Conservatives Are Wrong About What’s Driving Immigration

During Tuesday night’s Democratic candidate debate, the CNN anchor Dana Bash asked a provocative question of Senator Bernie Sanders: “You want to provide undocumented immigrants free health care and free college. Why won’t this drive even more people to come to the U.S. illegally?”

“Because we’ll have strong border protections,” Sanders responded, later adding, “When I talk about health care as a human right, that applies to all people in this country. And under a Medicare for All single-payer system, we could afford to do that.” But Montana Governor Steve Bullock countered him. “This is the part of the discussion that shows how often these debates are detached from people’s lives,” he said. “We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that.”

The back-and-forth was the continuation of an argument from the last round of debates—so many candidates, so much debate—and an encapsulation of something known as the “welfare magnet hypothesis.” The hypothesis is a deeply intuitive one: If you provide migrants with generous benefits, more of them will come. But it does not seem to be true. Migrants do not seem to be swayed by the generosity of benefits, or at least not heavily swayed by them; the prevalence of social networks and the availability of jobs are far more important factors.

The welfare magnet hypothesis was developed in the late 1990s by George Borjas, a Harvard economist and a major influence on right-of-center immigration policy. He reasoned that people arriving in the United States would respond to welfare incentives differently than native-born citizens or already settled immigrants. New immigrants need to make a choice about where to live, making welfare generosity more salient to them than to residents for whom moving would be an expensive, difficult hassle. Lo and behold: “Immigrant welfare recipients are indeed more heavily clustered in high-benefit states than the immigrants who do not receive welfare, or than natives.”

Immigrants were particularly attracted to California, Borjas found. But was that because the state offered the second-most-generous welfare benefit package at the time? Or because many of those immigrants were refugees placed in California by the agencies sponsoring them? Or because of California’s location on the Mexico border? Or because it had such a strong economy and significant job opportunities? Or because of its generally immigrant-friendly politics? Or because of the prevalence of speakers of Spanish and other languages? Or because many new, lower-income immigrants had social ties to the state? Borjas said he detected strong suggestive evidence that welfare generosity was at work, but never proved causation.

That might be because there was nothing to prove: Welfare is just not that strong a magnet. The Clinton administration’s 1996 welfare-reform law created a natural experiment demonstrating this fact. The bill barred immigrants from receiving cash welfare, but some states opted to use their own funds to provide it. If those benefits were a big draw, more single-parent families would have headed to the states offering them. But that did not turn out to be the case. Another influential study looked at poor single women with children moving across state lines, and found much the same: “We find little evidence indicating that welfare-induced migration is a widespread phenomenon.”

Sociological studies and surveys of immigrants help illuminate why: People tend to move for jobs and social networks, more so than for government benefits. The big push factors spurring families to leave places such as the Northern Triangle include violence, political persecution, natural disasters, and poverty; the big pull factors drawing them in include the availability of work and the possibility of family reunification. It makes sense. If you are a Honduran family fleeing horrific poverty and miserable crime, what is going to be more appealing to you: moving where your cousins live and have found work, where they can help you get an apartment and help you put your kids through school, or moving where there is the option of enrolling in a health program for indigent workers regardless of immigration status? (To be clear, the United States bars legal immigrants from enrolling in the major federal benefit programs for years, and bars undocumented immigrants from ever participating.)

Studies of specific immigrant populations also show that most newcomers to the country are not interested in living on the dole. “Cultural repertoires incline Mexican immigrants to utilize welfare not primarily to avoid work, cope with disadvantage, or perpetuate a culture of dependency, but rather mostly to minimize employment discontinuities,” one study found.

Examinations of Europe’s immigration policies help cement the case. Evidence “of a welfare magnet in European countries is weak or nonexistent,” one review of the literature concluded. “The ‘magnet effect’ of the welfare program is rather low compared with the role played by the receiving country’s macroeconomic fundamentals, such as the unemployment rate and average wages. For example, some of the estimates show that the effect of wages is ten times larger than that of benefits.”

If the United States were to start offering health benefits to immigrants—a dramatic policy change—it is possible that more people might want to come. But would they migrate for the health benefits, or because they understood the benefits as a sign that the country was becoming more welcoming to immigrants and that they had less to fear from the American state? It seems impossible to separate the two motivations cleanly. An America that offered immigrants health care would be an America far more humane than it is now, with its white nationalism and institutionalized xenophobia and cages for babies and welfare chauvinism.

Underpinning Bash’s question, of course, is the implication that migrants come to the United States to suck up scarce resources, and that non-native families are takers rather than makers. This is also untrue. The math of immigration is never zero-sum, and the country’s resources are never finite. Over the long run, immigrant and refugee families do not just make the economy bigger, but also pay more in taxes than they take in benefits. They make the country stronger and richer, and its finances more sustainable.

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Annie Lowrey