The Immigration Paradox: Poverty, Distributive Justice, and Liberal Egalitarianism

23 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2003

See all articles by Howard F. Chang

Howard F. Chang

University of Pennsylvania Law School


The immigration of unskilled workers poses a fundamental problem for liberals. While from the perspective of the economic welfare of natives, the optimal policy would be to admit these aliens as guest workers, this policy would violate liberal egalitarian ideals. These ideals would treat these resident workers as equals, entitled to access to citizenship and to the full set of public benefits provided to citizens. If the welfare of all incumbent residents determines admissions policies, however, and we anticipate the fiscal burden that the immigration of the poor would impose, then our welfare criterion would preclude the admission of unskilled workers in the first place. Thus, our commitment to treat these workers as equals once admitted would cut against their admission and make them worse off than they would be if we agreed never to treat them as equals. A liberal can avoid this anomaly by adopting a cosmopolitan perspective that extends equal concern to all individuals, including aliens, which suggests liberal immigration policies for unskilled workers. The problem with this escape from the "immigration paradox" is the failure of most citizens to adopt such a cosmopolitan perspective. As long as citizens are reluctant to bear the fiscal burdens that cosmopolitan liberalism would impose, constraints of political feasibility may imply that guest-worker programs are the best policies that cosmopolitan liberals can obtain with respect to many unskilled alien workers.

Keywords: Immigration, discrimination

Suggested Citation

Chang, Howard F., The Immigration Paradox: Poverty, Distributive Justice, and Liberal Egalitarianism. Available at SSRN: or

Howard F. Chang (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

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