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Let Them In by Jason L. Riley
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Let Them In

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Let Them In by Jason L. Riley
Paperback $14.00
Dec 30, 2008 | ISBN 9781592404315

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  • Dec 30, 2008 | ISBN 9781592404315

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  • May 15, 2008 | ISBN 9781440632891

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Author Q&A

In your new book, you make an eye-opening case for why immigration improves the lives of Americans and is important to the future of our country. What would you say are the most pervasive myths about immigration and why are they wrong?

I think one of the most common assumptions is that immigrants take jobs from Americans, that a job filled by an immigrant means one fewer job for someone already here. This belief becomes even more prevalent in an economic slowdown like the one we’re currently having. But it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how U.S. labor markets operate. The job market is not a zero-sum game. In 2006, around 55 million people either quit or were fired. Yet 57 million people were hired over the same period. In a typical year, about a third of the U.S. workforce turns over. The number of jobs in America is not static or fixed. It’s fluid. And that’s how we want it to be.

Another common assumption is that immigrants, and particularly illegal immigrants, are more prone to crime. But the evidence shows exactly the opposite. Numerous studies by government commissions and independent researchers over the past 100 years have repeatedly and consistently found the immigrants are less likely to commit crimes and be behind bars than the native born. This hold true for every ethnic group without exception and regardless of legal status. Between 1994 and 2005, the illegal population in the U.S. more than doubled to around 12 million. Yet over that same period, violent crime in the U.S. fell by more than a third, reaching its lowest level since 1973. Moreover, crime fell in cities with the largest immigrant populations, such at LA, New York, Chicago, and Miami, as well as in border towns like San Diego and El Paso. The problem of crime in the U.S. is not caused or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status. Yet Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly regularly tell us that the opposite is true.

There’s an important story to be told here about the effects of immigration on our economy. Mainstream economic thinking, as you point out citing several studies, indicates that immigrants tend to stimulate economic growth rather than cause unemployment. So why the perception that immigrants are overburdening our welfare state?

Many people don’t realize that illegal immigrants don’t qualify for federal welfare benefits. And because illegals who collect a paycheck also pay payroll and Social Security taxes but can’t collect the benefits, Uncle Sam actually comes out ahead. Among low-skill legal immigrants, welfare use is higher because more of them are poor. But among U.S. residents who are eligible for welfare benefits, immigrants are not heavy users. Despite the perception, immigrants receive public benefits at lower rates than natives. As with crime rates, welfare case loads have fallen dramatically as immigration, legal and illegal, has risen in the U.S. Immigrants are not driving up welfare costs anymore than they’re driving up crime rates. Yet we’re led to believe that the opposite is true.

While the vast majority of African Americans vote Democrat, the Latino vote is up for grabs. You write that despite this, many Republicans are happy to concede the Latino vote to Democrats rather than work for it. Why is this?

Some Republicans remain convinced that the Latino vote is lost to them and that the party is better off coalescing the Anglo vote by turning immigration into a wedge issue, like abortion and gay marriage. But Americans are basically pro-immigrant, and restrictionism has proven to be a political loser time and again. In addition, I think that conceding the Latino vote to the Democrats shows a rather shocking lack of confidence in the appeal of Republicanism. Ronald Reagan regularly won a third of the Hispanic vote, and more than 40% of Latino voters went for George W. Bush as recently as 2004. Hispanics are also the fastest growing ethnic voting bloc in the U.S., and many of them live in states like Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, which Republicans probably need to win in 2008 if they want to hold on to the White House.

You write that closing off the U.S. economy to foreign labor would have negative consequences because the country would have less human capital overall. The assumption some have is that these jobs would exist in the absence of the immigrants who now fill them, but you say this is not the case. Seal the borders and what you get instead are fewer jobs overall. Please explain.

Economics is about trade-offs. It’s about making decisions by comparing the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action. If America sealed off her borders tomorrow and ended all immigration, we’d survive. Prices and wages would adjust and we’d get by. But the question is whether we’d be better off. If Ford and GM didn’t have to compete with Honda and Toyota, cars would be more expensive and fewer people could afford them. Similarly, there’s a strong demand for low-skill immigrant labor in America today. If we cut off that labor supply, there will be consequences. Perhaps the pay for picking strawberries would rise to a level that attracts an American worker. But the consequence might be higher food prices to pay that American to do a job for which he’s overqualified. Or perhaps that job will be off-shored to a place where labor is cheap enough for growers to compete in a global marketplace, in which case we’ve lost not only the job of the farmhand but also the other jobs associated with farm work, like equipment manufacturing, packaging, and sales.

Why is immigration such a controversial topic in the African American community?

People point to the high unemployment rate in the black community and find a convenient scapegoat in low-skill immigrants. And it’s true that these immigrants compete most directly with low-skill American workers, who are disproportionately black. But if immigrants were having a significant impact on black employment, we would see some correlation between the rate of immigration and the black joblessness. In fact, the data shows that the black jobless rate is largely impervious to the number of low-skill immigrants in the work force. What this suggests is that immigrants aren’t displacing blacks so much as filling positions that blacks aren’t competing for. So before we blame Jorge for Jamal’s employment situation, we might consider some of the other socioeconomic factors—culture, education, labor regulations—that are much more likely to explain black unemployment rates.

What’s changed in the last century when it comes to the anti-immigration arguments?

Amazingly, not much. I came across some 100-year-old political cartoons about immigration from the turn of the last century and was reminded of the unoriginality of today’s restrictionist arguments. Some of the illustrations, which were published in political magazines of the period, can be seen at, and they help put today’s debate in historical perspective. The same alarmism we currently hear about Latinos—they’re stealing jobs, they’re filling our prisons, they’ll never assimilate—was directed at Asian and European immigrants a century ago. It was no more valid then than it is now, but how quickly we forget.

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