Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

I’m going to try to list the most common arguments against immigration, and show how they are devoid of any basis in facts. Since I’m talking facts, I’ll include some handy references to scientific evidence debunking the arguments. (The references will sometimes be found in older blogposts, so you may have to click through a few times. If you feel that I’m shamelessly overlooking some seminal papers, please tell me in comments).

1. The labor cost argument


Immigrants are willing to work for low wages, especially the illegal ones. The result is unfair wage competition with natives who will see their wages drop as a result, or who may even be priced out of the labor market altogether. The welfare of native workers requires that we limit immigration.


Immigration actually increases native wages because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. Low skilled immigrants also make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. The wage competition claim can also be refuted by pointing to the fact that native workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations.

Not only is there a positive wage effect of immigration (with perhaps a small exception for native high school drop outs), but immigration also creates or saves jobs. The easier it is to find cheap immigrant labor at home the less likely that production will relocate offshore. More here.

2. The social safety net argument


Immigrants come over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits, since the income of even the relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to the welfare benefits in rich countries. This is unsustainable, since welfare benefits have to be financed, and working native populations often have a hard time producing enough tax revenue in order to support native welfare beneficiaries. Allowing immigrants to come but then excluding them from welfare benefits seems harsh and unjust. Hence it’s better not to allow them to come in the first place.


Immigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. The labor force participation rate for illegal immigrants in the US is higher than that of the native-born. In the UK, immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits.

3. The “importing poverty” argument


Immigrants are less well off than natives. That’s precisely why they want to migrate. Allowing them in reduces the average wealth of the destination country.


Many immigrants are indeed less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re often less skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration may push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case.

4. The crime argument


Immigrants cause an increase in the crime rate. They often come from countries with dysfunctional states and bad enforcement institutions. Hence, they have grown to be more tolerant of violations of the law. The poverty of their countries of origin also pushes them towards more crime. Less crime is a good thing, hence less immigration is also a good thing.


Immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.

5. The lack of integration argument


Immigrants, especially those from other cultures (and that would be most immigrants, since it’s the poor who want to migrate and the poor are almost by definition from outside the West), find it hard to fit in. As a result, there will be frictions between the immigrant population and the original inhabitants. These frictions benefit nobody, hence we should restrict immigration.


Natives are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior like bullying, dropping out of school, domestic violence, harassment, vandalism etc. The evidence is here.

6. The cultural argument


The local culture will not be able to survive a large influx of high fertility immigrants from completely different cultures. People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity. Hence immigration should be restricted.


A cultural identity is obviously a valuable good. However, it’s not at all clear that immigration threatens the cultures of destinations countries. Those destination countries are multicultural to begin with. Most immigrants are also  willing and able to adapt (see previous point). Moreover, cultural change is not by definition a bad thing, both for those arriving and for those already there. And finally, cultural change is not always likely to happen anyway: throughout history, even those minority cultures living in highly hostile environments where the majority controls the state have been able to survive and flourish. Often a threat to a culture is the cause of increased cultural awareness.

7. The educational argument


Immigrant children push down the quality of schools and therefore harm the education of native children. Immigrant children have different types of disadvantages: they speak the local language less well, they have cultural burdens inhibiting education, and perhaps even IQ burdens. The welfare of native children requires that we limit immigration.


Higher rates of immigration encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.


All of these claims about immigration are based on supposed harms to the population of the destination country. (There’s one argument I didn’t mention, namely the brain drain argument, that focuses on the effects of migration on origin countries, but that one is just as flawed as the rest). Not only is this a very selfish mode of argument, ignoring the clear benefits for (potential) immigrants, but – as it turns out – also a very misguided one, based on factual errors. However, even if it were the case that immigration imposes some form of financial costs on host countries, then that wouldn’t necessarily be the final argument against immigration, since these cost can be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice.

More posts in this series are here.


11 thoughts on “Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

  1. Hi, first I would like to congratulate you for your great blog. However, I am not entirely convinced by this particular line of reasoning.

    As you mentioned in the brain-drain article, you need certain skills to migrate to a western country, thus you already have a strong (self)selection bias, which is in part caused by the screening process in most countries. To my knowledge it is just not possible to migrate right into the social safety net, thus the statistic you mentioned is worthless if you change this variable.

    Also in your brain drain argument you do not quote any empirics… Unfortunately I don’t know them either (except one study I just found: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa050004), nevertheless, I tend to think that developing countries are in fact harmed by having there human capital leave. Most people just do not come back as long as they are not forced too. The ones that do potentially help a lot, but I doubt that it is the majority… And even if they would today, many leave because they have to leave or they are unable to get an acceptable job in the developed country. Also, I believe that many people might go back, if economic development in their home country picks up… That could be part of a dynamic caused by people returning, but I doubt that this is the case.

    Also I would like to suggest altering the “importing poverty” argument to “importing inequality”, because I believe that inequality within a country is much more problematic than between countries. We here often the argument that living of unemployment benefits in Germany is better than to be an average worker in Bangladesh… While this is likely to be true, peoples self worth is determined largely by their income relative to their peer group. Thus someone in Germany who is not able to participate in “standard” social activities might suffer larger than an average worker in a poor country. To some extend this is in line with luck research, which shows that giving a certain income (to have some security in live), people in poorer countries can on average be happier than people in rich countries. (not the case for very poor countries so…)

    I am not very sure on many of the points, so everyone is invited to challenge them.

    1. I’ll look for a good empirical study on brain drain effects. Off the top if my head I think Easterly and Clemens did something about it.

  2. I have this message for the anti immigration people. I am an American Indian I am also opposed to immigration. So,when can I expect you to leave?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s