The Visible and the Invisible Effects of Immigration Policy

by Reihan Salam

Ramesh Ponnuru raises an important question: in their recent op-ed weighing in on the immigration debate, Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates devote far more attention to increasing high-skilled immigration, comparatively little to legalizing unauthorized immigrants, and none to increasing low-skilled immigration. This clearly suggests that the three billionaires, like many policymakers, believe that while the case for increasing low-skilled immigration is not entirely clear-cut, the case for increasing high-skilled immigration is quite strong. So why can’t Congress move ahead with a bill focused solely on increasing high-skilled immigration? 

[T]he reason nothing like that has happened is that advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” have insisted on holding the issue of high-skilled immigration hostage to the resolution of other issues, such as legalization and the creation of a guest-worker program.

That strategy makes a certain kind of sense. Advocates of comprehensive reform know that if a high-skill bill passes, the coalition for their broader proposal loses a lot of support from, well, the likes of Adelson, Buffett and Gates. (And by “support” I mean campaign contributions and ads.) But the strategy works only if the hostages go along, and never demand that stand-alone vote or even acknowledge the truth of their situation.

One of the reasons the hostages go along, however, is that while a high-skilled-only bill would have the backing of the financial services and technology sectors, it would do little for agribusiness and hospitality and tourism, thus shrinking the coalition in favor. Democrats would tend to oppose the bill, as they are heavily invested in the idea of legalizing the unauthorized population, and they recognize that separating the high-skilled component from the rest will greatly weaken the political impetus to do so. This is why I suspect that the most realistic settlement consistent with the goal of limiting future low-skilled immigration as the labor market prospects of low-skilled workers continues to deteriorate would involve some form of legalization, such as Peter Skerry’s notion of normalization without citizenship.

A Reason-Rupe survey conducted last winter found that while Democrats and Republicans have broadly similar views about high-skilled and low-skilled legal immigration (large pluralities in favor of the status quo among Democrats and Republicans, with somewhat more support for increasing the caps than for decreasing them), Democrats are far more likely to support legalization for the unauthorized than Republicans. This could derive from the fact that, as the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests, liberal voters tend to be more motivated by sympathy for the visible victims of misfortune while conservative voters tend to place a higher emphasis on proportionality, or procedural fairness. While the media outlets often tell emotionally moving stories about unauthorized immigrants threatened with deportation, it doesn’t tell such stories about, say, hard-working high-skilled foreigners who are eager to settle in the United States, yet who choose not to violate the law to do so. The harm to immigrants in the first category is more palpable than the harm to those in the latter category, yet individuals in the latter category are respecting the letter of America’s difficult-to-navigate immigration laws. 

The child-migrant crisis has elicited broadly parallel reactions. Among liberals, there is shock and horror at the harrowing circumstances in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that children are fleeing. Yet there is disinterest, and even disbelief, at the notion that that U.S. immigration policy has played a role in the destructive drama unfolding in Central America and along the border. As often happens, the focus is on the immediate humanitarian challenge rather than other questions, e.g., whether welcoming an influx of child migrants might encourage others to leave their families behind, often with the aid of violent gangs. that, as David Frum warns, will be enriched and strengthened in the process. 

The Agenda

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