America’s Porous Borders

The common refrain from the anti-immigration crowd1 is that the American border is porous, that is it is like a sieve and just about anybody can trot across the border and go steal a low skill job from a God-fearing, patriotic American. However, some interesting research (h/t Reason) suggests that perhaps this view isn’t quite as bad as the anti-immigration crowd like the claim it is.

The research by Lant Pritchett looks at labor mobility and the surprising conclusion isn’t that the U.S. border is porous, but that it is actually impermeable. That is given the wage differentials we should see far, far more people coming into the U.S. than we currently see.

The current differences in unskilled wages, or wages adjusted for skill, are more than twice as large as those that set the world in motion in the late nineteenth century. This wide divergence of the incomes of the poorest and richest countries has created enormous wage gaps for both skilled and unskilled labor, and the migration pressure in these gaps is almost certain to increase.


The wage ratios between Japan and Vietnam (9.1 to 1), the United Kingdom and Kenya (7.2 to 1), or the United States and Guatemala (6.1 to 1) are substantially larger today than the historical ratios between the mass senders and the United States (Ireland, 2.3 to 1; Sweden, 4.1 to 1). In many ways, figure 1-3 is central: We know that the wage gaps in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were sufficient to set the world in motion in an era of open borders. Yet the real wage gaps today across countries dwarf those of the era of mass migration.

What this is saying is that there is quite a bit of pressure to induce people to move from one country to the next. The time period that Pritchett is referring to was 1870 to 1914 which has been called “The Age of Mass Migration” (and oddly enough the U.S. somehow managed to survive that period even with fairly open borders, go figure.

So at a time when everybody talks about liberalizing trade around the globe, the one commodity that nobody apparently wants to see liberalized in terms of trade is labor. Buying things made by people in another country is fine, but if those people want to come here to fill jobs, why that is bad.

And think about another point that Pritchett raises as well,

A fundamental principle of economics is that differences create opportunities for exchange. The rich countries, particularly the European nations and Japan, have embarked on a historically unique demographic trajectory of increased longevity and fertility rates below the level of population replacement. During the next half century, this will produce ratios of the retiree-age population to the labor force—age population unlike those ever experienced. At the same time, these countries’ geographic neighbors are projected to have large and growing populations of youth. This difference in potential labor will produce another irresistible force for increased labor mobility.

This applies to the U.S. as well. As our population ages we will soon face a prospect where well be twice as many retirees and only 1/5th more workers. Could increased labor mobility help with this situation? I think it would be silly to simply dismiss it out-of-hand.
1 Yes, yes, I know the standard response to my use of the term “anti-immigration” is that they really aren’t anti-immigration they are anti-illegal-immigration and that there is a difference. If one were to base one’s views on illegal immigration and the current problems with our immigration policy on security issues alone, I’d pretty much agree. The problem is that most if not all (i.e., the subset it doesn’t apply to is of measure zero) of the “anti-illegal-immigration” crowd also tend to use economic reasons to justify their positions. Since these reasons would still apply if the U.S. made it easier for legal immigration, this (large) segment of the “anti-illegal-immigration” would have to oppose this legal immigration, thus making them simply anti-immigration. Besides, the anti-immigration crowd always portrays those of who don’t favor their brand of border security as “Open Borders” it seems that their straw-man/ad hominem deserves one right back at them.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Economics and Business, US Politics, ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. BJ Feng says:

    I think your assumptions regarding the “anti-illegal-immigration crowd” are completely wrong. Most, myself included, have no problem increasing legal immigration significantly as we can choose the skill set of legal immigrants and they would not be uniformly poor as the illegal immigrants are now. One of the main problems the “anti-illegal crowd” has is the strain on public resources. That problem would be greatly reduced with legal immigration. The second problem is with the lack of assimilation. With legal immigration, the diverse mix of cultures and races from all around the world would prevent the formation of large unassimiliated monolithic communities, thus making assimilation easier. Given the positives of legal immigration, I see no reason for allowing illegal immigration which has fewer positives and more negatives. Those who support illegal immigration must come up with a convincing reason why we should continue allowing illegal immigration to continue. So far, they have not been able to do so.

  2. just me says:

    I pretty much agree with BJ.

    You have essentially lumped a large number of people into a view that don’t hold it.

    I am all for raising the number of legal immigrants permitted in the US each year substantially.

    I just think it is poor policy to turn a blind eye to people coming here illegally and various businesses employing them knowingly.

    Assimilation into American culture is an important component of immigration-and having huge pockets of unassimilated illegals don’t do much to benefit the country.

  3. bains says:

    The common refrain from the anti-immigration crowd1 is that the American border is porous, that is it is like a sieve and just about anybody can trot across the border and go steal a low skill job from a God-fearing, patriotic American.

    Nice job building a straw-man. Whether or not you were being fatuous I do not know because that is all I read and all I am going to read – sermons to the choir dont interest me much.

  4. Boyd says:

    Yes, Steve, accusing your opponents in the debate of holding positions they don’t hold and using contemptible tactics that they don’t use certainly justifies you using those same contemptible tactics. Okay, you’re right, some do what you accuse them of, but “nyah nyah-nyah, you did it too” is hardly a justification for ad hominem and mischaracterization of your opponents’ position.

    Way to advance the debate. Good job.

  5. Steve Verdon says:

    The pathetic things about every response so far is that,

    1. They are (with one exception and he/she should know better) commenters who haven’t been in other discussions here on border security.
    2. They seem totally oblivious to the fact that it is the other side that uses the strawman arguments.

    Take bains for example, did he bother to read the footnote that explained my sarcastic opening comment? No. As such he is a fool for not considering the actual logic of my position.

    Same with Boyd, and BJ Feng is somebody who appears to favor central planning at least at some level. Sorry, but you guys all fit right into the typical anti-immigration crowd for the most part. Fueled mostly by emotion and unable to deal with the logic.