Grappling with Immigration

by Conor Friedersdorf

In an earlier post, I recommended Jim Manzi's piece, "Keeping America's Edge," and here I want to zero in on its recommendations about immigration policy, a debate that is certain to arise again sooner or later, especially if the current economic downturn long endures.

Is there any policy question as vexing? Every American citizen is something of a gatekeeper for this prosperous land, deciding via their franchise how many others might partake of its fruits. Prudence and necessity demand some limit, but setting any limit forces us to confront the existence of extreme material deprivation -- it is possible, living most places in the United States, to forget about poverty of the kind that is endemic in the Third World, whereas truly grappling with any cap on immigration requires knowingly preventing some number of people from escaping that kind of poverty.

My preference is for relatively high levels of immigration. It seems just to extend to others the means by which our forefathers arrived here; the benefits enjoyed by the average immigrant far exceeds the costs he or she imposes; and personally, I delight in immigrant culture, whether the Polish enclaves that endure in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the Latino diaspora that's brought street mangos to Pilsen, Chicago, or the sundry nationalities you find in the East Bay -- and it is no coincidence that my two favorite places on earth are California and Spain. Spend any time around representative immigrant communities and it is impossible to hear xenophobic nonsense without feeling one's blood boil, and pondering how absurd are many of the negative stereotypes served up by garden variety racists.

Of course, relatively high levels of immigration comes at a significantly lower cost to me, a writer raised in an upper middle class home and educated in Catholic schools, than it does to the lower middle class -- immigrants among them! -- who must compete for jobs with new immigrants, attend school in classrooms where progress is slowed by language barriers, and grapple with the higher crime rates and public health problems seen in some immigrant enclaves.

Partly for these reasons, there is a near consensus in America that unlimited immigration via entirely open borders is not viable. What frustrates me is that, among many of the folks who style themselves immigrant advocates or pro-immigration, there is an utter refusal to articulate specific, workable views about what the limits should be, let alone to abide enforcing limits that are duly signed into law. One pernicious effect is that restrictionists are the only game in town for folks who want to enforce some limits on immigration, hence the rise of demagogues like Joe Arapaio, who are able to cast their extra-legal racial profiling as a defense of American sovereignty, rather than the assault on even legal Latino immigrants that it frequently ends up being.

Even the ill-conceived, so-called comprehensive immigration reform championed by George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, legislation that would've institutionalized a second class of non-citizen guest workers at the mercy of their employers, wouldn't have resolved questions about limits and enforcement, except temporarily. What foolishness to imagine that short term boon was worth violating what ought to be a foundational aspect of any immigration regime: that the newcomers are welcomed as full citizens with the same rights as everyone else, an obvious enough arrangement if from them one expects commensurate loyalty.

So what does Mr. Manzi recommend?

...we should reconceptualize immigration as recruiting. Assimilating immigrants is a demonstrated core capability of America's political economy and it is one we should take advantage of. A robust-yet-reasonable amount of immigration is healthy for America. It is a continuing source of vitality and, in combination with birth rates around the replacement level, creates a sustainable rate of overall ­population growth and age-demographic balance. But unfortunately, the manner in which we have actually handled immigration since the 1970s has yielded large-scale legal and illegal immigration of a low-skilled population from Latin America. It is hard to imagine a more damaging way to expose the fault lines of America's political economy: We have chosen a strategy that provides low-wage gardeners and nannies for the elite, low-cost home improvement and fresh produce for the middle class, and fierce wage competition for the working class.

Instead, we should think of immigration as an opportunity to improve our stock of human capital. Once we have re-established control of our southern border, and as we preserve our commitment to political asylum, we should also set up recruiting offices looking for the best possible talent everywhere: from Mexico City to Beijing to Helsinki to Calcutta. Australia and Canada have demonstrated the practicality of skills-based immigration policies for many years. We should improve upon their example by using testing and other methods to apply a basic tenet of all human capital-intensive organizations managing for the long term: Always pick talent over skill. It would be great for America as a whole to have, say, 500,000 smart, motivated people move here each year with the intention of becoming citizens.

This is an imperfect foundation for a system of immigration, to be sure, but I am hard pressed to articulate anything better, and it offers substantial upsides that are absent from the present approach.

Beyond the economic boon of high skill immigration -- nothing to scoff at for a country in fiscal shape as bad as ours -- a system that sought talent would do three things: 1) lessen the burden on the Americans who are least equipped to compete with immigrants in competition for jobs; 2) act as a counter to the populist notion that immigration is bad for America, thus ensuring that future immigrants will continue to be welcomed and lessening social tensions; 3) were the system set up the right way, it might also create good incentives in various countries, encouraging remittance-hungry governments to set up educational opportunities for their best and brightest, and basically extending the American dream to young ambitious people who'd perhaps think of our country more favorably given the prospect of being able to immigrate here if they reach certain meritocratic benchmarks.

On a subject as complicated as this one, I try to keep all my conclusions provisional -- my mind is always open to better immigration regimes than I've considered -- but I'd ask critics, whose push back I eagerly await, to answer one question: Is our current system, or some other realistic system, any better overall than what Mr. Manzi has proposed?