The Agenda

Tim Lee and Adam Serwer Defend the DREAM Act

Here is Tim Lee and here is Adam Serwer. I’m unconvinced. 

I’ve tried to say this many different times and in many different ways, and I can’t imagine I can do a much better job of expressing my views clearly. But I’ll do my best. Tim writes:

Reihan’s objects that “we’ve collectively decided” that the opportunity to live and work in the United States “will be treated as” a scarce good. I suspect he’s chosen this weird passive-voice phrasing because he knows better than to straight up claim that the opportunity to live in the United States is a scarce good. It’s not. We should let the DREAM kids stay here and we should be letting a lot more kids from poorer countries come here. Doing the one doesn’t in any way prevent us from doing the other.

I’ve chosen this weird passive-voice phrasing because think the broad democratic consensus matters. “Scarcity” is constructed in many domains, including spectrum policy. Is legal access to the spectrum a scarce good? Yes. Can we imagine a universe in which everyone has access to the spectrum? Yes. Can we imagine a universe in which the corporate entity that is the United States has ceased to exist and we live in a peaceful confederation of law-based jurisdictions, including non-territorial ethnoscapes, to use Arjun Appadurai’s term? Yes. I can also imagine Earth evolving into an “ecumenopolis,” with a population of tens of billions living in vast self-sustaining arcologies.

But my sense is that there is an upper bound on the number of foreigners that U.S. citizens will welcome to work and settle in the United States in any given year. I don’t know what that number is, but I imagine it’s not much higher than, say, 1.5 million per annum at the very high end. I am willing to accept that as a starting point, i.e., we’re not going to allow 3 million or 7 million or even 1.6 million. Chances are that a number smaller than 1.5 million would reflect the preferences of a voting majority, e.g., 800,000. 

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. 

Basically, we’re dealing with coalition politics. One coalition recognizes that there is a large, energized minority in the United States that identifies with migrants from Mexico and the Central American states, and that there are political gains to be made by emphasizing family reunification and earned legalization as part of a comprehensive immigration reform. There is no large, energized minority devoted to the interests of potential migrants from the world’s poorest countries. And so we’re told that an immigration settlement that entrenches the interests of one set of relatively affluent countries, just as the immigration settlement of the 1920s privileged potential migrants from northern Europe over all others, is the “humanitarian” approach. 

Again, I think that the all of the options we’re dealing with are departures from an approach that emphasizes universal brotherhood over all other considerations, and it’s far from obvious to me that earned legalization for a number of children of unauthorized migrants is preferable to welcoming even a small number of workers from the world’s poorest countries, who will send remittances home that could prove transformative for the families and communities left behind. 

I’ve been told that defeating the DREAM Act and a vision of comprehensive immigration reform that entrenches the privileged position of people born in neighboring upper-middle-income will not yield my favored outcome. That could be true, but I doubt it. My sense is that many voters resent the notion that they are bigots because they are concerned about unauthorized immigration. Many of these voters are, I suspect, more sympathetic to the would-be migrants who take part in the formal immigration system, e.g., by participating in the diversity visa lottery. My sketch of a more humanitarian immigration policy would be modeled on the diversity visa lottery, only it would be restricted to the world’s poorest countries. Residents of all countries would be eligible to apply to work and settle in the U.S. through a points system that emphasizes skills, as we discussed above. Even if the total number of migrants under this system were somewhat lower than the current total when we combine authorized and unauthorized migrants, the impact of remittances and brain circulation would, I suggest, do far more for global welfare than the existing system. Remember that we’re talking about helping societies in which large numbers of people haven’t reached the two-dollar-a-day standard.

The DREAM Act, in my view, entrenches an immigration status quo that privileges a politically appealing and influential group over voiceless would-be workers.

Tim writes:

From my perspective, the fundamental question in the immigration debate is: do we recognize immigrants as fellow human beings who are entitled to the same kind of empathy we extend to other Americans, or do we treat them as opponents in a zero-sum world whose interests are fundamentally opposed to our own? Most recent immigration reform proposals, including the Founder’s Visa and the various guest worker proposals, are based on the latter premise: immigrants in general are yucky, but certain immigrants are so useful to the American economy that we’ll hold our collective noses and let them in under tightly control conditions.

The DREAM Act is different. The pro-DREAM argument appeals directly to Americans’ generosity and sense of fairness, not our self-interest. The hoops kids must go through to qualify for DREAM are focused on self-improvement for the kids themselves, not (like the Founders Visa) on maximizing benefits for American citizens. There’s no quota on the number of kids who are eligible, and at the end of the process the kids get to be full-fledged members of the American community.

In contrast to Tim, if I’m understanding him correctly, I think it is perfectly acceptable for the United States to craft an immigration policy according to the self-interest of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. An expansive self-interest will include a desire to make a humanitarian effort to better the lives of the world’s poorest people. And it is to that end that I think we should craft an immigration policy biased towards aiding those from the world’s poorest countries.   

Here is a DREAM Act compromise I’d be more amenable to, though I think it is far from perfect: have it apply only to young adults from countries with a GDP per capita of less than $2,500. 

I don’t have anything to add to Adam’s remarks. I find them characteristically smart, though I disagree with his conclusion. 


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