The Optimist

Invasion of the Alien Cattle

Why does the United States allow more foreign cattle to immigrate than it does people?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Immigrants to the United States, rights advocates say, are treated like cattle. Little do they know how wrong they are. Cattle are treated much better. In fact, as I write, alien cows are swarming America’s borders, and the U.S. government is welcoming this mass of bovinity with open arms. Such inconsistency cries out for reform, and the steaks — pardon,  stakes — could hardly be higher.

In an age when anti-immigrant opinion shapes policy from Phoenix to Paris, there is one group that still manages to cross borders and swap nationalities with ease: cows. The United States places no caps on the number allowed in each year, and the country saw 2 million immigrant cattle in 2009, a year when only 1 million human immigrants became permanent residents and the Department of Homeland Security recorded an 800,000-person fall in the illegal immigrant population. In other words, the net flow of humans was about one-tenth the flow of cattle.

Cows can travel across global borders with relative impunity, covered by the umbrellas of the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement. When violence in Mexico made it more dangerous for U.S. government officials to travel across the border to pre-process bovine immigrants last year, the Agriculture Department immediately responded by opening up additional facilities inside the United States to ensure the cows weren’t delayed in their relocation.

And the benefits of being a bovine don’t stop at the border. Once in the United States, Canadian and Mexican cattle have to be treated just like native-born cows — they can’t be labeled differently to consumers or otherwise discriminated against. Canadian and Mexican people have no such luck. For example, Canadian Kiefer Sutherland, star of the hit TV show 24, couldn’t apply for the government job he pretends to have on TV, despite his character’s role as a forceful practitioner of truth, justice, and the American way.

One element of this bovine bias is that cows get immediate access to the U.S. welfare system. In 2009, 9 million dairy cows living in the United States received $1.35 billion in subsidies, regardless of their country of origin. That’s about $20,000 a year per bovine household (or herd, which averages around 133 cows). Meanwhile, annual payments for the average human household on welfare are only around $16,800 — and, of course, around four-fifths of legal immigrants aren’t on any type of welfare at all, while illegal and nonpermanent human residents aren’t even eligible. If you want to see a real welfare queen, check out a dairy cow.

What makes the U.S. favoritism toward cattle particularly odd is that every additional Mexican or Canuck cow actually is taking a job from a native-born cow — a common argument against letting in non-American laborers. Demand for bovine labor has been falling over time, as both milk and beef become a smaller proportion of the U.S. diet.

Conversely, for humans, the net effect of immigration has been to create more jobs for native workers — and especially low-skilled workers — according to a 2010 analysis by economists Gianmarco Ottaviano, Giovanni Peri, and Greg Wright. That’s because human immigrants boost demand for the output of other humans by doing jobs that would otherwise be outsourced abroad, producing goods for export, and spending money in the local market. Again, Peri compiles statistics from across U.S. states, finding that there is no evidence that immigrants crowd out native unskilled employment — and considerable evidence that they actually increase productivity: Each 1 percent increase in employment due to immigrants is associated with a half-percent rise in state income per worker between 1960 and 2006.

Other studies suggest a somewhat less positive picture when it comes to low-skilled immigrants — and in particular, their impact on low-skilled native-born Americans. But according to Harry Holzer of Georgetown University, the workers most likely to suffer competition at the hands of low-skilled immigrants are previous immigrants who have similar skills. Holzer also notes that both high- and low-income consumers alike benefit from the lower prices and greater availability of food, medical care, and housing that low-skilled immigrant workers produce. Meanwhile, David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, who studies inequality in American cities, argues that immigrants’ impact on inequality is "modest." The real reasons for opposition to immigration, he reasons, must be social rather than economic.

From a global perspective, it is unfortunate that cows get treated so much better at the border than people. Migration is pretty much the fastest and most reliable method for improving quality of life in the human population. Work by my colleague Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development suggests that the same worker with the same skills doing the same job can earn six times more in the United States than in India, for example. Eight out of 10 Haitians worldwide who are living on more than $10 a day are living in the United States, leaving less than one-fifth of those relatively high earners living in Haiti itself. A lot of the income that Haitian immigrants are earning — $1.5 billion-plus a year — is sent home in the form of remittances. Meanwhile, immigration is a considerably more uncertain path to quality of life for foreign cows, many of whom are destined for the slaughterhouse.

Recent U.S. government initiatives have suggested a very weak understanding of the bovine-human imbalance in immigration treatment. While discussing his proposal to put an electric fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, Rep. Steve King said in 2006, "We do this with livestock all the time." Meanwhile, U.S. federal authorities have started attaching radio-frequency ID tags, similar to those used to track farm animals, to students from India. Both approaches will likely do more harm than good in dealing with the underlying issue.

In reality, there are two ways to remedy the imbalance. First, we might realize that we are being overly restrictive about human immigrants and, for both their sake and ours, relax immigration laws. As the current pecking order stands, domestic humans come first, followed by domestic and foreign cows, and then foreign humans. The foreign humans could be moved up one spot.

But the second, and surely more likely, response is to conclude that we are being too generous to foreign cows — that we need a or a Minutesteaks militia to kick into high gear and tackle the growing bovine menace at the border. Doubtless soon will come the day when the answer to "Where’s the beef?" is "back in Tijuana, where it belongs."

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