At a time when the American economy could use more people, restrictions on immigration continue to trap a lot of unused talent in low-productivity countries. To unleash it, the United States could simply let these immigrants in and let them work. They’d become a productive part of the system that makes this country so wealthy. But politicians are getting in the way.
Forget for a moment about the usual fear-based talking points. Ignore the recent use of immigrants as political props. As George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan said on PBS, “if you don’t know anything about economics, just learn this: the secret to mass consumption is mass production. Countries that produce a lot of stuff have a high living standard. Countries that produce a small amount of stuff have a low living standard. That is why people want to live in rich countries, because production per person is high in rich countries.”
Unfortunately, the extravagant redistribution of wealth during the COVID-19 years created incentives to stay home instead of work. Today, many U.S. industries are having a hard time finding workers, leaving production lower than it should be. That means fewer goods and services to raise our living standards. It’s so bad that unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector could cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion annually.
This highlights that our problem isn’t too many immigrants. Instead, we admit too few people who want to come here to work, often leaving them with no good choice but to try anyway.
I understand that some Americans feel uneasy about allowing in more immigrants who are less educated than most of our population. But you don’t have to be a highly educated engineer, surgeon or entrepreneur of the caliber of Elon Musk to add net value to the U.S. economy. In fact, so much of our country is functioning so well precisely because of so-called low-skilled workers.
Think back to the many months of the pandemic when the economy was closed except for those businesses labeled “essential.” Who do you think kept supermarkets open by stocking shelves and driving supplies from warehouses to stores? Who collected garbage, planted vegetables and raised chickens? Who prepared the takeout meals you ordered on Uber Eats or other platforms? Who cleaned your home or renovated your patio? Who worked in elder care facilities? It was the workers we dismissively call “low-skilled.”
Meanwhile, much of the country’s computer class hid in our homes, safe and fully paid, collecting COVID-19 checks and enjoying the luxury of others delivering to our doorsteps the things we’ve come to expect. In a country with 11 million job openings sitting unfilled, we should want more people around who are willing to do the type of work that makes our lives better.
The best part is that these new immigrants don’t just bring their labor, they also bring their youth, culture, music, ideas and innovation. As much as ever, it’s the mixing of people who choose to become our neighbors — those who courageously and energetically uproot themselves and leave everything and everyone they know to come to America — that makes this country uniquely innovative and prosperous.
The American people agree. For years, Gallup has polled people about whether immigrants are a good, bad or mixed thing for this country. Since 2014, 70% or more have responded that immigrants are a good thing. Most of us don’t want fewer immigrants. Unfortunately, when it comes to immigration reform, there are no adults in the room.
Democrats pander to immigrants but do little to liberalize the system. As a result, people in search of the American dream continue to come illegally. This year, for the first time, over 2 million have been arrested at the Southwestern border. They take horrible risks and get stuck in despicable conditions when they arrive.
Meanwhile, Republicans’ hostility to immigrants has increased, thanks in no small part to stereotypes from the minds of people like former President Donald Trump — fallacies from “they are drug dealers” and “welfare queens” to “they will deface our culture.” Of course, welfare could be an issue if extended to everyone who arrives. But that’s not the case now, and if need be, Congress could clarify it. This is precisely what a majority of Americans want. Either way, these concerns should be addressed by reforming the welfare state.
The tragedy is that there are solutions to all these problems. I’m willing to bet that in the long term, we’ll never regret bringing more people to the United States. Please let them in.
Veronique de Rugy is the George Gibbs Chair in Political Economy and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
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