Monday, May 23, 2011

Open Our Borders, Reduce Poverty Abroad

Robert Rector, of the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, has written an article in which, among other things, he explained that America should fight poverty by restricting immigration from abroad. His article is great if you’re looking to have a few laughs, but it fails at about everything else. Exhibit A: his reasoning.

“Each year, the U.S. imports, through both legal and illegal immigration, hundreds of thousands of additional poor persons from abroad… Roughly one in ten of the persons counted among the poor by the Census Bureau is either an illegal immigrant or the minor child of an illegal. As long as the present steady flow of poverty-prone persons from foreign countries continues, efforts to reduce the total number of poor in the U.S. will be far more difficult.”

That’s right folks; America should keep its poverty rates low by not letting those pesky “poverty-prone” people in. In reality, of course, targeting a statistic per se does not necessarily fix the problem at hand if the solution simply involves excluding people from the statistic.

What's more important is that easing restrictions on illegal immigration can be one of the most powerful tools America has to alleviate poverty abroad. A study done by Harvard economist Richard Freeman showed that immigrants to the United States benefit substantially when they make the move; indeed, they see about a six-fold increase in their wages. A lot of this is sent home as remittances, meaning that even those who stay home benefit when their relatives emigrate.

This method is, of course, controversial. Immigrants will compete with workers in America, meaning American wages will likely go down. Whether there is a solution or not is debatable. Freeman proposes letting in significantly more immigrants but levying an additional tax on them. He figures that this is fair since everyone can benefit: the immigrants still see a dramatic wage increase and the revenue from the taxes can be directed toward supporting the American workers who now have to compete with new immigrants.

As Freeman admits, his strategy is a bit extreme, and it requires our political system to work smoothly and benevolently. Whether or not a perfect solution can be devised, it remains true that creating labor mobility by opening up our borders is one of America’s most powerful weapons against global poverty.

--Travis Baseler