Immigration: An Abolitionist Cause

Immigration: An Abolitionist Cause
By Ken Schoolland

One of the most frequent arguments used against opening borders is that this would add to the welfare burden of the state and that innocent taxpayers will be compelled to pay for slothful immigrants.

Slothful immigrants? People always get a good laugh at the notion of "slothful immigrants." I have asked students in dozens of economics classes to imagine that they are an employer facing two job applicants. The only thing they know about the two applicants is that one is a native citizen and the other is an immigrant. Which is likely to be the worker who will work harder? They always say the immigrant is sure to be the harder worker.

If it is logical on economic grounds to deport someone so that they do not become dependent on welfare, then it would make more sense to deport citizens on welfare than immigrants. But no one suggests that. Why?

The people of America proudly declare every Fourth of July "... that all Men Are Created Equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Yet citizens are presumed to have a right to be in the United States of America and immigrants are not. This is especially odd since every American, or his ancestors, were once immigrants themselves.

In a land where people champion individual freedom in virtually all areas of economics, they frequently make an exception when it comes to immigration. Citizens may accept the idea of immigration theoretically, but not an open door so long as welfare exists to attract people. Which is to say —"Not in my lifetime."

Is it appropriate to hold immigrants responsible for the welfare system in America? If we adhere to a notion of personal responsibility for individual actions, then we must hold politicians accountable for the welfare system, not innocent immigrants who had no say in the policy. It would be just as illogical as holding a refugee to account for the tyranny of a dictator that drove her from her homeland.

Arguing the practical side, Julian Simon asserted that it is a misconception that immigrants, as a group, are a welfare burden on taxpayers. Immigrants do so much to contribute to the economic health of a country and they pay more in taxes than they absorb in benefits, so the continuation of welfare benefits for citizens may well depend on their contributions.(1)

Welfare Magnet?

Is it correct to suppose that in-migration is caused by the existence of welfare? Evidence shows that the opposite is true. Proof can be found in migration patterns within America's 50 states, where there are no border guards and virtually no language and cultural barriers. Do people move between states to find the most welfare? No. Just the opposite.

States that give the most welfare have the most out-migration. States with the least welfare have the most in-migration.

Take Hawaii, for example. Hawaii provides some of the most generous welfare benefits of the 50 states. According to Michael Tanner and Stephen Moore of the CATO Institute,(2) the six basic welfare benefits in Hawaii (6 among a possible 77 welfare programs) could provide a mother and two children with the equivalent of a pre-tax income of $36,000 or a wage of $17.50 an hour. This is a lot of money and by the "welfare-magnet theory" should have attracted every welfare recipient in America.

It hasn't. According to recent Census data for the decade of the 1990's, Hawaii experienced a net domestic out-migration of 9 percent of the population to other states. In fact, all of the top welfare regions — Hawaii, Alaska, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia — experienced net domestic out-migration to other states.

Hawaii has an ideal climate, fabulous beaches, wonderful people, but the economy is in decline. In fact, it is the only state in the nation that experienced negative real growth for the entire decade of the 1990's. No wonder, since it has been listed as one of the top "tax hell" states in the country by Money magazine. The Legislature feels it has to raise taxes to pay for the welfare, and by raising taxes they drive people away.

Contrast this with states that grant little welfare. Mississippi provides only a third of the welfare money that Hawaii offers. In fact, the median income of a worker in Mississippi is $6,000 less than what a family can get on welfare in Hawaii. Did everyone abandon Mississippi to get on the gravy train in Hawaii?

Just the opposite. In fact all five states at the very bottom of the welfare list — Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Arizona — experienced net domestic in-migration from other states. The deserts of Arizona and Nevada, with some of the lowest taxes, were the fastest growing states in the nation. There's no doubt about it. In-migration is caused by opportunity, not by welfare.

Taxpayers rightly worry that lazy people will come to Hawaii just for the welfare. Of course there are high profile exceptions, but people who are generally too lazy to work are also too lazy to move away from everything that is familiar to them. This is generally true within a nation without borders and even more so between nations with borders. It is the courageous of the world who are far more likely to risk everything to go to a new and potentially hostile land where the language, the customs, and the people are all unfamiliar.

Tyrant and Corporate Welfare

There are other forms of welfare, however, that do contribute mightily to migration. These are tyrant welfare and corporate welfare. The U.S. taxpayer has been compelled to provide tyrant welfare to an extremely sordid gang of thugs over decades: from Mobutu, Pinochet, and Marcos to Pahlavi, Noriega, Suharto, Saddam Hussein, and even Osama bin Laden.

The Center for Defense Information(3) states that the U.S. sells weaponry to the political elite in 150 nation-states — 4/5ths of these nation-states are undemocratic. Two-thirds of that number are listed by the U.S. State Department as having governments that are abusive of human rights.

Since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the drug wars, the American share of worldwide arms transfers climbed spectacularly to as much as 70 percent,(4) most of which has been paid for, directly or indirectly, by U.S. taxpayers. This has surely contributed to the 10-fold increase of refugees in recent decades.

Still another form of welfare directly leads to immigration. This is corporate welfare known as "protectionism." Because of trade barriers, American, Japanese and European consumers are prohibited from buying products that workers and entrepreneurs are willing to produce abroad.

Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of earnings could lead to prosperity for these people in their homelands. But these earnings are stopped by corporate welfare protectionism.

This is especially true in the agricultural and textile sectors that are particularly well-suited to development in the Third World, but still experience extraordinarily high trade barriers. The Economist magazine reported the magnitude of agricultural trade barriers alone, "If rich countries were to remove the subsidies ... poor countries would benefit by more than three times the amount of all the overseas development assistance they receive each year."(5)

Immigrants are not lured from their homelands by the prospect of generous welfare benefits so much as they are driven from their homelands by tyrant welfare and protectionist corporate welfare. Reforming these policies could do much to improve conditions for people the world over.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the airwaves have been filled with cries to end immigration as a means of keeping terrorists far away. It is understandable that, in the fearful panic of such a crisis, people will clamor for protective measures. But reason must prevail over collectivist repression in order to gain real protection.

Government intelligence and security agencies, with the abundance of wealth, personnel and technology at their disposal, failed miserably in a decade-long effort to root out a terrorist network with global tentacles that probably originated in some of the poorest nations of the world. This was a monumental failure of government at its primary security function. To ask for an end of immigration sidesteps responsibility for this and scapegoats refugees who are also the victims of terror.

Would America be more secure if all newcomers were banned? Should tourism and business travel be stopped? Should people be stopped from crossing state borders as well? No. This is as illogical as trying to prevent future crime by banning births. Much more is lost than gained by such measures.

To paraphrase champions of the Second Amendment, "If you outlaw migration, only outlaws will migrate." Far better that individual criminal conspirators be effectively tracked and prosecuted.

History of Invitation

It is a fact of American history that invitations have always been offered to immigrants by people who were eager to employ them. People were welcomed because they offered labor that was not available in this growing country.

Immigrant labor made growth possible and companies offered contracts to thousands of people who worked harder, worked longer, worked cheaper and worked at greater personal risk than those who came before. They built railroads over mountain ranges and they built farms in the plains and deserts.

That is, they worked until a protectionist government responded to envious domestic labor groups who would not compete. It is the pattern of history that once immigrants become settled and comfortable, they seek some pretext for keeping out other immigrants who are still more hungry and more diligent.

The first of these laws reversed American openness by appealing to blatant, collectivist racism. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a shameful act in a nation that two years later carved at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door." — Emma Lazarus

These were very humanitarian words by Emma Lazarus, but the truth is that most immigrants have always been the self-selected best and brightest of nations from around the world. This country has often welcomed them, but just as often not.

First the opponents of newcomers targeted the Chinese, then it was the Japanese, the Mormons, the Muslims and the Catholics from Southern Europe. They also outlawed political rebels. Ironically, laws against the admission of political rebels would have banned all of America's original revolutionary heroes. It was collectivism in all of its primitive, religious and ethnic variations.

Contract labor was forbidden and churches and charities were not even allowed to pay the passage of desperate refugees. And then there were the Jews.

The Jews were invited by their cousins in America who would have taken them in and helped them establish a livelihood, even given them a chance to fight against Hitler's death machine, but most of them were turned back. They were turned back by the millions into Hitler's gas chambers by a law — the National Origins Act, the quota system. Let us not forget that closing a door from inside a prison-state has the same effect as closing a door from outside a prison-state. Either action prevents escape. Either action is collaboration with tyrants against their victims.

Slavery by Any Other Name

It still goes on today as Cubans, Iraqis, Burmese, Sudanese and North Koreans are hussled back to slave states. The mother of Elian Gonzales died fleeing both Castro's tyranny and Clinton's border patrol that would have returned her to Castro's tyranny. American fishing vessels and cruise liners are even fined $3,000 per head for the "crime" of rescuing refugees at sea and bringing them ashore.(6) Such penalties have caused many others to turn a blind eye to the desperate.

Hard as it is to accept, we have not progressed from the horrible time when runaway slaves were captured and forcibly returned to private plantation masters. Sally Jane Driscoll, a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute, writes: "On May 24, 1854, Anthony Burns, a young black man working in a clothing store in Boston, was arrested for fleeing from a slave owner in Richmond, Virginia. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, public officials in the free states were required by the federal government to help recapture escaped slaves and return them to bondage. Northerners who refused to help risked heavy fines and jail ... .

"Fifty thousand Bostonians lined the streets to watch as Anthony Burns was taken to the ship that would return him to Virginia. He was escorted by Boston police, Massachusetts militia and U.S. Marines. The troops had orders to fire as needed upon the crowd without warning. Along the route to the dock many protesting Bostonians were wounded by armed soldiers.

"The people of Boston rightly defended Anthony Burns, but all their legal reasoning, emotional pleas and desperate actions were ineffective. He had escaped from slavery only to be sold down the river by the federal government in repudiation of the principle of individual rights, the very principle our government had been established to defend."(7)

How many people would still count themselves as abolitionists today? How many would join massive demonstrations or the underground railroad on behalf of immigrants who are escaping slave states? It just isn't happening.

Ms. Driscoll has reminded us that, as history passes before us, we will be judged one day by our descendents on whether or not we have advanced the cause of liberty or whether we have stood in the way.

I wish to say in the strongest terms I can muster, emboldened by the courage and fortitude of immigrants throughout the world and throughout history, that we should not be debating reasons for keeping people under the thumb of tyranny. We should not be devising schemes and rationalizations for the restriction of immigration. The world is full of very eloquent and powerful people who have long been serving that task.

Rather, let us take the part of the abolitionists of a hundred and 50 years ago, those who fought against seemingly insurmountable fear, prejudice, custom and law to champion freedom. This is practical, humanitarian, and, above all, ethical. Let us be a part of the drive for liberty today. Let us champion the millions of immigrants who are seeking liberty in the same manner that we would if we were in their shoes.


    • Simon, Julian, "Are There Grounds for Limiting Immigration?" Journal of Libertarian Studies, 13:2, Summer 1998
    • Moore, Stephen, "Why Welfare Pays," Wall Street Journal, Sept. 28, 1995
    • Center for Defense Information, America's Defense Monitor, Washington, D.C., The data cited in the text of this article was derived from their film, "The Human Cost of America's Arms Sales," Nov. 8, 1998.
    • "U.S. dealers dominating world arms market," Honolulu Advertiser, April 17, 1994, and "Arms sales boom," The Economist, Aug. 13, 1994
    • "Patches of Light: Special Report on Agricultural Trade," The Economist, June 9, 2001
    • "$24,000 cruise ship fine for rescuing 8 Cubans," Honolulu Advertiser, Oct. 22, 1993, and "Piracy done with fines," Honolulu Advertiser, Nov. 6, 1993
    • Driscoll, Sally Jane, "Hasta la vista, Anthony Burns: A case like that of Elian Gonzalez occurred in America almost 150 years ago," Ayn Rand Institute,

Ken Schoolland is a member of the Board of Directors for the International Society for Individual Liberty. Email:


© 2004 Ken Schoolland and Hawaii Reporter, Inc.