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The Encumbrance

July 8, 2010

This is, in my view, one of the chief benefits of modern libertarianism (there are many).  I think influential liberals respect influential libertarians astronomically more than they respect influential conservatives, i.e. they are less inclined to chalk up libertarian arguments to bad faith than they are conservative one because they perceive libertarians as reasonable because they tend to support liberal social principles.  Thus, good libertarian arguments that overlap with conservative ones are likely to get better reception on the Left.

Will Wilkinson has a really good argument in The Week in favor of ending birthright citizenship.  The crux is that citizenship itself is hampering what otherwise would be a smooth border between regions of countries that share arbitrary boundaries — why should somebody from within a mile of the U.S. border be prevented from traveling and working there, and, for that matter, why are citizenship issues on the line for the children of these migrants?  Also, the closed-border folk would be less resistant to immigration if citizenship weren’t at stake, a claim that Matthew Yglesias disputes:

I suppose I don’t really see the causal link here. What is it about saying that US-born children of Mexican migrants won’t be American citizens that would make people open to much higher levels of legal Mexican immigration? Normally when I see people objecting to birthright citizenship, what they’re objecting to is specifically the idea that it creates undue obstacles to deporting undocumented migrants or else that it creates an undue incentive for Mexicans to migrate. In other words, people upset by birthright citizenship are generally aiming at it as part of an overall program of reducing the number of Mexican-born people living in the United States. So I don’t see what the Wilkinson proposal is going to accomplish.

Is that true?  Are those birthright citizenship opponents just, you know, racists (as Yglesias implies in so many words)?  Well, I happened to be in favor of ending birthright citizenship before reading “the Wilkinson proposal”, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a racist (although Jimmy Carter might argue otherwise).  And I am frustrated by the immigration system’s being completely out of control, as Wilkinson notes, but again, that’s not why I’m against birthright citizenship.  I’m against what Wilkinson calls the “burden” — I don’t like children of aliens who are citizens of this country that don’t speak English crowding public schools, I don’t like that those children are immediately eligible for federal or state health-care subsidy because their parents don’t have health insurance, and I don’t like that those children eventually compete for jobs with native-born low-skill laborers and drive wages down their wages.

Now, you could say the solution to all of those things is amnesty, but what you’re really saying there is that you want to continue to encourage the crowding of public schools with non-native speakers, the expansion of entitlement spending, and a commitment to low-wage immigration in the face of long-term deficit problems.  As I’ve said before, I don’t know whether importation of immigrants from Mexico is beneficial or damaging to the country, but I do know that its opponents are not insane.  Wilkinson explains the appeal of ending birthright citizenship:

The idea is simple. Most people have children over the course of their lives, including people who migrate from one country to another. If citizenship is accompanied by eligibility for generous public benefits, immigrants under a jus soli regime are more likely to create claims on existing citizens than are immigrants under a non-jus soli regime. Other things equal, if the burden of a higher rate of immigration falls, citizens will be more open to a higher rate of  immigration.


My guess is many Americans would have less of an objection to the presence of Mexican immigrants, authorized or unauthorized, on American soil if that presence did not tend to create so many new citizens and thereby so many new claims. Right-wingers constantly say they wouldn’t mind higher levels of immigration if it wasn’t for the welfare state. Some of these people are just rationalizing their xenophobia, but I think most of them mean it. I’m just taking the logic of that claim seriously, and I think the experience of other countries shows that there’s something to it.

Like I say, it’s not the presence, it’s the burden.  If I were convinced that immigration were not a burden, then I’d be 100% behind it.  That’s why I’m for high-skilled legal immigration — high-skilled immigrants would pay lots of payroll and sales taxes (moreso than low-skill aliens), they’d purchase things (more things), and, if we discriminated in favor of young people, they’d ease our entitlement problem.  Ending birthright citizenship for the children of aliens is a good way to ease the burden without killing the potential benefits that those aliens provide.  As Wilkinson says, if this whole Constitutionality question is going to be dealt with, “it’s going to require the cooperation of unlikely allies.”  And it would be interesting to see whether those in favor of a Constitutional amendment ending birthright citizenship would coalition with those whom they perceived were just voting for it because they were racists.  Is it the motive or the endgame?

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