Above all other unintended consequences of immigration engineering has been the flourishing of undocumented immigration. Before the United States began to enforce the 1924 law, there really was no such thing as undocumented immigration as we know it. It was invented by legislators who wanted to close the border. And the vast, costly deportation apparatus that has been built as a result has created new problems, too.
In the 1980s, the gang MS-13 rose to prominence in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles and the city’s prisons. The largest proportion of its members were Salvadoran. Under President Bill Clinton, a special effort was launched to return gang members to their country of origin, to insulate the U.S. from their violence. Instead, it exported MS-13 to El Salvador, where it has metastasized and spread throughout Central America, causing people desperate to flee to—you guessed it—seek asylum in the United States.
Policy outcomes like the ones I have described didn’t happen because past lawmakers were less intelligent or less informed than today’s. They happened because population-level predictions, especially about things such as human movement, are often wrong. We might think we’re savvier about how to design a population than we were in 1924, but nothing Congress has done in the interim suggests that’s the case.
Even eliminating family-reunification visas, as Frum proposes, could trigger as many problems as its detractors claim the program causes. Family reunification is a classic example of a conservative-friendly policy because it outsources many costs of immigration to sponsoring families. I do not just refer to the fact that sponsors must meet income requirements sufficient to provide for the immigrants in case of need, but also to the fact that they absorb the costs of integration through organic social networks. In skills- and points-based systems, countries provide integration resources to help new arrivals find homes, navigate employment, learn the language, and perform the other hard work of integration. Canada, which uses a points-based immigration system and also admits refugees, spent 1.2 billion Canadian dollars on immigrant integration in its 2016–17 fiscal year.
There are costs created when poor immigrants enter the country. But there are also costs to keeping them out or replacing them with “better” immigrants. Losing the resources of families who sponsor immigrants is just one example. We also don’t know what price we will pay for restricting legal immigration, skimming the best-educated members of other countries, drastically reducing remittances sent to poor and unstable countries, and myriad other very likely outcomes of transforming our immigration system.
Immigration restrictionists justify their position by pointing to nativist-populist anger, a wildly inegalitarian and under-resourced public-education system, unplanned growth, our outsize contributions to climate change, an inadequate social-welfare and health-care system, and the uncertainty that comes with a rapidly changing economy. If we want to tackle those challenges, we should do so head-on. Reducing and changing the immigrant population won’t solve these disparate and complicated problems, but it will likely create new ones.