Thomas Sowell

One of the many sad signs of our times is the way current immigration issues are discussed. A hundred years ago, the immigration controversies of that era were discussed in the context of innumerable facts about particular immigrant groups. Many of those facts were published in a huge, multi-volume 1911 study by a commission headed by Senator William P. Dillingham.

That and other studies of the time presented hard data on such things as which groups' children were doing well in school and which were not; which groups had high crime rates or high rates of alcoholism, and which groups were over-represented among people living on the dole.

Such data and such differences still exist today. Immigrants from some countries are seldom on welfare but immigrants from other countries often are. Immigrants from some countries are typically people with high levels of education and skills, while immigrants from other countries seldom have much schooling or skills.

Nevertheless, many of our current discussions of immigration issues talk about immigrants in general, as if they were abstract people in an abstract world. But the concrete differences between immigrants from different countries affect whether their coming here is good or bad for the American people.

The very thought of formulating immigration laws from the standpoint of what is best for the American people seems to have been forgotten by many who focus on how to solve the problems of illegal immigrants, "living in the shadows."

A recent column in the Wall Street Journal titled "What Would Milton Friedman Say?" tried to derive what the late Professor Friedman "would no doubt regard as the ideal outcome" as far as immigration laws were concerned.

Although I was once a student of Professor Friedman, I would never presume to speak for him. However, he was a man with the rare combination of genius and common sense, and he published much empirical work as well as the analytical work that won him a Nobel Prize. In short, concrete facts mattered to him.

It is hard to imagine Milton Friedman looking for "the ideal outcome" on immigration in the abstract. More than once he said, "the best is the enemy of the good," which to me meant that attempts to achieve an unattainable ideal can prevent us from reaching good outcomes that are possible in practice.

Too much of our current immigration controversy is conducted in terms of abstract ideals, such as "We are a nation of immigrants." Of course we are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of people who wear shoes. Does it follow that we should admit anybody who wears shoes?


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate