Mark Krikorian on a Potential Immigration Settlement

While reading Mickey Kaus’s endorsement of President Obama’s bid for reelection, I came across a reference to Mark Krikorian’s tentative proposal for resolving the near-term immigration reform debate:

In response to the president’s complaints that he was stymied in getting immigration reformed “in a smart way and a comprehensive way,” Romney said “I’ll get it done. I’ll get it done. First year . . .” Some of the more excitable immigration hawks see this as a sellout in the making, that Romney will push something like the McCain-Kennedy amnesty once he’s safely in the White House. I doubt it, but what this does suggest is that we could see a miniature “comprehensive immigration reform, along these lines: A narrower version of the DREAM Act in exchange for universal E-Verify, plus green cards for top foreign STEM graduates in exchange for ending the visa lottery. That’s actually a deal that could make sense.

This isn’t quite the settlement I’d prefer, as I favor a higher level of high-skilled immigration than Krikorian. In The New Case Against Immigration, Krikorian frames the case for skill-based immigration very narrowly:

The five employment-based categories in current law, with their numerous subcategories, are commonly imagined to provide for the immigration of the world’s best and brightest— Einstein immigration, if you will. In fact, in addition to a handful of actual geniuses, the employment-based categories admit a wide array of ordinary people who should not receive special immigration rights. There’s no reason any employer should be permitted to make an end run around our vast, mobile, continent-spanning labor force of more than 150 million people unless the prospective immigrant in question has unique, remarkable abilities and would make an enormous contribution to the productive capacity of the nation.

Perhaps the simplest way to approach this would be to admit anyone who scores above 140 on an IQ test. A more bureaucratic approach would be to admit “aliens of extraordinary ability” and outstanding professors and researchers, as defined by the top employment-based category in current law. The 2001-2005 average number of people admitted annually under this targeted definition of skilled workers was about 15,000, though we could do without a cap so long as standards for admission are set sufficiently high. Such a refinement would eliminate the largest of the employment-based divisions, the third employment-based preference category, which admits people with few special skills; in addition, the catch-all “special immigrants” category and the investor-visa category would be eliminated.

My view, in contrast, is that many of the ordinary people Krikorian has in mind can make an important contribution because agglomerations of talent are valuable. That is, a sharp increase in the number of people in a given region with postgraduate degrees contributes in various ways to its economic well-being, as Enrico Moretti has observed. I would tend to tip the scales in favor of unremarkable potential immigrants who would only make very large contributions to the productive capacity of the nation even if said contributions would fall short of enormous because it is the collective impact of this population that matters most.

This disagreement aside, I identify very much with Krikorian’s coda:

Finally, and this is not specifically in reference to the debate, the whole “legal good/illegal bad” approach to immigration, which Romney articulated, may be a useful way to politically finesse the issue, but doesn’t logically hold together. If legal immigration is so wonderful, why are there any limits on it? Libertarians are at least honest in calling for the unlimited admission of foreigners, but no politician can say that because voters would recoil if it were expressed that clearly. But what is the limiting principle? Why shouldn’t second-cousins be able to immigrate? Why shouldn’t employers be able to import workers in any number they please? I know my answer – I wrote a whole book on it. But what answer would the candidates give? It would be nice if someone thought to ask.

This question is one we’ve discussed exhaustively in this space, and I agree that it would be good to hear major party candidates articulate a coherent limiting principle, if any. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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