The Immigration Middle Ground
A compromise that alleviates our current system’s problems and meets the needs of the country.

Protesters clash over immigration and border security in Murietta, Calif. (David McNew/Getty Images)


Yuval Levin

‘Are you for immigration reform or against it?”

In 2013, in the wake of President Obama’s reelection, Washington went through another round of a familiar argument. As in the past, it took the form of this yes-or-no question about a package of immigration policies calculated to please politically powerful constituencies rather than to address the problems of our immigration system.

The purpose of this exercise, which has recurred for a decade now, is not to achieve compromise between the two broad factions in our immigration debate: the economic and cultural cosmopolitans who want to dramatically increase immigration, and the economic and cultural populists who believe a more restrictive immigration policy better serves the national interest. The purpose, rather, is to patch together a coalition of cosmopolitan interests, from the Chamber of Commerce to La Raza, that is broad enough to roll over the populists — whose objections are dismissed as being rooted in ignorance or racial anxiety — instead of accommodating their legitimate concerns.

The most recent effort to achieve this purpose, like its predecessors, was supported by the elites of both political parties. It even had the backing of organized labor, which is increasingly dominated by public-sector workers with little to fear from low-wage competition. But, as ever, the effort ran into trouble with populist critics — most of them now Republicans — whose opposition was again sufficient to kill it.

As usual, the failure of the familiar package left its champions committed to simply trying the same thing again. House Republicans spent much of the past year fearing that their leaders would conspire with Senate Democrats to bring a version of the package to the floor, and those leaders spent much of the year promising business groups they would do just that while promising the rank-and-file they would not.

But, in a new twist, immigration has now returned to the front pages not because the reform package reappeared, but rather because a crisis at the border has brought some of our immigration system’s problems to light. The spring and summer saw a large surge of Central American minors reaching our southern border and seeking asylum in the United States. Their numbers overwhelmed the Border Patrol, and efforts to provide them with humane temporary shelter and to decide how to deal with them in the longer term quickly became a high-profile controversy.

Some politicians in both parties suggested that the influx may have stemmed from President Obama’s 2012 decision to grant “deferred action” to illegal immigrants who had come to America as minors before 2008 — that is, to allow them to stay and work without fear of legal sanction. Critics reasoned that this policy suggested to Central Americans that the U.S. was opening its doors to minors. It is impossible to say whether or to what degree the policy in fact contributed to the border crisis, but the sense that it may have, combined with the perception of disorder, caused a shift in public opinion, with support for legalization declining and frustration with our broken system growing. By the beginning of August, immigration had become the issue on which the public gave Obama his lowest marks.

Meanwhile, the president has further polarized the immigration debate by hinting that he may use his executive powers to, in effect, unilaterally legalize millions of people who entered the country illegally over the last several decades. This would in essence be a vast expansion of the constitutionally dubious amnesty he already provided for minors. This possibility raised the prospect of a constitutional crisis alongside the border crisis, and made immigration all the more central in our politics.

In both cases, immigration has come to the fore not as an up-or-down vote on the same old ideas, but instead as a set of palpably real problems for our political system. In different ways, both crises have illuminated the shortcomings of the usual immigration debate, and seeing these shortcomings could help the country find a more constructive alternative.

The essential components of the recurring elite proposal are a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants; more immigration by the highly skilled; and a guest-worker program, combined with other significant increases in immigration by less-skilled workers, to help employers hold down wages. In return, this proposal offers little more than the promise of finally enforcing laws that already exist regarding border security, visa controls, and employment-status verification; no meaningful policy concessions to the populists are on the table. This combination of policies is a good way to unite the various interests that favor far more open borders, but it does not constitute a tenable response to the divisive questions of our immigration debate or to America’s needs in the 21st century. And while populist critics deserve credit for opposing ideas that a growing number of Americans reject, their own failure to offer a compelling alternative is a key part of why we find ourselves at an impasse.

A more coherent and plausible approach would begin by examining the problems that immigration policy should help alleviate. Here are the five most important.

First, we now have a large population of unauthorized immigrants, the vast majority of whom we will not (and should not) deport. In many cases they are deeply rooted in American life but living in a legal limbo that undermines both their prospects and the rule of law. Second, we confront a changing global division of labor in which America’s comparative advantage lies in highly skilled work. This has created new opportunities for skilled workers and asset owners while squeezing workers with lower literacy and numeracy. Third, we have an immigration policy that has swelled the ranks of people with lower literacy and numeracy, complicating and counteracting our efforts to fight poverty and promote mobility. Fourth, decades of large-scale immigration under these circumstances have given rise to concentrated ethnic poverty, which has tended to undermine assimilation. And fifth, ongoing immigration of the less skilled has put downward pressure on the wages of immigrants already in America — who make up over 16 percent of the work force — and thereby worsened all the other problems.