Politics & Policy

Cropped by National Review

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island (Frank Leslie, 1887)
Arguments against immigration are wrong.

The United States has been, and is, more welcoming to immigrants than any other nation in the world. We are also the richest, strongest, most stable nation in the world. This, comrades, is no coincidence.

Japan was going to run the world — remember the 1980s and “Japan as Number One”? Fast-forward to present-day: Japan’s population is falling, and it has severe cultural roadblocks to immigration. China, thanks to its “one-child policy,” is getting old before it gets rich, and its general population will begin to decline while its working-age population declines even faster. Europe has similar demographics, and you can live a long time in Germany without getting an opportunity to become German.

Americans have been complaining about immigrants since the Germans were sneaking into Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Voices were saying the most awful things about Irish Americans, German Americans, Jewish Americans, and Catholic Americans of every nationality. Now they are our neighbors, in-laws, and coworkers. One shudders recalling the initial hostility to Japanese and Chinese Americans. The descendants of those “unskilled,” “unassimmilatable” Asians now fill our elite colleges and populate Silicon Valley. The “yellow peril” turned to gold. And now, once again, the children and grandchildren of those “waves” of immigration are free to make snarky comments about those who didn’t get around to immigrating to America until recently. 

The arguments against immigration are as old as our founding and consistently wrong. Only this issue resurrects Malthusian economics, the consistently disproven predictions of Paul Ehrlich, and the “Limits to Growth” certainty that more people make us weaker and poorer.

The cycle continues.

This week, Marco Rubio is targeted on National Review’s cover. The article’s complaint about today’s immigrant population is that it is too large. The author of the piece has a recent book that argues against all immigration; he contends that both legal and illegal immigration is bad for America. This is refreshingly honest, at least, after years of pretending the goal was less illegal immigration alone.

The article tosses the word “amnesty” around 21 times, the way a teen wields a cherished new cuss word — uncertain of its meaning but gleefully aware of its shock value. This suggests it was written before the Senate legislation was put online. 

After World War II there were hundreds of thousands arrested trying to enter the country to work. Eisenhower established a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans to legally migrate north to work. Border arrests fell 95 percent. Then, to please the labor-union bosses, JFK and then Johnson killed this program, and arrests spiked upward over 1,000 percent, toward one million a year.

With no legal way to put willing workers and jobs together, millions of jobs were filled by those “without papers.” In 1986, those who had been working in the United States for more than four years were given legal status, but there was no change in immigration law to allow for guest workers or skill-based legal immigration. Thus, the process began again. 

The legislation introduced by eight senators, including conservative stalwart Arizona senator Jeff Flake — the one cropped off the National Review cover photo to give the false impression that Rubio is the lone conservative working on this project — has learned from Ike, 1986, and 2007. Conservatives should learn from history. 

The reform legislation strengthens border security, increases immigration levels for high-skilled workers and graduates of American universities with Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering, and math, and creates a modest — and certainly inadequate — guest-worker program. It allows the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States to earn legal status if they pay fines, undergo a background check, wait ten years during which they have to prove they are working and earning enough to show they would not become a ward of the state. It is a good start.

The senators have put the legislation online, and the bill can be amended in committee or on the floor of the Senate. Then the Republican House will propose its version. Any person of goodwill can suggest improvements. One notes that those who oppose immigration, full stop, have offered no improvements or alternatives. 

What has changed since 1986 and 2007? First, the business community and the communities of faith have moved from indifference to engaged and active support. The Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Mormons have all joined in support of comprehensive reform. All were represented at the “Gang of Eight” press conference — although all were missing from the National Review cover photo. Farmers, dairymen, ranchers, and small-business owners (the Fortune 500 do not employ many undocumented workers) have made this a top priority. Republican governors — the future of the GOP — are enthusiastic; next-generation conservative leaders such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul, and Representative Paul Ryan have taken a leadership role in this fight.

For 30 years the Heritage Foundation was a strong supporter of the Reagan-Kemp pro-immigration position. Heritage senior fellow Julian Simon wrote a timeless report, “Nine Myths About Immigration,” knocking down the left/labor-union/green/population-control arguments against immigration. Heritage hosted a debate in which Simon crushed a Roger Conner of the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform. In 2006, Heritage published a serious study, co-authored by Tim Kane and Kirk Johnson, that concluded immigration is a net positive for the economy. Immigration has changed over time, but the economic benefits remain.

Heritage now stands alone as a free-market group that switched sides in this debate in 2007. But their analysis shows the absence of real arguments against the Rubio reform. 

Watch for these errors to be repeated in the debate to come.

The United States has an entitlement structure (Social Security and Medicare) that is unsustainable, with trillions in unfunded liabilities. On average, every baby born today will receive more in benefits than he pays in taxes for both Social Security and Medicare. This is trotted out as an argument against immigration. It is actually a stronger argument against having children who are more numerous and arrive much younger, less talented and less fluent in English than most immigrants. This logic argues for more abortions. If we as a nation do not reform Medicare — as the Paul Ryan budget does — we go bankrupt. This is an argument for entitlement reform, not an argument against more children or more immigrants. 

We need to pass the Paul Ryan budget that fixes entitlements and welfare to reduce total government spending as a percentage of the economy. Why would anyone distract from this consensus Republican position? It has earned the support of nearly every Republican in Congress since 2010.

We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can reform immigration to strengthen the American economy. And we can expand school choice for all American families, improving the quality of education while reducing its costs. And we will pass the Ryan budget as soon as we have a Republican Senate and White House. 

Let’s focus on winning the future and leave Malthus and labor-union and green economics on the trash heap of history. 

— Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.

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