In Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem The New Colossus, the United States offers a “world-wide welcome” to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” One suspects that, were the poem written today, it would be rather more prosaic. “The golden door,” Lazarus might surmise, is open principally to those who happen to have a family member in the country or are fortunate at lotteries.
When discussing any aspect of immigration policy, politicians shrewdly chatter on about “skills.” An immigrant “inventor” — of which there is an apparently unlimited supply — will create manufacturing jobs for the natives; a STEM graduate will found the next Google; “high-skilled” workers will help us to grow the economy. More often than not, discussion is set in the context of the “global economy,” and sold on the basis of the America’s need “to compete.” Americans, a sensible lot, nod along.
This is all well and good, but it tells an incomplete story. Since the last major overhaul in the mid 1960s, the vast majority of immigration has come from family-based categories, while the skills-based regime has fallen into disrepair. According to the Migration Policy Institute, two-thirds of the 1.1 million legal immigrants who came to the United States in 2008 gained their status through family ties. Add the execrable green-card lottery (65,000 per year) and the asylum process (90,000 per year) to this, and one discovers that around 80 percent of those coming to America enter on a basis that takes no account of their skills whatsoever. Except for the welcome promise to abolish the visa lottery, there is little in the Gang of Eight’s plan that would fix this imbalance.
In 1997, some 30 years after the law that set this in motion, liberal Democrat Barbara Jordan headed up a commission that found, unsurprisingly, that:
Family and humanitarian immigrants are primarily blue-collar workers. In contrast, employment-based and permanent diversity immigrants are predominantly white-collar workers. These broad differences between the major classes of admission have changed only slightly over the past three decades.
Now, keeping families together is a noble enterprise. But there is keeping families together and then there is keeping families together. Spouses? Fine. Underage kids? By all means. But parents? Unmarried adult children? Brothers? Sisters? Pray, why? What is the justification for the parents of naturalized U.S. citizens’ being afforded the capacity to move here without delay — and without numerical caps — while skilled workers are waiting for six, seven, eight, maybe even ten years to take up jobs? Why should it take a would-be immigrant with a degree six years to get a green card but, having done so, just one year to sponsor his brother? Most important: Outside of spouses and children, why do we privilege anybody for happening to have a relative who meets the skills requirements?
Importing parents is especially problematic. Senator Lindsey Graham’s jovial contention that the United States will need to import more immigrants if Medicare and Social Security are to exist by the time he retires is superficially interesting. But presumably even Graham would grant that it doesn’t make much sense to import people who are likely to be added to the entitlement rolls as net beneficiaries. The 1995 Jordan Commission recommended that Americans be “mindful of the potential negative impacts that the entry of parents may pose for the U.S. taxpayer if these individuals utilize Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and similar programs.” This warning was fair. As Bloomberg View’s Marta Tienda observes:
Proponents of family preferences argue that legal immigrants should be allowed to sponsor their parents so that they can help with child care. If the sponsors take responsibility for their parents’ health care, that’s fine; otherwise, taxpayers will end up subsidizing that child care. Nonworking parents who immigrate to the U.S. contribute little to the economy, and in many cases the taxpayers will have to shoulder the burden of their health care as they grow older.
We are told, too, that wider family reunification is of paramount importance to immigrants who are already here. In cases of genuine asylum, there is certainly a virtue in this country’s remaining a “Mother of Exiles.” But what of voluntary migration? I am an immigrant who chose to move here. In making my decision, I weighed up the costs and the benefits, and I live with those every day. Should there be no downside to my having relocated? Does America owe me comfort? Absolutely not! There are costs to displacement and they should be paid by the immigrant.
And if America should bend over to accommodate me, where should it stop? Perhaps I’d like to be able to spend my local currency here. Should we allow that? Perhaps I’d like my favorite local restaurant and all its employees shipped over? (So I can integrate, you understand.) Perhaps I need part of my hometown transported across the Atlantic so that I don’t really have to leave; after all, what’s a bridge or a brick wall among friends? There’s nothing inherently wrong with bringing over your parents or your sister to join you. But they shouldn’t be privileged in law, pushed to the front of the line, or exempt from caps because they happen to have a relative here already.
It is sometimes said by libertarians that state control of the immigration flow is antithetical to conservative principles, fitting more neatly in with the statist tradition than with the free-market ethos to which those on the right typically display fealty. There is some truth in this. But it does not tell the whole story. Immigration controls are, in fact, the inevitable product of statism, rather than statism per se; for, as Milton Friedman was fond of pointing out, as long as a welfare system exists in the United States, immigration will need to be controlled. “It is one thing to have free immigration to jobs,” he said. “It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. And you cannot have both.”
The question before the country is not whether immigration controls are necessary but instead, given that the welfare system isn’t going away, how do we structure our laws to get in the people we want? Sadly, despite all the anger and activity in Washington, this question is not being answered. Were the pro-amnesty “Gang of Eight” as interested in the rest of the bill as they are in the southern border, their proposal could go some way to deserving the “comprehensive” sobriquet that they have so cynically accorded it. As things stand, like the foreign lands from which Lazarus’s “huddled masses” came, those who are trying to sell the bill as an exhaustive fix to America’s troubles are laboring under so much “storied pomp.”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.