What Jeff Sessions Needs to Understand About the Immigration Debate

by Reihan Salam

Last summer, Eliana Y. Johnson dubbed Alabama senator Jeff Sessions “Amnesty’s Worst Enemy” in her excellent, wide-ranging profile, and now Sessions has been installed as the new chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security. Naturally, those who favor sharply increased immigration levels are displeased. Though I don’t agree with Sessions in every respect, I’m sympathetic to his broad view that now is not the ideal time to increase immigration, particularly less-skilled immigration. One of the things we as a country are learning the hard way is that workers with limited skills face gloomy economic prospects, and that they often need expensive support to enter the economic mainstream. Their children, meanwhile, face severe disadvantages as they attempt to climb the economic ladder. The usual rejoinder from those who favor mass immigration is that less-skilled immigrants are better off than they would have been in their native countries, which is generally true, particularly if we completely discount the psychic costs of displacement and the at times problematic impact on the families and communities immigrants leave behind. To Sessions’s credit, he is of the view that we ought to evaluate immigration policies in light of whether or not the serve the national interest — indeed, he plans to rename his subcommittee to that effect.

Recently, Sessions observed that “the financial and political elite have been controlling this debate for years” and that ”this subcommittee will give voice to those whose voice has been shut out.” I’d offer one minor caveat. It’s clearly true that “the financial and political elite,” and particularly employer lobbies with an interest in suppressing wage growth, whether in agribusiness or in high-tech, have had outsized influence on the immigration debate. (A few weeks ago, Danny Crichton wrote an excellent column on why Silicon Valley engineers are deeply skeptical of the pro-immigration arguments made by prominent venture capitalists.) But the immigration debate has also been dominated by a far more sympathetic constituency, namely immigrants and their families. This is a big part of why an incredible 66 percent of permanent immigrants to the U.S. are selected not on the basis of their skills, but rather on the basis of family ties. Immigration advocates will at times pay lip service to the need to move towards an immigration policy that is driven more by economic needs than immigrant pressure groups, yet all efforts to limit family-based immigration meet with intense resistance.

The central political challenge facing Sessions and other lawmakers who hope to craft an immigration policy more in tune with the national interest is that while only 22 percent of Americans want to increase immigration levels, according to Gallup, those who do favor increased immigration levels, many of whom are immigrants themselves, are more intensely engaged in the immigration debate than the 41 percent of Americans who want to decrease them. Somehow, Sessions needs to find a way to talk about immigration that takes into account the interests of immigrants and their families. In my own writing, I often emphasize that new immigrants compete with older immigrants with similar skills, many of whom are still struggling to make their way into the middle class. This doesn’t change the fact that immigrants overwhelmingly favor high immigration levels, just as New Yorkers and San Franciscans enraged by high rents often favor limits on housing development. Nevertheless, talking about the interests of less-skilled immigrants currently residing in the United States, their extremely low market incomes, and the labor-intensive services their families need to lead lives Americans would consider decent, is a very good way of undermining the claim that the desire to limit less-skilled immigration is somehow heartless. 

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