The Baffling Politics of Immigration

Disagreement over immigration cuts through every ideological alignment, setting brother against brother, and activist against activist.

As a recent immigrant, I find the politics of immigration in this country even more perplexing than the visa requirements—and in case you are unfamiliar with those rules, that is saying something. The issue throws up some strange arguments and alliances, some peculiar and memorable images.

One I won't forget is the sight of Christopher Hitchens, like me an Englishman by birth, celebrating his new American citizenship last week by having Lou Dobbs fasten an American flag pin to his lapel. The scourge of idle orthodoxy—who but Hitchens, peace be upon him, could be driven to rage by Mother Teresa and righteous compassion by Paul Wolfowitz?—meets the solemn tele-champion of populist demagoguery, a man who before much longer will be sporting epaulets and calling for Mexican heads on pikes all along the southern border. Dobbs himself expressed some doubts about the occasion. "I can imagine viewers right now asking, 'What is Dobbs doing, talking to Hitchens? What is Hitchens doing, taking on God?' " (Point of clarification: He wasn't referring to himself in that second part, I think, but to the subject of Hitchens's new book.)

Well, put my reaction down to envy.

If I ever meet the stringent requirements for citizenship—and did I mention I will do whatever it takes?—I want Dobbs to pin my flag on, too. Anyone can dream, can't he?

Democrats are split on immigration, Republicans are split, the unions are split, and the pro-business types are split. Are unskilled immigrants pushing down wages, taking American jobs, overburdening the schools, straining the public purse, slowing traffic on the freeways, and driving up crime? Yes, all of that and worse, say Dobbs and the other get-tough people. Are they indispensable to the American economy, doing jobs that no American would want, holding down prices, and generally paying their way? Yes, all of that and more, says the other side. The disagreement cuts through every ideological alignment, setting brother against brother, activist against activist, corporate spokesman against corporate spokesman.

The Heritage Foundation, for instance, a think tank that usually stands for freedom and enterprise (and which publishes each year the indispensable Index of Economic Freedom), is part of the get-tough crowd. One of its economists has just published a detailed analysis concluding that unskilled workers in general and immigrants in particular impose a heavy fiscal burden on the American taxpayer. If only unskilled workers could be entirely eliminated, and illegal immigrants shipped home, it seems to argue, we wouldn't need taxes and we'd all be tens of thousands of dollars a year better off. On the other hand, think what it would cost to get your house cleaned. It took the bleeding hearts at the Immigration Policy Center ("Mi casa, su casa") not only to point out that illegal immigrants have no entitlement to the benefits discussed in the Heritage paper but also to teach the free-market think tank a bit of classical-liberal economics—starting with the proposition that a person's value to society is not confined to his net position in the public-sector accounts.

The intraparty splits on Capitol Hill make it difficult to say what legislation on the issue, if any, Congress will eventually enact. At midweek, Arlen Specter emerged from tortuous negotiations in the Senate on immigration reform legislation to call for more time. Majority Leader Harry Reid had set a deadline of Monday for producing a consensus bill; if the talks between opposing sides have yielded no agreement by then, Reid said, he might put last year's Senate-passed bill on the floor for debate. In that case, Specter seemed to say, a filibuster was possible. Given more time, however, a "grand bargain" was within reach.

If the measure he sketched really is a breakthrough "grand bargain," please don't show me any squalid phony compromises. The senators appear to be focusing their attention on a show of standard punitive elements (a much bigger Border Patrol, sanctions on employers of undocumented immigrants, etc.) to prove they are firm on the subject, combined with a series of institutionalized delays (called, in an Orwellian flourish that Hitchens would enjoy, "triggers") to ensure that matters such as the status of the immigrants already here will not be addressed in the foreseeable future. Above all, let there be no talk of amnesty—a notion that now seems to encompass any measure that contemplates "legalization opportunities." We have millions of illegal immigrants, and whatever else happens, they are going to stay illegal.

The strangest thing of all, of course, is that this gathering moral panic about immigration is happening in, of all places, the United States—a country that offers definitive proof of the strength and vitality of a nation powered by immigrants. The country needs to look no further than its own history to see that the principal fear aroused by the incomers—namely, "they are taking our jobs"—is false. Yes, millions of new immigrants, legal and illegal, are in the country. But look at the unemployment rate. What is the problem?

What ought to be the easiest point to grasp always gets overlooked: The number of jobs in the economy is not fixed. As the population has grown, the number of jobs has grown with it. This is not a lucky coincidence, something that could have gone either way. New workers add to the supply of labor and, owing to the fact that they spend their incomes, to the demand for labor as well. To a first order of approximation, every new worker creates the demand for one new job. That is why the working-age population of immigrants and nonimmigrants alike can soar, while total employment soars right along with it.

Such are the attractions of the United States as a place to live and work, some controls are necessary. An unimpeded surge of immigrants really would pose problems. And it is right that once controls are in place, they should be enforceable and enforced. The fact remains that politicians of both parties are vastly exaggerating the difficulties. Compared with other countries, the United States has a huge advantage: It succeeds, to a very unusual degree, in assimilating its immigrants and putting them to work. European countries find it difficult to do either—for cultural and historical reasons, presumably, in the first case, and because of overextended welfare states in the second. If America moves to a regime that makes it harder for people living here to become American, and that makes it more difficult for immigrants to get work, those advantages will be compromised. America's immigration problem will start to look like Europe's, which is not a good idea.

Aside from creating their own demand for labor, immigrants also meet a pre-existing need for low-skill workers. To get a sense of the tonic that a crackdown on illegal immigrants would be for the economy, look at the other end of the labor market—the market for highly skilled immigrants.

Such people work in formal settings visible to the authorities, so illegal immigration cannot expand to meet excess demand. Controls are tight. The standard permission for a highly educated worker to sign on with an American company and reside in the United States is the H-1B visa. Numbers are severely restricted, and the annual quota typically kicks in each year in a matter of weeks. Once the quota is filled, there is no more immigration that year (except for a lucky few, through an even more demanding application process, but don't get me started on that). It is a strict regime with very little evasion—just what the get-tough people want to see across the board. Do the results look good?

Ask Microsoft, or any number of other high-tech American enterprises—ask the very companies on which America depends for its competitiveness and future economic prospects. They are in despair over this restricted immigration regime. They simply want to hire the best engineers and other skilled personnel they can find, regardless of where they come from. Piling absurdity on absurdity, many of these sought-after employees have been trained in American universities, partly at America's expense. Give them Ph.D.s and then make them leave. How's that for industrial policy? What could make more sense than to let those people stay and work—not to mention (Heritage Foundation, you will like this part) pay lots of taxes?

If they cannot come in, a mixture of two things will happen. America's leading companies will be put at a disadvantage in global markets—or else they will take the jobs to the workers they want, by moving parts of their engineering and other leading-edge activities to new units overseas. In fact, this is happening. It surely ranks as one of the stupidest errors that American economic policy makers have ever made. And that, again, is saying something.