We Need a Real Debate About American Immigration Levels.

by Jim Geraghty

From the Tuesday Morning Jolt:

We Need a Real Debate About American Immigration Levels.

A thought on Monday’s piece about Scott Walker, Jeff Sessions, and legal immigration . . . 

As noted in the article, the United States brings in about one million legal immigrants per year, a figure that is at or near record levels. A lot of Americans, asked for their ideal immigration policy, would envision no illegal immigration, and a smooth, fast-moving, efficient system for legal immigration.

I suspect a lot of people would like to say, “as long as you haven’t committed any crimes and you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, if you want to be an American, we’ll let you become an American citizen.” That’s a nice and heart-warming philosophy. It’s a policy of rarely ever saying “no.” For anyone who’s a descendant of immigrants, it means never shutting the door on anyone else. The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote, in 1984 and again in 2001, that the U.S. should adopt a constitutional amendment declaring, “there shall be open borders.”

The problem is that there are millions, probably tens of millions, of foreign citizens who would like to become Americans if they were given the chance.

If we permitted 1.5 million immigrants to become American citizens per year, we would find enough applicants, or 2 million or 3 million.

And no matter how much we love legal immigrants, the country couldn’t take them all in at once without going through a wrenching social and economic upheaval. That 2001 Journal editorial saluted the country’s capacity for assimilating new immigrants, and I suspect that a lot of Americans aren’t so confident in our ability to do that in 2015. (Do we even have a common, unifying culture anymore?) How many new jobs per year can our economy generate? How many empty slots do we have in our schools and hospitals? How’s our infrastructure doing handling the influx?

If you say that the million-a-year rate should be reduced to some lower level . . . does that ipso facto make you a xenophobe? Hateful? Racist?

The boss has a column about illegal immigrants working in New York City’s nail salons and concludes . . . 

There has been booming growth in nail salons in New York City during the past 15 years, and prices haven’t really changed since the 1990s, according to the Times. This is a boon to women who want an affordable reverse-French manicure. In this case, and in many others, illegal immigration is a subsidy for the upper-middle class that can enjoy cheaper services than it would if the country had a strictly legal labor market and lower levels of overall immigration. No one wants to hear it, though.

When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker suggested that the effect on wages of American workers should be the first concern in considering levels of immigration, the political class recoiled in horror. Surely, one reason that salons can pay so poorly is that the supply of illegal workers is so plentiful. And this supply of labor must, at least at the margins, crowd out workers already here who might consider working in salons if pay and conditions were better.

The country deserves a serious, hard-minded debate about what level of legal immigration is appropriate for our economy – and how well we can bring legal immigrants into the full embrace of American culture. But we’re probably not going to get that. We’re going to get a lot of accusations about “xenophobia.”

UPDATE: The perfect illustration of this issue:

About 13 percent of the world’s adults — or about 630 million people — say they would like to leave their country and move somewhere else permanently. For roughly 138 million people, that somewhere else would be the U.S. — the No. 1 desired destination for potential migrants.

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