The Agenda

Brief Note on the Immigration Divide

Ezra Klein has written a terrific column on immigration. Though I don’t agree with every aspect of the column, he brings much-needed clarity to thorny normative questions:

Because of a 1965 law, our immigration system is based around family unification. More than 65 percent of visas are for purposes of bringing family members to the United States. Only 15 percent are for economic reasons. As Darrell West of the Brookings Institution writes in his book “Brain Gain,” this means that immigrant families, rather than current policymakers, decide who enters the country.

That’s nuts. Our immigration policy should be primarily oriented around our national goals. And one goal is to have the world’s most innovative and dynamic economy.

Incredibly, during a time when we’ve come to appreciate the importance of talent agglomerations and intangible assets, we’re reducing rather than increasing the legal influx of skilled migrants:

But since 2001, we’ve gone from offering 195,000 high-skill visas to about 65,000 today. In fact, we let top students come for college or graduate school – and then we don’t let them stay. “We should staple a green card to PhDs in science and technology,” West says with a sigh. “They’d like to stay here!”

Where I part company with Ezra is on his call for giving legal status to the 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. This really would redound to the benefit of less-skilled U.S. workers, as Ezra argues, by raising the wages of workers who are substitutes and not complements. Yet I think it’s fair to ask if this creates an expectation that unauthorized immigrants will, in the fullness of time, always be given legal status. Neither approach strikes me as fully satisfactory, but my gut tells me that the cycle has to stop. 

Many prefer conditional legalization or amnesty because they see it as the most humane approach. But we’ve discussed why the humanitarian case for the immigration status quo is so flawed. Distributing the scarce good that is the right to reside and work in the United States on the basis of proximity rather than need doesn’t strike me as very compelling. The remittances that currently flow to Mexico could be flowing to dozens of highly-indebted poor countries that are in far worse shape than Mexico.

During the 1920s, the United States passed an immigration law that reflected raw ethnic politics. In essence, the descendants of northern European migrants sought to privilege their co-ethnics over would-be migrants from southern and central Europe. This restriction helped pave the way for the Great Compression, the egalitarian midcentury period celebrated by many on the left, and it also put the brakes on rapid demographic change that sparked cultural and political conflicts like the Prohibition wars.

Now, in a strikingly similar vein, the rising political influence of Mexican Americans — a salutary and inspiring development in most respects — is having a strangely similar impact on our immigration debates. Non-Mexican migrant communities don’t have the demographic or political weight to advance policies that would benefit their co-ethnics, would-be migrants from highly-indebted poor countries have few strong political allies in the U.S., and backers of more skilled migration risk being accused of ethnic insensitivity, as the vast majority of college-educated Mexicans choose to stay in their native country while skilled European and Asian workers tend to be somewhat more footloose. 

I want to emphasize that I strongly agree with Ezra that we should place heavier emphasis on skill-based immigration than family unification. My sense, however, is that Angela Maria Kelley, the Center for American Progress’s vice president for immigration policy and advocacy, would strongly disagree. Her writing has placed a great deal of weight on the importance of family unity, a reflection of the political potency of that argument. It’s always great to have allies in this ongoing debate.

I will say, however, that there is a tension between welcoming both skilled and less-skilled migrants and placing a heavy emphasis on the importance of dampening wage dispersion. Immigration will tend to increase wage dispersion. I tend to think this is perfectly fine, but I’m not an instinctive egalitarian. 

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