Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders by Jason Riley is an excellent book with a regrettable title. Because I personally do not think the United States could sustain an open borders policy—and because that is also quite adamantly not the position of my employer, World Relief, which like other evangelical groups supporting Comprehensive Immigration Reform has occasionally been wrongly accused of advocating an open border stance—I have been reticent to recommend Let Them In. But the subtitle—which I would imagine was chosen by the publisher, eager to sell books with a provocative book cover, not the author—is actually misleading.
Riley’s argument—coming from the libertarian-leaning, market-oriented perspective typical of his employer, The Wall Street Journal—is really a case against closed borders—that is, the view that we should stop immigration altogether. He argues for more open immigration policies than we currently have, but nowhere in the text does he suggest that we should allow unlimited immigration, as the subtitle implies. To the contrary, he concludes the book with this summary: “The United States needs to better regulate cross-border labor flows, not end them.”
A better title for the book (particularly had it been published in 2010 rather than 2008) would be The Tea Party Case for Immigration Reform. The powerful Tea Party movement is driven in large part by the belief that the market—not the state—is the best engine of economic growth and therefore that we need a much smaller, limited government with fewer regulations. With some exceptions, of the two major political parties in the U.S., the Republican Party has generally been the party of smaller government, deregulation, and freer markets.
Riley makes a compelling case that those who, like him, believe in the free movement of goods and capital should also advocate a freer movement of labor, even across borders. Our current immigration system, he told satirist Stephen Colbert, resembles “Soviet-style central planning” with its arbitrary visa quotas divorced from market realities—precisely the sort of policies against which the Tea Party generally rails.
Having become intimately acquainted with our nation’s immigration laws through years of work as an immigration legal counselor, I think Riley’s assessment is dead on. The reality is that, to sustain economic growth, the American economy needs more labor in particular sectors—most notably the highly-skilled tech jobs that humanities- and social sciences-studying American college grads like me are unqualified to fill, and the low-paying, physically-straining jobs in sectors like agriculture and hospitality that we are unwilling to take—than native born workers provide. We need immigrants to fill those holes. But the quotas written into our federal immigration laws, which might have made sense when they were drafted decades ago, are now completely out-of-touch with the labor needs of our country. Most notably: in a typical year, only 5,000 immigrants are granted green cards to enter the U.S. based on employer petitions to do low-skilled labor. Our problem is not that immigrants are unwilling to migrate “the legal way;” it is that our lawful immigration system meets only a tiny fraction of the demand created by our economy. And since we (or at least our elected officials, on our behalf) are unwilling to deal with the economic consequences of fully enforcing our current immigration policy—sky-rocketing prices for the products and services made possible by low-skilled immigrants’ labor, job losses for white collar US citizens employed by industries that would cease to exist without immigrant labor, and the outsourcing of entire industries to countries where labor is less costly—we look the other way while immigrants enter unlawfully and quickly integrate into our labor force.
Like Riley, I find it confusing and frustrating that the political party which usually champions free market principles is—for the most part—presently opposing market-friendly immigration reforms. Indeed, Riley makes much of the fact that the GOP was once, not so long ago, the champion of immigrants: like many conservatives, he reveres Ronald Reagan, and he notes that George W. Bush also advocated immigration policies that would have moved us in the right direction. Today, though, it has become very difficult to find a congressional Republican publicly advocating the sort of market- and family-driven immigration policies that Reagan and Bush advocated (some are personally supportive in private, as are many Republican voices not currently in office and contemplating re-election, including Tea Party favorites Dick Armey, Grover Norquist, and Newt Gingrich).
As a firmly pro-life evangelical Christian, the most disturbing revelation in Riley’s book was his explanation of how this ideological inconsistency developed. Decades ago, a left-leaning environmentalist in Michigan named John Tanton, influenced by the apocalyptic neo-Malthusian warnings of Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb, decided that population growth threatened ecological stability. Tanton became a zealous advocate for population control: he opened a Planned Parenthood chapter to facilitate access to abortion; he praised China’s one-child forced-abortion policy and suggested that India needs a similar policy; and he became president of an organization called Zero Population Growth. But he also realized that much population growth in the U.S. was tied to immigration, so (over the course of several decades) he founded several organizations designed to change public opinion and, thus, public policy to tightly limit immigration. Three of the groups that he founded—NumbersUSA, FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform), and the Center for Immigration Studies—have proven extraordinarily influential. Their representatives appear on television regularly, they testify before Congress, and they can generate millions of faxes to congressional offices, which effectively frighten legislators away from policies that would expand lawful migration channels. These organizations have very successfully convinced a great many Americans—particularly those on the conservative end of the political spectrum who would not generally identify with the population control movement—of a series of myths about immigrants.
Riley systematically addresses those misconceptions, carefully documenting his credible sources. Immigrants do not steal jobs: they fuel economic growth, a reality that almost any economist will affirm. Undocumented immigrants do not get fat on public benefits while refusing to pay taxes; the reality is the reverse: most are paying taxes, but are ineligible for Social Security, food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families (welfare), Medicaid, and almost all other federal public benefits. They are not “polluting our culture”: most actually bring family values and a work ethic that are stronger than the median of American society. Immigrants are not disproportionately likely to commit crimes: noncitizens account for about 7 percent of the U.S. population, but only 6.4 percent of the prison population. And immigrants, if allowed to vote, would not necessarily elect Democrats: unless driven away by anti-immigrant policies (a very serious risk of the current strategy), Latino immigrants in particular are what the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land has called “hard-wired social conservatives.” They are more pro-life than almost any other sub-group you can find (including white evangelicals), they have proven strong defenders of traditional marriage, and they appreciate a free-market economy: the economic opportunities it fosters are why most came here in the first place.
Like most white evangelicals, I grew up as a Republican, with the issue of abortion trumping other political issues, and I was an active member of the College Republicans during my college years. In the past several years, though, as I have understood how tragically illogical and harmful our immigration laws are, and as pro-immigrant Republican legislators have become nearly as rare as pro-life Democrats, I have begun to feel like a political orphan.
That’s why I’m so grateful for Jason Riley’s book, despite its regrettable, misleading subtitle. It provides a compelling argument for immigration reform from a staunchly conservative, free-market perspective. I’d challenge my Tea Party friends to read it—and suggest that those of you with Tea Party friends pass it on as a gift. If we can help correct the record and rebut the misinformation campaign, Comprehensive Immigration Reform can become what it should be: not a Democrat or Republican issue, but the just, compassionate, and sensible solution to a problem that has gone unaddressed for too long.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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