Anti-immigration is a relentless meme

The restrictionists don't quite know why they fight, but they never stop fighting

Dear readers, I want to give you a little idea of what it’s like to argue against anti-immigration people on the internet.

In a previous post about why immigration doesn’t lower wages, I wrote the following:

No one is going to be persuaded by this post…[A]nti-immigration people are completely set in their belief that immigration should be restricted. It’s their fixed north star. The justifications change — Lower wages! Environmental destruction! Brain drain! Rule of law! Cultural change! — but the policy conclusion never wavers. They know what they want to do.

This is obviously a blanket generalization. Of course there are a few anti-immigration people out there who are persuadable. But as more and more of the persuadables are persuaded that immigration is a good thing, the people who remain tend to be the hard core.

Also, Twitter is a toxic platform, optimized for attacks and insults instead of productive conversation, so there’s that too.

And of course, maybe it’s true that I’m just not particularly good at persuading these particular people of this particular thing! It’s always a possibility. So instead of simply asserting that the anti-immigration people you meet on Twitter are unpersuadable, I want to show you an example of the kind of discourse that typically results when one tweets in support of immigration. After that, I’ll engage with a more thoughtful, reasoned restrictionist, and then offer some speculation as to why the debate goes the way it does.


Any excuse whatsoever

So, I saw someone talking about immigration and “worker shortages”, and decided to tweet this:

I’ve been saying the same thing for many years. And I’m right. Actually, according to the technical economics definition of “shortage”, there is ALWAYS a worker shortage (and a worker surplus!) as long as there isn’t perfect geographic mobility, because borders are government interventions that prevent companies from being able to hire whoever they want, whenever and wherever they want. But that’s not a very useful definition here. The problem with the “shortage” discourse is that it implies that there are some fixed number of positions that companies need to fill, which is wrong and plays into the Lump of Labor Fallacy. In fact, immigrants boost labor demand and generate agglomeration and clustering effects that end up creating new jobs that didn’t exist before. So we shouldn’t think about immigration as “filling a shortage”, we should think about it in terms of its overall effects on our economy (and on our society, if you think you know what those effects are).

So my tweet was a reasonable tweet. And it got a fairly large number of likes and retweets. BUT, it also attracted a large amount of negative attention from the anti-immigration Twitter crowd. Let’s go through some of their tweets!

This guy apparently thinks America is rich enough, and it’s worth throwing growth under the bus if it means we can keep out immigrants.

This person thinks GDP is an empty, useless goal. Perhaps they favor an alternative like Gross National Happiness, which presumably goes up when you keep out immigrants?

I’m really not sure what point this is trying to make. Maybe that Russia is good and therefore immigration is bad?

This man is very very concerned about the difference between LEGAL immigration and ILLEGAL immigration. I’m sure he knows the difference, and that if net illegal immigration halted and went into reverse in 2007, he would be perfectly fine with the legal immigration that remained!

This guy has apparently decided that the anti-immigration cause needs to sound a little more woke, so he’s decided to call immigration “white supremacy” and “slavery”.

This guy apparently thinks I was part of a pro-immigration conspiracy back when I was in fourth grade. I admit, I was a precocious kid!

This guy is very concerned with the negative impact of immigration on sending countries. I’m sure if I showed him the evidence that “brain drain” is rare, and that usually what happens is that sending countries boost their education systems in the hope of sending more people to the U.S., thus increasing their human capital, he would reevaluate his position!

This guy has at least decided to go with the classic “immigration reduces wages” argument, which is at least coherent, if wrong.

“Zero evidence provided”…

This person is very concerned about sex trafficking, AND doesn’t want immigrants to get “special” treatment (whatever that is), AND is worried about illegal immigration…whew! Quite a lot for one tweet!

This person thinks immigration might be “nefarious”. Ooooh, what could they be up to?

Also, they are very concerned with making sure immigrants “assimilate” to the “dominant culture”. Sounds ominous.

This guy thinks immigrants are welfare mooches, proving that he has definitely never met a single actual immigrant (or, you know, looked at any data).

Immigration to the U.S. has hurt the world because…get this…it provoked a racist backlash against immigration in Canada, the UK, and Scandinavia.

Brilliant stuff, this.

This guy just decided to see how many anti-immigration canards he could fit in one tweet:

And finally…I really tried to understand what this guy was trying to say, but God help me, I failed.

The sheer diversity of anti-immigration arguments presented here is just staggering. It could be, of course, that immigration restriction is just a big-tent cause that draws a large diversity of people who all have their own reasons to oppose restriction. Or it could be that opposition to immigration has simply become an end in and of itself, and that those who are drawn to this cause come up with their own preferred arguments, like peasant infantry levies bringing whatever weapons they happen to have when they heed their feudal lord’s call.

I have reason to think it’s the latter. First, some of these arguments are so incoherent, bordering on glossolalia, that it seems much more like emoting than reasoning. Second, whenever I have extensive conversations with these folks, they engage in continuous Gish Galloping — skipping from one anti-immigration argument to another as fast as their arguments can be refuted with data. That sort of behavior implies that it’s the conclusion, not the arguments themselves, that’s important, and the arguments are just convenient disposable tools. Finally, the sheer vitriol and bitter emotion with which many of these folks argue suggests they’re not exactly thinking about the issue dispassionately.

Thus, I highly doubt that arguing with the anti-immigration people will persuade any appreciable fraction of them to change their positions (nor is it likely to result in learning anything new and interesting). Instead, the reason to argue with these folks is for the benefit of third parties who are watching, so that reasonable people who are persuadable don’t latch on to the anti-immigration meme.

Oren Cass pushes back

Of course, not all people who argue about immigration are incoherent Twitter ranters. Oren Cass, of the think tank American Compass (a basically conservative outfit trying to figure out how the GOP can become the party of the working class), wrote a post called “The Immigration Shimmy,” in which he pushed back on my earlier post about immigration and wages. Let’s take a look at that.

Cass opens with a claim that I’m dishonorable and dishonest for claiming that immigration doesn’t hurt native-born workers:

One option available to [immigration proponents] would be to argue their case on the merits: Here is why we should pursue this approach to immigration despite its costs, here are the ways we can compensate those who are harmed, etc. That would be an honorable and interesting debate. Unfortunately, most have chosen a different option, which is to insist that no such tradeoff exists.

That’s quite an accusation. If I were to accuse Oren of, say, casting around for reasons to oppose immigration in order to sell his non-libertarian economic policies to right-wing culture warriors, would that be a fair or helpful accusation? I don’t think so.

Oren thinks the conclusion that immigration depresses wages is so obvious that it speaks for itself:

It’s not easy to avoid the obvious issue that flooding the labor market’s low end will harm those already there. As I am fond of noting, shorn of its political implications this reality is entirely uncontroversial. 

Except it’s not obvious. Because if it were obvious, then it would also be obvious that babies hold down wages. (As I like to note, immigrants are just babies from elsewhere.) Does anyone think a baby boom depresses wages? No, because on an intuitive level everyone understands that young people increase both the supply of labor and the demand for labor. Just like immigration.

So much for Oren’s appeal to common sense!

Cass then argues that by focusing on immigration’s effect on the average worker, I ignore the effect on subgroups of workers.

Expansionists sidestep the inconvenient truth with a subtle shimmy, responding to concerns about the effect of their policy on particular classes of workers by making a general claim about how immigration will eventually affect average wages across the economy as a whole…

Noah [titles] his post “why immigration doesn’t reduce wages” but then [qualifies] his claim in the very first sentence — he’s only talking about “native-born” workers (he never says why foreign-born Americans don’t count for him) and immigration does lower native-born wages (though he describes the magnitude as “possibly a little bit, in a few special circumstances”).

Some papers do indeed find that immigration pushes down the wages of other immigrants. Oren claims that he’s concerned for these immigrants whose wages are threatened by immigration. In fact, he’s so concerned about their well-being that he endorses policies that would have kept them out of the country in the first place!

As for his claim that I admit that immigrants do reduce wages, this is false. In the first sentence of my earlier post, I wrote that it’s possible that immigrants do reduce native-born wages a little bit, in a few special circumstances. This is not an admission that this does happen; instead, it’s an assertion of epistemic humility. Estimates have error bars, studies don’t have perfect external validity, and so on. It’s good to never rule anything out. To take epistemic humility as an admission of wrongness, as Cass does, is to penalize those who are honest about the limits of knowledge, and reward relentless, self-assured ideologues in their place.

Cass then argues that although immigrants increase labor demand, they don’t do so evenly; in some sectors, they’ll increase demand more than supply, in other sectors they’ll increase supply more than demand, and in these latter sectors workers will get hurt. That might be true theoretically. It would especially be true if workers had trouble shifting from one sector to another in response to shocks like these. We know that workers don’t always adjust rapidly to shocks!

BUT, if workers in a few sectors are harmed by immigration and can’t shift to other sectors where immigrants have boosted demand, what we should see is decreased native-born employment. In other words, in this scenario, immigrants really would take people’s jobs. This is certainly what we see in sectors hit hard by trade with China in the 2000s! But the studies I cited in my earlier post don’t just measure immigration’s effect on wages — they also look at employment, and they don’t find that immigration puts native-born people out of a job.

So empirically, the thing Cass is worrying about doesn’t seem to matter.

Cass, however, also wants to argue about the empirics. In my earlier post I list 17 papers about immigration and wages, some of which are literature reviews that link to a number of other papers. All come to the same conclusion — that immigration doesn’t hurt the wages of the native-born. Oren chooses to engage with precisely 2 out of those 17 papers. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether that is appropriate. But anyway, let’s go through his objections.

First, he chooses paper #7 out of my list: “The Effect of Internal Migration on Local Labor Markets: American Cities During the Great Depression”, by Leah Platt Boustan, Price V. Fishback, and Shawn E. Kantor. Here was my summary of the paper’s findings:

Internal migrants are pretty similar to immigrants. Here, the authors look at migrants who were forced to move across country by bad economic conditions in their hometowns — for example, the “Okies” of the Dust Bowl. They do find some negative impacts on locals, though not on wages.

Cass chooses to focus on the “some negative impacts” part. He quotes from the paper:

[M]igration prompted some residents to move away and others to lose weeks of work and/or access to relief jobs. Given the period’s high unemployment, these lost work opportunities were costly to existing residents.

So, Cass is citing the fact that internal migration resulted in competition for relief jobs — government-granted jobs during the Great Depression. Does he really think that is the kind of consideration that should guide our immigration policy? That’s…kind of ridiculous, since even in a Depression we could just change the way government-provided jobs are allocated to accommodate internal migration. Remember, the Depression-era migrants that this paper studies are Americans moving to other parts of America; is Cass really prepared to advocate for internal mobility restrictions to prevent Oklahomans taking government-provided relief jobs away from Californians? I hope not!

Also, it’s true that even if workers adjust to shocks like migration by finding new jobs, there’s a transaction cost involved in doing so — sometimes you have to spend weeks looking for a new job, or sometimes even moving to another place (though most immigration studies don’t find a displacement effect). That’s a hassle to be sure, but is it worth keeping immigrants out of our country en masse just to reduce job churn? Come on.

The other paper Cass chooses to critique is “Immigration Restrictions as Active Labor Market Policy: Evidence from the Mexican Bracero Exclusion”, by Michael A. Clemens, Ethan G. Lewis, and Hannah M. Postel. He argues that because guest-worker restriction prompted some businesses to invest in new technology to replace the lost workers, that immigration restriction is good for technological progress! But if this is what you care about, then why not just raise the minimum wage? If you want to actually raise labor costs, just raise labor costs instead of messing around with immigration restriction.

Thus, every single one of Cass’ rebuttals fails to land.

What is this really all about?

So this brings us to the final question: What makes immigration restrictionists tick? Psychologizing one’s rhetorical opponents is always a fraught exercise, so take this with a grain of salt. And obviously the answer is going to be different for different people; Oren Cass is not the same as the random Twitter shouters.

Though it’s easy to simply claim that restrictionists are just unreconstructed xenophobes who don’t want an Indian family moving in next door, I’d like to be charitable and say that this doesn’t describe most of them. Certainly not Cass. (Though the “assimilate to the dominant culture” guy, maybe.) Nor do I think Trump is the source of anti-immigration sentiment — indeed, that sentiment cratered during his time in office, and was much higher back in the 90s. And while some restrictionists may be committed Republicans who worry that immigrants are more likely to vote Democratic — a worry as old as America — I doubt most of the people shouting on Twitter are so instrumentalist in their thinking.

Instead, I think that what happens is that opposition to immigration becomes a meme. Just as socialists decide that capitalism and billionaires are The Problem With Everything in America, and libertarians decide that government is The Problem, immigration-restrictionists decide that the people wanting to move to the United States and become Americans are the cause of our social ills, and if we just got rid of them, most or all of our problems would get better. In other words, a lot of people are looking for silver-bullet solutions to America’s social unrest and economic struggles, and once they settle on a bogeyman they start looking for reasons why that bogeyman is bad. And the one thing that’s certain in the marketplace of ideas is that if you look for a reason to support your pre-arranged conclusion, you will find many. Perhaps too many.