Why Should We Restrict Immigration?

20 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2013

See all articles by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan

George Mason University - Center for Study of Public Choice; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

Date Written: January 1, 2012


Consider the following thought experiment: Moved by the plight of desperate earthquake victims, you volunteer to work as a relief worker in Haiti. After two weeks, you’re ready to go home. Unfortunately, when you arrive at the airport, customs officials tell you that you’re forbidden to enter the United States. You go to the American consulate to demand an explanation. But the official response is simply, “The United States does not have to explain itself to you.”

You don’t have to be a libertarian to admit that this seems like a monstrous injustice. The entire ideological menagerie — liberals, conservatives, moderates, socialists, and libertarians — would defend your right to move from Haiti to the United States. What’s so bad about restricting your migration? Most obviously, because life in Haiti is terrible. If the American government denies you permission to return, you’ll live in dire poverty, die sooner, live under a brutal, corrupt regime, and be cut off from most of the people you want to associate with. Hunger, danger, oppression, isolation: condemning you to even one seems wrong. Which raises a serious question: if you had been born in Haiti, would denying you permission to enter the United States be any less wrong?

This thought experiment hardly proves that people have an absolute right of free migration. After all, many things that seem wrong on the surface turn out to be morally justified. Suppose you knock me unconscious, then slice me open with a knife. This is normally wrong. But if you’re performing surgery required to save my life, and I gave my informed consent, then your action is not just morally permissible, but praiseworthy. Nevertheless, my thought experiment does establish one weak conclusion: immigration restrictions seem wrong on the surface. To justifiably restrict migration, you need to overcome the moral presumption in favor of open borders (Huemer 2010).

How would one go about overcoming this presumption? For starters, you must show that the evils of free immigration are fairly severe. Immigration restrictions trap many millions in Third World misery. Economists’ consensus estimate is that open borders would roughly double world GDP, enough to virtually eliminate global poverty (Clemens 2011). The injustice and harm that immigration restrictions prevent has to be at least comparable to the injustice and harm that immigration restrictions impose.

But hard evidence that immigration has major drawbacks is not enough. The proponent of immigration restrictions also has to show that there is no cheaper or more humane way to mitigate the evils of immigration. Surgery wouldn’t be morally justified if a $1 pill were an equally effective treatment. Why not? Because even if surgery will save the patient’s life, there is a cheaper, more humane way to do so.

The rest of this paper examines the alleged evils of immigration through this moral lens. In each case, I begin with a balanced survey of the relevant social science. The point is not to determine whether immigration has good overall effects. The point, rather, is to determine whether any of the effects of immigration are bad enough to credibly overcome the moral presumption in favor of open borders. After reviewing the social science, each section then turns to a deeper question: assuming the worst about immigration, are immigration restrictions the only viable remedy? If cheaper, more humane alternatives exist, then immigration restrictions remain unjustified even if my summary of the social science is hopelessly biased.

Keywords: U.S. immigration policy critique, immigrants and jobs, free immigration, work visas, legal immigration, green cards, immigration restrictions, migrants to the United States

JEL Classification: J15, J61, K37

Suggested Citation

Caplan, Bryan, Why Should We Restrict Immigration? (January 1, 2012). Cato Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2012, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2244972

Bryan Caplan (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Center for Study of Public Choice ( email )

Fairfax, VA 22030
United States
703-993-2324 (Phone)
703-993-2323 (Fax)

George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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