The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Conservative Arguments Against Immigration

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has garnered headlines – not to mention critics and supporters – with his inflammatory comments on immigration. Trump’s claim that immigration is an overwhelming burden on the American people has reignited the immigration debate, both what to do about it now and what policy to pursue for the future.

It’s often difficult to find a rational argument about immigration because both the anti and the pro sides constantly appeal to emotional rhetoric rather than consistently-applied principles. This is a shame, because immigration is a complicated issue that demands a nuanced solution, one that not only take the benefits of immigration into account, but the potential problems it raises as well.

Unfortunately, the anti-immigration arguments that are typically made by conservatives today are much weaker and fallacy-ridden than the arguments of traditionalist conservatives. Because the bad and ugly arguments get all the attention, the valid conservative objections to immigration are rarely considered. So before we get to the good arguments against immigration, we must first do away with the asinine ones.

Immigrants and Crime

A conservative commentator recently shared on Facebook the story of a woman who was murdered by an illegal immigrant, raising the fairly obvious point that if the illegal immigrant were not living in the United States, the crime never would have happened. The intended point – that incidents of crime by immigrants should stand as arguments against immigration –  is not as convincing as it might seem.

For starters, the argument itself is not broadly applicable outside of the limited discussion of illegal immigration. Matters of geographical coincidence cannot be standalone arguments against immigration, since the vast majority of violent crime is the United States is committed by American citizens against other American citizens. Should we examine and condemn every variable, including interstate immigration, that puts any American in a position to attack another?

Let’s say someone moved from Kentucky to Nebraska and murders someone in his new state. Does that mean that Nebraskans should ban all Kentuckians from moving there? Of course not. Blaming a sequence of events that enables a crime, rather than the individual who committed it, is lunacy.

On crime, the data are problematic for the anti-immigration crowd. Sensational news stories notwithstanding, studies have shown that immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than natural born American citizens are. As immigration has increased over the last decade, overall criminal activity has declined, showing a negative correlation between the two.

A closer look at the statistics on immigration and crime back up the correlation’s implications. A recent study showed that 10.7 percent of native born American men between the ages of 18 and 39 are incarcerated, compared to 2.8 percent of Mexican natives and 1.7 percent of Guatemalans – and even these percentages may be overstated for immigrants because they include those whose only crime has been illegal immigration. This evidence, which runs counter to the claims of conservative pundits and politicians, has even been documented by the generally conservative Wall Street Journal.

While high profile news stories may provide good talk radio and campaign fodder, their representation as evidence of a larger pattern is not backed up by the data. While it’s undeniable that among immigrants, legal and illegal, there will be some criminals, there’s no reason to label all immigrants as rapists and murderers

Immigrants and the Economy

Another false argument against immigration is that immigrants take the jobs of American workers by undercutting the wages that Americans are willing to work for. This argument is the unfortunate reappearance of a centuries-old fallacy that confuses wages for prosperity and seeks the benefit of one section of society at the expense of another.

Northern whites appealed to similar argument to justify excluding free blacks, who would compete with them for jobs and land, from their territories. Unions later used the same argument justify excluding blacks from certain trades, thereby generating higher wages for their own workers. Northern politicians used the New Deal’s national minimum wage to stop the flow of textile jobs from New England, where wage rates were higher, to the southern states, where labor was cheaper.

The “they’ll take our jobs” argument is silly for a couple of reasons. First, if immigrants come in and outbid American workers for jobs, that means that Americans aren’t pricing themselves competitively in the labor market. In order to compete, they need to either reduce the price of their labor or increase their productivity to justify their higher wages.

Now, some people may point out that it’s impossible , due to minimum wage laws, for American citizens to do that, due to minimum wage laws. But even allowing for the truth of that point, their problem in that case is with the government that inflexibly fixes artificially high wages, not with immigrants.

But more importantly, the presence of workers who are willing to do a job at a lower cost is good for society, especially consumers. If businesses reduce their costs, their prices fall, which increases the purchasing power of everybody’s dollar. As jobs are filled more inexpensively, monetary and physical resources are freed up to innovate, meet consumer demand and solve more consumer problems. Beyond that, the presence of new workers creates more growth opportunities for both entrepreneurs and existing businesses.

These are all arguments that conservatives understand when it comes to other economic topics, such as the minimum wage, and the same economic principles that apply in those areas also apply to immigration.

Another complaint of conservatives is that immigrants overwhelm the United States’ welfare system by immigrating here and getting on the government dole. It goes without saying that to the extent that this is a problem, it is more with the welfare state than it is with immigration. But, beyond that, research shows that immigrants actually use welfare programs at a lower rate than native-born Americans do.

While the economic arguments against immigration may represent genuine concerns, they are not arguments that stand up under closer examination.

A Valid Conservative Objection

With all this said, there is one conservative objection to immigration that is worth considering: that immigration poses a threat to the existing American culture. For the conservatives that hold this view, often called traditionalist or paleoconservatives, it’s not immigration itself that is the threat, but the larger problem of multiculturalism.

Proponents of this position believe that in the presence of a multiplicity of cultures, the culture they value – broadly defined as Western, European or Anglo-American – with its rich history and time-honored principles becomes infected by outside elements and withers away. Traditional religious and political values mix with those of other cultures, bringing in unwanted or even contradictory influences and, as the culture gets watered down, people lose a sense of who they are. In order to avoid the negative consequences of multiculturalism, these conservatives believe immigration should be curtailed or even forbidden.

Being naturally conservative I have some sympathy with this position. The problems of multiculturalism and the assimilation of immigrants are delicate, and I find it perfectly reasonable for members of a culture to be concerned about its preservation. This is particularly true when there are many features of it that are time-tested and valuable

But on the other hand, many other cultures have their own positive attributes, many of which bear striking similarities to Anglo-European cultures. Additionally, it cannot be denied that the culture that paleoconservatives are trying to protect has its own defects. What’s more, Westerners have proved themselves to be quite adept at destroying their own culture from the inside. Philosopher Edward Feser has noted that the rejection by Westerners of traditional Western philosophy has brought about much of the cultural and moral decay we now see permeating the Western world.

In addition to this there is, I think, a religious element to the question. Most conservatives identify as Christian, and a central component of the New Testament is the Great Commission, which says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in…(and) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The idea of cultural hermitage, of retreating within ourselves, would seem to be at odds with one of the central teachings of Christianity.

None of this is to say that the Bible advocates immigration (or has anything at all to say on the matter) or that all cultures are created equal. But even the traditionalist perspective – the good conservative argument against immigration –  has valid counterpoints that must be grappled with. Even so, this position is not only considerably more principled and much less vitriolic than mainstream conservative arguments, it can also be made consistent with a libertarian perspective on immigration.

The Libertarian Solution

Recall that in a libertarian society, as we have defined it for the purpose of this series, the only role for government is to provide for the security and protection of basic human liberties (life, liberty and property). It goes without saying that in this kind of society, government does not have a role in determining who can live where.

It also goes without saying that we do not live in a libertarian society. Government interventions, particularly the welfare state, have complicated the immigration issue. But even so, libertarians have a solution for the immigration issue, and it rests on two pillars: peace and property rights.

The first, peace, is vital for any immigration policy. Many Americans, especially conservatives, have been absolutely flabbergasted at the large number of refugees flooding out of the Middle East in recent months. “Where did they come from?” they have wondered.

The answer, it turns out, is largely found in an American foreign policy that has bombed and invaded the refugees’ countries, has propped up and then overthrown their governments, has backed rebel groups that turned out to be terrorists who have then wreaked havoc on their own countries. That refugees have emerged out of this situation is an entirely unsurprising development.

Now, as those refugees seek asylum here, many Americans are flipping out over that possibility and have sought stricter immigration controls, including building a wall around the country, as the solution. A more logical solution, however, would be to stop taking actions that create refugees in the first place. A peaceful foreign policy would result in fewer displaced foreign peoples who would seek safety and freedom here.

Additionally, respecting property rights and elevating them to their rightful place in society would solve basically every issue related to immigration. Property rights apply not only to the land that we own, but to all of our possessions, including wealth. The welfare state is a flagrant violation of property rights, and so if property rights were protected, welfare would not exist. If welfare did not exist, it would not be a drain on the productive economy nor would it attract and subsidize immigration.

Property rights would further allow citizens more say in if immigration is permitted and, if so, what kind and how much. Since nobody has the right to be on anyone else’s property, immigration would depend entirely on immigrants’ ability to buy or rent property from residents, which relies in turn on their willingness to work and assimilate into the prevailing culture. In this way, the libertarian solution provides an answer for the concerns of traditionalists while treating immigrants as individuals, not faceless members of a group.

All of this is more desirable than giving government more power to restrict the movement of, and voluntary agreements between, people. What many modern conservatives don’t recognize is that immigration is an important feature of liberty. Americans need only to find their location on a map to see that this is true. For centuries, people immigrated to the New World seeking the religious, economic and political freedom that did not exist in their homelands.

As our own government becomes increasingly oppressive, we would do well to not denigrate a concept that we and our descendants may someday need recourse to. As is the case with so many issues, the answer to the immigration question is found in liberty, not government action. Liberty is the solution, both for the valid traditionalist concerns and for the wrong-headed populist fears.

Note: This article is part of a series exploring libertarian positions through a conservative lens. Click here for the full list of articles.