If We Want an Integrated Republic, We Need a Pro-Opportunity Immigration Agenda

by Fred Bauer

We need policies that reinvigorate the American dream for everyone here.

As Republicans gear up for 2016, pundits and politicians alike increasingly emphasize the importance of the GOP’s calling for renewed economic opportunity and a reinforced civic space. Immigration policy can have a significant role to play in furthering these aims. As conservatives think about revitalizing opportunity, they should think about how to create an immigration policy that benefits the American people and that reinforces some of this republic’s guiding ideals, including opportunity, equality, civil integrity, and ordered liberty. A policy agenda that integrates immigrants into the American economy and body politic would help immigrants and their descendants claim equal roles in the American pageant. Rather than pitting native-born and immigrant against each other or encouraging sentiments of segregation and cultural isolation, this policy vision would aim for an integrated society where as many as possible have a shot at achieving their dreams. 

Such a vision for immigration is neither trivial nor uncontested. Some prominent public voices, for instance, do not find troubling the idea that illegal immigrants might harm the economic prospects of native-born Americans. Peter Beinart, who sits comfortably in the left-wing mainstream, openly accepts that the president’s executive dictates on immigration will give illegal immigrants “opportunities [that] come at the expense of” native-born Americans and legal immigrants. Nor does everyone believe that economic and cultural integration should be a guiding goal. In The New Republic last year, law professor Eric Posner and economist Glen Weyl proposed an immigration system that, in their own words, would make the U.S. more like Qatar: In order to attack global wealth inequality, the United States would open its borders to millions upon millions of guest workers, creating a radically unequal society. The U.S. would be divided between plutocratic overlords and hordes of rootless serfs. Such a vision might appeal to transnational corporatists, but it would be a radical departure from the aspiration for an integrated republic. (Incidentally, it is far from clear that turning the United States into a corporate plutocracy would in the long term help global inequality, but that’s an argument for another day.)

From the perspective of a pro-opportunity, pro-integration immigration policy, the current status quo falls short on a number of levels. With its emphasis on extended bloodline connections and countless procedural hoops, the current system sometimes seems to draw more from the imperatives of the Habsburg Empire than those of an opportunity-driven republic. Furthermore, the federal government (particularly during the Obama administration) shows little desire to enforce immigration law effectively. This creates incentives for illegal immigration and makes a mockery of the rules governing legal immigration. Various guest-worker programs and the influx of illegal workers undermine economic opportunity for native-born Americans across the economic spectrum and also damage the economic prospects of legal immigrants. The kind of immigration “reform” favored by many Beltwayers, such as the 2007 “grand bargain” bill and the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill, would likely only worsen many of these inegalitarian tendencies (though the latter bill would at least have somewhat shifted the legal-immigration system away from bloodlines and toward skills).

Opponents of the 2013 immigration bill understandably focused on its harm to opportunity for native-born Americans; its expansion of guest-worker programs and incentives for further illegal immigration would have put further downward pressure on the wages of those without college degrees and even some of those with college degrees, who would have had to compete against credentialed guest workers.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 80 million Americans either are immigrants or have immigrant parents. Current statistics for immigrant families paint a sometimes grim economic picture. According to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), immigrant households are considerably more likely to need government financial assistance than native-born Americans, and immigrants are significantly less likely to be high-school graduates than the native born. Additional data compiled by CIS suggest that, even when education level has been adjusted for, immigrant households are much more likely to be in poverty than the native born. For example, in 2008, immigrants who had been in the country for 20 years and who had graduated from high school had a poverty rate of 19.3 percent; native-born high-school graduates had a poverty rate of 14.5 percent. Recent immigrants with a high-school diploma had a poverty rate of 28.2 percent. Comprehensive surveys of immigrants’ experiences in the United States suggest that more could be done to ensure economic opportunity and social mobility for immigrants and their children. For instance, sociologists Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz have argued that Mexican-Americans (and Mexico has been the single biggest national source of immigrants in recent decades) have often struggled to achieve intergenerational economic growth and social mobility. These facts should not be used to blame immigrants; instead, they cast light on the need for immigrant households to have more economic opportunity, which current immigration policy — especially the support for illegal immigration and for expanding guest-worker programs — undermines.

Those economists who argue that unfettered illegal immigration does not harm the native-born American worker often appeal to the notion of complementarity: These immigrants would cause the native born to find other jobs that are more insulated from competition from immigrants (e.g., natives might turn to jobs that require more use of English). As David Frum and others have suggested, however, this model might be simplistic or outright mistaken. It also does not prove that high levels of immigration do not lower the wages of immigrants themselves. Economists G. I. P. Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri are sympathetic to the claim that high levels of immigration (legal and illegal) do not greatly affect the wages of American workers, but even they have found that immigration from 1990 to 2006 reduced the wages of the immigrants themselves (by over 6 percent). 

In addition to undermining the wages of legal immigrants, our current system of bad-faith open borders places further strains on the social safety net upon which many immigrants and their children rely. With the foreign-born comprising over half the population of Miami–Dade County, for example, immigrants and their native-born children disproportionately face the educational challenges of an overburdened and underfunded school system. In the Miami–Dade public schools, there can be over 30 students in a single class, whereas, in Miami’s tony Gulliver schools — a private consortium with an annual high-school tuition of $31,000 — class sizes average 16. Over the short term, the wealthy and powerful can insulate themselves from the consequences of bad-faith open borders (George P. Bush went to Gulliver, as did Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin), but the average person is not so protected.

The United States cannot economically, politically, or culturally afford to have a growing caste that is shut out of opportunity, political integration, and the responsibilities of self-governance. All too often, current U.S. policy takes an ax to the initial rungs of the ladder of opportunity. Leftists might argue that the resulting wage stagnation should be solved by centralized redistribution, but conservatives might instead suggest the importance of broadening economic growth and opportunity so that immigrants and their children, along with those descended from the native born, can realize the promise of America.

A pro-opportunity immigration agenda would work to encourages upward mobility. This agenda has two prongs: revising current immigration policies so that they better encourage opportunity and integration, and putting forward policies that would improve the mobility of immigrants and their children.  What follows are a few policy steps for this agenda.

Curtail illegal immigration: The current policy of not-so-benign neglect of immigration laws is good for drug cartels, human traffickers, and those who prey on people’s hopes and fears, but it poses significant problems for the nation as a whole. It undermines opportunity, creates a legal twilight that facilitates affronts to human dignity, and encourages public cynicism and corruption. In addition to a well-defended border, enforcement at the workplace is crucial for taking on illegal immigration. Insisting upon “border security” as the quintessential way to stop illegal immigration is a red herring in part because nearly half of illegal immigrants are visa-overstayers. Furthermore, border security is itself undermined by a lack of enforcement at the workplace; right now, terrorists, cartel enforcers, and other malefactors can slip over the border by hiding amidst the influx of illegal immigrants who are coming for economic reasons.

Cut down guest-worker programs: President Obama and some Republicans want to expand guest-worker programs, but a pro-opportunity immigration agenda would suggest the opposite. Even assuming that the supposed “skills gap” between U.S. workers and available jobs is more than propaganda (a big assumption), there is no reason why that “skills gap” should be filled by guest workers. If individuals born abroad have skills that are necessary for the economic and political success of our nation, they should be welcomed as people with a clear path to citizenship — not as helots for corporate interests. There may be a case for very narrowly targeted guest-worker programs, but that case does not apply to guest-worker programs as they currently exist.

Modernize the legal-immigration system: Rather than the model of the Habsburgs, our immigration policy should instead honor the principles of Ben Franklin by shifting to a skills-based immigration system. A skills-based system would send a more egalitarian message to the world by weakening the power of unchangeable bloodlines. Part of this modernization would be a more transparent, straightforward immigration system, in which an immediate family (spouse and minor children) could immigrate with less paperwork and fewer delays. Within this modernized system, there would still be a place for visas for the radically poor and dispossessed, but we would be encouraging those who have begun to develop their innate talents. A modernized legal-immigration system would combine family values with a celebration of economic opportunity.

Encourage the infrastructure of integration: Efforts to help immigrants learn English and valuable job skills would have both civic and economic benefits. Renewed economic opportunity and strengthened local institutions can help welcome immigrants into the public square. Rather than policies of division and resentment, we should instead encourage a sense of openness, cultural exchange, and cooperative pluralism.

How to deal with the current population of illegal immigrants remains an issue about which reasonable and decent people can disagree. Some illegal immigrants were brought here as children, and some have been in the U.S. for decades. Many illegal immigrants have native-born children. The political appetite for making all those people leave is currently lacking. Additionally, if we should strive for an immigration policy that encourages civic integration, having millions in the shadows of the law in perpetuity is less than desirable. However, a blanket legalization of millions of illegal immigrants without the installation of a rigorous enforcement structure would likely inspire more illegal immigration and do even more damage to the hopes of civic integration and economic opportunity.

If some of those here illegally are legalized, it would make the most sense from a civic perspective to put those newly legalized people on a path to citizenship. Some, like political scientist Peter Skerry, have argued that legalization without citizenship could be an acceptable theoretical compromise, but it is doubtful that it is sustainable as a political matter. Calling for legalization without citizenship is like promising to eat a single potato chip — theoretically possible but practically unlikely. The same activist groups that have put such pressure on our elected representatives to oppose the enforcement of immigration laws would immediately spring into action to call for citizenship for the newly legalized (and they’d have firmer intellectual ground for this call).

Improving opportunity for immigrants and revising immigration policy to bring it into accord with the principles of integration and ordered liberty would have benefits for the nation as a whole. And this enterprise could have bipartisan appeal. Before the Obama administration, for instance, many congressional Democrats professed to care about the effects of guest-worker programs and illegal immigration on the average American. Hopefully, some Democrats will remember their old concern for the working class and sign on to pro-opportunity immigration policies. But Republicans in particular have much to gain by advocating a set of policies that defends the interests of the middle class and preserves the ladder of opportunity both for immigrants and for the native born. Limited government is not likely to survive a long-term hollowing out of the economic middle, and reaching out to immigrant communities can play a key part in building a governing coalition. A broad set of pro-opportunity proposals (on health care, regulatory reform, education, etc.) could win votes and further the national interest.

Immigrants to the United States should not be mired in a race to the economic bottom, and they, like the native born, should have access to public institutions that are well-managed, sustainable, and in accord with the basic principles of liberty and human dignity. Immigration involves more than economics, but economic patterns do have profound cultural influences. By strengthening and improving access to the middle class for both immigrants and native-born citizens, we can encourage a broader cultural and political integration. The old Ellis Island model offered the promise of integration, where newcomers worked hand in hand with those whose ancestors may have arrived here long ago in order to sustain a free republic. By strengthening opportunity and the civic space, we can help renew this promise.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.