Politics & Policy

The Case for Diversity in Immigration

New citizens take the oath at a naturalization ceremony in Seattle, Wash., in 2016. (David Ryder/Reuters)
It’s an effective way of preventing ethnic ghettoes from forming.

If you’ve read the title, then there’s a good chance that you come to this article disagreeing with me already. Conservatives tend to be uncomfortable with the notion of “diversity,” after all. It smacks of some the worst left-wing impulses: affirmative action, enforced multiculturalism, disdain for America’s unique qualities, too often a cosmopolitan anti-nationalism that could not long sustain a healthy polity.

Nor is our immigration system, as it currently stands, any great brief for diversity. The American immigration system is highly anomalous in that we accept the vast majority of our immigrants on the basis of family ties, rather than merit — and on top of that, we prioritize diversity in ways that run the gamut from unbelievably daft to incomprehensibly shortsighted. There are two main mechanisms at work: Caps ensuring that any given country can receive at most 7 percent of the total number of green cards dispensed in a year, and a lottery that allocates green cards at random to applicants from countries and regions with relatively low rates of immigration to the United States.

Neither of these systems makes a great deal of sense.

The focus on family and country caps, for example, interact poorly with the enormous disparities within our pool of immigrants. In particular, immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean are far less skilled than immigrants from Europe, or from South and East Asia: Poverty rates range from about 30 percent for Mexican immigrants and 25 percent for Central American immigrants, to 15 percent for Chinese immigrants, to 10 percent for European and South Asian immigrants. Yet China and India run up against the per capita limits, unlike the nations of Central America (excluding Mexico). So the caps effectively shift immigration from high-skilled Chinese and Indian immigrants to unskilled Guatemalan, Honduran, and Nicaraguan immigrants.

The diversity lottery makes even less sense. The only qualification to apply for the diversity lottery is a high-school degree, and the only prioritization within the lottery system is in favor of Europe, Africa, and Oceania over Latin America and Asia; the largest national sources of immigration to America are excluded from the lottery entirely. An unemployed high-school graduate from a village in west Sumatra who doesn’t speak a word of English is, to say the least, going to have enormous difficulties adjusting to life in New York City, yet he would have exactly the same chance as an English-fluent mathematics professor in Jakarta of obtaining a slot under the diversity program. It truly boggles the mind: We dispense in the neighborhood of 50,000 green cards annually on the basis of sheer randomness while engineers, scientists, and doctors bide their time on the oversubscribed waiting lists elsewhere in our immigration system.

Starting from the status quo, any sensible reform would reduce the role that diversity plays by removing the diversity lottery and, at the very least, reconfiguring the per-country caps — perhaps by eliminating them for employment-based applications and keeping them in place only for family-sponsored applications. But suppose that we move beyond our highly flawed immigration system toward a more skills-based model, as Tom Cotton and David Perdue have proposed with the RAISE Act, which would institute a points system similar to that of Canada and Australia to admit workers based on what they can offer our country.

In that case, diversity would make a lot more sense.

For starters, it would almost certainly be beneficial to penalize applicants who come from countries that already send a very large number of immigrants to the United States. This would deter the formation of ethnic ghettoes that discourage the adoption of native cultural values, as Europe has notoriously experienced from Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants in the United Kingdom to Turkish immigrants in Berlin. In a points-based system, you could do this by assigning immigrants coming from countries such as China, India, or Mexico a certain number of negative points.

Broadly speaking, this is the same reasoning as that behind the per-country limits we currently have, but since the penalty would operate within a system designed to encourage skilled immigration, it would not have the same effect of barring educated immigrants from India and China in favor of unskilled immigrants from smaller countries in Central America. Most critically, we could tailor the size of the penalty to our concerns about ghettoization instead of relying on a rigid cap. The logic is a little similar to that of taxing a negative externality: We assess the risk that ethnically homogeneous foreign communities pose to American culture and values, and then we count that risk against future immigrants from those countries. The workers who still came out positive we would continue to let in, up to the total cap on global immigration.

More controversially, we could also replace the diversity lottery by giving applicants from particularly low-immigration countries a few extra points. If you are categorically against national diversity as a value in itself, as many people reasonably are, this probably won’t appeal to you. But most Americans, including me, view national diversity as a modest plus — not at all worth compromising the national welfare for, but the source of at least some of America’s distinctive cultural dynamism. The global picture of very diverse neighborhoods, such as Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in Queens or Scarborough in Toronto, also seems to be a relatively positive one, of middle-class communities with low crime rates and high rates of social cohesion. A slight point bonus would be the ideal way of encouraging this sort of national diversity, since it would consider diversity as just one of several competing priorities — as opposed to a skills-blind lottery designed to offer permanent residency to tens of thousands of immigrants on the basis of nothing more than nationality.

Some will object to this diversity-positive approach on the grounds that it constitutes a sort of affirmative action, insofar as some relatively qualified immigrants would be passed over in favor of modestly less qualified applicants from more “diverse” nations. This is not entirely wrong. There is a mild injustice at play here, and, to be honest, that is a minor strike against my proposal. But it’s crucial to remember that the basis for the diversity boost would be the national interest, not the sake of the prospective immigrants we would be admitting. Moreover, there is no such thing as a “right” to immigrate to America, and the bedrock consideration of equality under the law is considerably attenuated when applied to those petitioning for the privilege to enter our country. So, the justice implications here seem not to be enormously concerning — certainly not when compared with affirmative action as it is practiced in America.

Even the staunchest opponents of multiculturalism should take a diversity bonus seriously.

There is one last good reason why even the staunchest opponents of multiculturalism should take a diversity bonus seriously. The American immigration system is badly organized, and a points-based system would be an enormously beneficial overhaul. But any major conservative reform to legal immigration will be characterized in the age of Trump as a racist strategy to turn America into a whites-only nation. I have a hard time believing that this claim is advanced in good faith, since skills-based immigration reform would essentially mean an imitation of Canada’s immigration policies, but there is no doubt that this will be an impediment to even the most sensible Republican bill. Advocating some consideration of diversity would do much to defuse the charge of racism and, if incorporated sensibly into a points system, would not radically change the structure of American immigration.

A minor points bump would only slightly modify the set of priorities we use to admit immigrants, but would signal to the American electorate that immigration reform isn’t motivated by racial animus. This would be a very worthwhile trade.


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— Max Bloom is a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago and an editorial intern at National Review.

Max BloomMax Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago.


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