Immigration and the Economy

Matt Yglesias recommends a recent FactCheck.org piece that looks at the economic impact of immigration and concludes that “study after study has shown that immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services that the foreign-born workers and their families consume, and thereby creating jobs.” This is true. Most research shows that increased immigration — legal or illegal — has at most a small negative effect on low-skill workers who lack a high school education and has a positive effect overall. Matt comments:

But of course when you look at the politics of this issue, none of this is reflected. The people clamoring to “control the border” aren’t recent low-skill immigrants from Mexico. It’s very rarely native born high-school dropouts either. Rather, the people upset about immigration tend to be white high school graduates, a group that has a lot of conservative opinions about many issues but generally benefits from high levels of immigration.

This suggests, of course, that opposition to immigration is rooted less in economic concerns and more in cultural resentment and language angst. All of which gives me an excuse to link to a Chris Hayes piece from 2006 about John Tanton, the founder of FAIR, the nation’s oldest and most influential immigration restriction group. For years, Tanton tried to preach an anti-immigration message based on economic and conservation grounds. But it didn’t work. Chris tells us what did work:

Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. “‘I tell you what pisses me off,’” Tanton recalls people saying. “‘It’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.’ So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.”

Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this “emotional power,” but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. “The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return,” he says. “That’s unheard of.” John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.

The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. “Feelings,” Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, “trump facts.”

And part of that emotional appeal? Beyond language and culture, it’s the fear that Hispanic immigrants are responsible for an “illegal alien crime wave.” But that, it turns out, probably isn’t true either.

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