In an article titled Why FWD.us is wrong about Bernie Sanders, Mark Ames argues that libertarian immigration advocates just want to drive down American wages and force migrants to be indentured servants who can’t quit their jobs. Bernie Sanders called open borders a "Koch brothers proposal" for similar reasons.
Ames is correct in his claim that immigrant workers will refrain from resisting workplace abuses, and therefore accept lower wages, when they are tied to specific firms and can’t quit without fear of deportation. Ames incorrectly assumes that libertarians support such a policy. Current exploitation of migrants is merely a symptom of restrictive government visa policies, by removing those restrictions libertarian reforms would curb workplace abuses.
Open borders means that anybody can enter, no immigrants gets deported, and foreign-born workers have just as much of a right to change employers as anybody else. Make no mistake – open borders is a radical proposal that sits far outside the current Trump-tinged Overton window but libertarian immigration advocates still argue for increasing the mobility of migrant workers.
Ames claims that scholars at the Cato Institute support an immigration policy that prevents the movement of workers between employers.
That means promoting policies that on the one hand encourage undocumented or documented immigrants into the US workforce; and on the other hand, creating conditions under which they’re terrified of getting out of line or screwing up on the job. An H-1B visa (or H-2) is great in that way—if the visa holder loses his or her job, the visa is pulled, and it’s back to the miserable homeland.
So, naturally, the Kochs’ CATO Institute is a big promoter of unrestricted H-1B visas and labor immigration.
Had Ames bothered to read anything Cato had published regarding immigration, he would have discovered that the current policy of tying visas to specific jobs is considered a problem precisely because of the capacity for abuse. Shockingly, libertarians who care about individual rights also care about the individual right to quit one’s job and take another without asking the government for permission. The immobile H1-B policy not only risks trapping employees under abusive bosses, but reduces broader mobility in the labor market, leading to systemic inefficiency. In How to Make Guest Worker Visas Work, Alex Nowrasteh writes;
When guest workers are legally tied to employers, abuses can occur. In a free labor market, employees who experience or fear abuse can leave their employer and seek a job elsewhere. But due to bureaucratic hurdles and the threat of being removed from the United States, some workers stay with bad bosses. This problem is entirely created by guest worker programs that restrict worker mobility.
Far from crafting policy that provides bosses the greatest possible leverage over their employees, libertarians worry that current government policy unduly advantages employers, effectually granting them greater bargaining power than they would enjoy in a Laissez-faire environment. Nowrasteh doubles down on this point in The Sanders Campaign’s Shoddy Defense of Closed Borders, stating that “The problem of migrant worker abuse exists because guest worker programs are more restrictive.”
There are many real world abuses of migrant workers happening today. They are prevented from taking time off and are denied severance pay when fired. However, these problems will be solved by attempting to keep migrants out, or further limiting the issuance of visas. Immigrants will continue to come so long as there is a demand for their labor. Like the problem of illegal drug use, illegal immigration will not be solved by an attack on supply. Forcing the market for immigrant labor underground will only rob foreign workers of legal dispute resolution methods. By increasing visa issuance rates and mobility, workers will be empowered to vote with their feet if they dislike their workplace, and seek legal redress without fear of deportation if their employers violate workplace safety laws.
If you truly care about the welfare of immigrant workers, you need to look beyond our borders and our laws, to the jurisdictions from which immigrants originate. Capitalists have certainly used the state to reduce the bargaining power of workers in America, but their conditions under US labor laws are far better than those in the places they come from. Just as dangerous working conditions and disease dive rural laborers into comparatively safer city sweatshops, American workplaces, held to vastly higher health and safety standards than their counterparts in developing nations, offer immigrants better lives than they would find elsewhere. Constructive change rarely comes all at once, but those that can find their way to America immediately see huge increases in their wages and standards of living.
Ames conjures the boogeyman of capitalist exploitation to make the perfect the enemy of the good. However, he blames capitalism for the results of government visa regulations intended to protect American workers. The capacity for exploitation he so fears stems from the state’s power to deport, a power no capitalist can acquire on his own. Unless we wish to trap the global poor in sweatshops, or worse, our efforts should focus on improving labor standards and immigrant rights within the United States, instead of keeping the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses at bay until we perfect the American experiment. Who knows, the folks we let in might have some good ideas.