The Agenda

The Immigration Pie and the Gang of Eight Deal

During the National Review Institute summit, I had a brief conversation with a conservative immigration restrictionist. Though our views were very far apart concerning the size of the annual immigration influx we consider desirable — I favor a fairly high number, he favors a fairly low number — we both agree that one of the more frustrating aspects of the immigration debate is that most immigration advocates are reluctant to be pinned down on a number that might serve as an annual ceiling.

That is, do we want a maximum of 100,000 immigrants a year, a number that would mean net immigration of less than zero, or do we want a maximum of 3 million immigrants a year? This number can be separated from the question of the kind of immigrants we want to allow to work and settle in the U.S., e.g., we could have a humanitarian immigration policy in which we only allow in refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants from the world’s poorest countries or we could have an immigration policy that fixates on net fiscal impact and only allow in skilled prime-age workers who are proficient in English and are capable of paying a high immigration tariff. Either approach can work at a really low or a really high cap. Or we could allow in some mix of both kinds of immigrants at a really low or a really high cap.

Yet problems arise when we don’t have any kind of a cap in mind, as this leads to a loss of focus. For example, our sense of who should be permitted to settle in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds might slowly shift from people in really dire need to everyone who would have a better shot in life in the U.S. than in their native country. This latter group numbers in the hundreds of millions if not the billions. Not every individual who falls into this group will choose to settle in the U.S., to be sure, but it is reasonable to guess, based on the number of applications for the diversity visa lottery, that the number will be considerable. 

The nice thing about having some notional ceiling in mind is that it allows us to think rigorously about trade-offs. Ezra Klein put this very well in Wonkblog earlier today:

Perhaps the key architectural question in building a new immigration system (as opposed to figuring out what to do with the failures of the last immigration system) is deciding whether we’ll focus our visas on drawing needed skills (for instance, by favoring immigrants with advanced degrees or who work in sectors, like agriculture, where we need more labor), emphasizing family unification or something else.

This paper mentions both family reunification and skills. And to some degree, that’s fine: We don’t need to choose simply one or the other. But since we’re not moving to an open-border policy, the fact that we’re offering a limited number of visas will mean that we have to choose how many of them go toward  reuniting families and how many go toward filling our perceived economic needs. Those ratios are left undefined in this framework, but they’ll be one of the most hotly contested elements of the actual law. [Emphasis added]

This is why it is so disappointing that the Gang of Eight seems to be behaving as though there is no trade-off between the current family reunification system and an immigration system that is oriented around America’s economic needs. I have a different view of America’s economic needs than many others, and I’m happy to make the case for it. But before we can even have that argument, we need to recognize that there are some trade-offs implied by the public’s rejection of an open-border policy. 

My sense is that the immigration debate is plagued by the same kind of information asymmetries that plague other debates over policy reform. The vast majority of Americans never have to navigate the immigration enforcement system, and so they don’t understand its frustrations. Agricultural interests understand the system very well, and can effectively lobby for favorable outcomes. The beneficiaries of a permissive family reunification system also understand the system well and the benefits they derive are large and palpable. In contrast, the Americans who would benefit from tilting the balance from family reunification to skills-based immigration are generally not aware of the benefits they’re missing out on and they are diffuse and disorganized. The idea of a cap can at the very least help clarify matters. 

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

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