now says that immigration hurts the American worker, and that “the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages.” Or Rick Santorum, who has made no bones about his bid for the protectionist bloc. “American workers deserve a shot at [good] jobs,” he said. “Over the last 20 years, we have brought into this country, legally and illegally, 35 million mostly unskilled workers. And the result, over that same period of time, workers’ wages and family incomes have flatlined.”

Unfortunately, these attitudes run deeper than surface-level platitudes or fringe thinkers. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, only 27 percent of Republicans say that immigration (even legal immigration) has a positive impact on our country: “[F]ar more (63%) say that immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care. Republican views on this question have turned more negative over the last year. The share of Republicans who say immigrants strengthen the country has declined from 42% in March 2014.”

immigration-pew-republicansAnd yet, when it comes to basic economic theory and observation, confirmed by the vast majority of thinkers and thought leaders in the movement at large, we see no evidence of this threat. On the contrary, we find that immigration boosts the labor market and accelerates economic growth. From the late Julian Simon to Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, from AEI to Heritage to Cato (and even Brookings), the evidence only compounds.

Still, the attitudes persist, which, given their disconnect from reality and otherwise sound political principles, may indicate that the deeper issues have less to do with surface-level economic ignorance than with a more basic selfishness and distorted view of human dignity and potential.

Given America’s largely insulated and privileged position of years past, and now the “threat” of globalization, why is expanding our “internal” labor pool necessary? Why must we compete for our beloved jobs, and at far lower prices, all for “mere profit”? Why not just lock all of humanity out of the goodie box and protect “what’s ours”?

These are common questions many of us will ask internally, particularly when we find ourselves in “at-risk” jobs or industries. And yet, while such a reaction is only natural, we should be careful that we don’t sell ourselves away to such base sentiments, which can basically be reduced to, “Why do I have to share my job with Jimmy?”

Keep in mind that, on the conservative side, these same folks would be delighted to see new creators and competitors go up against Silicon Valley start-ups or Wall Street banks. Such “threats” are, in fact, opportunities for new growth and creativity. If adjustments need to be made, the moral response is not to give way to envy-induced territorialism, but to get ourselves back on track and think of new ways to contribute and create alongside and on behalf of our neighbors — old and new alike.

Indeed, once we get past our short-sighted notions of entitlement and self-preservation, we find that the Santorum school on immigration is more suited to Ehrlich’s doomsday prophecies than the ponderings of Buckley or Burke. Humans are assets, fashioned in the image of God with creative potential and unbounded relational capacity. All is gift, and we are all destined to be gift-givers in God’s grand economy of all things. We are made to build and innovate, share and collaborate, and immigrants of whatever skill set from whatever country or political system are born with that same creative capacity.

We should be careful to create the proper political order for facilitating that activity. But as those who believe in the dignity and destiny of the human person and the power of markets to arrange our activity for the prosperity of society, conservatives should recognize this protectionism as the poison it is.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • ErikKengaard

    Nothing has done more to diminish the quality of life for the middle class through higher housing (land) costs, competition for jobs, greater poverty, mortgage fraud, medicare fraud, crime, disease, cost of public schools, cost of college, depletion of resources, burden on the taxpayer and overall congestion than the increase of and change in population since 1965, driven almost entirely by immigration.

    Because we are overpopulated, millions of young people graduating this year will never be able to buy a home in the town where they were born. What sort of person wishes for that?

    The high price of housing is a major factor in poorer quality of life for the middle class and the poor. Population density is the main driver of the price of land, and thus the price of housing. High immigration is the main driver of population density.
    See, for example, Immigration and the revival of American Cities by Jacob L. Vigdor for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Partnership for a New American Economy, in which he claims that more than 40 million immigrants currently in the united states have increased housing prices nationwide by $3.7 trillion. Or, get the population and housing price data for 1900 to 2010 from the Bureau of the Census and do your own analysis. Don’t forget that change in population leads change in price by ten or twenty years. (You won’t find many op-eds or studies on this politically incorrect subject).

    • Bryan Clarke

      Pure Marxist bull. If you want to love in a third world country then leave by REAL WHITE PEOPLE are going to fight for our country and race just like t he invaders who come to our country. The free ride is over……14/88

      • ErikKengaard

        I’d rather love in a first world country.

      • ErikKengaard

        “Still, it is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in, and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invaders’ hearth.”
        Winston Churchill, History of the English Speaking Peoples (Abridged)

    • Yeah that’s very bad economics. So how come the 40 million didn’t keep the price of housing from collapsing in 2008? BTW, Reagan gave amnesty to about 12 million illegals and the economy boomed for 20 years. There is no cause/effect relationship between immigration and economics.

      • ErikKengaard

        Immigrations impact on housing costs is via increase in population over decades.
        Of course, other factors are involved – available supply of residential land (has greatly increased – builders are buying old houses for the underlying land), cost of construction (has decreased), access to and cost of mortgages (short term impact), investors looking to profit from rentals.
        The “collapse” in housing prices was short lived.

    • ErikKengaard

      Re competition for jobs, note that companies such as Hewlett Packard have laid off thousands, but seek H1B visas for replacement.
      Re poverty, note that the USDA is advertising food stamps in Spanish, and that the US Census shows that Hispanics are disproportionate users of welfare (why are we importing poverty? Don’t we have enough of our own?) In Los Angeles County alone, with the $550 million for public safety and nearly $500 million for healthcare, the total cost for illegal immigrants to county taxpayers exceeds $1.6 billion dollars a year, according to LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
      Re mortgage fraud, note the disproportionate number of immigrants involved.
      Re medicare fraud, note the disproportionate number of immigrants involved, as evidenced by the HHS OIG most wanted list, the fact that Glendale, California is the medicare fraud capitol of the US.

    • ErikKengaard

      Re Disease: see Ebola, drug resistant Tuberculosis, Hepatitis C, . . .
      Re crime, see the LAPD most wanted list. Quite obviously not mostly 5th generation Americans.
      Re cost of public schools, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually in Los Angeles County alone for education of children of immigrants. Their parents’ taxes don’t come close to covering those costs, let alone the other costs of EITC, SNAP, Medical, etc.
      Re cost of college, it’s obvious that more lower income students will draw on financial aid, burdening those middle class families who are not eligible for aid. And the US Census shows that recent immigrants tend to be lower income. And state tax revenue diverted to welfare and prisons is revenue not available to fund state universities.
      Re depletion of resources – it is certain that more people will deplete natural resources faster than fewer people.
      Re burden on the taxpayer, in California, almost a quarter of children with legal immigrant parents, and almost two-fifths of children with unauthorized parents, are poor. They don’t begin to pay enough in taxes to cover their costs. See The Urban Institute Washington, DC March 2007.
      Re overall congestion – try driving freeways in any major city.

  • Dan

    What escapes the authors of these pro mass immigration pieces is that America is a country, not a business. The economic arguments for mass immigration presented here benefit only those who control capital. The CBO report on S744 – the Senate’s immigration reform legislation – shows considerable economic growth. However the gains go straight to the already wealthy while the working class takes a pay cut. In other words, immigration reform means more inequality.
    Which brings us to the problems of unrestricted immigration. Eroded social cohesion, vastly greater inequality, much reduced overall education levels, more pollution, more sprawl and less of the open spaces and easy lifestyle we take for granted. Sovereignty matters. Without the social cohesion and the respect for the rule of law of this country, nobody is going to make any money.

    • Joseph Sunde

      Rule of law matters, and my argument doesn’t touch on that subject. It targets the arguments of Walker and Santorum, which assume that even *LEGAL* immigration hurts the country’s economies.

      Once we’ve noted that, I think it’s quite obvious to the average reader that the rest of your statements (e.g. labor competition boosts inequality!) sound more like Marxism than conservatism. Which is precisely my point.

  • Opponents of immigration advertise their socialist ideology. Socialists initiated anti-immigration policies in the West in Germany during the last quarter of the 19th century. They blamed immigrants for the scarcity of jobs and stagnant wages knowing full well that socialism caused those problems, not immigration.

    The US never opposed immigration until after socialism became popular during the Great Depression. Good economists know that government and Fed policies caused the Great Depression, but socialists blamed capitalism and immigrants. But the truth is that the US had enjoyed extraordinary immigration from the Civil War to 1929 with rapidly rising wages and very low unemployment. The US managed such a “miracle” because it protected property and free markets.

    Today, massive socialism of the fascist variety has destroyed job creation and caused stagnating wages. As George Will wrote Sunday, socialism grew fastest in the US under Republican presidents. As they have for a century, socialists don’t want to blame socialism for the failures socialism has caused in the US. They blame residual capitalism and immigrants. Socialists never change no matter how much the facts prove them wrong.

    • ErikKengaard

      The US never opposed socialism until the great depression? Are you not aware of the Immigration Act of 1924 [ Johnson–Reed Act]?

      • Yeah, I was off by a few years. But it doesn’t change the fact that the US economy’s best years were those during the massive immigration from the Civil War until the Great D. Immigration does not hurt native workers. Neither did the immigration restrictions help workers during the Great D. Pro-immigration people probably exaggerate the economic benefits, but opponents are without a doubt out of their minds regarding the problems.

        • ErikKengaard

          Off by a few years? It goes deeper than that: you are not well acquainted with history.

          • Then please enlighten me.

          • ErikKengaard

            You’ve got to do that by yourself . . . if you want to become enlightened.
            Birth and Fortune, Richard A. Easterlin
            History of the American Economy, Waltron and Rockoff
            Economists and the Powerful Norbert Haring, Niall Douglas
            Rethinking Social Policy Christopher Jencks
            Population and America’s Future Joseph Spengler
            The Missing Middle Theda Skocpol
            Conscience of a Liberal Paul Krugman (Chapter 3 (pages 48-49)
            Hardin, Garrett James – his essays
            Kevin Starr’s series on California

          • A bilbiography means nothing. If you have read a few of those you could summarize. That’s how you have a conversation on a blog.

        • ErikKengaard

          The “US economy” is not equivalent to “the quailty of life for the middle class.”

          • Of course it is. The middle class make up the largest group in the economy.

      • ErikKengaard

        Should have said “opposed immigration.”

        The Johnson–Reed Act of 1924 severely restricted immigration, and, as a result, the population of workers aged 25 to 34 stabilized (21,339,000 in 1940, 23,759,000 in 1950, 22,818,000 in 1960), leading to the best years for employment ever.

    • ErikKengaard

      “The three decades . . . from the mid forties to the mid seventies, were the golden age of manual labor.” * * * Why were times so good for blue collar workers? To some extent they were helped by the state of the world economy. * * * They were also helped by a scarcity of labor created by the severe immigration restrictions imposed by the Immigration Act of 1924.”
      Paul Krugman, Conscience of a Liberal, Chapter 3 (pages 48-49)

      • Krugman is a hard core Marxist. He thinks France is too pro-free market. Interpreting economic history requires good economic theory, which he doesn’t have. Using sound economics, immigration restriction cannot help workers, otherwise it would have worked well for all of the socialist countries that have tried it. Only investment in business can raise worker wages.

        • ErikKengaard

          So . . . why are not the unemployed urging greater immigration? Why is it that corporations are the promoters of more immigration?

          • Who says corporations are championing immigration. I don’t work for a corporation, not do most libertarians. The only corps I know of wanting more immigration are high tech companies who want programmers. The jobs they offer are high paying. I doubt any poor Mexicans would qualify for them.

            I don’t dispute that immigrants compete with natives for entry level low paying jobs, but as I wrote above, socialists invented the evil idea that jobs are limited and workers must fight like dogs over a bone. Socialism causes such conditions. We have high unemployment because of the massive growth in socialism over the past 60 years. Free the economy and businesses will create so many jobs that immigrants and natives will have companies competing for them and offering higher wages. After all, that was the history of this nation until 1929.

          • ErikKengaard

            See “Our Massively One-Sided Immigration Debate” by John Carney @ (3/26)
            See “Untangling the webs of immigration lobbying” by Lee Drutman and Alexander Furnas at The Sunlight Foundation (3/25)

          • All socialist propaganda. Not any of it is true or good economics. One thing and one thing only will raise wage rates and that is increasing labor productivity. It’s econ 101 as opposed to socialist propaganda.

          • ErikKengaard

            So . . . you say that the law of supply and demand does not apply to the price of labor ? Amazing.

          • I didn’ write that. But your statement shows how dangerous a superficial knowledge of economics is. Many things affect supply and demand. Both are categories containing a lot of economic activity under the surface. All other things being equal, an artificial shortage of labor will cause wage increases in the short run. But in the long run those wages increases will cause price inflation that erodes the purchasing power of the wage increases and return workers to their former standard of living.

            Bad economists look only at the short run and the immediate effects and do their best to prevent others from looking behind the curtain or considering the long run. I realize that as a socialist you have nothing but contempt for the science of economics, but that science has proven for over a century that the only way to effectively and permanently raise wages is through productivity increases. That is taught in every entry economics textbook regardless of what mainstream economists tell you.

          • ErikKengaard

            Well, I’ll have to dig out my old textbooks and see what Baumol and Blinder had to say on the matter.
            What leads you to believe I’m a socialist?

          • ErikKengaard

            ” . . . raising wages through labor shortages, even if possible, would result in
            price inflation that would destroy the purchasing power of those wages
            and reduce worker standards of living?”
            That was not my experience in the 1950s and 1960s.

          • ErikKengaard
          • ErikKengaard

            “The connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history.” Peter Turchin, Return of the oppressed, aeon magazine.
            “After World War I, laws were passed [the 1924 Johnson–Reed Act] severely limiting immigration. . . . By keeping labor supply down, immigration restriction tends to keep wages high. Let us underline this basic principle: Limitation of the supply of any grade of labor relative to all other productive factors can be expected to raise its wage rate; an increase in supply will, other things being equal, tend to depress wage rates” Paul Samuelson, quoted by Professor George Borjas, Harvard
            See “For a Few Dollars Less” by George J. Borjas, April 18, 2006; Page A18
            “JEDDAH: Saudis have begun complaining of surging labour costs following the exodus of a million foreign workers, although economists insist there will be long-term planning benefits from fully regulating the market.” in The Economic Times, November 7, 2013

            “the law of supply and demand is immutable” New York Times, July 20. 2013 in “Being Legal Doesn’t End Poverty”

  • Ali_Bertarian

    Alas, Mr. Sunde has succeeded only in poking at some straw men.

    “Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 Immigration Act was expressly
    designed to change the demographics of our country to be poorer and more
    inclined to vote Democratic.”

    “It worked! Post-1970 immigrants vote 8-2 for the

    – From Ann Coulter’s new book, Adios

  • Ali_Bertarian

    Medicaid And Immigrants To The United States

    “Immigrants and their children accounted for 42 percent of Medicaid enrollment growth from 2011 to 2013, even though they accounted for only 17 percent of the nation’s total population and 23 percent of overall U.S. population growth over this time period.”

    “About two-thirds of the growth in Medicaid associated with immigrants was among immigrants themselves, rather than the U.S.-born children of immigrants.”

    “The increase in Medicaid enrollment among immigrants and their children can be roughly estimated as costing $4.6 billion annually.”

    “By 2013, 25 percent of immigrants and their children were on Medicaid, compared to 16 percent of natives and their children.”

    “Although Medicaid use among immigrants and their children is substantially higher than for natives and their children, it is still the case that 23 percent of immigrants and their children were uninsured
    in 2013 – twice the rate for natives.”

    “Overall, nearly half (48 percent) of immigrants and their children were uninsured or on Medicaid in 2013, compared to slightly over a quarter of natives (27 percent).”

    • You confirm my point that socialism is behind the opposition to immigration. Americans want to protect their socialist programs by limiting immigration. Get rid of the socialism and we’ll have no reason to oppose new immigrants.

      • Ali_Bertarian

        Democrats want to increase immigration not because they want to protect socialist programs, but because they want to increase socialism to yet more people, i.e. more immigrants.

        We will not get rid of socialism until we stop importing more Democrat voters. See my two posts above this one to which you replied.

        • Joseph Sunde

          So you’re afraid of the Democrats’ goals and plans to convert incoming immigrants to voters and taxpayers, and thus, we should keep everyone out? Do you base all of your political philosophy in reaction to the DFL’s petty plans to manipulate the masses?

        • I’m not sure why so many posters here care about the motives of those for and against immigration. That’s the ad hominem fallacy and totally irrelevant. But yes, immigration can end socialism by bankrupting it. Bankruptcy has been the only way socialism has ever ended in any country.

          • Ali_Bertarian

            The reason the left cares about motives is because they don’t want to discuss the facts of issues, or the political and cultural consequences of those facts. They don’t have a logical response to those who note that illegal aliens, for example, are far more likely to be dependent on government benefits (because they are poor, and their minor children are eligible) as I pointed out above from Pew Research data. So rather than respond to the facts, or the argument, they assume that they can read minds, that they know the real reason people are against giving citizenship to illegal aliens. They “know” that it is because we are racist.

            Greece is essentially, if not officially, bankrupt, yet their citizens vote to increase socialism, not decrease it. If there is a democratic formerly socialist country, but now non-socialist, I would like to know what it is, because that would give me hope for mankind. I might even move there.

  • Ali_Bertarian

    Characteristics of the Illegal Workforce

    “More than A Half Million Social Security Numbers Issued To Illegal Immigrants Granted Amnesty” –

    “Despite these shifts, unauthorized immigrant workers remain concentrated in lower-skill jobs, much more so than U.S.-born workers, according to the new estimates, which are based on government data. In 2012, 62% held service, construction and production jobs, twice the share of U.S.-born workers who did. The 13% share with management or professional jobs is less than half of the 36% of U.S.-born workers in those occupations.”

    “Previous work by the Pew Research Center has found that unauthorized immigrants are far less educated, on average, than legal immigrants or the U.S.-born; they are both more likely not to have graduated high school and less likely to have attended college. That, and limits due to their status, helps explain their concentration in low-skilled occupations (Passel and Cohn, 2009).” (emphasis added)

    One unsubstantiated assumption by Pew is that the concentration of illegal immigrants in low-skilled occupations is caused by their illegal status. Pew assumes correlation is causation. They failed to consider that the same personality characteristics that are the true cause of their illegal status might also be the same cause of their lower skills.

  • Ali_Bertarian

    Let’s talk about that liberty that Sunde mentioned in passing. When you can guarantee that those peacefully crossing the border will never peacefully be bussed to their polling places by Democrat community organizers for the purpose of peacefully voting to take my freedom and stuff away from me, then you will have my support for open borders. Democrats are smart enough to know that these immigrants will be lifelong Democrat voters, particularly the illegal ones.

    The United States Constitution does not guarantee natural rights. There is no private property, and there are no people, that our neighbors can legally be denied to control if they so desire. If they want to deny the right of free speech, then they may do so if they have sufficient numbers of allies. All democracies are nothing more than big communes.

    In a democracy in which everyone’s freedom and property are subject to popular vote, barring entry to those who are likely to take that freedom and property in the voting booth is neither unjust nor capricious. We don’t have a government of a genuinely free country. We live in a free-for-all pig trough. Regulating the immigration of people entering that pig trough is simply self defense.

    • Joseph Sunde

      I don’t doubt your framing of the Democrats’ motivations, but I certaionly don’t share your view about immigrants being blind and ignorant slaves of the Democrat Party. That said, if conservatives continue to talk about them as such, I won’t begrudge them if they don’t feel welcome or valued.

      Your view of liberty is rather peculiar. You claim to want a “genuinely free country” even as you want to make free bussing to polling places illegal for select groups of people? No thanks.

  • ErikKengaard

    We should take notes from the Australians.

  • kamiller42

    This article hinges on believing immigration means all immigration. It does not consider conservatives “anti-immigration” is shorthand for anti-illegal immigration or amnesty (Amnesty being a form of legitimized illegal immigration.). Dennis Miller stated what conservatives and I think most people think about immigration, “You’re welcome to come to my house, but you have to sign the guestbook before entering.” And if you are on temporary stay, you have to leave when it’s time.

    • Joseph Sunde

      No, it doesn’t, but yes, I take up immigration broadly, because I’m not sure how the legality of things makes the economic arguments all that different.

      But I focused on the statements of Walker and Santorum because they are about LEGAL immigration hurting workers. The rule of law matters, and I agree that folks should have to “sign the guestbook before entering.” But with the right economic arguments, that would lead us to say “more legal immigration,” not less.

  • ErikKengaard
    “Since last summer, [Southern California] Edison, which serves nearly 14 million customers, has been firing its domestic IT workers and replacing them with outsourced employees from India. In doing so, the utility is exploiting a gaping loophole in immigration law, which Congress has failed to close despite years of warnings that it’s costing thousands of American jobs. The Indian workers are brought in on H-1B visas, which are temporary work permits for “specialty occupations” — those requiring “highly specialized knowledge” and a bachelor’s degree.” Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2015