Why I am Suspicious of Immigration Restrictionists -- They Have Been Wrong So Many Times in History

From Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard (link via Don Boudreaux, I think).

It was a scholarly fashion, circa 1890, to declare the U.S. frontier “closed” and to sound a Malthusian alarm about excess American population growth. But the professional economists who wrote on immigration increasingly emphasized not the quantity of immigrants, but their quality. “If we could leave out of account the question of race and eugenics,” Irving Fisher (1921, pp. 226–227) said in his presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association, “I should, as an economist, be inclined to the view that unrestricted immigration . . . is economically advantageous to the country as a whole . . . .” But, cautioned Fisher, “the core of the problem of immigration is . . . one of race and eugenics,” the problem of the Anglo-Saxon racial stock being overwhelmed by racially inferior “defectives, delinquents and dependents.”

Fear and dislike of immigrants certainly were not new in the Progressive Era. But leading professional economists were among the first to provide scientific respectability for immigration restriction on racial grounds.2 They justified racebased immigration restriction as a remedy for “race suicide,” a Progressive Era term for the process by which racially superior stock (“natives”) is outbred by a more prolific, but racially inferior stock (immigrants).

Note that the authors of the time were not using race as we do -- by "other races" whose immigration into the US was going to destroy us, they meant Southern Italy, Russia, Austria, Hungary, and the rest of Eastern Europe.   Fifty years earlier, they would have meant the Irish.   All of who we would today consider part of the backbone of America.  Why do we have to take these ideas seriously today when they have been wrong so consistently in the past?


  1. aczarnowski:

    I'd say because it isn't about immigration. It's about already unsustainable welfare rolls, which were not part of the context in 1890 or 1921. I'd rather see our welfare problems soft land versus crash and burn. Unrestricted system growth is an unlikely path to a soft landing.

    Irish or Mexican, Russian or Syran, I agree, doesn't matter. Immigration is a red herring.

  2. Mercury:

    Actually, the example you use here is of immigration restrictionists who turned out to have been right.
    They may have been right about something you think is unimprotant, evil or overwhelmed by other positive outcomes but that doesn't make them wrong. The USA in the mid 1800s was largely British/Dutch (I think - not sure what the most accurate label would be actually but something like that). Now it isn't, by along shot. What happened in between was massive waves of immigration (without which I wouldn't be here BTW). Certainly some Americans, for whatever reasons, prefered that the US stay largely British/Dutch (or whatever). They feared that massive immigration would permanantly change that and they were right.

    Like everything else, circumstances in the past are not necessarily the same or even similar to circumstances now. Things change. Forget about who immigrates, what about how many immigrate are kind of an issue too. How many more people on top of our ~330mm would you want living in the US...50mm more? 100mm more?...500mm more? I think reasonable people can disagree about such numbers for any number of reasons. I know were supposed to have a demographic "imbalance" right now (which BTW is always temporary) but since it's easier to bring more people in and it's more or less impossible to send any people out maybe we should be pretty careful about the former.

    Finally, I think we can all agree that the US does not stress common culture, values and assimilation like it once did. "E pluribus unum" is an embarrassment, insult or a meaningless relic to many Americans and immigrants today. But it's not to many other Americans who see it as The KEY to the millions of micro and macro immigration success stories in American history up until this point. So, it's not just-like-last-time at all.

  3. Swami Cat:

    This argument is weak. It is a combo of bad people used to think this, so you are bad too, and they were wrong before and so wrong now.

    I will let the first one go without further commentary as it is simply beneath discussion. As to the second, conditions are simply different. International travel is now insignificant in cost, state safety nets completely change the costs and incentives of immigrants, and the redefinition of the role of government from one solving public goods issues to being a redistribution scheme based upon the numbers of people organizing for exploiting other using government force is simply a sea change.

    I am all for more immigration. But it must be immigration which resists turning into a widescale turning of the welfare state against us. I can explain how to take the government out of the way and allow freedom of migration and how to avoid immigrants from using the state as a weapon upon arrival, but nobody seems interested in new ideas, just sticking with worn out paradigms.

  4. ECM:

    The others got to this before I could, but if this is the depth of libertarian thought on immigration (mainly encapsulated in the utterly farcical headline which is totally divorced from reality, historical or otherwise), it would, indeed, explain why there's such a disconnect between libertarians and the rest of America.

    P.S. You graduated from Harvard, and this is the best you can come up with??

  5. ErikTheRed:

    But... but... "dey dirk urrr dirrr!!!!"

  6. Titan28:

    Coyote, come on. You are so intellectually honest and spot-on on so many issues, especially pertaining to small business and the environment. But you are so out to lunch on this one. I'm not going to waste your or my time trying to convince you. It's clear nothing is going to change your mind. This is terribly sad in a person of such probity.

  7. Incunabulum:

    So - they were wrong before, but they're not wrong now? Yet the evidence presented and the rhetoric used is the same now as then. So, what's the difference?

  8. Daniel Nylen:

    You are cherry-picking your time. Notwithstanding the welfare state and the change in structure of employment (computer revolution and limited use of muscle labor), the US severely restricted immigration (1930-1965) and the country benefitted from that pause. Why wouldn't it benefit from another pause. Additionally,when immigration benefited the US in the past, the skills of the average immigrant equaled or exceeded those of the native population. Now the skills of the immigrant are quite a bit below those of the native.

    Finally, 94 million working-age US residents without work, millions of others wanting full time and not able to get it, and if looking at labor hours, only 1/2 employed and at depression levels of employment when viewed by household, how can we even think of bringing in anymore immigrants at all for at least a decade or so.

    It seems that the only ones who benefit from immigration are the elite Democrats who gain socialist voters and the big companies who get cheap labor. The common man and main street get killed.

  9. Swami Cat:

    Seriously? The above argument is racist. My family is primarily Hispanic, and my argument has NOTHING to do with the racial makeup of the immigrants. My argument is that it is simply too easy now to immigrate thousands of miles, and with the structure of the welfare state as it is, we would basically be paying hundreds of millions of people to come here and vote for their own largesse with politicians lining up to deliver.

    But, unlike those continuing to beat this dead horse, I can suggest ideas to allow immigration, take the government most of the way out of the process, and prevent (minimize) the potential exploitation of current citizens by new ones.

  10. Swami Cat:

    I think this issue separates libertarians following the mantra from those thinking for themselves. At the very least, a non-doctrinaire would be suggesting experimentation. A blanket statement that ones moral foundational principles implies unlimited immigration is not sufficient evidence to risk such a huge social experiment.

    Coyote is usually much better than this. This is indeed the type of thinking that makes doctrinaire libertarians look silly. Even if they are right, and they may of course be, this approach goes against everything that would suggest reason and caution.

  11. Tanuki Man:

    The massive expansion of the welfare state and the influx of a population resistant to assimilation makes the current influx of aliens entirely distinct from historical immigrations. I can not agree with you on this. And I can not agree with the otherwise admirable Don Boudreaux either as he insists on viewing this solely as an economic phenomenon and denying the socio-political aspects of the problem.

  12. Not Sure:

    Sweden seems to be having some immigration issues these days...

    "Sweden’s fantasy is that if you socialize the children of immigrants and refugees correctly, they’ll grow up to be just like native Swedes. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Much of the second generation lives in nice Swedish welfare ghettos. The social strains – white flight, a general decline in trust – are growing worse. The immigrant-heavy city of Malmo, just across the bridge from Denmark, is an economic and social basket case."


  13. obloodyhell:

    Why I am Suspicious of Warren's stance on this -- he continually ignores the fact that this immigration ***is*** different from all the ones which preceded it in a clearly and self-evidently qualitative way.

    I've pointed this out every time in recent memory which he's floated this unmitigated CRAP immigration argument, and he's never dealt with it either directly on indirectly.

    I grasp he appears to have a standard policy of not directly engaging with people, but this still leaves two options --

    1) He can wait for a time and then address its challenge in a fresh post without specifically mentioning my post.

    2) He can respond under a pseudonym.

    Either would allow him to approach the problem without ignoring it. So my own argument is Q.E.D --- that he has no response, but is disingenuous enough that he won't back down from his idiocy.

    Yes, you'll see some hostility, because he does ignore it. I wasn't hostile the first DOZEN times I called attention to it. His continued failure to address it is a demonstration of intellectual cowardice.

    I'll repeat this YET again:
    And of course, your own idiotic stance pro-immigration continues to refuse to even discuss the issue I've raised multiple times, which is readily exposed by this NYT census-based infographic (note it does not include 2010 census data, but there's no reason to presume it would not follow suit):
    Click on the link.
    Run the Slider back to 1880
    In the pulldown at left, select a country -- say, "Italy"
    Now advance the slider decade by decade, noting the manner of the bubbles that appear -- which are proportional to the local, intrinsic population vs the size of the immigration.
    Run the Slider back to 1880 again
    In the pulldown at left, select a country -- say, "Poland"
    Now, again, advance the slider decade by decade, noting the manner of the bubbles that appear
    Run the Slider back to 1880 again
    In the pulldown at left, select a country -- say, "Sweden" (I've picked demos with a large, over-time influx of people to this nation -- feel free to experiment with any of the options excepting, for the moment, Mexico)
    Now, again, advance the slider decade by decade, noting the manner of the bubbles that appear

    Note the overall size of the bubbles, and see how they compare to the local population, showing the comparative influx of people to the areas into which they have gone over time.

    Run the Slider back to 1880 again
    In the pulldown at left, THIS time, let's select "Mexico"
    Now, again, advance the slider decade by decade, noting the manner of the bubbles that appear -- through 1960, it's pretty much identical to the previous "invasions" by other countries' peoples.

    Since then, it's a whole different ball of wax.

    Q.E.D., Warren, your stance that this influx is "no different from previous ones" is absolute fucking BULLSHIT. The influx from Mexico is literally an order of magnitude greater than ANY previous influx, and it's getting WORSE every decade.

  14. ErikEssig:

    It's shocking that Coyote can selectively forget the law of diminishing marginal returns as it regards immigration.

  15. Seekingfactsforsanity:

    Why? Because then
    1. legal immigrants were in the majority and they were at least expected by the citizenry and the government to learn our history and speak our language. But now so many immigrants (by the millions) are here “illegally” and they are glorified by many for not learning our history or
    speaking our language – significantly adding to the apparent creation of our “tower of babble” in both communication and expectations - and significantly adding to our political dysfunction.
    2. government taxes and welfare programs were not such a huge everyday burden. But now – taxes and welfare programs are out of control and are additionally being used to facilitate the act of “avoiding” assimilation, resulting in significant financial burdens on both private and public institutions such as in schools, hospitals, government offices, etc.
    3. constant fear of terror that can destroy thousands of lives in an instant was not a daily threat

    4. And the list goes on .............!

  16. chembot:

    I don't think there really is a "libertarian position" because there are many types of libertarians. The more anarchic types tend to view this as a fundamental issue of individual rights against a wholly illegitimate state. Their moral position is quite consistent, but it has the aspect of hunting unicorns. They seem to forget that we don't live on planet Vulcan, governed by pure reason, and do live on planet Earth, governed by humans, illogical as it is.

    As for most other types of libertarian, there is at least some sense that a state is either inevitable (my cynical view) or necessary and the best that can be done is to manage it so it causes the least net damage. Under that sort of philosophy, the moral position becomes more relational. You have your ideals, but they are the asymptote, and the best you can do is to try and converge upon them with good policy.

    For those in the first camp, all this looks like is wishy washy relativism and collectivism writ large, so we get the usual arguments: "You're rayciss!", "How can you keep the brown man down?", "People gotta be free! Society has no interest in making distinctions because 'society', has no 'rights' or interest in anything at all..." while completely ignoring any non-invidious reasons for restrictions. They don't care about economics, or the balancing of multiple highly divergent interests that make up a community (a concept they largely scoff at), or even finding workable policies that fit within the political framework they are surrounded by because they are on a truculent moral crusade. So long story short, expect the moral headbutting to continue.

  17. stan:

    The racists of the past are just like people today who are concerned about terrorism and bloated welfare rolls? Whoa. Really? If this is an example of Princeton logic, it speaks very poorly of Princeton educations.

  18. MNHawk:

    Get back to us in 15 years, after Sweden is majority Islamic.

    Then we'll talk.

  19. NL7:

    I've seen the "frontier" argument for closing off immigration a number of times, but it never makes sense. In an agrarian society, giving away most of the decent farmland means there's nowhere left to start a decent farm. But we are not an agrarian society. Most jobs today come from cities or other developed areas, not from empty farmland.

    I don't see why an 1800 mindset should dictate immigration levels in 2015. Immigrants aren't coming for land, they're coming for work and opportunity.

  20. Dwall:


    Visually describes what will happen to the USA lifestyle with current immigration trends.

  21. Mercury:

    Again, I'd like Coyote to explain under what conditions he'd allow someone to "immigrate" into his family and why. Are there any legitimate reasons for any resonable restrictions? Should he be allowed to just say "no"? What if an immigrant raised (after a certain amount of time) his aggregate family income an/or made his family "better"?
    "Uh, well honey she's got a strong set of legs on her, just about working age and pretty smart so I don't see why...."

  22. mesocyclone:

    Or they're coming for welfare.

  23. NL7:

    The US restricts welfare to immigrants and requires authorized immigrants to wait five years. So it's not a very good plan, if so.

    If we want to be sure immigrants are coming for work and not welfare, then governments can stop blocking employers from hiring immigrants. If the welfare costs are judged to be too high, for any reason, then governments can institute welfare budget cuts.

    One popular poli sci theory is that the US has lower levels of welfare because the country is less homogenous than tiny Scandinavian nations. This can be seen as either racist (e.g. Americans don't want to pay for black people to get welfare) or as clear-eyed (e.g. Scandinavians are blind to the costs of welfare because of national solidarity) depending on the view you prefer to take. So it's possible that a high-immigration country would be a low-welfare country. Certainly this had some correlation in US history, with high immigration and low welfare up to the 1920s, when the borders were shut, and low immigration and comparatively higher welfare in the 1930s. More than a few academics have argued that closing the border made the New Deal more palatable.

  24. NL7:

    I'm amazed at how many pro-market, small-government people are very trusting of the government regulation of the economy when it comes to immigration.

    I don't understand why conservatives will make anarchist arguments about the Obamacare individual mandate while indulging in statism over border issues. How can the government that can't build the exchange website be trusted to set and enforce the appropriate migration policy?

  25. NL7:

    Mexican immigration has significantly tapered off, though. Net migration from Mexico went negative since the recession - meaning as the jobs evaporated, more people left the US for Mexico than left Mexico for the US.

    The biggest source of immigrants now is China, followed by India. According to the Census ACS, Mexico has dropped to the third largest source of migrants.

    Previous waves of immigrants were considered "different this time." You haven't offered a reason to think that the spread of Mexican immigrants is more meaningful than the tidal wave of German immigrants, or the Irish, or the Chinese. At the time, the Chinese (and later Japanese) were considered so irredeemably foreign that the US adopted its first immigration law to stop their migration. I don't see why the size of Mexican immigration makes it different. If anything, it tells me that we could take larger influxes from other countries without serious harm.

  26. NL7:

    Looking at the historical chart, I'm saddened to watch the Russian and Eastern European numbers dip in 1930 and 1940. If immigration restrictionists hadn't largely shut the border to Jews, more of them would've survived past 1945.

  27. mesocyclone:

    There is a huge loophole in that restriction: kids. A whole lot of immigrants come here and then have a kid. The kid is automatically an American citizen, and that means the whole family can receive welfare.

  28. frankania:

    Immigrants can come in if they have no serious criminal record, AND with the idea that they cannot accept any govt benefits. If they can support themselves, welcome to the country. If they cannot survive, then go back home (or somewhere else?).

  29. NL7:

    If that's a big concern, then I imagine easier ways to handle it might be: 1) legalizing immigrant labor, so it's easier for migrants to pay their own costs, 2) assessing an entrance fee for migrants, and using those funds to pay welfare costs, 3) raising taxes on migrants, and using the proceeds to pay welfare costs, 4) cutting welfare and relying on private charity to supplement the needy. I don't necessarily endorse all of these as first-order politics, but I think all of them are better than blanket prohibition of migration.

  30. mesocyclone:

    I don't know of any "immigration restrictionists" who are for a blanket prohibition. That's a straw man used to discredit us. We are for legal immigration, done right, and our numbers include legal immigrants.

  31. obloodyhell:

    Facts, facts, facts. You're trying to confuse the issue by bringing FACTS into it.

    Warren has an axe to grind, and he plans to reduce that axehead to the size of a nickel.

  32. obloodyhell:

    By all means, contract it out.

    You continue to desperately say any ridiculous thing to defend your insanely ludicrous totally open borders policy.

  33. obloodyhell:


  34. obloodyhell:

    }}} Mexican immigration has significantly tapered off, though. Net migration from Mexico went negative since the recession - meaning as the jobs evaporated, more people left the US for Mexico than left Mexico for the US.

    Yeah, cite for me the basis for that claim. And regardless, if the economy picks back up, are you going to attempt the ridiculous claim that the flood won't increase back to former levels?

  35. obloodyhell:

    }}} The more anarchic types

    The freaking total anarchists, you mean, like NL7. They aren't libertarians, any more than Bill Mahar is one. Calling yourself one doesn't make you one.

  36. obloodyhell:

    The Tragedy of the Commons ALONE makes the open borders concept out to be beyond fucktarded. Open Borders is essentially an argument that an entire NATION should become a commons. Just as there is a requirement for private ownership, so, too, is there an equivalent argument for "national ownership" of the collective assets of a given nation, which has every right to share or not share with "outsiders" as they see fit.

  37. NL7:

    I've seen plenty of people argue for a "moratorium" on immigration. I don't think it's that uncommon, especially among regular people running their mouths. Pat Buchanan called for one in the 1990s, Ann Coulter called for one last year, and VDARE has issued a standing call for a moratorium. It's not the default equilibrium for the most publicly visible restrictionists, but it's common enough among regular folks and it sometimes trickles up to pundits.

    If you prefer, then you can make it specific to each individual prospective migrant. I'm sure any individual prospective migrant would rather be assessed a migration fee or a bond to offset the risk of welfare than be flatly barred from entering.

  38. NL7:

    It's not irrelevant to the issue of immigration. Restrictions on immigration lock people in warzones, poverty, and other terrible places to live. In the most extreme case, xenophobes passed a law in 1924 that virtually locked out Jewish and other non-WASP immigration , which made it more difficult for Jewish people to flee Europe in advance of the Nazis.

  39. NL7:

    Google is your friend.


    Are you going to explain why the size of an immigrant wave is meaningful? Despite claiming "QED" you failed to explain every step of your proof. The fact that there was a large wave of immigrants suggests that America is able to adapt to larger waves of immigration than previously thought. You've come to the opposite conclusion, with no more proof than the mere fact that there are lots of Mexican born people in America. You can't prove immigration is bad by saying it leads to lots of immigrants.

  40. texasjimbo:

    You have the virtue of being consistent; problem is, you're consistently wrong. Google is you friend. Look for workforce participation rate for the native population for the last ten years. Look at how many of the new jobs immigrants (often illegal) have taken over the last five years. Look at the wage stagnation and decreased standard of living the US middle class (especially blue collar workers) have experienced over the last ten years. Do you really believe that increasing the supply of labor in an environment of low job growth is going to help the native work force? The arguments you're using here are just a wrong and as stupid as the argument you made that keeping someone locked up inside something is exactly the same thing as keeping them locked out of something that does not belong to them. IOW, you're proving that libertarians can be just as stupid and blind as leftists frequently are.

  41. jhertzli:

    "...the influx of a population resistant to assimilation makes the current
    influx of aliens entirely distinct from historical immigrations"

    How does that differ from earlier immigration? I understand many of the descendants of 18th-century immigrants from Germany are still unassimilated. IOW, we learned to live with the Amish.

  42. jhertzli:

    I already know what "non-sequitur" means. I do not require a concrete example.

  43. jhertzli:

    "...the country benefitted from that pause"

    Did it set off the Depression? Did it set off the New Deal (now that people could rip off the upper class and not have to share the loot)?

    "...Now the skills of the immigrant are quite a bit below those of the native."

    "Finally, 94 million working-age US residents without work,..."

    Quite an accomplishment! The natives are being out-competed by people with worse skills.

  44. jhertzli:

    The fact that a problem exists is not evidence for any particular diagnosis. You might just as easily blame global warming.

  45. jhertzli:

    After reading the comments, I can say that self-congratulation as a debate tactic is not limited to left-wing collectivists.

    BTW, which side of the political spectrum is the one that looks for heretics?

  46. obloodyhell:

    }}} The massive expansion of the welfare state

    Yes, yes, IGNORE THE MASSIVE FUCKING ELEPHANT that entered the room and argue with the mouse that trotted in behind him.

    Typical of open immigration imbeciles. Yes, IM-B-CILES. Arguing with you is like arguing with libtards -- you can't grasp simple principles of challenge and response.

  47. obloodyhell:

    The notion that you can grasp simple rhetorical concepts IS quite questionable, actually, from your response above to Tanuki Man.

  48. obloodyhell:

    }}} Restrictions on immigration lock people in warzones, poverty, and other terrible places to live.


    This is NOT ***OUR*** PROBLEM.

    We do not HAVE to solve it. We are not OBLIGATED to solve it.

    We can CHOOSE to work on it, or not -- this is OUR RIGHT.

    Again -- So, you don't have ANY money of your own? You give it ALL AWAY to the needy and homeless? No possessions, no property -- you are Mother Theresa living under a vow of poverty?

    Or are you just an idiot douchebag hypocrite trolling this thread and attempting to place demands on America as a nation which it's not only NOT obligated to solve, but which it is actually INCAPABLE of solving?

    THE POINT of the historical chart is to DESTROY, UTTERLY, and CLEARLY, Warren's attempt to claim this wave of immigrants is no different from any other, when it's visibly quantitatively different to the point where it's clearly ALSO QUALITATIVELY different.

    And all YOU are attempting to do is go, "Hey, LOOK!! A Bird!!" to distract from that point.

  49. obloodyhell:

    Things being SEVERAL ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE GREATER THAN ALL PREVIOUS SUCH WAVES is inherently putting the need for PROOF at Warren's feet. He's claiming it makes no difference, because of "x" -- except it doesn't MATCH "x" at all.

    There is a qualitative, not just quantitative, difference between a chihuahua and an elephant.

  50. obloodyhell:

    The fact that the two are clearly related to one another by their very natures, nawwww, that can't matter.

    Are you really just that clueless a putz or are you just a complete troll?