The Agenda

Ron Unz on Immigration, Part V: Repatriation

During the 1930s, a large number of Mexican immigrants and their children were deported from southeastern Michigan. Drawn to the region by what had been a booming economy, the Great Depression created tremendous anxiety and resentment among native-born workers, much of it directed against recent arrivals. And so, Maria Cotera of the University of Michigan has recounted, there was a large-scale campaign to encourage Mexicans to return to their native country:

“During the Depression, there was a lot of anxiety, as there is now, that Mexican workers were taking the jobs that people needed,” says Associate Professor Maria Cotera, who is studying and teaching this tragic aspect of American history, called the Mexican repatriation. “All Mexicans became suspects, regardless of whether they were citizens.” More than one million Mexicans throughout the United States were rounded up, forced onto trains, and taken back to Mexico without due process. More than sixty percent of them were U.S. citizens. 

“Whether or not certain members of a family were citizens, they all went,” says Cotera. “It’s a legal and moral and ethical lapse by the U.S. government.” By the 1940s, Cotera says many “crossed back into the United States illegally, and didn’t realize they were actually U.S. citizens.” 

Cotera is inclined to think of this deportation as a legal and moral and ethical lapse, but it is worth remembering the context: the European partitions that had followed the Great War were not in the distant past, and population transfers of this kind were a familiar part of the international landscape. Indeed, this particular population transfer was, by the standards of, say, the expulsion of large numbers of Greeks from western Anatolia, quite modest. The notion that this transfer represented a lapse also reminds us that in fact forced population transfers of indigenous populations had occurred on a number of occasions in American history. The Mexican repatriation was far from unprecedented, and though it had many tragic elements, this was an era in which segregation and the lingering legacy of enslavement were powerfully present. 

I mention the Mexican repatriation because it seems almost unthinkable in 21st century America, in which a large and growing number of our citizens are descended from post-1965 immigrants. Yet if the United States intends to reduce the size of its undocumented population, we’d actually need to see a repatriation, perhaps a decentralized repatriation, on a far larger scale. 

This is an issue that Ron Unz raises in his essay in The American Conservative, and I imagine that it will prove one of the more controversial passages in what is an already controversial piece. First, Unz raises the question of the fiscal impact of less-skilled immigration. This is a thorny question:

[F]or reasons of citizenship and language, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are employed in the private sector, particularly the small-scale non-unionized private sector. Meanwhile, population growth tends to increase the need for teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other government employees, thereby benefiting the powerful public-sector unions that today completely dominate the labor movement.


This relates to another perfectly valid criticism raised by anti-immigration activists, namely that the net fiscal impact of many immigrants is substantially negative. The notion that large numbers of immigrants and their families subsist on welfare or that Mexican immigrant mothers often have five or ten children is sheer nonsense. Immigrants actually have very high labor force participation rates and relatively low rates of welfare dependency, while the vast majority of their families stop at two or three children, a number somewhat higher than that of today’s native-born whites but really no different from the typical American family during the hallowed 1950s. And since, as mentioned earlier, immigrant crime rates are about average, there is no large additional cost for police or prisons.

The fiscal difficulty lies not on the expenditure side but on the tax side. Most immigrants, especially illegal ones, work at relatively low paid jobs, and the various taxes they pay simply cannot cover their share of the (extremely inflated) costs of America’s governmental structure, notably schooling. Furthermore, for exactly this same reason of relative poverty, they receive a disproportionate share of those government programs aimed at benefiting the working poor, ranging from tax credits to food stamps to rental subsidies. Immigration critics have persuasively argued that the current system amounts to the classic case of economic special interests managing to privatize profits while socializing costs, wherein immigrant employers receive the full benefits of the labor done by their low-wage workforce while pushing many of the costs—including explicit income subsidies—onto the taxpayers. Obviously, all these same factors are equally true for non-immigrant Americans who fall into the category of working-poor, but the large continuing inflow of low-wage workers greatly exacerbates this basic fiscal problem. [Emphasis added]

Unz is raising a number of empirical questions that must be answered carefully. But the basic point seems sound: over the life course, it seems plausible that the lifetime net tax rates of less-skilled less-skilled immigrants could be negative. I say could be negative because, for example, it is at least possible that while less-skilled immigrants pay into the Social Security system, etc., those who are illegal immigrants don’t receive benefits because they never find a way to secure legal status, etc. Yet Unz is introducing a variety of other costs beyond the federal entitlement programs which tend to be the focus of our conversations. There might also be offsetting benefits, e.g., the benefits that flow to more affluent households, including the many ways in which the outsourcing of household production allows high-earners to work longer hours, etc.

Note that Unz is talking about less-skilled immigrants and not just illegal immigrants in the passage above. 

Later in the piece, Unz returns to the question of fiscal impact:

[A]s discussed earlier, the fiscal costs to the American government of low-wage immigrant families can be enormous. A couple working jobs at or near the present minimum wage pays negligible taxes, while if they have two school-age children, the grossly inflated expense structure of American public education may easily result in an annual taxpayer burden of $20,000 or more, even excluding the substantial costs associated with all other public services. And if one or both of these parents lose their jobs due to a soaring minimum wage, the fiscal burden grows still more severe.

The obvious solution, both humane and highly cost-effective, would be for the government to offer immigrants extremely generous financial relocation packages if they return home to their own countries. A tax-free cash payment perhaps as high as $5,000 or even $10,000 per adult plus a much smaller sum per minor child, together with free travel arrangements, would constitute an enormously attractive offer, probably being much more than they had managed to accumulate during many years of difficult low-wage labor. If the legal changes proposed herein had already caused their jobs to disappear, such a relocation offer would become irresistible. (Naturally, the full financial package would require hard evidence that they had already been living in America for a year or more, thereby preventing foreigners from crossing our borders simply to game the system.) Given the massive fiscal burdens inherent in the current situation, even such generous financial terms would probably pay for themselves almost immediately.

I want to emphasize that there are many potential benefits associated with a larger population, but Unz’s thought experiment is a useful one. We could, for example, conclude that we should exactly the same number of immigrants living and working in the United States — we just want the composition of our foreign-born population to change somewhat, e.g., we want to encourage the migration of immigrants who are likely to have a positive net fiscal impact rather than a negative net fiscal impact. One potential difficulty is that it is hard to predict the ultimate net fiscal impact of two school-age children, both of whom could become very affluent, thus shifting the family in question from the red to the black. This is the argument that many immigration enthusiasts find very emotionally affecting, particularly those who connect this line of thinking with the experience of their own immigrant ancestors. To Unz’s credit, he is trying to offer an unblinkered, unsentimental view, which, whether we agree or disagree with it, merits serious engagement. 

I should also note that this system of payments could prove an enforcement nightmare, and I imagine that voters would resent making these large lump-sum payments, the arguments from net fiscal impact notwithstanding. 

So far, the reaction to Unz’s proposal from libertarians and conservatives has been less than positive, which is why I’d like to draw attention to the next paragraphs:

An important aspect of all these proposals is that they are largely self-enforcing. Workers would be perfectly aware of the simple minimum wage laws, and harsh penalties would deter employers from taking the risk of violating them. The disappearance of low-wage jobs would remove the primary lure for new illegal immigrants, and generous cash relocation packages would lead many existing ones to eagerly turn themselves in and seek deportation. Although the Border Patrol would continue to exist and immigration laws would remain on the books, after a short transition period these would become much less necessary, and a vast existing system of government bureaucracy, business red tape, and taxpayer expense could safely be reduced.

Even principled libertarians, fervently opposed to the very concept of a minimum wage, might find this system preferable to the status quo, which contains an enormously complex web of regulations and employment restrictions; the civil libertarian nightmares of identity cards, national databases, and workplace raids; and an existing minimum wage on top of all these other things. 

It is possible that libertarians and conservatives who look askance at the Unz proposal don’t fully appreciate the extent of the civil liberties erosion that has been driven by post-1990 immigration enforcement measures. 

One of the things I find most frustrating about conversations about policy is that people don’t think through the implications of their proposals. People are quite comfortable saying that they oppose illegal immigration and amnesty. As Unz reminds us, however, this leaves us with repatriation inducements as one of the few levers we have to address the population of illegal immigrants. And repatriation inducements make people extremely uncomfortable, for perfectly good reasons. The idea certainly makes me uncomfortable, though that is no reason not to at least try to think it through.


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