[Editor’s note: this essay is a response to a piece by Stephen Macedo – you can find a pdf version of his article at this link.  I wrote this as my final paper for a graduate class in NYU’s Wilf Family Department of Politics – “Immigration, Citizenship, and the nation-state.”  In this essay, I try to approach my response from the view of having special obligations to the least well-off in our society.  However, my approach is considering this as a classical liberal.]


Stephen Macedo frames his discussion of open borders versus social justice but in particular the Rawlsian concept of distributive justice, as a moral dilemma. If immigration – mostly illegal immigration – affects the quality of life of the less-well-off, can it be justified in a liberal society which has special obligations to “our own” poor? Macedo outlines that there may be reasons to believe that current U.S. immigration policy has a negative impact on the wages of the poorest U.S. citizens, and admitting large numbers of low-skilled workers increases the competition for an ever-shrinking pool of jobs. In a liberal society we should seek to find ways of mitigating the burdens on the poor by providing them every opportunity to succeed, thus my paper will assume that Macedo is correct in arguing that we do, in fact, have powerful obligations of mutual concern and mutual justification toward our fellow citizens. Further, I assume that Macedo is also correct in outlining that these special obligations are especially concerned with the plight of the poorest members of our communities.

Macedo argues two primary points (pg. 64): 1) if high levels of immigration have a detrimental impact on the least-well-off citizens that is reason enough to limit immigration – even if those seeking admission are poorer than our own poor. 2) An argument against “cosmopolitan” citizenship and, “as members of co-participants in self-governing political communities that we have special obligations to our fellow members.” This debate assumes that U.S. immigration policy has had a noticeable and detrimental impact on the most at-risk citizens because of a number of factors which I will address. Macedo outlines that a high proportion of noncitizens among the poor may lessen political support for social welfare policies, contribute to the increasing wage gap between the rich and the poor, and deflate low-skill wages.

I will counter Macedo’s premise by outlining that immigration, even illegal immigration, is a positive benefit to the United States even when considering the least well-off. I will argue that immigration contributes a net benefit to all Americans by decreasing the cost of goods and providing funds into the Social Security and Medicare programs which most immigrants are not able to utilize. I will argue that the effect immigration has on the plight of the less well-off is negligible and, in fact, debatable. Finally, I will argue that the immigration debate should be framed around failing U.S. domestic policies as opposed to Macedo’s moral dilemma with distributive justice. It is quite possibly that the solution to the immigration problem has less to do with open borders and more to do with a failure to meet our special obligations to citizens because of divisive U.S. politics.


In order to fully understand the effects of immigration in the U.S., it is important to have a basic understanding of the recent developments of immigration (sans Donald Trump). According to the Pew Research Center, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the united states has declined by about 1 million since its peak of 12 million in 2007. Research also indicates that there has been a net decline in the number of Mexican immigrants in the United States, with a majority of those immigrants leaving of their own volition. The Migration Policy Institute reports that immigrants and their children comprise about 27 percent of the U.S. population, approximately 84.3 million people.

One of the reasons that Macedo argues against the United State’s relatively liberal immigration policy is because of research by Harvard professor George Borjas. Essentially the argument is that an increase in unskilled workers will disproportionately affect U.S. citizens with little or no education (high school dropouts) and a disproportionate number of those being African American and Hispanic American citizens. However, there is research which suggests otherwise. A 2011 study by Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri claims that immigration has a greater impact on other immigrant and migrant workers who preceded them, and a negligible impact on native-born workers of similar skill level. In revisiting Borjas’ research, Alan de Brauw and Joseph Russell found that, with ten more years of data and copying Borjas’ methods, the negative effects of immigration is essentially negated completely. Further, there is very little data to indicate that the worst-off 10 percent of Americans – who might actually compete for the jobs which immigrants are filling – are willing or able to take those positions. It is plausible that lower-skilled Americans may actually experience a wage and education boon due to immigration. Perhaps more important to consider is that Borjas’ study implies that immigrants and low-skilled workers are perfect substitutes in a labor market. David Card, a labor economist, argues against this assumption, “even a modest degree of imperfect substitutability makes a significant difference in the implied impacts of immigration on native wages” (pg. 211).

Macedo considers the debate is between those arguing in favor of a cosmopolitan form of citizenship, and hence distributive justice abroad, and those who argue for special obligations and justice among domestic citizens with the advantages of United States citizenship. His premise thus far is that members, or co-participants, in a self-governing political community have special obligations to their fellow members. However, the data he has provided to make his argument – in particular, research by George Borjas criticizing immigration, has been shown to be controversial and, perhaps, problematic. Macedo infers that the special obligations towards a political community should be limited to citizens of the United States, but even that political community is expansive beyond the scope of his own argument. A national policy on immigration, which is certainly the policy Macedo is considering, is a cosmopolitan policy in relation to the uniqueness of a country comprised of 50 semi-autonomous states and multiple territories. The economic inequalities and wage suppressions that Macedo uses to argue his form of distributive justice vary greatly from state to state, and perhaps even smaller than that – from town to town. If we consider immigration as all-or-nothing, meaning a federal and centralized policy which all states must adhere too, we ignore that the needs of Florida – which has a heavy migrant population to satisfy its fairly large agricultural needs – are completely different from the needs of Alaska. Macedo does not provide a distinction between social welfare policies which address states rights, nor does he theorize how/if the immigration debate changes at a micro-level.


Next, we must consider Macedo’s argument that, “Economic inequality in the United States has increased sharply since 1970, but this has not led to increased pressure for redistribution. If anything, the reverse would seem to be the case: the real value of the minimum wage has fallen, and taxes paid by the better-off have been cut, including top marginal tax rates and the estate and capital gains taxes” (pg. 67).  For my purposes in addressing Macedo’s observation, and in particular considering our acknowledged special obligations to the worst off, I will analyze Macedo’s claim specifically in regards to economic inequality and issues with domestic policy and minimum wage. The ability to frame the argument of limiting immigration based on distributive justice in relation to our special obligations to the less-well-off is central to Macedo’s observation. If it can be shown that, in fact, the less-well-off are actually in a more advantageous position since 1970, especially African Americans, as Macedo has singled out this demographic in relation to immigration than we must reconsider Macedo’s approach to immigration.

Macedo claims that economic inequality has increased “sharply” since 1970 so I will consider what that means in the context of the immigration debate. In order to fully understand this claim, we must understand whether or not we are talking about poverty or inequality because the two are not interchangeable; it is unclear if Macedo is giving both due considerations when making his argument. If income inequality is directly related to poverty then Macedo’s argument has much less merit, poverty has dropped drastically since 1970. If Macedo is arguing purely from the standpoint of a gap in wealth between the poorest and the richest, then we must consider exactly how that is affecting the poorest off in our society. In considering economic inequality it is important to consider how this is detrimental to the poorest in society and whether or not, regardless of the existing inequality, they have experienced significant quality of life advancements since 1970. If the gap in wealth equality is as serious an issue as Macedo would have us believe, we must consider why it is so significant as to drastically alter our approaches to immigration policy.

First I will consider poverty and examine whether or not this has increased or decreased before we address inequality. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world hunger has decreased drastically since 1990-1992. In fact, there are now fewer than 800 million people living in a state of perpetual hunger. As one of the leading symptoms of poverty in the world and, considering the debate on immigration is directly related to poverty, it should be noted that hunger in the Caribbean and Latin America, locations which supply huge numbers of immigrants to the U.S., has dropped from 14.7 percent to 5.5 percent since 1990. The World Bank (TWB) (“Our Dream is a World Free of Poverty”) estimates that the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day, the standard TWB uses to define poverty worldwide, has declined by 35 percent since 1990. In fact, The World Bank reports that in addition to both poverty and hunger has dropped drastically since 1990, worldwide child mortality and literacy rates have improved by roughly that same percentage. What is fascinating about these statistics is that even as the population of the world has continued to rise, the number of people living in poverty has continued to fall.

In the United States, however, poverty and food insecurity are measured significantly differently than across the developing world. According to the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP)According to the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP), the United States Census Bureau states that the poverty threshold for a family of four is $24,257.  The current poverty rate in the U.S. is at 13.5 percent which is higher than the poverty rate of 12.8 percent in 1968. Interestingly, the poverty rate for African Americans has dropped measurably in the same timeframe: from 32.8 percent in 1968 to 24.1 percent in 2015. The poverty rate for the Hispanic population over the same period has gone from 23.8 percent in 1968 to 21.4 percent in 2015. The IRP cautions taking this data at face value as it is impossible to gain a deep understanding of the issues surrounding poverty simply by looking at statistics and percentages. Among the criticisms outlined by the IRP include: 1) avoiding the “headcount” approach as this measure does not include the depth of economic need. 2) the data does not reflect modern expenses and resources, ignores draws on income such as taxes, and excludes redistribution benefits such as WIC, SNAP, housing and other benefit resources. 3) the data does not vary by geographic location or factor cost of living expenses which change drastically based on location. 4) the data does not adjust based on standard of living over time. 5) the data offers a strict measurement on the unit of “family” – clearly defining this as a person related by birth, marriage, or adoption. It does not reflect more modern 21st century cohabitation practices. While this data is clearly helpful in gaining a broad overview on the topic of poverty in the United States, it is striking juxtaposed with the state of poverty across the developing world. It is not clear whether or not poverty is a reliable way to measure inequality, nor is it clear whether or not poverty is an accurate way to measure quality of life. It is very likely, however, that poverty statistics are a more important political device, used to create a narrative that can be used to campaign for or against redistributive justice.

Next we shall consider the question of income inequality and whether or not it has increased sharply since 1970. There is no doubt that the majority of wealth in the United States is controlled by a small minority of individuals. According to a paper by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the wealthiest 160,000 families in the United States own approximately 22 percent of all household wealth (compared to just 7% of that wealth in 1979) (“Wealth inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from capitalized income tax data”). However, it is important to outline that the number of families controlling this wealth has increased dramatically – up from just a few hundred families during the last time this much wealth was as concentrated as it is now, the early 20th century. This provides a clear illustration of more readily available income mobility (which Macedo does not address in his piece). Saez and Zucman have found that this increase in wealth share is because of, “a surge of top incomes combined with an increase in saving rate inequality.” What is not included in the discussion on inequality are important distinctions to be made in wealth, income, consumption inequality, and perhaps upward mobility of income.

Where it is possible for a person to have a large amount of wealth, such a retired individual who owns their own home but does not work or works very little, it is also possible for a person to have a high income but little wealth. A family of four with a primary provider working in the tech industry might make as much as $120,000 a year (or more). But if they live in the San Francisco Bay area it is very plausible that they have very little wealth because of the extremely high cost of living. Further, a retired individual may have very little income because they no longer work – but it is entirely possible that they have a large amount of wealth if they own property.

Another possible example of the complex nature of the income/poverty debate is the new ability for non wealthy U.S. citizens to turn their income into a highly mobile source of wealth. There are multiple reports in news media detailing that there are currently more billionaires in the United States than ever in history – this trend does not appear to be slowing down. Not only is super-wealth in the form of billionaires becoming more prevalent, but in 2015 alone the United States added approximately 300,000 millionaires (who apparently are no longer “super-wealthy”). There are now more than 10 million families in the United States with income – which is distinct from wealth – of at least $1 million or more. The ability of the average individual to create income / wealth mobility is staggering, something never seen in the history of mankind.

There is, however, one more often overlooked distinction in the inequality debate, and that distinction is the ability of individuals consume market goods. In 1970 it would have been quite rare for a family in poverty to have more than one television, a washing machine, a microwave, an air conditioner, a computer, multiple phones, things today considered basic creature comforts. These products are now commonplace in the life of a poor person in the United States of America. Smartphones are now so common that school districts have been forced to create policies negotiating their uses in school. Social media has provided all citizens, even the poorest citizens, unprecedented access to knowledge and connection to some of the most successful people, businesses, thinkers, academics, and celebrities. The relative ease of access to technology that the poorest citizens have today would be unthinkable in 1970, this too is something that Macedo fails to address. It is very easy to look at income inequality and fall into a dizzying trap of vertigo inducing statistics. However, the discussion is greater than just pure statistics – the discussion is about quality of life. It seems that there has hardly been a better opportunity for poor Americans to not only create their mobility within wealth and income spectrums (thanks to ease of access to technology), but also benefit from the declining cost of goods afforded to all citizens.

Macedo states, “U.S. immigration policy maybe impossible to defend from the standpoint of justice” (pg. 68). But it seems clear that access to common comforts for the poor have increased, poverty and hunger have decreased (although these are completely relative depending on where you live and how it is calculated), and the inequality of wealth in the U.S. if more the result of compounding interest on previously existing wealth than it is access to opportunity. Further, access to increased income and acquisition of wealth is easier to obtain today than it ever has been, possibly in the history of mankind. Macedo ignores the increases in wealth that have been afforded to people by focusing purely on the income inequality gap. But even in focusing on the income inequality gap, Macedo ignores the improvements made to the lives of the least-well off Americans through their increased purchasing power.


Macedo argues that humanitarian assistance to poor countries should be provided in an effort to ease suffering and provide a basic level of decency, especially when those countries have been exploited by richer countries (pg. 69). However, all of this is in relation to the special obligations of mutual concern and justification we owe towards our fellow citizens. If in the event that we cannot provide for our least-well off citizens, which Macedo has argued we are not doing – but I believe the evidence points to the contrary, then we must forgo our foreign obligations in favor of civic obligations (pg. 70). Macedo’s analysis of the U.S. immigration policy is framed around the ability to properly take care of our own less-well off, then allow for distributive justice abroad. In order to achieve the distributive justice that Macedo describes he would have the U.S. drastically change its immigration policy, explore expanding redistribution of income, and examine the use of a more robust minimum wage. However, I believe that it is possible to satisfy the special obligations we have for our own citizens, and achieve the distributive justice that Macedo is in favor of, simply by addressing several domestic policy failures which overwhelmingly exploit our poorest citizens. Unfortunately, Macedo does not address any of these issues in his piece.

Perhaps the most important issue to address when it comes to improving the lot of the poorest U.S. citizens are barriers to entry – specifically occupational licensing. While it may seem like common sense, the practice of charging an individual to achieve an occupational licence to pursue their profession actually dissuades poor people from that portion of the job market. During President Obama’s administration a White House report noted, “while credibly estimating employment effects is difficult given available data, there is some evidence indicating that licensing directly restricts the supply of workers in licensed professions” (“Occupational Licensing: A Framework for Policymakers”). Two examples provided in this report give some credence to this argument. First, the report found that Vietnamese-American manicurists who were forced to meet strict English requirements for their licensing were less likely to enter the field, this contributed to an overall drop in the number of manicurists in the workforce (not just Vietnamese-Americans) (pg. 61). Further, the report finds that states with less stringent licensing requirements for Nurse Practitioners (NP) were 2.5 times more likely to have patients receive their primary care from an NP – lowering the cost of healthcare for the patient and adding to the workforce (pg. 62). A study done by Stephen Slivinski at Arizona State University found that states with more burdensome licensing regulations on low-income jobs saw at least an 11 percent drop in occupational-entrepreneurship (“Bootstraps Tangled in Red Tape”). It can be understood from this research that government licensing practices actually make it more difficult for the least-well off to create opportunities for themselves; meanwhile, citizens already possessing the means to enter into a licensed field are given yet one more advantage – less competition. This problem compounds the struggle of our poor citizens, the ones we have special obligations to, they must combat the many issues facing their climb towards prosperity. Addressing the problematic nature of the barriers to entry which occupational licensing creates is just one of the ways we can address the plight of the less-well off in the United States.

It is not the purview of my response to Macedo to argue for or against minimum wage. However, a reasonable discussion of Macedo’s observation on minimum wage is perhaps necessary because he makes a point of it. One of the ways to address the “inegalitarian distributive effects of immigration” is to offset those effects with a higher minimum wage (pg. 68). Unfortunately, Macedo fails to address that the minimum wage debate among economists is contentious at best – he only vaguely references the minimum wage in connection with income redistribution. In modern political theater the discussion is centered around the “fight for $15.” Progressive politicians such as Bernie Sanders claim that $15 per hour is one of the more humane ways to aid poverty stricken America. It is not a stretch to assume that Macedo would back this cause, although his piece was published in 2007 – before the “fight for $15” had gained steam. One immediate problem with increasing minimum wage is qualifying that low-wage workers and poor workers are the same – this is problematic. There are large segments of society which do not benefit from the minimum wage and may retroactively suffer from its increase – unemployed persons and contract workers (such as Uber drivers) are examples of this. Further, low-wage workers such as teeneagers who live at home might not be classified as “poor” U.S. citizens and, instead, are simply working for themselves. The same could be true of retired citizens who work for reasons such as loneliness or to supplement their retirement income. It might be of note here to outline that Macedo’s predecessor, John Rawls, outlined in A Theory of Justice one of the ways to increase distributive justice for the poor: “Finally, the government guarantees a social minimum either by family allowances and special payments for sickness and employment, or more systematically by such devices as a graded income supplement (a so-called negative income tax)” (pg. 243). While Rawls’ suggestions are debatable, it is of note that lacking from Rawls theory of distributive justice is the argument for a minimum wage.

Another important consideration to make when investigating the plight of the less-well off in the United States, and a consideration which Macedo does not make, is the war on drugs. According to FBI statistics there were over 1.4 million arrests for drug violations in 2015. Of those arrests only 16.1 percent of them were drug trafficking, making 83.9 percent of the arrests on drug related abuses for possession. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons nearly 50 percent of the federal prison population50 percent of the federal prison population is incarcerated due to drug related crime. African Americans make a disproportionate number of those federal incarcerations, over 30 percent. The “Drug Policy Alliance” reports statistics on the state level that are even more shocking than the federal statistics. Over 57 percent of the individuals incarcerated for drug offenses were black or Hispanic. While this issue is a domestic travesty, and creates a vicious cycle of robbing people of their ability to fulfill individual and familial obligations, it also has indirect effects on immigration and gun policy.

Between 2007 – 2014 more than 164,000 people died in Mexico as a result on their war on drugs – more than the sum of the total number of people who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined during the same period. It’s not difficult to understand why the Mexican drug cartels have waged such a bloody conflict over their industry: the drug trade with the United States is a $29 billion industry annually. In fact, the only reason that the drug trade is worth such vast sums of money is because of the United States’ backward views on drugs. The fallout from our disastrous policies are multifaceted. The bloody drug war in Mexico has no doubt contributed to an immigration crisis, people fleeing the drug conflict which has been, at least in part, created by U.S. prohibitions. Certainly this falls into Macedo’s “exploitative” definition for humanitarian aide. Another issue this creates is that the least-well off in the U.S. are disproportionately affected by tough-on-crime legislation and mandatory sentencing.

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the war on drugs was surging gun violence in the United States, another issue which disproportionately affects our least-well off citizens. Consider that when the U.S. engaged in the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s the homicide rate increased steadily (“Alcohol prohibition was a failure”). When prohibition was repealed in 1933 the homicide rate decreased well into the 1940s. While much needed attention is given to gun violence in the United States, the fact is that mass shootings account for only a small percentage of gun violence. In fact, the biggest perpetrator of gun violence is drug related homicides and gang activity. An honest exploration of the plight of the poorest citizens in the U.S. deserves consideration of our failed drug policies. Perhaps no policy has had a worse effect on African American and Hispanic communities, overwhelmingly inner-city communities, nor does any single problem so clearly illustrate the privilege of White America compared to the threats faced by people of color. It is an even more striking problem when considering the “collateral damage” suffered by the populace in Mexico as a result of American’s thirst for black market narcotics. This single issue is perhaps the most important when considering how best to solve both issues with immigration and our most at-risk and poor citizens. There are glowing examples across the globe of how best to tackle the problems surrounding drug abuse, no better example than that of Portugal. As a nation Portugal decriminalized drugs and was able to successfully decrease the number of addicts, casual drug users, HIV infections from drug use, and prison incarcerations as a result of drug violations. There is perhaps no better model in the world on the benefits of decriminalizing drugs – the United States can significantly improve the lives of our most troubled citizens, and address immigration policy vicariously, by improving our drug prohibition policies.


Macedo outlines that “borders are morally significant because they bound systems of collective self-governance” (pg. 73). He goes on to state, “we are born into political communities and are formed by them. From cradle to grave (and beyond), our interests, identities, relationships, and opportunities are pervasively shaped by the political system and the laws that we collectively create, coercively impose, and live within” (pg. 74). Essentially, for Macedo, as collective members of a community our entire belief structure, and thus our political impetus, is formulated by the significance of our borders and our residence within them. With this view in mind, Macedo contends that there can be no cosmopolitan distributive justice, “as opposed to a duty to assist other peoples to become self-governing,” (pg. 74) absent a cosmopolitan state. Macedo is clear, however, in stating that societies have a duty to deal with each other fairly and it might be in doing so that they can bring some form or semblance of distributive justice into being through mutually beneficial relationships.

It is apparent that Macedo’s analysis of “fair dealing” is insufficient when considering the role the United States plays abroad and in shaping the struggles of our own citizens domestically. I admitted earlier, albeit this admission goes against my predilection for libertarian politics, that we as citizens have strong “special obligations” to our poorer fellow citizens. My support of these special obligations is currently rooted in the necessity of making our processes fair in relationship to the needs and struggles of those poorer fellow citizens. Whereas Macedo has singled-out immigration as a point of contention, I believe the primary actors worthy of our focused attentions are solely domestic in variety.

Macedo’s premise is that any form of low-skilled immigration is harmful to the less-well off in the United States. The premise is debatable and, in fact, may be completely false. Should Macedo be incorrect, and should the policy be adopted based on his assumption and understanding of the arguments against immigration based on distributive justice, it is entirely possible that Macedo’s policy would have an even greater negative impact on our poor. However, even if Macedo is correct it is still plausible that the net-positive impact of limiting immigration would have a negligible effect.

If the United States is going to undertake serious reforms in immigration policy than those reforms must begin with a greater focus on making our special obligations to our citizens easier to satisfy. The debate on immigration has many more moving pieces than simply sweeping national policy changes or considerations in “membership in a self-governing community” (pg. 77). If the United States continues to wage wars on opponents which exist merely in the form of a narcotic, those wars will have casualties which complicate our special obligations. The drug war also exploits and deteriorates the ability for Mexican immigrants to live unmolested from foreign U.S. intervention – certainly this is worthy of consideration. Beyond our border with Mexico are concerns with U.S. policy in terms of waging war with the spectre of terror, engaging in acts of regime change, and escalating drone bombing campaigns in order to exorcise terrorism – these actions create significant collateral damage. What answers does Macedo’s application of distributive justice give us when considering the exploitive and deadly relationship the U.S. has with foreign citizens? Is our humanitarianism limited to increases in income redistribution abroad? If so, do we also increase our income redistribution domestically to compensate and/or justify foreign spending? And how do we reconcile each of those answers with our massive national debt?

Macedo’s argument is that “Immigration policy – as part of the basic structure of social institutions – ought to be answerable to the interests of the poorest Americans.” I find this argument unsatisfying. If something as important as the U.S. immigration policy is going to be answerable to the poorest Americans, we must reconcile this power against the vast number of policies which are not answerable to those same people. Drug policy disproportionately affects the poorest communities, in fact may be the overwhelming source of their poverty and a source of immigration controversy. Issues with operational licensing disproportionately affect the poorest communities, in fact – these issues prevent the poorest of the poor from finding the upward mobility they need to increase their income. Finally, the immigration debate is not a debate that can be effectively waged at a national level. If all citizens are part of self-governing communities, and thus form a pact of special obligations, then all citizens must consider the pros and cons of immigration based on their local, civil, community needs. It is irresponsible to argue that immigration has the same effects on all citizens equally – it clearly does not.

I believe that in order to satisfy the problem of a moral dilemma surrounding the immigration debate, we must first solve the moral dilemmas surrounding several issues with domestic U.S. policy which disproportionately harm the poor. Until such a time as we are able to effectively address needs in criminal justice reform and barriers to entry into an economy that is increasingly providing income mobility, there is little to gain and perhaps much to lose in framing the immigration debate as “poor versus poor.” Furthermore, it would appear that quality of life for the poorest Americans, while still difficult, has increased significantly over the last several decades. These quality of life increases should not be ignored when considering what, if any, impact immigration has on the poorest U.S. citizens.

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