Jonathan Kwan (@MigrationEthics) is the Inclusive Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow in Immigration Ethics with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
In the public debate on immigration, the worry is frequently raised that increasing immigration will hurt the U.S. economy or take jobs away from American citizens. Moreover, these sorts of economic concerns about immigration are not only voiced by conservative anti-immigrant politicians but instead are a common refrain across the political aisle. Bernie Sanders, one of the most progressive and left-wing politicians on the national stage, once scoffed at the idea of open borders as a “Koch brothers proposal” because he saw immigration as depressing the wages of American workers (although, to be fair, his views have since changed). These fears about the damaging effects of immigration for the U.S. economy, however, are nowhere grounded in reality.
The consensus among economists is that increasing immigration is good for the U.S. economy:
- Unauthorized immigrants pay billions of dollars each year in taxes and would earn more and therefore pay more in taxes if they had some kind of legal status.
- Immigration raises the GDP, reduces the federal deficit, increases consumer buying power, and creates more jobs.
- Immigration raises incomes on average for native-born workers.
- As the population ages and birthrates decline, the U.S. will require more, not less immigration for economic growth and stability.
Recently on February 11, a group of over 60 economists wrote a letter to President Biden urging him to create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants based on these sorts of arguments about how doing so would raise wages and productivity, create jobs, increase tax revenue, and lift many families out of poverty.
What are the ethical implications and lessons from these sorts of economic arguments in favor of increasing immigration? First, from a consequentialist or utilitarian perspective that focuses on producing the most good for the most people, it becomes obvious that immigration should be increased and that the issue should not be about whether to increase immigration but rather how to do so and to what extent. The public perception that immigration has negative economic consequences, instead of being based in fact, is more likely motivated by irrational fears about outsiders, which may, even at their worst, be manifestations (implicit or not) of racist biases. A consequentialist framework can help to remind us that objective and accurate assessments of the consequences not rooted in prejudice or ideology are crucial for determining which policy should be implemented.
These economic arguments, while an important corrective to frequently voiced false beliefs and ideologies, nonetheless have their limitations. Even setting aside the fact that economic consequences do not exhaust all the consequences for consideration, these kinds of economic arguments often end up taking on board the premise that immigration policy should be decided based on what is good for the nation. But this sort of nationalist framing primarily evaluates whether increasing immigration is beneficial for us, that is to say, American citizens and our economy. It does not take, as Alex Sager puts it, a migrant’s eye view of the world to consider how U.S. immigration policy might protect the interests of migrants, who are often more disadvantaged than American citizens or may even have claims of justice against the U.S. to be let in (e.g. refugees).
This is not to say that economic or consequentialist arguments could not theoretically take on a broader (even cosmopolitan) perspective to consider the interests of everyone and not just American citizens. They certainly can. Economic arguments, for instance, can point to how the migration of less skilled workers from poorer countries to richer countries can increase their wages tenfold or more. The caution I am voicing here is about the framing and use of economic arguments in favor of increasing immigration. Deployed in the right way, economic arguments have an important role to play in the immigration debate. However, we should remember that whether immigrants should be permitted to enter into the U.S., all things considered, should not be wholly or merely dependent on whether their migration brings in economic benefits. Economic benefits, after all, are contingent upon complex systems and circumstances and immigrants have moral claims and interests independent of economic consequences that themselves need to be taken into consideration.