Salami Slicing and the Politics of Immigration

by Reihan Salam

In the world of grand strategy, the term “salami slicing” is used to refer to seemingly minor actions, none of which will provoke an outright military confrontation in themselves, which amount to a major strategic challenge when taken as a whole. Russia, for example, routinely uses salami-slicing probes to intimidate its neighbors, and to test their defenses. China has similarly used salami-slicing tactics to extend its reach in the South China Sea. Recently, it occurred to me that salami slicing is not limited to international politics. We often see examples of it in domestic politics, and I’ve noticed several that pertain to immigration policy. One obvious example is the DREAM Act, a proposal that in its original form offered a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States as minor children, provided they met a number of requirements. For example, young people who had served in the military or who were enrolled in higher education were to be privileged over other unauthorized immigrants. It should be obvious that supporters of a blanket amnesty hoped for much more than this selective approach. What if an unauthorized immigrant is a pacifist, who finds the thought of serving in the military distasteful? What if she’d prefer not to pursue post-secondary education, as her interests lie in a field that does not require it? Does any really believe that a left-liberal who supports the DREAM Act would really want to these young people deported? Of course not. The purpose of the DREAM Act was to identify a relatively small slice of the unauthorized immigrant population that many Americans find praiseworthy as a kind of entering wedge. Once widespread agreement on the merits of these DREAMers was established, the universe of DREAMers could be expanded to include all unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States as minor children (through no fault of their own), to the mothers and fathers of the DREAMers, because after all, who doesn’t love mothers and fathers who love their children?

In a similar vein, a number of immigration advocates have embraced the idea of a state-based approach to immigration reform. The idea sounds reasonable enough. Why not allow state governments to issue some modest number of guest-worker visas? This would allow states to make judgments based on their local knowledge, including their understanding of the labor needs of local industries. One can see why such a policy would appeal to state governments that favor increasing immigration. But what about state governments that would prefer to reduce immigration, or to reduce certain kinds of immigration, like less-skilled immigration? As we’ve learned over the course of the refugee debate, state governments cannot bar people who are lawful residents of the United States from their territory. So this state-based approach would offer very little to states that favor restriction. And is there any way to ensure that workers who are issued state visas by, say, Michigan won’t then settle in Kentucky or Texas? These state-based visas could only grant work authorization in a given state, a provision that would be very difficult to enforce. States that see an outflow of their visa holders could be denied new visas in future years, to be sure. But the earlier waves of visa holders would be home free, unless we were to create an elaborate enforcement mechanism designed to ensure that the holders of state-based visas honor their commitments. State-based immigration reform is essentially a one-way ratchet designed to increase overall immigration levels.

Even if the holders of state-based visas remain in the states that issued said visas, state economies are not hermetically-sealed. Conservatives might object to expansive interpretations of the Commerce Clause, but the Supreme Court has long since decided that “interstate commerce” encompasses virtually all forms of economic activity. If one state uses state-based visas to sustain a low-wage industry, firms in other states that might otherwise have been prepared to substitute capital for labor might grow less inclined to do so. Why bother investing in a lettuce bot if you can recruit a low-wage immigrant worker instead? And the survival of these low-wage firms and low-wage industries have wider implications. Back-breaking farm labor can lead to disabling injuries, and visa holders who’ve resided in the U.S. for a long enough period of time will presumably be eligible for disability benefits, not to mention the earned-income tax credit and various safety net benefits designed to ensure that U.S. families can lead decent lives. These safety net benefits are largely financed by federal taxes. One suspects that libertarian proponents of state-based visas might be open to stripping these immigrants of the right to access safety net benefits, which sounds plausible at first glance. But of course some of these visa holders will have U.S.-born children, who will either be eligible for safety net benefits themselves or we’ll be facing a serious discrimination problem. Say we’re indifferent to discriminating between U.S.-born children living in households headed by state-based visa holders and all other U.S.-born children. Some people might care about whether or not the children of low-income state-based immigrants have access to adequate medical care and nutrition. Could some state wants to step up and declare that it will bear all of the costs associated with its state-based visa holders, and not accept a dime of federal money for their care? Given the extent to which the state and federal governments are entangled under our regime of “cooperative federalism,” I’m afraid such an arrangement is impossible.

By all means, let’s have a debate over whether to increase immigration levels (a position backed by 15 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center) or decrease them (a position backed by 49 percent of Americans). But let’s not pretend that state-based visas are anything other than a salami-slicing tactic to raise immigration levels in the face of determined, widespread opposition to doing so. There is a reason immigration policy is handled at the federal level. The role of the federal government is in part to address collective action problems. The danger of a state-based visa policy is that states will use it to reap short-term benefits, knowing full well that many of the long-term costs associated with welcoming immigrants, particularly less-skilled immigrants, will be borne by the federal government.

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