As it has with many other topics, nostalgia has frozen much of our debate about immigration. Moreover, this nostalgia has often invented a past that never existed in order to prevent a critical analysis of the present. This nostalgia may in part be naïve, but it can also be deliberately deployed in order to prevent a clear-eyed discussion of immigration.
Many of those in the corridors of power (including celebrity talking heads) are distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of limiting immigration at all; this is one of the reasons why most discussions of “immigration reform” fixate on expanding legal immigration and granting legal status to illegal immigrants. However, the vast majority of Americans are quite opposed to the idea of expanding legal immigration. In order to avoid confronting this fact, immigration nostalgics resort to decrying any critical discussion of how to regulate immigration as a betrayal of a supposed existential American commitment to open borders. As Jim Acosta’s performance at yesterday’s White House press conference demonstrates, this decrying often involves a mumbled quotation from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus.”
This nostalgia obscures both the working of our current immigration system and the implications of the RAISE Act. Despite all those with a penchant for quoting Emma Lazarus, our current legal immigration system does not prioritize the “huddled masses” of the world; instead, it prioritizes the relatives of recent immigrants. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the three biggest sources of legal immigration in 2015 were India, China, and Mexico. While all three countries are poorer than the United States, they are far from the poorest in the world (especially China and Mexico). According to World Bank calculations of per capita GDP, there are many sizable countries much poorer than those major immigration sources, such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. For instance, even though Bangladesh has a population bigger and poorer than that of Mexico, there are more than 64 times as many Mexican as Bangladeshi immigrants in the United States. Thus, if the United States had an immigration policy based on targeting the world’s poor, it would look very different than it currently does. It seems hard to say that it’s a betrayal of American principles to change the immigration system so that it prioritizes skills rather than distant kinship.
Nor do we know what the implications of the RAISE Act would be on American demographics. Those who argue that RAISE would limit potential immigrants to English-speaking nations such as Australia and the United Kingdom miss the fact that there are educated, entrepreneurial, and English-speaking people of all races who would love to come to the United States. For instance, many poor African countries have sizable English-speaking populations. And RAISE would only give a boost to those would-be immigrants who already speak English; it would not ban non-English speakers. Folks quoting Ronald Reagan in order to oppose RAISE might also remember that legal immigration during Reagan’s administration was nearly half of what it is today (even though the U.S. has not doubled in population since the 1980s). One might disagree with this reduction in legal immigration, but classifying the reduction of immigration to Reaganite levels as out-of-bounds nativism would seem to require calling the Gipper himself a rank nativist.
The RAISE Act may or may not be a good piece of legislation, though many advocates for a more opportunity-oriented immigration system have suggested it could be a good starting point. Before getting into a debate about the merits of the bill, however, we should first be willing to dismiss glib illusions. Our current immigration system could do much more to encourage opportunity for immigrants and strengthen civic capital; critical analysis — and not hackneyed sentimentalism — can help us undertake the real effort of reform.