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Barbarians At The Gate Or An Economic Boon?


Economic Viewpoint

BARBARIANS AT THE GATE--OR AN ECONOMIC BOON?

The specter that haunts Western Europe is no longer communism, as Karl Marx asserted in the Communist Manifesto, but immigration from North Africa and the collapsed states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Germany, France, Italy, and other European Community countries are sure that they will be the first stop if hordes begin to pour out of the East. And the number seeking entry into the West to improve their economic situation will climb even more if the Soviet republics throw open their borders.

Although all countries still strictly limit access to citizenship, the trend toward open borders, the facility of travel between Eastern and Western Europe, and the easy passage into Italy and France from North Africa make it difficult to control entry into more affluent countries. Berlin is already filled not only with East Germans but also with Turks, Poles, Hungarians, and others from Eastern Europe. The difficulty of keeping tabs on immigrants extends to the U.S., where many of the 11 million or so visitors who entered the U.S. during 1990-mainly on tourist visas-worked illegally. An additional million or so were apprehended trying to come in illegally.

Illegal immigrants and many who enter these countries legally as tourists come to get jobs. The number of immigrants working illegally in the U.S. is surely in the millions, although no one knows exactly how many. Construction projects, domestic work, restaurants, and some factories in Berlin are becoming dependent on Turks and other immigrants, many there illegally.

More illegal immigrants might be prevented from entering Germany and other countries of Western Europe if they beefed up their border patrols and severely punished the companies that employ illegal workers as well as the workers who are apprehended. But even such draconian measures may not be successful given the immense economic advantages of working in Western Europe and the strength of the underground economy.

It would be wiser to maintain a tolerant attitude toward illegals who work at unpopular jobs. However, there is no reason to provide gratuitous incentives to enter. Illegal aliens should be excluded from welfare and other subsidized social benefits, and they should not be allowed to gain legal status from periodic amnesty programs. And with the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, the number of political refugees accepted can be sharply scaled back.

Denying illegal entrants social benefits and refusing to legitimize their status may appear cruel and exploitative. But would they be better off if they were prevented from coming, or were sought out and sent back in much larger numbers? That is the likely alternative to the approach I am advocating, for many Western Europeans resent not only their alien cultures but also their access to benefits paid for by taxpayers. No matter what is done, without a miraculous economic boom in the East, immigration will grow as a political issue in Western Europe. Extremists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen of France and neo-Nazi groups in Germany will appeal to many voters with their calls to seal borders and deport foreigners.

Part of the extremists' appeal stems from misunderstandings about the effects of immigration on natives. Despite the widespread perception that unskilled immigrants mainly take work from natives and lower their wages, the evidence shows that they generally accept jobs not wanted by indigenous workers. University of San Diego economist George Borjas' summary of several studies in his 1990 book, Friends or Strangers, shows that immigrants to the U.S. have not had much of an effect either on the earnings or the employment of citizens.

BENIGN NEGLECT. Also fallacious is the perception that illegal immigrants are especially exploited by employers and others. Evidence from apprehended illegal workers in the U.S. indicates that they earn considerably above the minimum wage and have low unemployment rates. They put up with the difficult conditions involved in coming to a strange country only because they do so much better economically than they would back home in Mexico, the Caribbean, Latin America, or Asia. They return home when they become unemployed for an extended period or accumulate a nest egg to buy a house or start a business.

A liberal policy toward skilled immigrants and benign neglect of illegal entrants would enable Europe to cope well with the pressure of large-scale immigration. West European nations could take advantage of their ready access to a pool of talent from the East by allowing generous numbers of younger skilled workers to enter. Younger immigrants not only become highly productive but also adjust relatively well to foreign cultures. And when they become citizens, they make fewer claims on Social Security, unemployment compensation, welfare, medical care, and other social benefits.

The opening up of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union can be a boon to the West as well as to the peoples of these countries if demagogues in the West do not erect their own iron curtain.GARY S. BECKER


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