The Unintended Consequences of Alabama’s Immigration Law

by Reihan Salam

Yesterday, Matt Zeitlin of The Daily Beast kindly passed along a fascinating story by Margaret Newkirk and Gigi Douban of Bloomberg Businessweek on the unintended consequences of an immigration policy shift in Alabama:

Esene Manga, an Eritrean refugee living in Atlanta, hadn’t heard of Albertville, Alabama until a recruiter offered him a job there. Now Manga, 22, earns $10.85 an hour cutting chicken breasts on a poultry-plant night shift, an unexpected beneficiary of a year-old law designed to drive out illegal Hispanic immigrants.

This isn’t what the law’s backers said would happen. Republican state Senator Scott Beason, a sponsor, said at a news conference last year that the restrictions on undocumented workers would “put thousands of native Alabamians back in the work force.”

Instead, it caused a labor shortage that resulted in the importation of hundreds of legal African and Haitian refugees, and Puerto Ricans, according to interviews with workers, advocacy organizations and businesses. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Beason is disappointed by this development:

“We would prefer they hire native Alabamians,” he said. The reason refugees are being hired is probably because “they’re cheaper,” he said.

But I would argue that he shouldn’t be disappointed, as replacing undocumented workers from middle-income countries with legal African and Haitian refugees isn’t a wash — rather, it represents significant progress. 

Why would that be? In making the case against the DREAM Act, I’ve often relied on an argument most people find really strange. It goes like this: most American voters believe (defensibly, in my view), that we shouldn’t have completely open borders. There are many reasons why people embrace this argument. One is that the United States has a mixed economy, and we use redistribution to redress various inequalities, some of which are less tractable than others. The most sustainable tax-and-transfer systems are, I would argue, those that are rooted in a sense of “conditional reciprocity,” i.e., I will do something for you if I believe that you would do the same for me, and more broadly I believe that you are doing your part to be a productive citizen who is contributing to the greater good. What looks like xenophobia might in some cases be anxiety about community-specific social capital: people in rooted communities are often made anxious by new arrivals who do not have deep roots, and who might prove transient. And so immigration is received differently in different regions and neighborhoods, depending on what we might call their absorptive capacity. A large, diverse, and dense city will generally have a higher absorptive capacity than a smaller, more homogenous communities, in part because community-specific social capital manifests itself in different ways in big cities — or rather strong local governments, with strong police forces, effectively substitute for community-specific social capital.  

So if we accept that immigration is a fixed pie — that is, that we won’t accept an unlimited number of immigrants, or rather all of those who would choose to work and settle in the U.S. if given the opportunity, we should have some principled way of determining the composition of those who get access to these slots. My general sense is that it makes sense for U.S. voters to expect that the federal government will bias the immigration system towards those who are most likely to make the largest net contribution to the U.S. tax-and-transfer system and those who are most likely to successfully assimilate to U.S. norms. There is good reason to believe that this will generally mean favoring skilled immigrants with a high degree of English language proficiency. 

(Some will argue that this is precisely why the U.S. should embrace policies like the DREAM Act. I disagree, as I think enforcing immigration laws rigorously is the only way to ensure that the “fixed pie” is credible. That said, I wouldn’t dismiss this logic out of hand. Perhaps DREAM-eligible undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply as skilled immigrants upon returning to their home countries, and given an opportunity to compete with other immigrants on an equal footing.) 

The problem with an exclusive bias towards skilled immigrants is that it doesn’t account for the humanitarian impulse. Indeed, this humanitarian impulse is often deployed to make the case for legalizing undocumented immigrants. The problem, however, is that emphasizing the interests of undocumented immigrants in this manner neglects the fact that there are many people elsewhere in the world — in highly indebted poor countries in Africa and elsewhere — who are in far worse shape, and who could benefit far poorer people through remittances. Most undocumented workers in the U.S. come from communities that have been part of entrenched migration networks for some time, and so these communities have been enriched for decades by remittances sent home by U.S.-based laborers. If we really wanted to achieve a humanitarian goal, yet we recognize that the immigration pie is fixed, it makes far more sense to allow for the legal immigration of workers from extremely poor rather than middle-income countries.

(There is a potential side benefit: the immigrants who come from countries and places that are not part of entrenched migration networks might have somewhat different characteristics from those immigrants who do. The potential downside is that these immigrants will prove much harder to assimilate, and that they will face social isolation. The big potential upside is that they will have the positive qualities we associate with pioneers focused on self-improvement. The Haitian community falls in an intermediate category, as there has long been a substantial Haitian presence in major U.S. cities, thus mitigating the potential for social isolation.)

And that seems to be what is happening in Alabama. I should stress that this isn’t necessarily true. Central American includes a number of extremely poor and isolated countries while Africa includes a number of stable middle-income countries. But in terms of reconciling various goals, e.g.:

(1) coherently divvying up the fixed pie;

(2) devoting slots designed to benefit the truly needy to those most likely to benefit the truly needy (by sending remittances to really poor relatives in really poor countries, etc.);

(3) and establishing that we intend to enforce immigration laws –

this doesn’t look like such a bad outcome. This could be true even if the particulars of Alabama’s law are objectionable. What I’d like to see is for Republicans like Beason to embrace the idea that aiding legal refugees represents a big moral gain over non-enforcement of immigration laws.    

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.