Nine Reader Views on the State of Immigration Policy

“America is by no means running up against scarcity,” one writes.

a truck parked in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico
Ariana Drehsler / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked about your views on immigration. Harold’s personal history informs his support for it:

If current immigration policy was in place at the turn of the 20th century, I would not be here now. My great-great-grandparents immigrated from Croatia and Hungary, then both part of the Austria-Hungarian empire. They were serfs whose families worked the fields. As peasants they would ostensibly have had nothing to offer America other than their raw labor. They worked the mines of Pennsylvania to stake out a better life for themselves.

Five generations later, I have the opportunity to do the same and to contribute to America in a way that only incremental generational progress allows. My children—and, should they decide to have their own, my grandchildren—will carry on the legacy and continue to build something better. That is only possible because my ancestors were given a chance.

America is by no means running up against scarcity. Some 30 to 40 percent of food goes to waste by American consumers. At least in the small metro area where I live, there are 800 vacant houses, slowly decaying for lack of tenants. We can afford to accommodate more immigrants. Given our excesses, I’d say we are morally obligated to open our borders to them. Instead, some governors are treating them as mere objects as they ship them hungry and scared across the country without coordinating the resources that are needed to appropriately care for them in their suffering. Most of us are here thanks to immigration. Shouldn’t we give that same opportunity to someone else?

Jonathan favors spreading immigrants more evenly around the country:

We should be making it easier for immigrants to disperse and establish themselves wherever they see fit. The federal government should sponsor and oversee the voluntary transportation of immigrants from the southern border to destinations across the nation. This will relieve the burden placed upon Border States to support immigrants who often lack the resources to get to their ultimate destinations. Nationalize Texas’s program of bussing to ensure immigrants can get where they need to go, wherever they need to go, and remove the political incentives to show off in front of the cameras.

Furthermore, we should institute programs that incentivize immigrants to settle down in the areas of the country that could most benefit from their presence. While many immigrants arrive with destinations in mind, they are often headed to cities that are already suffering from extremely high costs of living that will only become more unaffordable in the coming years. Instead, immigrants should be encouraged to settle down in affordable cities like Cleveland, Peoria, and Memphis. We should also look beyond the cities, however, to small towns and rural communities as destinations for immigrants, where shrinking populations are dragging down local economies and where entrepreneurial ambition is sorely needed. These goals can be supported by educational vouchers, small business loans, land grants, and other programs.

Zachary has had “a progressive attitude towards immigration” for most of his life, but “that has changed in the last year,” he writes:

I work daily with highly educated, accomplished immigrants in a scientific industry. I have always been in favor of immigration as a matter of humanity (we have the capacity to help) and since it’s good for the economy and America’s competitive edge. The reason I have changed my stance is simple: man-made climate change. I can no longer square the existential threat that climate change poses to our civilization with immigration.

The American lifestyle has one of the highest carbon footprints of any country. To bring immigrants into our lifestyle—especially from undeveloped countries—means that once in America, their average lifetime carbon emissions will skyrocket, exponentially so if they have children raised in the American lifestyle, as compared to if they never left their country. We should of course continue to fight climate change in other ways, but drastically reducing immigration is a simple and easy way to aid that effort compared to other options.

Thomas urges a utilitarian attitude toward immigration:

Immigration ought to be treated like any other policy decision, as a cost benefit analysis. Anyone who moves here and can get a job and be self-supporting benefits existing citizens more than they cost them. Anyone who was worth the while of a foreign repressive government to persecute (a genuine asylum seeker) is almost certainly a high-value future citizen. Immigration laws and their enforcement ought to be about recruiting people likely to produce the most benefits and keep out those who will produce costs.  For lower-skilled immigrants, it may take time for them to become net assets and so we should modulate the flow of these so that not too many arrive at the same time.  There should be no limit on H1b-type visas. Almost all foreign university graduates should be offered residence. Enforcement should focus on removing criminals.

Eric suggests an administrative reform that would help longtime U.S. residents who are here unlawfully:

I’m an immigration attorney in Atlanta, Georgia practicing family-based immigration, removal defense, some asylum, and petitions relating to the Violence Against Women Act. Neither I, nor any of my colleagues who actively work to facilitate immigration into this country every day, support the false version of “open borders” caricatured by rightwing fearmongers. I believe that our country, like all countries, should be able to control immigration flows. I also believe that our current system is flawed and fails to provide a meaningful pathway to legal status for many immigrants whom the average American would desire to let live here if acquainted with them. Every day, I talk directly with immigrants from all over the world. Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, Latin Americans, Canadians, you name it. Aside from a few jerks here and there, they all have one thing in common: they love America so much that they're willing to leave behind their lives and histories to come to our country. They want to stay here, they want their families to thrive, and that means they want America to thrive. They don’t want to make America like X country. They left that place. They want to be in America.

Right now, there are two primary hardship standards applied when reviewing waivers of immigration violations: “extreme” and “exceptional and extremely unusual.” The “extreme” hardship standard is used in the context of I-212 applications and I-601 waivers, for immigrants who otherwise have the ability to get green cards, but who have some blemish on their record (like having been here without a visa for over a year), and need to ask for forgiveness from the government. It is a reasonable standard. If you can show that a qualifying relative (U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or parent) will suffer “extreme” hardship if you are not granted the waiver, then the federal government will waive the associated penalty (such as the three- or 10-year bar on reentry) and allow you to then apply for lawful status.

However, the “exceptional and extremely unusual” hardship standard is very high and burdensome, and, if amended, could provide a huge boon to a lot of people, citizens and non-citizens alike.

This comes into play most commonly in the context of a person who has already lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years, but who is facing possible removal, and files an EOIR-42B application with an immigration court, in hopes of being forgiven for living here unlawfully and permitted to remain with their family in the U.S. If the immigrant can show that he or she has lived here for 10 years prior to the initiation of removal proceedings, has good moral character, has not been convicted of disqualifying criminal activity, and has a qualifying relative (U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident parent, spouse, or child) who will suffer “exceptional and extremely unusual” hardship, then the immigration court may, in its discretion, grant the application and permit the immigrant to remain here. There is no good centralized data source on the approval/denial rates, but from my years of experience and the decades of experience from friends and colleagues, I assume upwards of 90 percent of these cases are denied on the question of hardship alone.

This means that a person who has managed to live an otherwise law-abiding life (criminal history requirements), who has paid taxes (good moral character requirements), and integrated with his or her community (10-year presence requirements) must leave behind loving family members relying on his or her support simply because those family members do not have a life-threatening form of cancer, or debilitating disability, or other “exceptional and extremely unusual” problem. Almost nobody qualifies. So, families are torn apart, communities are wrecked, businesses crumble, and there are no good solutions, since most of the immigrants must choose whether to relocate with their family, or separate from them for at least 10 years. We would be better served by permitting someone to remain here than banishing them from their families. This would not increase the numbers of recent arrivals permitted to remain in the U.S. and would do little to incentivize bad behavior, since it only applies to those who have managed to reside here for over a decade. But it would redirect our retributive instincts (10 years of exile as punishment that serves no other valid purpose) towards rehabilitation. We could even toss in some higher fines to go with it, and I believe that 100 percent of immigrants who qualify would pay them. This would help lots and lots of people, and it’s not something the public has any opinion on, so it’s a theoretical political winner. But we need to get the movers and shakers on board. If you know any movers or shakers, please try to persuade them.

T. strongly favors more immigration to improve the country:

It is no easy thing for people to leave the place where they were born and set out on an often-dangerous journey to a land where the language and customs are vastly different.  Throughout our history those with courage and guts have set out for America in hope of a better life. These are exactly the kind of people that have made our country great: hard-working, ambitious, and intent upon improving their lot. We should be proud that they want to come here, and welcome as many as possible, helping support them in the transition to their new lives.  They will repay us many times over with the new businesses they create, jobs that go with them, and the enrichment of our culture.

I ran across this quote a few years ago:

“Few of their children in the country know English.  They import many books from _____.  They will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will, in my opinion, not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” The speaker was Ben Franklin, and he was talking about Germans. Substitute Mexico or El Salvador today, and you will hear the same fearful attitudes expressed. And yet we have always assimilated immigrants, and they and their descendants have made us a stronger and better nation.

Herb worries that America is getting too populous:

We need to look at immigration numbers and their effects on the overall size of the U.S. population. We are already running out of places for U.S. residents to live, already consuming more than our share of natural resources, already running out of water—so how can we justify continuing to grow the size of our U.S. population? I believe we need to place U.S. population stability, and eventually even gradual reduction, at the top of our list of priorities, and then consider immigration numbers within that context. And we have to realize that we can’t simply accept as refugees all the immigrants who are coming here because their home states are failing. Yes, we can accept a certain number of refugees who are fleeing from war, and we can do more to help improve the conditions around the world that are motivating so many to come. But we can’t simply be the sponge that endlessly absorbs every person who manages to somehow make it to our shores.

Still, immigrants have always, and probably will always, be part of our national lifeblood, a source of fresh energy and new ideas. For the ones who meet the criteria, we should welcome them with open arms and help them to become vital members of our society.

Viewing the issue from a national-security perspective, Nels comes to a different conclusion about the numbers question:

If we want to compete with China in 2072 then we need to drastically increase our legal immigration. Americans just aren't having enough babies. We need to keep growing our economy to compete with China and we won’t be able to do that with a shrinking population. In a world without geopolitics then perhaps a shrinking population would just be a minor strain on our social welfare systems and we could just adopt more automation and push through. But we must absolutely not turn into a shrinking hermit kingdom at the same time the CCP is striving for global hegemony, aided by an Orwellian AI surveillance state.

And Tim ends today’s installment on an optimistic note:

Legal immigration to America is actually working pretty well! I’m used to seeing America ranked worst among developed countries in everything—education, inequality, violence, health, etc.—so it’s worth celebrating one place we’re doing better than other rich countries. Our legal immigrants work and study as those born here; they are more likely to start businesses and less likely to commit crimes. They pick up the language and culture quickly without any official pressure to drop “foreign” customs. They often come as families, and work a wide variety of jobs. We usually encourage them to put down roots and stay for good, and they can become full citizens within a decade. Legal immigrants usually live and work in the same neighborhoods as non-immigrants. Though nowhere is free from anti-immigrant bigotry, it’s worth noting that even Trump, our [former] xenophobe-in-chief, is married to an immigrant.

Contrast us with France, where immigrants are concentrated in crime-ridden banlieues on the outskirts of major cities. Or the Middle East, where [many] immigrants perform menial labor with few rights and no opportunity for citizenship. We have a lot of problems with our immigration system (especially with illegal/undocumented migration), but things could be a lot worse.