Last night’s Republican debate once again featured controversy about immigration, this time with Newt Gingrich in the role previously played by Rick Perry as possibly too reasonable for the GOP primary electorate. Gingrich, it seems to me, handled his mild heterodoxy on this subject with much more savvy than Perry did, avoiding the implication that everyone who’s more conservative on this issue is a heartless and evil person. But in a way both Gingrich and Perry were too squishy and soft-hearted on this topic for my taste, focusing largely on humanitarian considerations. What I’d rather hear about is the concrete short-term and long-term benefits that can come from immigration.
Amidst the current recession, the short-term issues may be the most important ones. Perry, in particular, is ideally situated to talk about how Texas shows that rapid population growth can fuel job growth even amidst a bleak nationwide economic climate. Texas, after all, is full of “immigrants” both from Mexico and also from other American states. People know that people are migrating to Texas, which means that people know that nominal spending flows in Texas will increase at a healthy clip. Since that confidence in growth exists, people keep building homes and shopping malls to capture that spending. Hospitals keep expanding. Schools add new facilities rather than closing existing ones. And Texas, famously, has led the nation in job growth. Nothing magical happens when the people moving to a place turn out to be moving there from a foreign country rather than a foreign state. And this is particularly true when you consider jurisdictions that are afflicted by a collapse in property values. Compared to other parts of the United States, Nevada is not currently a super-attractive place to go live in work. But huge swathes of the world have much more fundamental problems than Nevada – deep povery, profound malgovernment and political persecution, etc. – and compared to other parts of the United States Nevada is currently very cheap to move to thanks to the real estate collapse. Letting more people move to Nevada would help reflate the local property market, offer some debt relief to incumbent debt-constrained Nevadans, and create the prospect of a construction industry revival.
It’s always worth noting, as well, that America is a potentially attractive destination for people other than the Latin American poor. A large portion of Western Europe is currently heading for a steep depression. Maybe a lot of people will want to leave and move to a place where growth prospects are better? Many of those people speak English well already and have reasonable job skills. We should be rolling out the welcome mat for people like that. America’s historic openness to immigration wasn’t just a charity program, it was the primary tool of its economic development and path to national greatness.