Sunday, April 4, 2010

Immigration and the Welfare State

My previous post dealing with whether citizenship should be automatic for babies born to illegals generated a lot of commentary, so it is with some trepidation that I wade back into the issue. But the Wall Street Journal column excerpted below seems to strike exactly the right chord and should (at least I think!) meet with approval from both sides of the immigration debate. And by "both sides," I'm referring to the debate on the right (with some conservatives and libertarians on both sides of the issue) regarding the benefits of immigration generally and the treatment of illegals specifically.

...a larger welfare state is not conducive to comprehensive immigration reform. If foreigners start coming for handouts instead of economic opportunity, tighter restrictions will be justified. ... A 2005 World Values Survey found that 71% of Americans see poverty as a condition that can be overcome by dint of hard work, while only 40% of Europeans share that viewpoint. ...Belief in social mobility has informed welfare and immigration policy from colonial times. In 1645 the Massachusetts Bay colony was already barring paupers. And in 1882, when Congress finally passed the country's first major piece of immigration legislation, it specifically prohibited entry to "any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge." A problem that immigration reformers face is the public perception—fed by restrictionists and exacerbated during economic downturns—that the U.S. welfare state is already a magnet for poor immigrants in search of government assistance. It's true that the U.S. attracts poor people, but it's also true that they come here to work, not to go on the dole. We know this because the data consistently show that foreign nationals in the U.S. are more likely than natives to be employed and less likely than low-income natives to be receiving public benefits. ...While there's no evidence that immigrants come here for public assistance, that could change as the U.S. welfare state grows. And one consequence could be less-welcoming immigration policies. The European experience is instructive. In countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, excessively generous public benefits have lured poor migrants who tend to be heavy users of welfare and less likely than natives to join the work force. Milton Friedman famously remarked, "you can't have free immigration and a welfare state." There is a tipping point, even if the U.S. has yet to reach it.

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