A New Case for Freedom of Immigration: Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s Global Crossings

“GLOBAL CROSSINGS is an essential and highly readable, even riveting, tour de force.”–Richard K. Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics, Ohio University

Immigration has long been a hot-button topic—and not only in the United States. “[I]n a number of opinion surveys, fewer than one in ten people in many countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development favor increased migration,” the noted development economist Lant Pritchett wrote in 2006.

One reason may be a fear of the numerous unforeseeable changes that inevitably result from the sheer magnitude of immigration: an estimated 215 million people live today in a country in which they were not born, and as many as 30 million people cross borders illegally each year.

A related but perhaps more fundamental reason for the enduring controversy stems from differences of opinion concerning the facts of immigration. This doesn’t mean that attitudes toward immigration depend entirely on the narrow factual issues about its consequences: certainly issues of value, such as whether or not one cherishes the freedom of others to travel with minimal governmental interference, play a major role in determining one’s views about the propriety of federal detention facilities, the expansion of H-1B visas, the importance of border security, and other aspects of U.S. immigration policy. But, as F. A. Hayek explained about the Industrial Revolution, one’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of the causes and effects of immigration greatly influences one’s moral appraisal of alternative immigration policies.

The Right Book at the Right Time

Readers who wonder whether a factual study of immigration can broaden support for more sensible immigration policies will likely welcome Independent Institute Senior Fellow Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s brilliant new book, Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America.

A native of Peru who has worked on three continents, Vargas Llosa draws on recent academic studies and his first-hand observations from travels throughout the United States, Latin America, Europe, and North Africa. His deft mix of reportage and scholarly analysis makes his discussions of the relevant demographic, cultural, economic, and political trends unusually compelling. (Readers familiar with the work of the late Ryzsard Kapuscinski won’t be surprised to learn that Vargas Llosa is an admirer of that celebrated practitioner of participatory journalism.)

Vargas Llosa begins by recounting his visit to the town of Altar, Mexico, a major staging point for illegal immigrants seeking to enter Arizona. The border crossers must survive an unforgiving desert terrain—serious illness and death by dehydration are not uncommon. But Mexico’s ruthless drug gangs also pose a formidable challenge, as Vargas Llosa witnessed when a helicopter controlled by the Beltrán-Leyva cartel landed near his path so that gang members could verify that he represented no threat to their trade.

The author’s dispatch from Spain also elicits excitement, as Vargas Llosa reports the harrowing escape stories of immigrants he met from Mauritania, the Ivory Coast, and Algeria. It is in this part of the book that “escape” begins to take on multiple meanings as varied as the motives (socio-economic, political, and familial) that inspire immigrants to uproot their lives and test their luck abroad. Many illegal immigrants would love to be able to visit the old country periodically, we learn, but border controls impede the natural ebb and flow of human migration.

So, given the admirable qualities of perseverance and risk-taking that so many immigrants share, what specifically do immigration foes find so objectionable? The reasons for the animus are varied, of course, but Global Crossings does an admirable job of dealing with the most popular complaints.

Strong Incentives for Cultural Assimilation

One lament heard from proponents of tight borders is that unassimilated immigrants, habituated to the customs and mores of their homeland, are unlikely to adopt the attitudes and behaviors thought necessary to preserve the cultural and political institutions of the host country. In previous eras in U.S. history this concern was directed at Irish, southern European, and Chinese immigrants; today it is leveled mostly at Hispanic immigrants, who happen to constitute the vast majority of illegal immigrants.

Such fears about unassimilated hordes are wildly overblown, Vargas Llosa argues. Recent Hispanic immigrants show patterns of educational attainment, intermarriage, and adoption of the English language similar to those of other groups who came to the United States many decades ago.

Immigration Mitigates Labor Shortages

The book’s treatment of economic objections to immigration liberalization deserves special praise. One particularly important point Vargas Llosa emphasizes is that immigrants—legal and illegal alike—play a vital role in the mitigation of labor shortages. A factoid or two can illustrate the principle. Before the financial debacle of 2007–2008, when Arizona’s unemployment rate was 4 percent, the number of illegal workers who had flocked to the Grand Canyon State was two and a half times the number of legal unemployed job seekers. Far from “stealing” jobs from native workers, illegal immigrants helped make the economy hum.

When the recession hit, the demand for labor fell, and many immigrants responded by returning to their native country. By the time Arizona passed SB-1070 in 2010, a law later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the annual influx of illegal immigrants stood at about one third of its previous recent peak. This isn’t to say that the flow of immigrants responds exactly in sync with the demand for labor: border enforcement is a major impediment to smoothly functioning labor markets.

Overall, Immigrants Boost Real Wages

Vargas Llosa’s discussion of immigrants’ effects on wages is also enlightening. From 1990 to 2004, the influx of immigrants to the United States lowered the real wages of natives with less than a high-school education by 1.5 percent and cut the wages of earlier immigrants by about 10 percent. But the influx had the opposite effect on native workers with at least a high-school degree: it raised the demand for their labor and pushed up wages by an average of 2 percent.

The net impact during this period was to increase average wages for all native workers by about 1.8 percent. Over time, Vargas Llosa argues, technological advances can be expected to raise the productivity and wages of less-skilled workers.

The Welfare State Is Not Destiny

Another common worry is that immigrants are a net drain on the U.S. economy due to reliance on the American welfare state. But statistics about the utilization of public services deal with only part of the equation. An accurate assessment must also consider participation in the U.S. labor force, and on this scorecard illegal immigrant males easily beat both U.S. citizens and legal foreigners, with over 90 percent participating in the workforce in 2003, according to Vargas Llosa.

High rates of labor-force participation are not the only reason that immigrants overall contribute net benefits to the U.S. economy. Vargas Llosa notes the high rates of business creation and ownership among immigrants, and he reminds us that Google, Yahoo, Intel, eBay, and PayPal are but a few of the many innovative U.S. companies whose founders or co-founders came from other countries.

Wither the Nation-State?

Having cleared away misconceptions about the cultural and economic effects of immigration, Vargas Llosa challenges an unspoken assumption often shared by all sides of the immigration debate: the notion that the nation-state is eternal. In reality, the nation-state and its ideological offshoot—nationalism—are recent creations whose gravitational pull, as it were, may diminish as people leave their ancestral lands, intermarry, and establish new ties. The increase in dual citizenships may be an indicator of the nation-state’s weakening grip and of the rise of “transnationalism.”

Does this trend, if it is in fact a trend, mean that individuals will come to lose all sense of national identity? Hardly. But some nation-states may find that they are worse at retaining allegiances than others, Vargas Llosa suggests. Countries where a sense of national identity is associated with the embrace of universal ideals—in the case of the United States, a respect for individual rights and the entrepreneurial spirit—may fare better than most, gaining kindred spirits who embrace those ideals even if they are ambivalent about national loyalty per se.

Moreover, with greater freedom of immigration the ideals of civil and economic liberty may spread quickly beyond borders and across oceans. To the extent that they take root in the legal and political institutions of other countries, the incentive and urgency to immigrate may then diminish. Were that to occur, ever larger segments of the world population may come to believe that that most cosmopolitan and amusing of sages, Noel Coward, was on to something when he asked, “But why, oh why, do the wrong people travel, when the right people stay at home?”

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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