The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

AEI Immigration Reform Panel


I was part of a debate sponsored by AEI and America’s Future Foundation last night (thanks for the invitation, guys), and to my surprise I represented the “restrictionist” position by default. I found this surprising because, as many of you know, I actually favor a pretty large amount of immigration. Adam Ozimek has collected immigration numbers from various market democracies, and though I disagree with his conclusion, I will happily exploit his numbers to say that I’d be comfortable with immigrant inflow as a percentage of total population somewhere between the Italian (0.6 percent) and the Canadian (0.8 percent) level rather than our current 0.4 percent, provided it is overwhelmingly tilted towards high-skilled immigrants with a high degree of English language proficiency. 

One of my co-panelists claimed that Republicans could outflank Democrats — and more broadly stick it to “the Left” on — immigration by favoring a vast guest worker program, the beneficiaries of which, I assume judging by his broader remarks, would be barred from joining labor unions, etc. Somehow I suspect many Americans would object to this approach, and that Democrats, and indeed some Republicans, could make a pretty compelling case that this represents a pretty problematic approach.

Another panelist suggested that conservatives who favor increasing the amount of legal immigration, including less-skilled immigration, should appeal to social conservatives on the grounds that the founders of various restrictionist groups were environmentalists, proponents of China’s one-child policy, and (implicitly, if I understand correctly) racists. What I didn’t mention on the panel is that this argument was greatly strengthened by Chris Hayes, the MSNBC host and left-of-center public intellectual, who wrote a fascinating profile of John Tanton, the conservationist behind some of the more vocal restrictionist groups.

What Tanton and his allies have to do with people who believe that: (a) the challenges facing less-skilled workers displaced from agricultural work over the coming decades outweigh the short-term interests of agricultural firms that choose to pursue labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive business models, and so we ought to be mindful of the potential net costs associated with an influx of less-skilled “agricultural” labor; (b) the benefits of high-skilled immigration can in an important sense be decoupled from those of less-skilled immigration, as (i) the spillover benefits from the concentration of human capital are commonly understood to be very large and (ii) we have good reason to be more concerned about less-skilled U.S. workers who are foreign-born and have limited English language proficiency than foreign workers with very similar skill profiles.

Advocates of less-skilled immigration often argue that less-skilled native-born U.S. workers with a high level of English language proficiency aren’t really competing with less-skilled immigrants with a low level of English language proficiency, which is probably true. But again, the class of workers with whom these immigrants are competing — immigrants who arrived a bit earlier — matter: if we allow far more high-skilled immigrants and the wages of these less-skilled foreign-born U.S. workers are bid up because we aren’t allowing “enough” less-skilled immigration, I don’t necessarily see that as a problem. Rather, I imagine it will have fairly straightforward consequences: some firms will shift to more capital-intensive business models for services, etc.; some of these foreign-born U.S. workers will climb into middle-income status. 

As I tried to argue during the debate, we can argue numbers — groups like Numbers USA want, not surprisingly, pretty low numbers — and we can argue about the composition of the influx. My view is that we can have pretty high numbers if the composition of the influx is weighted pretty heavily towards high-skilled workers who are likely to have a substantially positive net fiscal impact over the life course. 

The most persuasive argument against my view is that we can’t actually control our borders, so we might as well legalize virtually all immigration. This view has the virtue of being appropriately cynical about the administrative capacity of the American state. But I’m not sure it’s true. That is, we will never be able to perfectly enforce immigration laws, but we can do a better or worse job. Given Mexico’s economic rise, and the fact that net migration between the U.S. and Mexico has fallen to zero, it is easy to imagine a time in the not too distant future when the U.S.-Mexican border will be an entirely manageable problem from an immigration enforcement standpoint. Violation of visa terms, which is already a crucial part of the immigration enforcement challenge, will come to the fore. And in this domain, there is much we can learn from, for example, Canada. This doesn’t change the fact that black market demand for less-skilled labor will persist. But the appropriate response is akin to what I take to be the most appropriate alternative to drug prohibition: in lieu of blanket legalization, we should pursue a more nuanced approach that is designed to make the most efficient use of enforcement resources. 

Regardless, you can watch the debate at C-SPAN. I’m a fast talker, and chances are you won’t be able to understand my machine-gun blasts of sleep-deprived gobbledygook. Rest assured, it is my fault, not yours. 

I will be in Seoul Monday and Tuesday of next week, so blogging might occur at unusual hours. Do not be alarmed. 


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