The Corner

Politics & Policy

Immigration Caps and Prudence

Earlier this week, Marco Rubio doubted that the RAISE Act would be able to make it through the Senate and outlined one of his major objections to the legislation:

I don’t want to limit legal immigration. . . . Where I probably have a big difference of opinion with this bill is that it sets an arbitrary cap on the number of people that are able to come through with a green card. I don’t think that should be an arbitrary cap. That number should be driven by demand.

Senator Rubio’s objection here differs in kind from those who argue that the RAISE Act has too low a cap on legal immigrants. Instead, the Florida senator seems to be objecting to any fixed cap at all.

Caps on legal immigration have been a key component of U.S. immigration policy for generations. These caps have not been totally rigid (for instance, the spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens can immigrate without being subject to any cap), but, they have been in place. A call for an uncapped immigration system would be a major departure from the norms of American immigration policy after the rise of modern transportation and the welfare state.

There might be a further conservative argument on behalf of caps for a modern immigration system: Human limitations mean that sweeping policy efforts can have unforeseen consequences, which can make immigration policy especially tricky. Caps on legal immigration (whatever the criteria for legal immigration) might be viewed as a recognition of that limitation; because we don’t know all the long-term consequences of a given immigration paradigm, we should set limits on the immigration flow of any given year. Furthermore, if we are going to set limits on legal immigration, there seems a much stronger case for having the elected branches of government directly establish those limits rather than a complex, behind-the-scenes bureaucratic calculus.

Immigration is an area where expert predictions have failed spectacularly. For instance, the proponents of the 1965 revision of immigration law did not predict the massive demographic change that their reforms would initiate. Almost certainly, a shift to a skills-based system would also have unintended consequences, and, without a cap on legal immigration, these consequences could have an even greater magnitude. Every system the government would establish to monitor immigration “demand,” as Senator Rubio puts it, is one that could be open to distortion and abuse. Every points system, no matter how well designed, will have its shortcomings and will favor certain interests over others. A cap on legal immigration sets an absolute bound to the extent of this government-induced distortion.

One of the great tensions between open-borders ideology and conservatism involves the role of moderation. Because of a recognition of the importance of conserving many existing civic institutions, conservatives often promote disruptional buffers to lessen the force of major social shocks, even ones that are well-intended. Caps on legal immigration might act as one such buffer. Open-borders advocates might cheer radical disruption in the pursuit of a borderless utopia, but conservatives remember that utopias are often the graveyards of hopes, good intentions, and prudence.