You can’t have open borders and a generous welfare state

Now that Congress has passed ObamaCare, some are pressing the White House to turn to immigration reform. Only hours before House Democrats voted on March 21 for a federal takeover of the U.S. health-care system, thousands of demonstrators led by liberal activists gathered on the National Mall to demand more open immigration policies and “Legalization Now!” for undocumented aliens.

But a larger welfare state is not conducive to comprehensive immigration reform. If foreigners start coming for handouts instead of economic opportunity, tighter restrictions will be justified.

American liberals have advocated the creation of a European-style welfare state since at least the 1960s. Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Europe still spends twice as much as the U.S. on social programs—20% of gross domestic product versus 10%—and assistance aimed at the poor and the unemployed is especially generous. Also more generous, in the main, are European public pensions—wealth-redistribution mechanisms that effectively take from the affluent young and give to the old.

The U.S.-Europe welfare disparity to a large extent reflects different attitudes and preferences. Europeans tend to view the poor as hard-luck cases who aren’t personally responsible for their situation, while Americans perceive welfare recipients as shiftless cheats. A 2005 World Values Survey found that 71% of Americans see poverty as a condition that can be overcome by dint of hard work, while only 40% of Europeans share that viewpoint.

As voters came to understand ObamaCare for what it is—another enormous, underfunded entitlement program that will expand the welfare state and increase dependency on government—it’s no wonder that they turned against the bill. (A CNN poll on the day of the climactic House vote found that 59% of respondents opposed the legislation, versus 39% who favored it.)

And as taxes rise to subsidize higher health-care premiums, the program’s unpopularity is likely to grow. The White House and Democrats in Congress don’t seem to care what the polls show, but attitudes toward ObamaCare could bode ill for passing any immigration reform that includes legalizing the undocumented or lifting immigrant quotas to reduce pressure on the border.

Belief in social mobility has informed welfare and immigration policy from colonial times. In 1645 the Massachusetts Bay colony was already barring paupers. And in 1882, when Congress finally passed the country’s first major piece of immigration legislation, it specifically prohibited entry to “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”

A problem that immigration reformers face is the public perception—fed by restrictionists and exacerbated during economic downturns—that the U.S. welfare state is already a magnet for poor immigrants in search of government assistance. It’s true that the U.S. attracts poor people, but it’s also true that they come here to work, not to go on the dole. We know this because the data consistently show that foreign nationals in the U.S. are more likely than natives to be employed and less likely than low-income natives to be receiving public benefits.

During the recent health-care debate, uninsured illegals were scapegoated for crowded emergency rooms and rising costs. In fact, the uninsured use the ER in rough proportion to their percentage of the population. It’s a myth that undocumented immigrants are driving U.S. heath-care costs.

Even Harvard economist George Borjas, a prominent immigration restrictionist, concedes that the welfare magnet argument for sealing the border can’t withstand scrutiny. “[T]here exists the possibility that welfare attracts persons who otherwise would not have migrated to the United States,” he writes in “Heaven’s Door,” his influential book on immigration policy. “Although this is the magnetic effect that comes up most often in the immigration debate, it is also the one for which there is no empirical support.”

While there’s no evidence that immigrants come here for public assistance, that could change as the U.S. welfare state grows. And one consequence could be less-welcoming immigration policies. The European experience is instructive.

In countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, excessively generous public benefits have lured poor migrants who tend to be heavy users of welfare and less likely than natives to join the work force. Milton Friedman famously remarked, “you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” There is a tipping point, even if the U.S. has yet to reach it.

Due to the growth of existing entitlement programs to accommodate retiring baby boomers, the U.S. welfare state was destined to expand even before ObamaCare’s excesses. And large-scale immigration reform this year was always a long shot with unemployment pushing 10% and midterm elections in November. But left-wing immigrant advocates should be mindful that the two issues aren’t unrelated.

Immigrants to the U.S. historically have been significant contributors to the growth and vitality of our labor force because the vast majority come for the right reasons. Don’t change the incentives.