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Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has made a number of moves to change former President Trump's hardline immigration policies. But just last week, Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a tough message in Guatemala, telling its citizens not to come to the U.S. For the series "Making Sense," Paul Solman explores the economic debate around fully opening the country's borders.
Even as President Biden has been focused on Russia, China and U.S.-European relationships while traveling abroad this past week, here at home, immigration and the presence of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border remain a pressing issue for him.
Since taking office in January, the president has made a number of moves to change former President Trump's hard-line immigration policies. And just last week, Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a tough message in Guatemala, telling its citizens not to come to the U.S.
Tonight, Paul Solman looks at part of the economic debate around permitting far more people to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and come into the country. It's part of his reporting for Making Sense.
Ana Muralles, Guatemalan Immigrant:
Twenty-two years ago, it was very unsafe, especially for women. There were many women being killed for no reason.
In the late 1990s, Guatemala was hit by a brutal crime wave that left Ana Muralles fearing for her life.
I grew up in poverty, so we have no money for a car. There was a few occasions that I was kind of terrified, having to travel by bus to work and then go to school. And, then, a few times when I was going to the bus, I was violated in certain ways. And I got home very upset and scared.
At age 22, she got a tourist visa to visit family in California, with the intention of staying there.
I was, yes, undocumental?
Undocumented, yes. That word is still hard for me.
I crossed the border in 2001.
This man was 18 when he made three attempts in a month to enter Arizona.
They arrest me. They send me back to Mexico, and try it again. And it was like sleep in the day, pretty much hiding in the bushes and walk in the night.
What is it like to cross the desert at night?
Walking miles and miles with just one gallon of water for the entire trip.
Why did you go through this?
Because in my country, there's not that many opportunities. You want to have money, it's really hard. It's pretty much impossible.
So one fleeing poverty, the other violence, heartrending.
But, look, I asked: We can't just let everyone come here. Isn't that right?
No, no, of course.
I totally agree.
Seems obvious, right?
Well, not to economist Bryan Caplan.
Bryan Caplan, Author, "Open Borders": Radical deregulation. Open up the borders. Anyone who wants to come can come. That's my view.
At first blush, outrageous, even though he doesn't mean they can all come tomorrow, but, rather, spread out the immigration over a few decades.
This is actually the longstanding U.S. policy of open borders, which we had until 1921. So, until 100 years ago, this was our system. So, I don't think it's at all crazy to think about going back to that system.
Caplan says his thesis, outlined in his graphic nonfiction book "Open Borders," is just economics 101.
Right now, immigration laws are trapping enormous amounts of human talent in low-productivity countries. If you don't know anything else about economics, just learn this: The secret of 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.
And, as I was reminded on a recent shoot at GE Appliances in Louisville, America is having something of a problem producing enough stuff these days.
So says H.R. manager Valorie Hughes.
Valorie Hughes, GE Appliances:
We don't have enough people to run our factories. And it's not just a GE Appliances problem. This is an industry problem. We could have a gap of 2.1 million jobs from a manufacturing standpoint by 2030.
Which is why they have established paid high school apprenticeships for kids like Ghadi Nshimiyimana, recently arrived from Rwanda.
If our borders were more open, would kids like you from Rwanda come here and do the kinds of jobs that American manufacturing can use and now needs?
Ghanda Nshimiyimana, Rwandan Immigrant:
Absolutely. So many students back in Rwanda, they want to do the manufacturing jobs, but they don't have a way to do it, because they can't come here.
Look, says Bryan Caplan:
You don't have to be Albert Einstein to be a worthy member of society to contribute more than you actually take out.
I want to let in low-skilled immigrants to be nannies and be janitors and to work at work in the farms. They're very useful. They do a lot of good for people like you and me.
For, let's say, the eldercare that I may some day need or the childcare that many a working family needs right now.
Carola Bracco, Neighbors Link:
They're a very important part of the work force that really is propping up dual-income families, for example.
Immigrant advocate Carola Bracco:
The only way that both parents have been able to go to work is because they have had immigrants in their homes taking care of their children, and often undocumented immigrants.
Ana Muralles was a nanny in the northern New York City suburbs for 15 years. Now she's part of the economy with her own custom upholstery business, started with Colombian immigrant Claudia Gomez.
We just put a lot of time in, a lot of hours, without making any money, working nighttimes, to build the business, while we work as a nanny, my partner in business and I, during the daytime.
During the pandemic, her business boomed.
Because many people, being in their houses, wanted to redecorate. So, for us, that was a plus.
Ana Muralles became a U.S. citizen last month. This man is still undocumented, but, in his 20 years here, has risen from busboy to chef.
They're cases in point, says Bryan Caplan.
People want to come to the United States in order to get jobs. So, what exactly is the problem with that?
Well, it drives down wages, doesn't it?
On the one hand, of course, if you're competing directly with an immigrant that comes, then it's probably bad for your wages. So, it's bad for me when we let in foreign economists.
On the other hand, for all the people that are that are consuming my services, this is a good thing.
Because the price of economists would drop.
You could say, I was guaranteed to have this job for life, I would say, that is not the system in any functioning society. If it turns out that the competition is too intense for you, you need to find something else to do.
Kirk Doran, University of Notre Dame: A simple economic argument would say, well, of course, you lose your job because of trade, but then you find a new one right away.
That is textbook economics, concedes Kirk Doran, who, like Caplan, teaches the subject. but he asks:
Has that been what Americans have found? Some Americans would face a disproportionate amount of competition in the labor market, without a disproportionate increase in the benefit that comes with immigration. And as long as that happens, there are going to be losers.
Doran likens mass immigration to what's already happened, the loss of jobs to China.
And what we saw with the China trade shock is that, if the shock is big enough, we can't adjust fast enough, and lots of people lose for a long time.
People would have to move what towns they live in. They'd have to learn new tasks. And we'd have to invest very differently than we're investing now. And none of those things happen quickly.
And the direct losers aren't the only losers, says Doran.
For example, workers who had been displaced by this international trade actually ended up being more likely to vote for unusual candidates who are upending our political system.
So, actually, our political stability can be affected by people being unable to find jobs for an extended period of time.
Finally, if you still think immigrants are just too costly, Bryan Caplan has a proposal.
It would be a big improvement if we let a lot more immigrants in and then said, you are not eligible for the same benefits that people who are citizens are eligible for. That is a fantastic deal and a big improvement.
Tricks like that can help increase the benefits of open migration, but they're not going to eliminate the existence of losers in the labor market.
But we have trade adjustment assistance.
Well, it hasn't been a large enough or effective enough program. And there's just no example that I'm aware of where many people have lost in the labor market, and we have really succeeded in compensating the losers from one of our economic adjustments.
This brings us back to the most fundamental question of economics, which is, how can we ever tell whether something that hurts some people and helps other people is actually a good thing overall?
And I say, when you move people from countries where they produce little to countries where you produce much, you are not just enriching the immigrant. You are enriching the world.
To which economic skeptics like Kirk Doran would counter, at whose expense?
For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.
Watch the Full Episode
Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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