Immigration Restrictions as Affirmative Action
By Bryan Caplan
One of my closest conservative friends is chronically angry about (a) immigration and (b) affirmative action. The irony is that the immigration restrictions he so passionately favors are affirmative action – for native-born workers.
Advocates of standard affirmative action see the low percentage of minorities that employers would hire in a free market. They hastily infer that employers’ bad motives are reason why minorities fare poorly. And they respond by bullying employers to hire more minorities – and scoffing at non-minorities who object that they’re being treated unfairly.
Advocates of immigration restrictions, similarly, see the low percentage of natives that employers would hire in a free market. They hastily infer that employers’ bad motives are the reason why natives fare poorly. And they respond by bullying employers to hire more natives – and scoffing at foreigners who object that they’re being treated unfairly.
The key difference, of course, is that immigration restrictions are vastly harsher than standard affirmative action policies. The dream of standard affirmative action policies is proportionality: If blacks are 13% of the population, blacks should have 13% of every job in the country. The dream of immigration restrictions, in contrast, is total exclusion: If natives are 5% of the world population, natives should have 100% of every job in the country. Neither policy achieves these dreams, but the severity of the enforcement matches the magnitude of the desired social engineering.
We enforce standard affirmative action with sporadic lawsuits against employers. The government occasionally plays the role of the plaintiff, but for the most part we wait for an employee to file a grievance. The worse-case scenario: The employer pays hefty financial damages and rehires the plaintiff. With immigration laws, in contrast, enforcement focuses on foreign workers. They endure the daily indignities of unpersonhood. And when they’re caught, they face a rather different worst-case scenario: deportation to Third World misery.
Conservatives usually think that “oppressed minorities” should spend a lot less time complaining about unfair treatment and a lot more time improving their skills and work ethic. Fair point, but the same holds for native-born Americans who complain that immigrants are taking their jobs. Employers aren’t saints, but they have a strong financial incentive to hire the best person for the job. If they don’t think that person is you, they’re probably right.