How much is an immigrant's life worth, exactly?

# How much is an immigrant's life worth, exactly?

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How the dismal science applies to your life.
June 12 2007 2:38 PM

# One-Fifth of an American

## How much is an immigrant's life worth, exactly?

How do you justify a border fence? Why is it OK to consign millions of unskilled Mexicans to lives of desperate poverty? I'm told it's because Americans should care more about their countrymen than about a bunch of foreigners. OK, but how much more? Surely there's some limit; virtually nobody thinks, for example, that Americans should be allowed to hunt Mexicans for sport. So, exactly how much are you willing to hurt a foreigner to help an American? Is a foreigner's well-being worth three-quarters as much as an American's, or half as much, or one-quarter as much?

(I'm grateful to the anonymous proprietor of the YouNotSneaky blog for raising this question, though my analysis is not the same as his.)

Let's do the math: When we admit an unskilled Mexican immigrant, his wage typically rises from about \$2 an hour to \$9 an hour—call it a \$7-per-hour gain. To justify keeping him out, we'll have to weigh that gain against the harm he does to Americans.

Right away, our calculation runs into a problem, because on balance immigrants don't harm Americans; virtually all economists agree that immigration makes us richer, not poorer. Every immigrant is a potential trading partner, a potential employee, and a potential customer. He bids down wages, but that's a two-edged sword: It's bad for his fellow workers, but it's good for employers and good for consumers.

In the very short run, most of the gains go to employers, and a substantial fraction of those gains probably go to people named Walton. In the somewhat longer run, all that excess profit gets competed away and shows up in the form of lower prices for consumer goods. At that point, even the workers who took pay cuts can come out ahead: If your wage falls by 10 percent while prices fall by 20 percent, you're a winner.

But let's ignore all that. In order to make the best possible anti-immigrant case, let's ignore all the benefits of immigration and focus strictly on the costs to American workers, i.e., falling wages.