Bohanon: The Case for Immigration

April 8, 2013

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D. 

As Congress and the Obama Administration negotiate a deal over immigration reform, I am cautiously optimistic that Washington might finally enact some useful legislation. Many things could wreck the deal, but I am hopeful the final provisions will 1) allow for more immigrants to legally reside and work in the United States, and 2) place significant restrictions on immigrants’ access to non-emergency government-funded social benefits.

Although well-crafted legislation may empower a stronger economic recovery, my support for immigration is more philosophical than economic. Like most classical liberals, I see the individual’s ability to offer his labor services on mutually agreeable and legally enforceable terms as a basic human right on par with the right to free speech and free worship.

This is not a new issue in our country nor is there anything novel about my argument. In the 1880s, the United States passed legislation that forbid Asians from immigrating to the United States. In the Congressional debates, two Massachusetts Republican senators argued against this restriction:

That said, it is important to recognize that there are numerous economic benefits that accrue from increased legal immigration. Immigrants tend to be younger and more entrepreneurial. This is practically a self-evident proposition: It is the young who have the energy, confidence and ambition to pack up and leave home, and those who leave their native land for new shores are, by definition, more willing to take risks than those who stay behind.

My hometown, like many in Indiana, has been depopulating for quite a while. There are more than 4,000 vacant houses in Muncie. Discussions on reviving Muncie usually start with improving the quality of life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for additional bike trails, but it is hard to see how this will help fill the existing unused housing stock. Moreover, to hope for endless federal grants to rehabilitate historic housing is hardly a solution, but a couple of thousand immigrant families might do the trick.

An Indianapolis real-estate developer confided to me that he was making a “bundle” buying up $5,000 houses and leasing them to immigrants. To paraphrase: “I drive by, and my tenants have improved the houses, put up fences, started a garden, and I see a passel of children playing in the front lawn.”

A good dose of hard-working, family-oriented, entrepreneurial-inclined newcomers might just be the tonic our local economies need. Compared with targeting Richard Florida’s well-educated “creative class,” older industrial towns in Indiana might do much better in welcoming a new immigrant class.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

[Editors: Source of Senate quotes are the Congressional Record, April 25, 1882, p.3265, and the Congressional Record, April 26, 1882, p.3312.]

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