How Immigrants Make America Great Again (and Again and Again)

A new book documents that newcomers revitalize beliefs in hard work, property rights, and the rule of law.
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Do immigrants bring with them the worst attributes of the countries they left behind?

The fear that they do motivates populists, nationalists, and even some free market economists, such as Harvard University’s George Borjas, the University of Oxford’s Paul Collier, and George Mason University’s Garett Jones, who speculate that mass immigration from countries with illiberal traditions will undermine Western culture.

In their new book, Wretched Refuse?: The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions, the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh and Texas Tech University’s Benjamin Powell take an exhaustive look at the data and find that destination countries not only benefit economically from immigration but that key markers of liberal democracy—such as support for the rule of law and limited government, belief in private property rights, and trust in government—improve when newcomers arrive en masse.

In the 1990s, for instance, Israel took in enough immigrants from the former Soviet Union to increase its population by 20 percent. Yet despite the influx of people from a nation that was explicitly anti-capitalist, the country moved from around 90th in global economic freedom to around 45th. Closer to home, the authors note that the United States implemented its biggest expansions in entitlements (Social Security, Medicare) when immigrant flows were at historic lows.

Nowrasteh and Powell point to record levels of favorable views of immigrants as a reason to be optimistic about immigration policy in the coming years. "Public opinion eventually affects policy," Nowrasteh tells Nick Gillespie. "We can point back to our Italian, Irish Welsh, Persian ancestors who came here and faced the same criticism that immigrants are facing today, whether it’s about institutions like our book is about, or whether it’s about economics, or anything else. And these fears in the past turned out to be unfounded. And we can make that argument again and again in the United States."

Narrated by Nick Gillespie. Edited by John Osterhoudt. Thumbnail by Lex Villena.

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