[Peter Brimelow spoke on "Disappearing Borders" to Vanderbilt University's IMPACT Symposium, March 20, 2006—see Borders, Walls, Nation-States, Property Rights: VDARE.COM 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 well, so…
Question #1: Mr. Brimelow, thank you so much for coming to speak to us tonight. My question for you is with regard to 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 for 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 the country 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 happens.
Question #2: 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 this?
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 of a 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 be done.
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 simply taxing remittances.
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 substantial 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 contributors.
Question #4: [A legal 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 billion –
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 to the 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.
Question #5: Why do you think the American public has a lack of interest on this issue? I mean, I know your book was a 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 reported anywhere.
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 30 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 Party.
Once every several generations, the American party system shifts. I think that's what's going to happen here.
Question #6: 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 government policy.
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 out.
Question #7: 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.
Brimelow: (He 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, from the 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, they have 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 on immigration.
That's the long answer. But the short answer is yes, I think the points system makes sense.
Question #9: 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.
Question #10: Good evening Mr. Brimelow. You mentioned Canada's national languages. To what extent do you believe America is suffering without 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, they simply 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 time.
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 on.
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.
Question #11: 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 do 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 Russia.
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 global population.
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 hotspots.
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 [Arab] slave trade. The missionaries forced them into it. I'm not sure it was a successful experiment, but it could be tried again.
But bringing large numbers of people and 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 again.