Monday, August 15, 2005

Immigration and Terrorism

Nathan Smith:

...[M]any feel that 9/11 strengthens the case for immigration restrictions. They have a point, of course. Letting in just a few successful foreign terrorists would have catastrophic consequences. In order to prevent that, since we can't be sure which immigrants and visitors have terrorist intentions, we will end up enacting policies that shut out a lot of non-terrorists too.

Actually, though, our efforts to restrict immigration generally have nothing to do with preventing terrorism. Thanks to the visa waiver program, young European Muslims, who really do constitute a terror threat, can travel to the US visa-free. Meanwhile, demographic groups for which there is no pattern of terrorist behavior against the United States whatsoever, such as Orthodox Russians, Christian black Africans, southeast Asian Buddhists, and Indian Hindus, have enormous difficulty obtaining visas. Such restrictions are not intended to protect us from terrorism, but to artificially restrict the labor supply in order to deliver to American workers what in economics jargon are called rents, meaning unfair advantages that accrue to insiders as a result of rules that interfere with the market.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers in manufacturing in the US earned $21.97/hr, on average, in 2003. (In many European countries, wages are even higher.) In Mexico, which is representative of Latin America, they earned $2.48/hr. In Sri Lanka, which is representative of South Asia, they earned less than 50 cents per hour. Workers in the Third World agricultural and service sectors tend to earn even less than workers in manufacturing. So workers in developing countries generally earn between ten and a hundred times less than workers in developed countries, often for similar kinds of work. These wage differences are the core of global economic injustice.

If there were free labor mobility, workers would move from low-wage to high-wage countries and the international differences in wages would diminish. Most immigration restrictions are enacted by rich countries in order to prevent this from happening. In other words, these laws have the sole purpose of exacerbating inequality. If we changed our policy to allow in those who obviously intend to be peaceful workers, while focusing our immigration control efforts on threats to national security, we could reduce discrimination against the foreign-born, while protecting ourselves better against terrorism.


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