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Carolina Critic

Vargas Llosa Sketches an Optimistic Argument for Immigration

Nov. 27th, 2013
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• Alvaro Vargas, Llosa, Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Independent Institute, 2013, 353 pages, $26.95.

RALEIGH — Public opinion polls indicate that many Americans think we have a serious immigration problem. Immigrants, especially illegal ones, are thought to be stealing our jobs, degrading our culture, adding to our tax burdens, and refusing to assimilate. What we should do to solve that problem usually entails further regulating the flow of people into the country and above all restricting immigration to those who have high-level skills. Secure the border and keep the undesirable, low-skilled masses out.

Those notions encapsulate the conventional wisdom about immigration, but Global Crossings by Alvaro Vargas Llosa argues that they are mistaken. The author, a journalist who was born in Peru and who has worked on three continents, makes a compelling case that immigration is a natural economic phenomenon toward which laissez-faire is the best policy.

The book’s key insight is that the movement of people across political boundaries is no different from the movement of natural resources or finished products. When the demand for labor is stronger in another country, some people will weigh the costs against the expected benefits and migrate from their native land if doing so seems likely to improve their standard of living.

Those making that calculation rarely are driven to leave by desperate poverty, but instead by a “get ahead” outlook. And if the advantages of working in the foreign country decline, those people often migrate back. In recent years, the strong flow of migrants from Mexico and Central America that prevailed for much of the last two decades has slowed to a trickle as the U.S. economy has gone stagnant.

To dissipate the idea that there is anything unique about America’s current squabbles over immigration, the first part of the book focuses on the history of immigration. “Migration has been happening,” Vargas Llosa writes, “in varying forms, for millennia, but it still elicits primal fear and distrust, and not just on the part of the ‘receiving’ country; communities from which people migrate often disapprove … and consider it treacherous.”

Immigrants, he shows, almost always have enriched the nation to which they move, both through work and cultural infusions.

Knowing that most of his readers will be Americans, Vargas Llosa devotes much of his effort at responding to the arguments that immigration opponents are making here. According to their narrative, in the 19th century our immigrants were hard-working people who strove to assimilate into society. Today’s immigrants, however, are more interested in collecting government benefits than working (but when they do work, they have the temerity to take “our” jobs) and are not much interested in assimilating.

Vargas Llosa counters that today’s immigrants in fact are little different from those of a century or more ago, and that the change we should make in our immigration policy is toward greater freedom.

With respect to work and welfare, he shows that very few immigrants do not work and that they are only slightly more of a welfare- and public-services burden than “real” Americans are. True, immigrants are more apt to require emergency-room medical care and Congress does appropriate around $250 million annually for the states to cover the cost of such treatment. Also, children of immigrants contribute substantially to public education costs, at least in some areas.

Hearing about those and other costs associated with immigration, the more vocal restrictionists demand that we secure the border and deport the illegals.

That’s superficial thinking, Vargas Llosa contends, giving three reasons. First, immigrants on the whole contribute more than they consume; second, they save more than natives (“a habit sorely lacking in the country” he writes); and third, immigrants usually arrive in their most productive working years, a benefit for a country with an aging population and great numbers of people on the verge of retirement.

Moreover, immigrants have been and remain a tremendous source of entrepreneurship. They begin and often expand businesses that provide employment for many thousands of workers, most of whom are not immigrants. While many young Americans grow up with an entitlement mentality that makes the difficult work of starting a business from scratch almost unthinkable, that mindset is absent in immigrants. Thus, immigration helps to energize America with fresh injections of people who are creative and ambitious. We need that.

In sum, the case against immigration is based on a fixation with its short-run costs while overlooking both the immediate and long-run benefits.

What about assimilation, however? Data show that immigrants today learn English and intermarry at about the same rates as in the past.

To the extent that present-day immigrants may be slower to assimilate, Vargas Llosa argues that our political obsession with multiculturalism is to blame. Among other statutes and regulations at fault, he particularly criticizes the Bilingual Education Act of 1967, which, he writes, “gave rise to policies that in time would lead many Americans to resent immigrants and view minorities as invasive.” If the restrictionists want to complain, they should complain about our panoply of multicultural policies rather than about immigration.

In the book’s closing chapters, Vargas Llosa sketches an optimistic argument that the ancient tribal fears that many people still harbor today against those who are “different” will give way to open minds, open borders, and a more harmonious world.

Global Crossings is, in my view, one of the best books available on immigration.