TCS Daily

Absorption Nation

By Donald Boudreaux - May 10, 2006 12:00 AM

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson complained that King George III "has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."

People living in a sparsely populated land easily understand that more people mean greater prosperity. And so America was born with its doors open to immigrants -- a policy that remained largely in place until the 1920s.

The policy worked. Americans in the 19th century surpassed all of their European cousins to become the world's wealthiest people. According to economists Cecil Bohanon and T. Norman Van Cott, writing recently in The Independent Review, America's open borders worked so well that the immigrants who came here in the 19th century counteracted the economic harm done in that era by Uncle Sam's protectionist tariffs.

21st-century opponents of immigration often say "Yes. It's wonderful and true that we're a nation of immigrants. But a century ago, when immigration was at its peak, America could better absorb immigrants. We had more land and more natural resources than we have today. We can no longer absorb many immigrants."

I agree that America's ability to absorb immigrants has changed: it's higher today than at any time in history.

Only by naively supposing that a country's ability to absorb immigrants is determined chiefly by the availability of unsettled land do people conclude that America today is less able to absorb immigrants. It's true that more land was available for settlement in the 19th century. That land, however, was never much of an attraction to immigrants. Historically, most immigrants settled in cities -- think, for example, of Manhattan's Little Italy and San Francisco's Chinatown.

And the resources and amenities available in metropolitan areas today are far greater per capita than they were just before Uncle Sam abandoned his open-immigration policy in the 1920s.

Consider that in 1915 the typical dwelling in America housed 5.63 persons; today it houses fewer than half that number -- 2.37 persons. Combined with the fact that today's typical dwelling has about 25 percent more square footage than its counterpart had back then, our ability to absorb immigrants into residential living spaces is today more than twice what it was a century ago.

Also, of course, we're better able to feed ourselves today, even though the amount of land used for growing crops and pasturing animals is no larger now than in 1900. Higher agricultural productivity enables farmers and ranchers to produce more output on the same amount of land.

What about workers? A measure of ability to absorb workers is capital invested per worker. Today, the amount of capital invested per worker is nine times greater than it was just after World War I. Because a worker's productivity rises when he has more capital to work with, and because his pay is tied closely to his productivity, workers today produce and earn more than workers did during the open-borders era.

Don't lose sight of our labor market's great flexibility. In addition to absorbing millions of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it easily absorbed the 46 million women who entered the work force during the second half of the 20th century.

In many other ways America today can better absorb immigrants. For example, compared to 1920, per person today we:

  • have 10 times more miles of paved roads
  • have more than twice as many physicians
  • have three times as many teachers
  • have 540 percent more police officers
  • have twice as many firefighters
  • produce 2.4 times more oil -- as known reserves of oil grow
  • produce 2.67 times more cubic feet of lumber -- as America's supply of lumber stands grows
  • have conquered most of the infectious diseases that were major killers in the past.

None of this is causing America to be "paved over" as some people fear. The land area devoted to parks and nature refuges is more than seven times greater today than it was in 1900. More generally, only three percent of the land area of the lower 48 states is devoted to urban and suburban uses. So not even counting the vast wilderness of Alaska, we still have 97 percent of American land to provide space for living, working, and recreation. America isn't close to being crowded.

Fact is, America today is far wealthier, healthier, resource-rich, and spacious than it was a century ago. Our ability to absorb immigrants is greater than ever.

Donald J. Boudreaux is Chair of the Economics Department at George Mason University.



absorb immigrants
I have no problem with this idea. I welcome immigrants and would support opening up more slots for them to come in. I would also support a guest worker program.

I DO NOT support Illegal immigrants at all. And as for the idea that we need these people ask yourself the following. Who was working all these jobs before they come over and started working?

Increase LEAGAL immigration
Increase the number of legal immigrant visas by 10 or 100 times.
Of course this will innundate the US emabassies around the world and will make the State Department work for a living.
CONTROL the border and INCREASE family visas.


the U.S. should consider a return or at least a partial return to the open immigration of the 1920s. The U.S. benefited enormously from the tidal wave of immigration during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Is there any reason, that it could not continue to do so?

Was union power strong enough in the past to inhibit increased immigration?

Managed Immigration
“And so America was born with its doors open to immigrants -- a policy that remained largely in place until the 1920s.”

Immigration in the 21rst century is fundamentally dissimilar from earlier centuries. The primary reasons are:
1) The threat of terrorism
2) The threat of WMD terrorism
The US Government simply cannot meet (and has not met) its Constitutional responsibility to secure the borders in an open-borders environment. Every non-US citizen entering the US must be screened, identified and tracked. It would be better to have zero immigration than fail to protect the American people from a terrorist attack.

I believe we can have security and guest workers and immigration…the population of the US could exceed a billion by the end of this century. To responsibly include immigrants in America’s future, Congress should pass immigration reform that includes the following features:
1) The border must be secured NOW by whatever means necessary. Homeland Security must request the funds necessary to automate most of this function in the future. As for now, if it takes walls, the Guard and volunteers…then let’s get to it.
2) Those currently in the US illegally must be registered (within a reasonable time period) as guest workers. If they do not register or do not pass screening, they must be deported.
3) The rights and responsibilities of Guest Workers must be fully detailed in law. If local Government or private organizations/citizens do not follow the law, there should be appropriate penalties.
4) Guest workers have the option of applying for American citizenship. However, those currently in the US illegally, who obtain Guest Worker status, should NOT receive preference.
5) If employers hire undocumented workers, they should be fined and prosecuted.
6) Congress should determine each year how many guest workers and how many immigrants will be allowed.

Managed Immigration, as opposed to Open Immigration, is the responsible way forward in this century.

I suspect (I do not know) that the formation of the AFL and later the CIO were instrumental in drawing to a close the open immigration policy. After all, immigrants mean lower labor costs. Second, I suspect that the closure of the borders to immigration may have been part of the overall rise in U.S. isolationism after World War I. Again, I cannot prove this, and would appreciate any evidence either supporting or refuting these theories.

I hope that my suspicions are correct, because if not we are left with rather more unpleasant suspicions as to why the borders were closed to immigrants, such as racism.

1965 Immigration Act
"In 1965, the political elite on Capitol Hill may not have predicted a mass increase in immigration. But Marian Smith, the historian for Customs and Immigration Services, showed me a small agency booklet from 1966 that certainly did. It explains how each provision in the new law would lead to a rapid increase in applications and a big jump in workload -- more and more so as word trickled out to those newly eligible to come. Smith says a lifetime of immigration backlogs had built up among America's foreign-born minorities. These immigrants would petition for relatives to come to the United States, and those relatives in turn would petition for other family members. Demand from post-colonial countries in Asia and Africa, she notes, jumped after World War II."

So what we have here, as I read the article you posted, is an attempt by Johnson to correct at least partially the racism and other flaws of U.S. immigration policy dating back to the 20s. To head off any racist backlash, they played down the impact of a huge rise in immigration applicants.

The article raises another very good point. There cannot be any blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants without giving priority to those who are applying through the legal immigration process. What I conclude from this is not that there cannot be an amnesty for illegals but that there must be much greater attention and resources committed to increasing and making more efficient and timely the legal immigration process.

It is disingenuous at best to suggest that this country has EVER had 'open borders' in the manner in which it is being discussed now. The CURRENT situation is as close to 'open borders' as we have ever had.

Even during the heyday of massive European immigration, when Ellis Island became the famous waypoint for people 'coming to America', those people still had to enter the country LEGALLY. Which meant also, among other things, that there were certain people who were simply NOT allowed in.

Those with diseases (even as relatively mild by today's standards as conjunctivitis (pinkeye)) were told to get back on the boat and go home. Criminals, the insane, etc, were not accepted. Nobody seemed to be complaining about it then.

Plus, those people who were 'Coming to America' were coming here to BECOME Americans. They loved this country, they learned its history, they contributed to it, they taught their children a love of America and have historically been among the most fiercely loyal and patriotic red-blooded followers of the 'stars and bars'.

Because what they left behind, THEY LEFT BEHIND. Yes, they brought Italy with them, they brought China with them, Ireland, Germany, Russia, on and on.. They brought those identities and cultures with them as a GIFT to their new country. When they said, 'I love America!', they meant it in a way that is almost unheard of today.

And I am 100% in favor of immigration. That is what immigration IS, after all. And I am 100% opposed to illegal immigration. It is criminal to use the terms interchangeably - to call for 'immigrants' rights' when talking about people who are here illegally, as though they even have the right to even THINK they 'have rights'.

What those people today are doing is not immigration. It is theft. Theft of services, theft of health care, theft of our educational system. These people do not leave behind their old bad life. They come here in order to contribute to their life in their 'real' home. To send American cash out of the country, thus robbing our economy of 4 to 5 times that amount in economic circulation. They receive free medical care, of any and all expense, all on the taxpayer's dime, causing health care costs and insurance costs to skyrocket. They drive without insurance, thus causing our automobile insurance costs to skyrocket. They take on dangerous jobs without any skill or even the ability to read or speak English - thus quite often injuring themselves - leading therefore to our legal system being drowned under case after case of illegal immigrants suing employers and manufacturers for their injuries that are their own faults (VERY often highly attributable to drug use on the job), causing, again, our costs and insurance rates to skyrocket. They often enter as wanted criminals, or, even worse, enter illegally carrying horrific diseases which we had long ago wiped out here (the rapid rise of Tuberculosis cases should alarm EVERYONE). These people would never have been allowed in before, they certainly would not be allowed in now, so why should we just automatically let them in now?

They do not pay proper taxes, little to no property taxes, and yet send their very many children from their very large families into our public schools systems, usually without the ability to speak any English. This is rapidly bankrupting and destroying many many school districts, even those who, less than a decade ago, were known as 'prosperous'.

This is not the behavior of an immigrant people who love their new country. This is the behavior of people who have absolutely no vested interest in the success of this nation. This is the behavior of thieves in the night. Contrary to the author's assertions, this country is NOT in a position to accept an even greater number of THIS kind of immigrant. We are fully capable and even eager to accept LEGAL immigrants, but that in no way means we are obliged to continue to commit ritual suicide at the altar of political correctness by turning a blind eye to those who are working diligently to destroy this country.

Yes, they are often willing to do unpleasant or difficult jobs at lower wages (conceptually akin to slavery in the old cotton south). While on the surface this might seem like a contributory benefit, it is actually a hindrance, even before taking into consideration the vast and growing costs to our society in having to deal with all the problems they also cause. The fact is, slavery held on in the old cotton south precisely because the cotton gin had not yet been invented. The economy depended on the low-cost labor because there was no impetus, no drive to find a 'better way'. As long as they cheap illegal labor exists, progress is halted. Far from damaging the cotton industry, though, the cotton gin vaulted the cotton industry into a worldwide mammoth. It was the REMOVAL of the cheap undervalued labor, combined with the progress of necessary invention, which did this. And it never would have happened had it not been a growing sentiment that slave labor was morally wrong.

Illegal immigration, and the subsequent perpetual second-classification of an entire cultural subset, is morally wrong, and benefits no one. If jobs are unpleasant and dangerous, then progress is lagging in those areas, and will continue to do so as long as it is cheaper to exploit illegal immigrants than it is to move ahead.

So, in conclusion, while the author's assertion that we are more able to absorb 'immigrants' now than ever before may be technically true as far as it goes, his failure to draw the distinction between legal and illegal immigration, and even his use of the term 'open borders' leads one to believe that he is simply trying to lay the groundwork for an effort to get us all to 'stop our bellyaching' about illegal immigration.

That is not going to happen. Granted, it is a complex issue, and no doubt our immigration policies should be updated and streamlined, which has not happened in decades. But the politicians had better wake up to the fact that the will of the people is going to trump the desires of the money-contributing industries which may be threatened by this potential loss of a limitless supply of cheap illegal labor. If the politicians don't wake up, they are going to be out on their butts come the next election.

absorbing immigrants
The problem I have with your assessment, is that everything is based on immigrants. Our country today is not having a problem with immigrants. It is the illegal aliens. As opposed to immigrants, illegal aliens are a drain on our resources. From what I can see, not only do they not pay taxes, they send money back to their country and that money is spent elsewhere.

Problem - vast numbers opposed to assimilation and absorption
I agree that as a nation we have a great capacity for absorption of LEGAL immigrants.

A large problem, overlooked by the author, is the fact that there are so many people nowadays who derive their power from blocking assimlation. These (mostly) self-described leaders of this minority or that minority do not want "their people" to become Americans.

They want to keep things separate, in the "multicutural" way instead of the melting pot.

This was an issue in prior immigration waves, but to a much lesser degree. We certainly did not have this multicultural mindset floating around much in the US then.

Like other posters to this article, I am in favor of LEGAL immigration and think it should be made less difficult and time consuming. The people who come here LEGALLY want to be absorbed and not kept separate.

We need that Wall and other resources (huge fines and prison time for business that hire illegals) to get control of our borders.

Socialism in disguise
The upshot of this article is that if a nation is wealthy it is ok to freeload on its wealth, just because you can. There is no concept in the article about the cultural or moral aspect of uncontrolled, mass migration from one country to another. There is no discussion of the impact on the freedom of those who labored to create the wealth that is now seen as sole justification for taking it.

add wealth to the country to which they immigrate, irrespective of any transfers to the country of origin, not subtract from it. A closed door policy only suits the interests of vested privilege.

are a net drain if they are uneducated and cannot speak the language. They require more services from the country to which they immigrate than they can pay for.

If they are educated, skilled and speak English, then I would agree that they add wealth.

Remember your history
the United States was built by the uneducated and unskilled, many of whom could not speak the language. Go to Ellis Island for the evidence. They had something far more important; a fierce motivation to make better lives for themselves in one of the few nations in the world prepared to allow them to keep the results of their labors.

I have mine and you can't have yours
Most of the objections against population growth are from relatively rich do gooder city people who have their estates and terretorial "views" and don't want the land owners - city and country - to develop their real estate assets.

Zoning and building restrictions decreases land values but increases the value of existing structures. "I have my house and you can't have an apartment building." "You can't log your land because I think trees are more beautiful than fields."

Immigration strengthened the unions
It was the immigrants who built the unions because it was the immigrants who did the dirty and dangerous work - mining, steel, laundry workers, dock workers.

It is a fact
that forest cover has increased in North America as a whole and in the U.S. in specific even as population has grown. I agree that some of the objection to immigration is based on aesthetics, though I'm convinced good, old-fashioned bigotry has something to do with it, but even here those who oppose immigration do it on a false basis.

Perhaps what they really want is to turn the U.S. into another version of Britain, namely the world's largest theme park.

they helped build the unions, but it was with the approval of AFL that the U.S. changed its immigration policy to restrict access in the 1920s.

Who was working those jobs? You think those jobs were there already from the dawn of time or something? Zero-sum nonsense. The illegal immigrants work for a low wage making it more economical for companies to expand thereby hiring more skilled people to fill in the positions the require more skills, like speaking English.

This is pretty simple.

Compared to who?
illegal aliens are a drain on our resources

In what way? Cuz they dont pay taxes? How is this a drain on resources. I thought that productive work, including very basic manual labor, was input not output.

It dont matter where the money is spent. The value they produced is in the system and that is a net benefit.

If illegal aliens
are a drain on the economy, then the U.S. should have a lower standard of living that the aboriginal population displaced in the 16th century.

Situation Has Changed
You can't live in the past. Given your outlook there is no limit to the number of immigrants we let in. How many should it be - 50 M, 100M, a billion?

The times of Ellis Island are past. There is no need to continue to populate the country. In fact, purposely overpopulating the country is unjust.

Tired Of...
Evil motives being ascribed to those who object. There are logical reasons to oppose open borders. My opinion is that you have just poisoned the well and ended the discussion.


You claim
that times have changed. I never claimed there was a limit to the number of immigrants, you attributed that to me. There is a great difference between an open door policy and admitting 1 billion.

You claim "purposely overpopulating the country is unjust". Very well. What level constitutes overpopulation, and to whom is this unjust?

You claim
evil motives are ascribed to those who object. I do no such thing; I clearly indicate selfish motives are at the root of the current restrictions and racist motives formed a part of the original closure in the 1920s.

If there are reasons to close the borders, state them and discuss it.

illegal aliens
listen good, meathead. I live in trenton, n.j. it costs $14,000 a year to educate one child. In Newark, N.J., it costs $16,000 per year. Illegals don't have family doctors, a visit to the emergency room is 4 times the cost of a doctors visit. they don't pay that, we do. our costs go up in order to cover what the illegals don't pay, which is nothing, and they can't be turned away. if they get a headache, we pay for the aspirin. back to the schools. how many illegals do you know that don't have kids. if the wife gets pregnant, we pay for the pre-natal care and the delivery.

the productive work, as you put it, that they do, is paid in american money. much of that money is sent back to their country, to relatives, it is spent there, helping their economy, not ours. sorry meathead, but that net you mentioned is full of holes.

not too long ago, an illegal was hit by a car while he was riding his bike to work, the car didn't stop and noone got the license number. Two days in the hospital and three months of rehab care. he didn't have any insurance and now all of the bills are coming due. the hospital is stuck. guess how much of that is added to everyone else's bills in order to make it up. all of it.

the vast majority of immigrants
over the centuries have been the uneducated, and few if any them were able to speak more than a few words of English when they got here.

where's your evidence
that the situation has changed.

More people equals more wealth, for all of us.

if there are logical reasons
please present them.
You haven't done so to date.

if illegal aliens
This country has the highest standard of living ever seen on the face of this earth. if we weren't inundated with illegals, it would be even higher, or at the least, cost of less for what we have. if you don't think that illegals hurt an economy, take a good look at what is going on over in europe. france and germany, two of the biggest in europe are both one step away from bankruptcy.

Illegal immigrants
have nothing to do with the economic difficulties of France and Germany. Their chronic deficits, massive entitlement programs, restrictive labor laws all are hugely more important factors than illegal aliens in their economic problems.

socialism in disguise
hey anthony,

I would love to respond to your comment, but i can't make any sense of it.

Illegal Immigration and Corporate/Farm Welfare
I have no problem with more immigration. However, I do have a problem with corporate and farm welfare. If businesses, agribusinesses, and farmers want more migrant laborers for lower wages, they do not need subsidizing.

Remove corporate and farm welfare that is funded by US taxpayers and the argument against illegal immigration debate would wane.

I find it surprising that the corporate/farm welfare issue haven't been brought up by any side of this debate.

problem-vast numbers-------
hi w,

good point. an egyptian family just moved our neighborhood. they understand me perfectly when i speak english. i still have a problem understanding them, but we work it out. they have two kids and we all get along fine. if the people you are referring to want to be treated as americans, they should turn their backs on their so called, self appointed leaders. that is one of our freedoms. association.

problem - vast numbers----------#2

hey w,

if you want to read a good blog about your assimilation problem, go to posted on may 7, 2006. this is a typical problem here in New Jersey.

Excellent post

You have it precisely backward - immigration benefits the rich and hurts the poor
In the short run unrestricted immigration overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy and highly educated among us because it provides us with a group of serfs to do our manual labor for cheap wages.

At the same time unrestricted immigration holds down the wages of poorly educated and lesser skilled people who are already here by providing an inexhaustible source of labor willing to work for virtually an wages.

The Democratic Party wants unrestricted immigration because it figures it's base among the lower income groups is too stupid to understand what is happening and because it gets contributions from employers who want cheap labor. The Republican party wants unrestricted immigrations because it gets contributions from employers who want cheap labor and because it figures that it's base among the middle income groups is too stupid to understand what is happening.

Because a nation can absorb immigrants doesn't mean a nation should. . .
The real question is not whether the nation can absorb immigrants but whether the admission of immigrants is good for the current citizens of that nation.

An older couple whose children have gone off to college can clearly absorb more folks into their now empty home, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea to leave the door open and simply accept whoever wanders in.

When the original settlers came to North America it was a bad thing for the Indians who then dominated the land. Open door admission of immigrants with no controls to ensure admission of those who enhance rather than detract from our average productivity is clearly a bad thing for Americans now.

because a nation can------------
hi sully,

good one.

Can't agree with your assertion
Mark - you wrote "More people equals more wealth, for all of us."

Does a perfectly nice terminally ill immigrant in need of extensive medical care equal more wealth for all of us?

Does a perfectly nice grandma immigrant who is well past her productive years but will probably need health care in the future equal more wealth for us?

The issue is not immigration per se, it is instituting a system that admits only those immigrants who do indeed (on average) mean more wealth for all of us.

The prior immigration systems that built this country were in some measure set up to admit only desirable immigrants, and they occurred in the context of a country with few safety net and welfare mechanisms where the newcomers had no illusions that they would need to be self reliant. Those systems were often racist in effect, but that did not necessarily make them wrong in concept. Refusing to admit folks with Tuberculosis was arguably cruel, but it was not illogical.

As to now I'm more than willing to support the admission of as many engineers, scientists, highly skilled workers, etc. as we can find to admit, regardless of where they come from or what race they happen to be. Instead we are just admitting anyone who wants to come.

Low skill and education immigrants increase total production but. . .
Low skill and education immigrants increase total production but they decrease average production and thus the average income of current citizens.

High skill and education immigrants increase average production and thus the average income of current citizens.

Unlimited immigration harms the poor and unskilled among us the most by holding down wages. It goes on because the wealthy want the cheap labor and the middle class doesn't care.

Said it before
My immigration policy would be to let anyone with a valid passport, healthy and not a criminal into the country.
They can work for whomever will hire them.
They cannot receive federal welfare of any sort.
After five years, if they have not become citizens (speak English, take tests, etc.) they must go home.

One immediate effect will be from other countries who will fear losing their best people.
I have confidence that what is left of our free market system will then produce even more prosperity.

Immigration may have strengthened the unions but it screwed the workers. . .
Immigration may have strengthened the unions but it screwed the workers by bringing in a continuous supply of cheap labor to replace those already performing the dirty and dangerous work.

The old time socialists, whatever their other faults, understood this phenomenon all to well. The meatpackers in Chicago didn't bring in Slovaks, Poles and Italians because they wanted to help the Irish who were already here doing the work. On the west coast they didn't bring in the Chinese to build the railroads because they wanted to benefit the Italians and Irish who were already here doing the work.

In the same way the meatpackers and big time farm coops today are not giving big money to politicians to keep the borders open and uncontrolled because they have great love for the working man.

The problem is that we already have a welfare system
Marjon - I'll vote for you if you run on that platform and I would wholeheartedly agree with unlimited immigration under the terms you suggest; but you and I know that it is a pie in the sky proposal.

We can't even deport the obvious criminals under our current insane set of immigration laws.

We need to close the borders and then hold a reasoned national discussion about how many and what sort of immigrants to admit.

Excellent post, but you missed a couple of issues
Immigration is also more complex and problematic today because of the huge decrease in cost to get here and the huge decrease in the cost of communications.

In the old days an immigrant came at great expense and thus presumably with significant commitment. He also understood that he would literally sink or swim by his own efforts. If he found that he could earn well he might go back to the old country and marry or he might import a bride in a few years, but that was not a trivial or low cost decision.

Today an immigrant can enter at relatively low expense and then import an entire family with the proceeds of a couple of years of work.

Additionally, immigration in the old days occurred in the context of an economy that needed huge numbers of manual laborers for each knowledge worker. Today's economy works with a much higher percentage of knowledge workers.

We are importing cheap unlimited competition for our fellow citizens who for whatever reason have not achieved the education to be knowledge workers. If that is not enough we are also importing cheap unlimited competition for those among our own children and grandchildren who do not have the mental wherewithal to be knowledge workers.

Immigration and the Law
Congress must actively direct BOTH the quality and the quantity of immigrant applicants that are granted the opportunity to earn citizenship. They must make similar decisions for Guest Workers. Since Congress is responsive to the will of the citizens, it is ultimately "We the People" who will "manage" immigration...if only Congress would upgrade immigration law to serve the realities of our times.

it didn't help American workers
but it did help American consumers.

And since every worker is also a consumer, and there are many consumers who aren't workers.

By lowering prices, these companies also increased their competitiveness in overseas contracts, which helped American workers, by increasing the total number of jobs available to them.

the problems in Europe have nothing to do with immigration
They have to do with a broken socialist economic system.

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