How to Counter Possible Political Dangers of Immigration Without Barring Migrants

There are many possible justifications for immigration restrictions. But perhaps the most potent is the fear that too much immigration of the wrong kind might kill the goose that laid the golden eggs that make a nation attractive to migrants in the first place. Immigrants who do not value liberal democratic institutions or do not understand them might end up destroying them. The same goes for other economic and political institutions that promote liberty and prosperity. In the worst-case scenario, immigrants from nations with horrendous governments might simply replicate those same regimes in their new homes.

Alex Nowrasteh and Benjamin Powell’s book Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions is the most thorough and compelling refutation of such fears to date. As the authors painstakingly show, far from damaging the institutions of free societies, immigration poses little threat to them, and sometimes it makes them stronger.

I agree with nearly all of their major points and analysis. So I will focus on two important related issues that the authors largely leave out. First, Nowrasteh and Powell’s book focuses almost entirely on possible negative effects caused by the immigrants themselves. But it is also possible that institutional damage can be inflicted by natives’ reactions to immigration, even if those reactions are irrational or unnecessary. Thus, some argue that we need to restrict immigration not to protect natives from immigrants, but to protect natives against themselves.

Second, what if Nowrasteh and Powell are wrong, at least in some cases, and immigration does damage political institutions after all? Even in that worst-case scenario, immigration restrictions still might be unjustified. Instead, we should first consider whether the problem can be alleviated by less draconian measures.

The Problem of Nativist Backlash

In recent years, the danger posed by authoritarian nationalists has attracted renewed attention, as strong illiberal, anti-immigrant movements have arisen in both the United States and many European nations. In the United States, “ethnic antagonism” toward immigrants and racial minorities is the strongest predictor of anti-democratic attitudes among Republican voters. In Europe, illiberal nationalist movements hostile to immigration have risen to power in Poland and Hungary and gained electoral strength in many other countries.

Some have argued that western nations must reduce immigration in order to take away an issue these movements could use to political advantage. In the most extreme scenario, anti-immigration backlash could lead to the degradation of liberal democratic institutions by authoritarian nationalists. Thus, conservative political commentator David Frum warns that, “if liberals won’t enforce borders, fascists will.” Others have echoed such concerns.

One flaw in the argument that immigration restrictions are needed to constrain nativist backlash is that survey data consistently shows that most people in both the United States and Europe consistently overestimate the true amount of immigration, and those most opposed to immigration overestimate the most. Given such widespread ignorance, we cannot assume that, say, a 10% reduction in immigration will lead to a parallel reduction in ethno-nationalist sentiment. Indeed, most nationalist voters might not even notice the difference.

Nativism is often caused by deeply rooted xenophobic attitudes, rather than by the actual number of immigrants. Hostility to immigration among natives often tends to be greatest in parts of the United States and other countries that have the fewest immigrants. Multiple studies find either that a relatively high percentage of immigrants in close proximity increases favorable attitudes towards immigrant groups among natives, or at least has no detectable effect.[1] In the 2016 British “Brexit” referendum on leaving the European Union, in which the “Leave” side emphasized immigration as a major issue, areas with low percentages of immigrants in the population were far more likely to support Brexit than those with high levels.

Even if increased immigration does cause dangerous backlash, we should apply narrower, “keyhole” solutions in preference to migration restrictions. Some public opinion research suggests that hostility to immigration increases not because of the actual number of immigrants, but due to a sense of “loss of control” over the immigration process.[2] Voters might feel a loss of control even if the actual number of immigrants has not increased significantly.

If this is indeed the cause of the problem, there is an obvious keyhole solution: make it easy to enter the country legally, but require migrants to do so in an “orderly” way, such as by registering at designated points of entry. Migrants would have strong incentives to comply with such a system, so long as controlled entry and registration are easy to do and result in rights to residency and employment. This approach relies on making legal migration easier rather than harder. The easier it is, the stronger the incentive of migrants to comply with registration requirements instead of trying to enter illegally.

Efficacy aside, the idea that we must restrict immigration in order to protect against native-born nationalists is morally perverse. It suggests we severely restrict the liberty and opportunity of innocent people in order to protect against wrongdoing by others. The backlash-prevention rationale for immigration restrictions is similar to 19th-century claims that we must allow southern whites to impose racial segregation on blacks in order to prevent whites from continuing to engage in violence and otherwise pose an ongoing threat to the Union. Immigration restrictions, in fact, have many similarities to domestic racial segregation. Both impose severe constraints on liberty and opportunity based on arbitrary circumstances of birth, and often also based on racial and ethnic prejudice.

Keyhole Solutions

Where migration creates genuine problems, it is often possible to deal with the issue by means of “keyhole solutions” that minimize the risk without barring migrants. Instead of applying a meat cleaver that inflicts great sacrifices on potential migrants and many natives, it is better to apply a scalpel.

Where keyhole solutions are inadequate, policymakers should consider tapping the vast wealth created by expanded migration to mitigate negative side-effects that cannot be addressed in other ways. As Ben Powell points out in his lead essay, economists estimate vast economic gains from abolishing immigration restrictions, roughly a doubling of world GDP if all such barriers were abolished. Some of that new wealth can, if necessary, be put to use alleviating negative side effects of migration itself.

I do not claim this approach can solve all conceivable problems potentially caused by immigration. There are likely to be extreme cases where it fails. But the framework can be effectively applied to a wide range of issues often seen as strong justifications for imposing migration restrictions.

That includes many potential harms to political institutions. Consider, for example, claims that immigration will overburden the welfare state. Evidence from both the United States and Europe indicates that this problem is overblown, as jurisdictions with more immigrants do not have higher per capita welfare spending than those with fewer, and the vast majority of immigrants contribute more to the public fisc than they take out. But to the extent this is a problem, there are a variety of keyhole solutions, most notably restricting immigrants’ eligibility for various welfare benefits, as many nations—including the United States—already do.

Similarly, we may worry that immigrants will vote for politicians who institute harmful policies, detrimental to freedom. If we are not careful, they might even help elect a president who has no regard for liberal democratic values, and regularly expresses admiration for foreign despots!

Extensive evidence compiled by Nowrasteh and Powell suggests that such scenarios are greatly overblown. But to the extent they are a real danger, there are obvious keyhole solutions that could mitigate the risk. In the United States, immigrants are already ineligible to become citizens with voting rights until they have resided in the country for at least five years and pass a civics test most native-born Americans would fail. If necessary, the residency period could be extended, and the civics test made more difficult.

In Chapter 6 of my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, I outline similar keyhole solutions for a variety of other potential negative side-effects of immigration, including environmental harms, the spread of illiberal cultural values, and more. As described above, there are possible keyhole solutions for the nativist backlash scenario as well.[3]

In cases where there is both a genuine problem and no feasible keyhole solution, we can instead tap the vast wealth created by migration to alleviate negative side effects. For example, if, contrary to the available evidence, we conclude that immigration increases crime rates, we can use some of the extra wealth created to increase the number of police on the streets, which social science evidence shows can reduce crime greatly.

There can still potentially be extreme cases where immigration causes harm that cannot be forestalled by either keyhole solutions or tapping wealth created by migration. Even in those cases, however, immigration restrictions would only be justified if the harm prevented is greater than the enormous harm that migration restrictions themselves inflict on both immigrants and natives.

Keyhole solutions and targeted expenditures may not work in every case. But, in combination with the enormous gains of free migration rights, and the powerful evidence compiled by Nowrasteh and Powell, they justify a strong presumption against immigration restrictions.


Ilya Somin is a law professor at George Mason University and author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom. Parts of this essay are adapted from the forthcoming revised edition of Free to Move.

[1] See, e.g., Joel S. Fetzer, Public Attitudes Toward Immigration in the United States, France, and Germany. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) (no effect); Christopher G. Ellison, Heeju Shin, and David L. Leal, “The Contact Hypothesis and Attitudes Toward Latinos in the United States,” Social Science Quarterly 92 (2011) 938–58 (improves attitudes towards immigrants); Andrea Louise Campbell, Cara Wang, and Jack Citrin,“Racial Threat, Partisan Climate, and Direct Democracy: Contextual Effects in Three California Initiatives,” Political Behavior 28 (2006): 129–50 (no effect).; Shayerah Ilias, Katherine Fennelly and Christopher M. Federico, “American Attitudes Toward Guest Worker Policies.” International Migration Review 42 (2008): 741–66 (improves).

[2] See, e.g., Allison Harel, Stuart Soroka, and and Shanto Iyengar, “Locus of Control and Anti‐Immigrant Sentiment in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom,” Political Psychology 38 (2017): 245-60).

[3] I discuss these in more detail in the forthcoming revised edition of Free to Move.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Looking specifically at immigrants’ effects on economic institutions, Benjamin Powell finds little to be concerned about. Natural experiments in Israel and Jordan in particular suggest that immigration does not lead to reduced economic freedom, and historical data from the United States corroborates this. Though the matter isn’t open and shut, the evidence needed to establish a likelihood of harm appears so far to be lacking.

Response Essays

  • Suppose that immigration skeptics are right, and that higher immigration levels threaten American institutions. That threat need not always come to fruition; in particular, if we suspect that it’s coming, we can prepare for it. Not only that, but economists have observed that higher immigration levels translate to substantially more wealth for both the immigrant and the host country. Ilya Somin argues that we can and should spend some of this new wealth on sustaining the institutions that help to create it.

  • Eric Kaufmann explains the mechanism by which immigrants degrade a host country’s institutions: Because they are of a different ethnicity, immigrants cause mistrust; labor unions in particular are weakened. This results in a relatively free market for labor, which lowers living standards for the working class. Beyond a certain level of fragmentation, even political parties come to be dominated by ethnic concerns, and ethnic parties corrode a society still further. The way to address these problems, says Kaufmann, is to limit immigration to the rate at which immigrants can assimilate to the host society.

  • Peter Skerry questions the relevance of Powell and Nowrasteh’s analysis to the United States, because the “quasi-natural experiments” they highlight—two large but discrete migrant flows in the Middle East—differ drastically from the prolonged U.S. experience of mass immigration, legal and illegal, that began in 1965 and has ramped up to the present day. More lax enforcement than explicit policy, this American “experiment” has led to an entrenched undocumented population of 10-11 million and provoked a backlash exacerbated by five aspects of the contemporary debate: 1) a rhetorically convenient but operationally simplistic distinction between “good” legal immigrants and “bad” illegal ones; 2) a deliberate blurring, by advocates, of the distinction between immigrants and refugees; 3) post-Cold War, globalist rhetoric of a “flat” and “borderless” world; 4) organizationally debilitated political parties that do not seek to assimilate newcomers as they once did; and 5) a media-driven politics that portrays immigrants, especially Hispanics, as having the same problems, and needs, as the poorest and most marginalized black Americans.