A Better Immigration Compromise

by Reihan Salam

One of the more striking aspects of the immigration reform debate is the simple, important fact about public opinion that it has largely ignored. President Obama and his allies often emphasize that though the Senate immigration bill has been backed by a large majority in the Senate and a broad array of constituencies, from organized labor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to various immigrant advocacy organizations, recalcitrant House Republicans stand in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. But this opposition makes more sense when we consider that voters consistently oppose a substantial increase in immigration and the Senate immigration bill will, according to the Congressional Budget Office, substantially increase immigration. Recently, my colleague Callie Gable put together a chart illustrating how public support for increasing immigration, decreasing it, or keeping immigration levels the same has varied since 2001, drawing on Gallup data:

Support for decreasing immigration is consistently much higher than support for increasing it. And though support for increasing immigration has increased over time, it currently stands at 22 percent. If there is a consensus in the U.S. on immigration levels, it appears to be that immigration levels should be kept at present levels. 

It is also true, however, that there is widespread support for legalizing a large share of the unauthorized immigrant population currently residing in the U.S. A Reason-Rupe survey from February of last year found that 55 percent of respondents believed that unauthorized immigrants should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship once they’ve met certain requirements, 4 percent believed that they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. but not allowed to apply for citizenship, 11 percent believed that they should be allowed to stay temporarily as guest workers before being sent back home, while 27 percent that they should be deported. Democrats are considerably more likely than Republicans to favor some form of legal status for unauthorized immigrants, but large numbers of Republicans back the idea too. Conservative critics of comprehensive immigration reform have tended to focus on the legalization question. I’m sympathetic to these critics. Yet support for legalization is broad and deep enough that opposition to legalization is likely to prove less fruitful than a focus on future immigration levels. 

To understand the Senate immigration bill, it is important to understand the coalition behind it. Among elected officials and policy intellectuals on the right and the left, there is considerable support for increasing skilled immigration, based largely on the premise that that there are spillover benefits associated with having a dense concentration of skilled professionals. The political constituency for increasing skilled immigration, however, is fairly limited. Financial services and technology employers find the idea of expanding the skilled workforce attractive, as it will tend to restrain wage growth for professionals working in these sectors. While these employers are influential, and while they have impressive resources at their disposal, they are geographically concentrated in high-productivity regions, which limits their political reach. The political constituency for increasing less-skilled immigration, in contrast, is more geographically dispersed, as it includes low-wage employers in agriculture, tourism and hospitality, and retail, among other sectors. This dispersion is helpful for advocates of less-skilled immigration, as it means that there are employers who’d palpably benefit from an increase in less-skilled immigration across many different states and congressional districts. This constituency also includes cosmopolitan intellectuals who see increasing less-skilled immigration as a viable strategy for alleviating global poverty, and who discount the costs associated with helping immigrants with limited literacy and numeracy and their children integrate into the American mainstream. The Senate immigration bill unites these constituencies. Those who favor an immigration policy that increases skilled immigration while reducing less-skilled immigration — an eminently sensible approach — find themselves politically weak. It is important to differentiate between skilled and less-skilled immigration: increasing the former while reducing the latter would be close to a free lunch for the American economy, particularly as new labor-saving technologies continue to emerge. 

Organized labor strongly supports the legalization of unauthorized immigrants, yet it is somewhat more skeptical about sharply increasing future immigration. This makes intuitive sense, as unauthorized workers exist on the margins of the economy, where they are vulnerable to the whims of their employers (and where they undercut unionized workers). They are skeptical of guest worker programs that have the potential to give rise to abuse and exploitation of workers, and they favor employment-based visas that give workers wide autonomy over those that give a great deal of power to employers. And at least some thinkers associated with organized labor are serious about reducing future unauthorized immigration flows.* For example, Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-aligned left-of-center think tank, has addressed the importance of building effective employer verification systems. Though organized labor backs the Senate bill, they could be allies in an effort to build an immigration reform alternative that legalizes much of the unauthorized population while holding future immigration levels steady. 

If we wanted to increase employment-based immigration without also increasing overall immigration levels, in keeping with public opinion, one logical approach would be to limit family reunification, e.g., limiting the extent to which extended family members would be eligible for family-sponsored admissions. The Senate bill does narrow family reunification to a modest degree by eliminating family-sponsored admissions for siblings and adult married children of U.S. citizens over the age of 30, but it could go further in this direction by, for example, setting stronger expectations for self-support. Immigrants sponsoring relatives could, for example, be obligated to post substantial assimilation bonds to help ensure that their relatives don’t become financially dependent. But measures of this kind would likely run afoul of foreign-born citizens, a large constituency with a strong interest in immigration policy. Those Americans who favor a less permissive approach are less likely to be engaged in immigration policy debates, and so their wishes are discounted. 

In the new National Review, Yuval Levin and I outline an approach to immigration reform that is more respectful of the public’s wishes while also seeking to address the many ways the immigration status quo serves the country poorly. Suffice it to say, I think that the compromise we propose is far superior to the Senate bill, and my hope is that conservatives and moderates will engage with it. Right now, the article is available to subscribers only, but it should be available to all comers soon. 

* I’ve revised this sentence to clarify that while the organized labor movement as a whole takes a “cosmopolitan” position on immigration, , as Yuval and I specify in our recent article, there are elements within the labor coalition that might be open to a new approach.