Trade Cases

Leibowitz: Trade, Immigration, War and Peace

Written by Lewis Leibowitz

Every day, it seems, the headlines point to a general decline in the global situation. The more one reads, the more it becomes clear that our major issues are all interconnected. Addressing one will necessarily impact the others, either worsening or bettering them.

IN PROGRESS... Leibowitz:Immigration is a prime example of this phenomenon. The two parties, and the country at large, are becoming hostile to immigrants. As Daniel Henninger pointed out last week in the Wall Street Journal, the hostility is not aimed just at illegal immigration: there is a general decline in support for legal immigration too. This is because rational steps to stem illegal immigration are not being taken, causing the public to conclude that the only way to curb illegal border crossings is to curb all border crossings.

A couple of months ago, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced that the number of refugees in the world has reached an all-time high of more than 100 million people. In 2022, the UNHCR estimated the number of refugees (defined as people displaced from their home countries by war or persecution) was about 30 million. That is quite a jump, although the increase may be in part a difference in definitions.

But not all immigrants are refugees—they are people seeking a better life. And in the US, which has not seen major immigration reform in nearly 40 years, it has become much more difficult to enter the United States legally than illegally.

This is a major public policy failure. People who are prone to obey the law are discouraged from entering the United States due to their aversion to law-breaking. Who is left? People who are not so easily discouraged.

Add to that the increase in authoritarian governments around the world. While in a democracy change is possible, in a dictatorship, it is much harder to buck the regime. The result: frustrated reformers leave rather than stay. And where do they come? To the democracies, especially the United States and Europe, making our immigration problems worse.

This brings me to trade policy. The countries that are the major sources of illegal immigration are increasingly unpleasant places to live. Cuba and Venezuela are the two largest sources of undocumented immigrants—and it’s obvious that these are unpleasant places to live and difficult regimes to reform. Refugees will come here as long as such countries stay the way they are.

Other nations have similar pressures to some extent. Delivering growth and prosperity is the best way to keep people where they were born and raised. China’s path to economic growth lay in opening its economy to private enterprise, allowing people to prosper.

Trade policies that prevent the growth of trade inexorably lead to more migration, gravitating to countries that promise a better life. The United States has been the beacon for that movement of people for about 200 years. It was one of the greatest factors in the growth of the United States to be the world’s leading economy.

Our current stasis in immigration policy is breeding disrespect for the law by creating a powerful incentive to violate the law. As I mentioned before, it must be easier to do something legally than illegally, or, over time, violations of the law will increase, breeding disrespect and overwhelming law enforcement.

Second, the United States, at the top of the list of destination countries, has an incentive to develop ways to help countries achieve peace and prosperity to stem the flow of displaced people.

Third, the growth in refugees in the last two years is due to wars. The Ukraine War alone has added some 20 million to the global refugee rolls. Prosperity requires peace, and the global community is not delivering that right now.

Those of us living in relative peace and prosperity have an interest in keeping things from blowing up. The world blew up in 1939 and we have kept a lid on things since 1945. That is a long period of peace, almost as long as the period of relative peace and prosperity in the world between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Maintaining that peace is never easy and, ironically, is not always genuinely peaceful—since 1945, the United States was involved in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan, to name but a few examples. But the center has held.

A similar analysis could be made of other issues that divide the world—and Americans.

The bottom line is that we must recognize the need to advance and settle these issues. Let’s start with immigration, one of the key drivers of US prosperity in the past. There are many ways to reduce illegal immigration without stifling legal immigration which has always been a strong point. For example, the simple step of a Customs app to set up appointments at ports of entry has reduced illegal border crossings. But we need more—prompt hearings on asylum claims and dispositions are essential, as is a system that removes from this country those whose claims have been denied. This is very hard medicine, but it must be done.

On the other side, legal immigration must be made easier and safer. The human traffickers that bring thousands of people to our borders should be under more pressure from authorities in the US, Mexico and other countries.

The main reason we have not solved immigration is that it cannot be fully solved. There will always be law-breakers. Making compromises is the way of democracy. The results will be imperfect and will fully satisfy very few. But the gains will be worth the effort.

Lewis Leibowitz 

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Lewis Leibowitz, SMU Contributor

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