The Agenda

Incompletely Theorized Agreements: A Reply to Tim Lee

Tim Lee finds my thoughts on immigration head-scratchingly confusing

Reihan carefully avoids answering his own question here, but reading between the lines, he seems to be conceding that the pie isn’t fixed. However, he argues, “immigration doves” like me (and, he claims, himself) can’t afford to say so because the general public can’t handle the truth.


This is a deeply un-Salamian position to take. One of the things that makes Reihan’s work so delightful is his contrarian streak. If fixed-pieism is false, then Reihan, of all people, should be willing to say so even if the argument is a loser at the polls.

With that said, I actually agree with his assessment of the political climate. The low level of economic literacy among the general public makes it extremely difficult to convince voters that the American economy could gracefully accommodate much higher levels of immigration, even though that’s what the evidence shows. But that’s precisely why it’s important that the immigration debate not be primarily a debate about economics. The beauty of the DREAM Act, and Jose Vargas’s campaign on its behalf, is that it focuses the debate on concrete injustices perpetrated against specific, sympathetic immigrants. It’s much easier to whip up public anger about “illegal immigration” in general than it is to defend the deportation of an individual immigrant like Julio Hernandez.

I actually don’t consider myself an immigration dove like Tim. Rather, as I said in the post, 

If anything, I am an “immigration dove” when it comes to the number of migrants we should allow to settle in the U.S. I am an “immigration hawk” in that I believe that we should as a general rule enforce existing immigration laws and I’m skeptical of measures like the DREAM Act.

I think we can and should authorize a somewhat larger number of migrants to work and settle in the United States, consistent with a coherent scheme centered on U.S. national interests. I’ve sketched out what such a scheme might look like in this space in an earlier reply to Tim and others:


So how do we decide who “gets these slots”?

I can see how we might want to give preference to potential migrants who will make a significant contribution to the economic well-being of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents over the life cycle. That is, we should balance expenditures early and late in life against gains made during the prime-age years, factoring in the implications of family reunification, etc.

On humanitarian grounds, I can see why we might welcome at least some potential migrants with limited English language proficiency, modest skills, etc. These migrants, like any migrants, will make an economic contribution, yet this contribution is somewhat more likely to be outweighed by costs associated with social service expenditures. I definitely agree that the U.S. needs less-skilled workers, yet there are distributional consequences that merit at least some attention, provided we collectively care about things like Gini coefficients, etc. (I don’t, but many others do.) That is, if Americans cared less about the overall rate of child poverty, welcoming larger numbers of less-skilled migrants who lag far behind native-born U.S. workers in educational attainment and thus find it more difficult to secure high-wage employment, the political constraint would presumably be much weaker. (This is one reason why the alliance between liberals and libertarians on these issues lies on a shaky foundation.)

A serious humanitarian immigration policy requires a rigorous assessment of how to achieve the greatest humanitarian gain constrained by the aforementioned (constructed) scarcity. Given the power of remittances relative to overseas development assistance, the decision about which less-skilled migrants to welcome into the United States, either on a temporary or permanent basis, is a weighty one. I would exclude all less-skilled workers with OECD countries and focus on workers from highly-indebted poor countries, and from regions in humanitarian crisis. There would, of course, be some prudential limits.

Which countries do I have in mind? One place to start, and potentially stop, is with countries with a GDP per capita below $2,500, e.g., countries like Burundi, Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Zambia, among many others. Haiti, a country ravaged by natural disasters and a failing state, is another strong candidate. Note that Mexico, a member of the OECD with a GDP per capita of $13,609, ahead of Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and Colombia and just behind Malaysia, is not on that list. 

To be sure, Mexican migrants, like Malaysian or Dutch or Korean migrants, should be allowed to take their chances in what we might call the non-humanitarian track. But I can’t see how citizens of Mexico, an upper-middle-income country, merit slots that would otherwise go to families that would otherwise face the threat of dire poverty (i.e., lives led under the two-dollar-a-day standard), ritual mutilation, and much else. 

I don’t see why the child of unauthorized migrants should be given precedence over the child of Malagasy or Senegalese or Zambian parents who was barred from settling in the United States. My sense is that Tim finds this position inhumane and unjust. The reason I asked Tim about his thoughts regarding an immigration regime that would be worth enforcing is that I think that good, decent migrants will suffer under almost any imaginable immigration regime short of open borders, and possibly including open borders. Tim writes:


Now, Reihan wants me to explain what I would consider an “acceptable immigration enforcement regime.” But I think this is the wrong place to start the analysis. No conceivable set of enforcement measures can enforce our current, broken immigration rules; that’s one of the reasons we need to change them. If we did a better job of welcoming immigrants who will make positive contributions to our economy and the federal treasury, one of the happy side effects would be that it would be a lot easier to deport the minority of criminals and deadbeats we really don’t want in our country.

But more generally, I reject the proposition that unless I’ve developed a comprehensive immigration reform agenda, I’m not allowed to make value judgments about individual parts of the immigration system. It’s obvious that Jose Vargas should be allowed to stay in this country. The exact details of how we accomplish that—whether we pass the DREAM Act, raise the quota for skilled Filipino immigrants, grant blanket amnesty, etc—is a question that reasonable people can disagree about. But our current immigration system is indefensible, as is the large number of people who seem to believe the top priority is to crack down even harder on its victims.

I can see why Tim thinks that this is the wrong place to start the analysis. Tim is interested in effectively deploying the politics of moral outrage:

The beauty of the DREAM Act, and Jose Vargas’s campaign on its behalf, is that it focuses the debate on concrete injustices perpetrated against specific, sympathetic immigrants. It’s much easier to whip up public anger about “illegal immigration” in general than it is to defend the deportation of an individual immigrant like Julio Hernandez.

I’m not drawn to the politics of moral outrage, which places me in a small minority. Part of the reason is that I lack Tim’s moral clarity, e.g.,

If we did a better job of welcoming immigrants who will make positive contributions to our economy and the federal treasury, one of the happy side effects would be that it would be a lot easier to deport the minority of criminals and deadbeats we really don’t want in our country.

It is by no means obvious to me that it is morally sound for us to treat “criminals and deadbeats” who’ve lived in the United States from, say, the age of 2-3 days differently from “criminals and deadbeats” who were born on American soil. Tim seems to believe that there is an obvious bright line between immigrants who make positive contributions to our economy and those who do not. I’ve known unauthorized migrants who’ve made immensely positive contributions to our country in the form of household production, civic engagement, community uplift, and much else, yet who made limited contributions in the form of market production or tax revenues. Are these migrants obviously “worse” than net taxpayers in some moral sense? I find this troubling as a moral argument.

And that is why I’m not particularly interested in making moral arguments in this domain. To underscore, any form of immigration restriction is morally problematic. Some are more so than others. One might argue that the DREAM Act represents a moral improvement over the status quo and is economically advantageous as well, as Adam Ozimek suggests. I don’t think it is as economically advantageous as other plausible approaches, e.g., the sketch I offered earlier on.

So what we are dealing with is a difference of opinion regarding which kinds of exclusion are more morally problematic. Is it better to protect the interests of would-be beneficiaries of the DREAM Act or potential migrants from HIPCs? The inevitable answer — why can’t we do both? — leads us back to the fixed pie question. By accepting that there should be any form of immigration restriction at all, one is already conceding the point that the pie, a constructed, political pie determined through a process of legislative deliberation, is and ought to be fixed. Moreover, I haven’t heard a good argument to the effect that the DREAM Act won’t establish a precedent for earned legalization and a broader “soft amnesty” approach, which would in turn encourage more unauthorized migration. This might be because I have yet to encounter an advocate of the DREAM Act who doesn’t favor earned legalization and a broader “soft amnesty” approach.  

Do I think that the pie should be fixed in some abstract sense? In some abstract sense, I think that I would have made the case against agriculture and sedentary living. That is, I think that the pre-state social arrangements of our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors had much to recommend them. Every step we’ve taken since then has been fraught with moral compromise. At the start of Geoffrey Miller’s amusing Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, he offers a lengthy dialogue between a modern person and a tribe of hunter-gatherers in which our contemporary makes the case for modern industrial civilization. He doesn’t get much traction.

Yet I certainly wouldn’t recommend a comprehensive effort to somehow return to an Edenic, prelapsarian state, as I like cities, processed food, and smartphones. I realize that this will sound like a glib answer to a serious question, but I am being entirely earnest. Hierarchies of any kind make me deeply uncomfortable. I see us as extremely clever primates who’ve built up complex social organizations, undergirded by legitimating principles that strike me as shaky at best. Given that we live in a world in which states and state-like organizations are dominant, I feel grateful to live under the authority of one that is decent and relatively humane, if decidedly imperfect.

Adam Ozimek asks a question:

The “shadow life” part seems like a cost born strictly by the immigrant, and I’d leave it to them to decide whether their lives were improved by coming or not, and staying or leaving. But I’m not sure if living in the shadows is a cost to the immigrants is a claim Reihan was actually trying to make, or if he simply meant the shadow life is what is contributing to larger social problems. If it’s the latter I’d be interested in some more elaboration here as to what the shadow life is and how it contributes to larger social problems.

I was referring to the latter. A large underground economy often leads to the proliferation of dangerous criminal activity, which is one of the reasons I am instinctively skeptical of occupational licensing regimes and price controls.



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

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