"Nothing is more common," writes Thomas Sowell in Migrations and Cultures, "than to have poverty-stricken immigrants become prosperous in a new country and to make that country more prosperous as well." This is the history of the Irish in the U.S., the Chinese in Southeast Asia and the Lebanese in West Africa, among many other examples. And it's a history that our federal policy makers would do well to keep in mind if Arizona's new immigration law prompts Congress to take up immigration reform.
It takes a special kind of person to leave home and embark on the project of building a life in a new country. International migration-people moving across national borders-is the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of the world's six billion residents will live and die where they were born. In 1960, just 2.5% of the world's people were living outside their country of birth. By 2000, the number had grown to 2.9%. And among those who do cross a border, most will move from one underdeveloped nation to another, a function of the fact that more than 80% of the planet's people live in the Third World.
Still, around 40% of these international migrants will head for a handful of industrial nations-Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Israel and the U.S.--that welcome the foreign-born as permanent residents. Because one of the world's major emigration countries, Mexico, shares a 2,000-mile border with the U.S., immigration policy discussions in America tend to focus on how to keep Mexico's poor at bay. But given the historical value of immigrants to the fabric of the nation, it's fair to ask whether we would do better to focus on regulating the Mexican immigrant flow rather than ending it.
Despite their proximity to the U.S., most Mexicans prefer to stay put. More than 90% of persons born in Mexico are still there. Nor is the rate of U.S. immigration from south of the border unprecedented in scale. During its peak, in the 1990s, the U.S. was receiving 1.5 immigrants (legal and illegal) from Mexico each year per 1,000 U.S. residents. By contrast, reports Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute, in the middle of the 19th century the U.S. absorbed an average of 3.6 Irish immigrants per 1,000 U.S. residents annually. From 1840 to 1890, the rate of German immigration was greater in every decade than the current flow of Mexicans. And from 1901 to 1910, Italian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian immigration each surpassed the current rate of Mexican immigration.
Immigrants from Mexico may be impoverished but they're also self-selecting. Less than 3% of the world's population decides to uproot and move away from family and friends. Those who do tend to be more motivated and more able. They are tenacious risk-takers with a propensity to save and start new businesses. They exhibit, in short, the kinds of characteristics found among people who thrive in free-market capitalist societies.
Fears about the supposed poor quality of immigrants are not new, and the experience of Irish immigrants in the 19th century is instructive. The waves of Irish who arrived in the mid-1800s had shorter life expectancy than U.S. slaves. In 1847 some 20% of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine died on en route to America or shortly after arriving. By comparison, the loss of slaves traveling on British vessels in the 19th century averaged about 9%.
One reason for this disparity in death rates was simple economics. Slaves were property and someone had a stake in keeping them alive. There was much less concern about the fate of Irish peasants. During a visit to antebellum Alabama, Frederick Law Olmsted asked about the division of labor between slaves and Irish workers on a riverboat. The response: "The niggers are worth too much to be risked here. If the Paddies get knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything."
It's also worth remembering that the Irish were coming from a country where 80% of the population was rural from a country where 80% of the population was rural. Yet they were settling in cities like New York and Boston and Philadelphia, where they met resistance from elites who said that America had no use for this unskilled labor. The U.S. was in the middle of an Industrial Revolution, went the argument du jour. The future was factories, not farms, and opponents of immigration judged the Irish too ill-suited for assimilating to an urban capitalist society.
The naysayers were wrong, of course. The U.S., it turned out, had plenty of uses for this labor. Supply created its own demand. The Irish built roads and canals and railroads. Irish women typically worked as domestic servants, just as many Mexican women do today. In 1855, 99% of all domestics in New York City were Irish women. As late as 1920, 80% of all Irish women working in America were domestics.
But the Irish were not destined to forever perform these tasks. Subsequent generations would produce writers and painters and presidents. They would also produce civic leaders and businessmen, including Henry Ford, whose father fled the potato famine and who would go on to revolutionize transportation in America. According to the Census Bureau, 31% of Irish Americans today hold at least a bachelor's degree, versus 27% of the nation as a whole. And the median annual income for Irish Americans is $54,000, versus $48,000 for all households.
Modern-day immigration restrictionists have updated these arguments and applied them to our latest arrivals from Latin America. We're told that uneducated Mexicans have nothing to offer our "knowledge-based economy," that they start out way too far down the socioeconomic ladder to ever catch up, and that they will forever be stuck in menial jobs. Yet the experience of the Irish and other immigrant strivers from Europe and Asia suggest that the challenges faced by Latino immigrants today are neither new nor insurmountable.
The biggest difference between today's influx of immigrants and previous waves is that so many Latinos migrate illegally. Unauthorized immigrants comprise only about 4% of the U.S. population, but Mexicans account for more than half of all illegal aliens in the country, making them the face of the problem. A popular assumption is that people who cross the border illegally must be more prone to crime and other bad behavior. But the reality is that the typical illegal immigrant is otherwise law abiding and here to work, not go on the dole.
Immigrants in the U.S. of every nationality and regardless of legal status are arrested and incarcerated at lower rates than their native-born counterparts. And the low-income immigrants who do qualify for public benefits actually sign up at much lower rates than low-income natives.
Illegal immigration from Mexico isn't a reflection on the poor character of Latinos. It's a result of the simple fact that the supply of U.S. visas made available to Mexico is much less than the demand. Economic migrants from Mexico are not yearning to sneak into the U.S., live in the shadows and risk exploitation by employers. They'd much prefer to come through the front door, if only America would let them. By contrast, European immigrants of yesteryear faced no such dilemma. As historian Vincent Cannato writes in his masterful book American Passage, "less than 2% of individuals who knocked at its gate were ultimately excluded at Ellis Island."
There's no denying that low-skill immigration has economic costs, particularly in border regions and states with generous public aid programs. But when those costs are properly weighed against the benefits, America still has much more to gain than lose from people who come here to seek a better life.
These economic migrants tend to be younger and healthier than the native population. They work harder, as evidenced by their higher labor participation rates and lower rates of unemployment. Moreover, as Asia and Western Europe morph into giant retirement communities due to stagnant population growth, the in-migration of young workers from poor countries gives the U.S. an important edge.
A smaller workforce can mean less overall economic output. Without enough younger workers to replace retirees, health and pension costs can become debilitating. And as domestic markets shrink, so does capital investment. By contrast, growing populations expand the market for goods and services. They also spur research and development. Domestic policies that encourage immigration help keep our population young and vibrant. Immigrants are giving the U.S. a distinct comparative advantage in human capital, which is no small matter in an increasingly globalized economy.
"The cowards never came" goes an old Ellis Island motto, "and the weak died on the way." America is not simply a nation of people with ancestors from other places. We're a nation of hard-working, upwardly mobile immigrant strivers. Today's Latino immigrants aren't any different, just newer. As President George W. Bush, who tried and failed to pass immigration reform, once put it, "Hell, if they'll walk across Big Bend, we want ‘em!"
Jason L. Riley is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the author of Let Them In:The Case for Open Borders (Gotham).