“Disappearing Borders”—Brimelow Q&A At Vanderbilt U.
Brimelow spoke on “Disappearing Borders” to
IMPACT Symposium, March 20, 2006—see
Borders, Walls, Nation-States, Property Rights:
At Vanderbilt University.
He also answered
questions, after the applause, of course. If you
listen to the audio (MP3),
this starts at 34:19]
Brimelow: Shall we take questions?
Chairman: Yeah, we`re going to have a brief question and answer
period of about 15 minutes or so. If you have a
question, just make your way to the back. We have a
microphone on this side, that Sarah is monitoring as
Mr. Brimelow, thank you so much for coming to
speak to us tonight. My question for you is with regard
diversity. With the immigration reforms that you`re
proposing, there could indeed be a
lack of diversity in our nation. I was wondering how
important you think diversity is for us as a
nation—diversity of races, opinion, thought—and maybe
just what place you think that has in our society, our
schools, our places of work, et cetera.
Brimelow: I think you can make a strong case
diversity of thought. And I would say, actually,
that was the characteristic of the English-speaking
world, since the advent of the modern age. I don`t see
particularly why you need
diversity of race or of anything else. In fact, it
seems to me that
works in the opposite direction. It`s when you have
deep divisions in the population it becomes
impossible to discuss things because peoples
feelings are too sensitive.
But of course, what does it matter
what I think? The real question is—we should go to the
American people and tell them, "Do you want to have
transformed completely by 2050?"
And the people who are in favor of this
transformation should tell us whey they`re in favor of
it. And then we`ll have a vote on it, and see what
We`re always told that it`s
impossible to patrol the border, it`s too long, it
would require too many people to man it. Also, once an
illegal immigrant gets into the country, they may have
children who I would assume would be, if they were born
in the U.S., citizens. So how practical is it to do
Brimelow: Well, at any one time, the
U.S. Border Patrol has about 10-11, 000 people that
they can put on the border. There are something like
130,000 American troops in Iraq. What`s wrong with
this picture? What is the national priority here?
Of course the U/S.
government could control the border if it wanted to.
There are machines to do it, there are sensors to do it.
The southern border is about two and a half thousand
miles long. There are forty thousand miles of
interstate in this country. If they built an
interstate along the whole thing, then they could stop
people from coming across. It`s
not a difficult problem.
Your other question is a very
important one. It is true that, under
current interpretation of American law, of the
Fourteenth Amendment, any child born in the U.S., even
to an illegal alien parent, is an American citizen. And
that makes it practically impossible to deport them.
It`s not absolutely legally impossible, but it`s
difficult. And, of course, nobody has the guts to do it.
I think that doing something about the
“citizen child” clause
is essential to getting control of America`s
borders right now.
Above all, you can`t have any kind
guest worker amnesty program without doing something
about the Fourteenth Amendment. Because otherwise any
guest worker who has a child here is here for good. See,
the thing about them is this: these children are
immediately welfare magnets. They get
tremendous subsidies from the
federal government and from
state governments. And those subsidies are in the
hands of the parents, to spend any way they want.
So this has totally altered the
incentive structure for immigration. People have
every incentive to stay here, and have a child here.
So this is a reform that needs to
But the problem is not as complex
as people think it is, you know. Every year, about two
to three hundred thousand illegal immigrants go back.
There`s tremendous rotation over the border. You could
encourage them to self-deport by simply removing the
subsidies that exist right now. For example, by
There`s a million things that could
be done. It`s just that the government is not interested
in doing them.
Question #3: Tonight
you said that the wages of native-born Americans have
been adversely affected since about 1980, especially for
those of lower income and lower education levels. I was
wondering why you thought, as a result of that, our
government has refused to raise the
minimum wage since 1997?
Brimelow: Well, I think what they`re doing with minimum wage is that
with so many of these illegals working off the books, it
has become a dead letter anyway. A
raise in the minimum wage is a difficult thing to
enforce when you have lots of illegal immigrants about.
But I have to say—and I say this as a sort of recovering
Republican—that I think that the Bush administration is
simply driven by corporate contributions. It`s not a
complex problem. They`re just doing what their corporate
contributors want them to do, without thinking it
through very carefully.
From the point of view of economic
logic, I`m skeptical of the value of increasing the
minimum wage, that it actually would benefit anybody.
But it certainly won`t benefit people when you have this
reserve army of illegal workers to undercut the …
See, it`s a great deal, this
employing an illegal alien. You pay him off books so you
don`t have to pay all these payroll taxes. He doesn`t
pay taxes. If he gets injured on the job, he goes to the
Emergency Room and the hospitals are
compelled to treat him by law. The presence of the
illegal work force is very largely the
shadow of regulation. It`s not surprising American
workers can`t compete under those situations.
So I`m not sure that raising the
minimum wage would help very much. But that`s not why
it`s not being done. It`s not being done because
McDonalds doesn`t want it to be done. And they`re big
immigrant, with a fairly strong accent.]
Hello. You have, by having this illegal
population in the Unites States, a large undocumented
economy. And many economists have predicted that if you
make this undocumented economy legal, [taxes from] it
will be sufficient to at least cover the current deficit
in the budget. The question to you is, the current
administration is proposing that, putting illegals on
guest worker visas, making them
permanent residents, things like that. By having
that, what impact would it have on the economy? On
businesses in the United States.
Brimelow: You and I share the same impediment—being born outside the
country! I`m not sure that I`ve grasped your question
completely. But as I understand it, what you`re saying
is—if we could get these immigrants who are working off
the books into the taxed economy, then it would be a
benefit to the Treasury, is that right?
Well, you know, there`s a lot of
work done on what the contribution of these illegals is.
And it`s small. It`s not large. It`s not large because
they are typically unskilled.
Question #4 (cont`d):
There was a
cover story [Going
Underground The shadow economy is about to top $1
trillion, January 3, 2005, by Jim McTague] in
Barron`s about a year ago which they argue, with
calculations, is as good as $400 billion in the taxes.
By bringing them into the tax system, you can get $400
Brimelow: $400 billion…well that`s small
percent of an $11 trillion dollar economy. I mean, it`s
not a big number as a share of GDP.
[PB note: in fact the
Barron`s estimate refers
entire underground economy.
Unpaid taxes imputed to illegals
are estimated at only about $50 billion]
You know, there`s this film that
came out a little while ago,
A Day Without Mexicans,
about what would happen if all the Mexicans disappeared.
Well, there are various
amusing ways to look at this. But it is true that,
as far as I can estimate, that if you could make all the
illegals vaporize tomorrow, return home tomorrow, it
wouldn`t reduce total output by as much as one percent
of GDP. Probably much less than that.
And the labor market would simply
adjust to take care of it. We would simply start
employing people who are
currently unemployed, start having people work
longer, there are a lot of thing that could be done.
I don`t think that the
contributions of illegal aliens to the economy,
whichever way you look at it, is very large.
Why do you think the American public has a
lack of interest on this issue? I mean, I know your book
bestseller, so you would think that the information
was out there, but there`s not enough going to make the
border closed or more strict.
Brimelow: Well, opinion polls have consistently shown that the
Americans are highly disturbed by the issue. There`s a
reason why the President
hasn`t been able to get his amnesty program through,
although he`s been trying now for six years. That`s
because when the Republican congressman go home, they
find that their districts are fiercely opposed to it.
But it`s an unusual debate, this
immigration debate—it doesn`t really surface. One reason
is that there`s an unusual form of political correctness
about immigration which embraces both left and right.
For example, when we saw these National Research Council
numbers coming out in 1997, about how California
families are spending about $1000 a year to support the
immigrant presence in the state, we thought it would
cause a revolution. But it
didn`t cause a revolution because it wasn`t
No mainstream media paper wants to
report this stuff. I could never write about the
economics of immigration when I was at Forbes.
They just simply wouldn`t allow it. They don`t want to
hear about it. So the issue has been kept out of the
debate very successfully for a very long time.
On the other hand, this is exactly
what happened between 1890 and 1920. It took about
years of agitation and argument before the Congress cut
off immigration in the 1920s. These things take time.
The fact that immigration
enthusiasts are able to stop debate by accusing
everybody of racism is another unusual element in the
debate. But eventually that`s going to wear off. People
are going to get bored with it. And we will see
immigration get into politics—if not in this election,
then the next election.
There`s a rule in the stock market:
if something can`t go on forever, it doesn`t. We had
this tremendous bull market in the 1990s, it couldn`t be
sustained, and it wasn`t. It took two or three years
longer than we thought, but it did happen.
And I would say the same is true
for the dollar right now. Eventually, it will break.
And I say that`s true with the
immigration debate—eventually, it will clear. The longer
the wait is, though, and the more ruthless the tactics
that the immigration enthusiasts use, the more violent
the ultimate cutoff will be.
The behavior of the Bush
administration amazes me. I mean, generally speaking,
when you have a policy which is unpopular with your
base, you at least make some effort to placate the base.
Even if you`re determined to push the policy through.
But they make no effort to placate their base. They
behave with extreme arrogance towards it.
I think there`s a good chance that
this immigration issue will ultimately break the party
system in the U.S. There will be new parties formed
around it. That`s what happened in the 1840s, at the
time of the great wave of immigration from Ireland. It
wasn`t slavery that broke the second party system. It
was the American Party and Know-Nothings—most of whom,
by the way, were also abolitionists. So when abolition
later came to the forefront, they joined the Republican
Once every several generations, the
American party system shifts. I think that`s what`s
going to happen here.
In the last election, there was a big debate
about Social Security—about how, with the Baby Boom
generation reaching its peak age, the ratio of workers
supporting retirees would fall too low, and Social
Security and Medicare will have to be decreased. So my
question is: do we need a certain level of immigration
to offset the aging population?
Brimelow: Well, you know, the Social Security
Administration itself has
projected that if we had enormous immigration—I
forget what it is now, but it`s above current levels — it would stave off the bankruptcy
of the system by about two years. So it`s not going to
save a system which is fundamentally flawed.
The reason for that, by the way, is
that the immigrants themselves are eligible for
benefits. And often receive them in excess of what
they`ve paid in. So it`s a chimera, this idea that
immigration can bail out Social Security.
It is true that where you have
intrusive government programs causing lots of trouble,
they often can only be patched up, in a band-aid way, by
immigration. For example in Britain, the National Health
Service, which is basically a socialized medical system,
over time degraded because it destroyed the incentives
for people to go to medical school and that kind of
thing. And for quite a long time, it was propped up by
the immigration from the West Indies of nurses, who
would work for less money. So what you have is one bad
government policy being bailed out by another bad
The answer, of course, is to not
have the one bad government policy in the first place.
Social Security is a disaster area.
It`s a problem in the economy that needs to be sorted
Earlier on you cited Jorge Borjas. [Spanish
pronunciation]. As I recall, Borjas is quite
a fan of what is called the “points system”,
which is in place in Canada and also I believe in
Australia. Are you in favor of such a system? And to
what extent should such a system, in your eyes, not only
take into account education of the immigrant, but also
cultural factors? Thank you.
calls himself George, so I`ll continue to call him
George, if you don`t mind!) George does
favor the point system. The Canadians look at
potential immigrants and give them points on the basis
of the various things Canadians think they want. One of
them is speaking the national languages, either French
or English. Now, see, that makes an enormous difference
because that means you don`t have to worry about
bilingual education. You tend to have immigrants who
speak the national language.
So I think the point system does
make a great deal of sense. It`s a problem in the
U.S.—you see in Canada, immigration is determined by
administrative methods, whereas in the U.S., it`s
controlled by statute. It`s treated more like a civil
right. If you`re in here, you have a sort of civil right
to bring in relatives. So, naturally, Americans have no
control over who comes in. They can delay it, but they
can`t stave it off indefinitely.
That`s why you see the
deterioration in skill levels both of illegal immigrants
and of legal immigrants. Even when you have
highly skilled legal immigrants— like, for example,
subcontinent of India—over time, the
legal immigrant flow from India has degraded in
terms of skills because they bring in relatives.
So it does make sense. But the
problem with the Canadian system is—well, first of all,
trouble because there is a family reunification
aspect to the program and that keeps taking over. But
also they set their numbers extraordinarily high. The
numbers of immigrants going into Canada are actually a
significantly larger fraction of the population that
they are here. So the point system wouldn`t ultimately
alter the question of "do you want the population to
stabilize at 300 million?", which is what Americans
seem to have decided, or,
"do we have to drive it to 400-500 million?"—which
is what the government apparently wants to do. You still
have to make a judgment as far as the numbers of
immigrants coming in.
The short answer is, yes, I think a
points system obviously makes sense. Frankly,
practically anything would make more sense than the
current system. It`s obviously profoundly irrational and
very paradoxical and it doesn`t work at all and the only
reason why it`s not reformed is because the people who
currently benefit from it don`t want to open up the
debate. They`re afraid that if the debate gets opened
up, then their various privileges that they`ve got
carved into it will be taken away. That`s why they`re so
determined to have no debate at all and no legislation
That`s the long answer. But the
short answer is yes, I think the points system makes
Hi. Assuming that these illegal immigrant
workers are not paying federal income taxes, do you know
how much of their wages, that they`re earning here in
the U.S. are being spent on domestic goods and
property taxes and sales taxes, versus how much is
being sent home to their original nations?
Brimelow: There are very elaborate calculations on that, which were
dealt with in the National Research Council report that
I referred to. And the answer is
that it`s not so much the remittances that are the
problem, but that their use of the welfare system
and public education etc. far overwhelm anything they`re
paying in taxes.
So, from a fiscal point of view,
they`re a loss.
I mean, per capita
K-12 education spending in this country is $9-10,000
per year. That`s a huge amount. Most unskilled workers
are only making $15-20,000 a year. They have a couple of
kids, you`re already in the hole.
Good evening Mr. Brimelow. You mentioned
Canada`s national languages. To what extent do you
believe America is
an official language? Do you support efforts to make
English our official language?
Brimelow: Well, I think the Americans have gotten themselves in a
situation very similar to that which the
Quebecois were in, in the
1960s. They`re faced with very rapid erosion of
their own language community. And a foreign-language
enclave is developing. And what they did in Quebec was,
compelled the English speakers to operate in French
in the workplace, and
they wouldn`t even let them have English signs, and
so on. It was a
very brutal thing, and had the effect of driving a
lot of Anglophones out of Quebec—which was what the
Quebecois wanted. And it has succeeded in making Quebec
a French-speaking society, safeguarding the French
language in Quebec.
To the extent that you see foreign
language crop up in the U.S., then eventually the
native-born community, the English-speaking community,
is going to have to take steps to protect itself.
I get email all the time from
people—nurses and people working in hotels and so on—who
say that the workforce in their area that
operates in Spanish has
reached a critical mass because the employers are
hiring so many illegal immigrants. And they can no
longer get jobs if they don`t speak Spanish. In America,
it happens all the time. I get these emails all the
It`s because of this that the
Quebec government decided to compel employers not to
do that. They wouldn`t let employers informally operate
in English; they required them to operate in French.
They protected their own people.
I think ultimately the American
government is going to have to decide whose side it`s
I do think that an Official
Language policy is necessary. It`s not something that
would have been necessary with good immigration
policy—but we don`t have a good immigration policy. So,
this is one of the things that`s going to have to be
done to repair the damage.
I actually have two very quick questions. The
first is, how do you differentiate between people who
are seeking American citizenship or who are just coming
to American to better their lives from people whose
lives depend on their ability to come to America—like
Sudanese immigrants, some of whom
are extremely young, and can`t help their situation,
who would die if they stayed in their country? Their
lives depend on it. Is that a human rights issue?
The second question is: how can you
truly have diversity of thought if you don`t also have
diversity of race. People of different races have had
different life experiences, based on others` perceptions
of them as their race. So, if your experiences shape
your thought, and you`ve had different experiences
because of your race, how can diversity of thought exist
without diversity of race?
Brimelow: I guess I`ll answer the second question first. The reason
why you can have diversity of thought and diversity of
intellectual patterns and so on is the
telephone! It`s the internet! It`s
international travel! It`s people
learning foreign languages
and going abroad for junior years and
things like that.
You don`t actually have to
physically import large numbers of people from different
countries to shake things up here. Particularly if
they`re not educated.
I just don`t see what good it does.
I just don`t see how you can possibly argue that very
large numbers of
illiterate Mexican Indians in the U.S. is going to
intellectual discourse at Harvard any good.
Now, to answer your first question:
there are several different ways to immigrate to the
U.S. One of them is under the
refugee statute. There are a lot of immigrants who
come in under the refugee statute. They actually are not
refugees, very few of them actually suffer from
life-threatening situations at home. It`s just become an
expedited subsidized immigration program for
politically-favored groups. First of all, the
Soviet Jews, and now that they`ve run out of Soviet
Jews, they`ve got
various other rackets going on. And this very much
benefits the refugee contractors, the agencies that
bring them in.
But generally speaking, the
evidence is very clear: these people are not under
mortal threat at home. In the case of Soviet Jews, they
often went back and to, they commuted back and to for
years and years, they weren`t afraid of going back to
But more generally I`d say, you
know, the United States is not
some sort of international Kleenex. All kinds of
people all over the world are in terrible situations.
There`s only a very small fraction of them could
possibly come to the U.S. Even if you brought in a
million a year, that`s nothing in the context of the
If some situation overseas is bad,
in the end maybe Americans should go in and sort them
out. I`m not in favor of it, but it seems to me to make
more sense. Maybe we should have forces policing foreign
Frankly, that was the motive for
the partition of Africa in the late nineteenth century.
European countries had been trading with Africa for a
hundred years quite happily, they didn`t need to control
the ground in Africa. But they went in because of the
slave trade. The
missionaries forced them into it. I`m not sure it
was a successful experiment, but it could be tried
But bringing large numbers of
settling them in
lily-white communities in Maine is not going to do
anybody any good. There`s too much pain in the world to
be relieved by American immigration policy. It might be
relieved by other policies.
But the numbers are just too large
for American immigration policy to make any significant
impact on world suffering.
Chairman: Thank you all for attending,
and I want you all to join me in thanking Mr. Brimelow