When I linked to a USA Today story the other day about Americans elbowing illegals out of the way for day-labor jobs, under my headline of “And Yet, We Still Haven’t Suspended Immigration,” one reader replied, “Yah, because protectionism is clearly the answer for our economic woes.” This betrayed a widespread misconception about immigration and trade, one that’s important to keep in mind as the president unveils the political theater production called his “Jobs Summit.”
Restricting immigration is fundamentally different from restricting trade in two ways, one theoretical, one practical. First, people are not things — in addition to being labor inputs, they also happen to be people. This isn’t a new insight, but one that apparently requires repeating. The general principle, unrelated to immigration, was articulated by Peter Drucker when, in The Practice of Management, he recommended “consideration of the human resource as human beings having, unlike any other resource, personality, citizenship, control over whether they work, how much and how well . . .” Henry Ford is said to have expressed the businessman’s frustration at this, asking “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a person attached?”
In the immigration context, Teddy Roosevelt made the same point: “Never under any condition should this nation look at an immigrant as primarily a labor unit.” Economists have drawn the same conclusion: Henry Simons, the pioneer advocate of the benefits of free-market economics at the University of Chicago, wrote in 1948 that “to insist that a free trade program is logically or practically incomplete without free migration is either disingenuous or stupid. Free trade may and should raise living standards everywhere. . . . Free immigration would level standards, perhaps without raising them anywhere.” Likewise, libertarian economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has written that “free trade and restricted immigration are not only perfectly consistent, but even mutually reinforcing policies.”
The practical problem with the equation of immigration with trade is that most immigrants don’t work in sectors subject to imports — immigration means importing the workers themselves rather than the products of their work. Construction, food service, building cleaning and maintenance, taxi driving, etc., you just can’t import the service or outsource the work.
So, specifically at a time of high unemployment when the economy is losing jobs, enforcement of immigration law is an immediate, low-cost jobs program — at least for Americans and legal immigrants, who are the only ones our government is authorized to be concerned about. There are twice as many unemployed Americans as there are employed illegal aliens, and while jobs aren’t just lollipops you take away from one person and give to another, vigorous enforcement could easily open up a quarter-million or half-million jobs held by illegal aliens in no time.
This why Rep. Lamar Smith, ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, writes today in Politico that:
With so many Americans’ livelihoods on the line, now is the time for the administration to stand up for citizens and legal immigrants. Now is the time for the president to direct that immigration laws be enforced. When the jobs stolen by illegal immigrants are recovered for legal workers, our true national recovery can begin.