The Corner


Cutting Legal Immigration Should Not Be a Priority

New citizens take the oath at a naturalization ceremony in Seattle, Wash., in 2016. (David Ryder/Reuters)

Making a suggestion in the vein of the RAISE Act from 2017, David Frum writes:

The asylum seekers are advancing their interests and those of their families as best they can. Americans have the same responsibility to do what is best for Americans. A smaller immigration intake would dramatically slow the growth in the foreign-born share of the population, better shielding democratic political systems from extremist authoritarian reactions. Cutting the legal annual intake in half—back to the 540,000 a year that prevailed before the Immigration Act of 1990—would still keep the U.S. population growing strongly even if native birth rates never recover from their present deeply depressed levels.

And shifting that intake sharply away from family reunification (by, for example, ending preferences for adult siblings) would enable the U.S. to emphasize acceptance of highly skilled, high-earning immigrants—more doctors from Nigeria, say, or software engineers from India. Fewer, but higher-earning, immigrants would contribute more to Medicare and Social Security, while requiring less assistance from state social-welfare programs for themselves and their children.

For reasons I’ve explained previously, I wholeheartedly endorse the second paragraph here but not the first. Politically, it’s proven incredibly difficult to change immigration law in recent years — in either direction — and simply put the public just has no real desire to cut overall immigration levels. These days only about a third of Americans want to cut immigration in general, while only about a quarter want to cut legal immigration in particular. And far from an “extremist authoritarian reaction[],” support for cutting immigration has fallen by half or so in the last couple decades as the foreign-born share has grown.

(These numbers are from simple questions where pollsters ask whether immigration should go up, go down, or stay the same — which I think are far and away the best available. You can get different answers by having people pick from a list of various numbers in the hundreds of thousands and millions, and perhaps also telling them the current number is about a million per year without mentioning that this equals only about 0.3 percent of the population. Call me misanthropic, but I trust people to answer higher/lower/the same — using the reality around them as a benchmark — a lot more than I trust them to figure out the practical difference between, say, 250,000 and 500,000 in the context of a population of 330 million, especially when they don’t even know the latter number.)

Meanwhile, reworking our immigration system so it puts more emphasis on skills and less on family ties seems to be pretty popular. If there’s a way for conservatives to significantly reform legal immigration, given resistance from both Democrats and business-oriented Republicans, this is almost certainly it. Save the cuts for illegal immigration, which of course is a whole ’nother issue.

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