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The Perils of Reform

Our immigration system can be fixed, but Republicans should aim for better policies, not better pandering

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Their parents, however, have no claim that demands conflating the grant of a more secure status with citizenship. The British grant many people, this writer included, “indefinite leave to remain,” which conveys the right of residence and freedom to find work, but not citizenship. Such a status might be a model for reform of our treatment of illegal immigrants. But do not for one moment believe that the millions with their residence “regularized” can be barred from the use of public services, a provision some would include in the immigration reform legislation. Teachers are not going to turn away such students, doctors are not going to refuse them care when they present themselves at hospitals in an emergency, police are not going to tell any who become crime victims that their assailants will not be pursued. Give them the right of residence, and you are effectively giving them access to the same public services to which citizens are entitled.

Having avoided the error of conflation, then disaggregate. The 11 million are not a homogeneous group. Everyone knows that, but the president and his party see their chances of getting the mass of the 11 million on the path to voterhood maximized by lumping millions of unskilled non-English speakers, nearly two-thirds of whom have never graduated from high school, with engineers who entered the country legally and received their advanced degrees here. That is why the president has warned Republicans “not to pull this thing apart,” and the Democratic leadership in the Senate is insisting on a comprehensive bill​—​the sort preferred by Nancy Pelosi, whose idea of good policy is not to find out what is in a bill until after you pass it.

Avoiding this politically inspired aggregation is one of the keys to sensible policy. A guest worker program will take care of the needs of those who come for seasonal work: There is no need to issue permits that extend beyond the season or period in which those needs exist. Some will, of course, not go home and will overstay their visas. But far fewer than would were the amnesty granted the 11 million to include a path to citizenship. At the other end of the labor market, the highly trained and highly skilled can be granted both indefinite leave to remain and a path to citizenship, on the general theory that they will over their lifetimes provide a net benefit to the American economy and are more rather than less likely to learn English and otherwise assimilate. How many? Let employers bid for visas, rather than doling the bulk of them out for family reunification, and use the funds to offset some of the social costs imposed on communities with high percentages of immigrants. 

After all, it is employer groups that are clamoring for more visas for these sorts of immigrants, whom they prefer to hire rather than the trained Americans available in ample supply, if data compiled by Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute (“America’s Genius Glut,” New York Times, February 8) are to be believed. I have not attempted to decide whether the EPI data or the view of Caterpillar’s chief technology officer Gwenne Hendricks that we “need to have access to the best skills in higher volumes than we can access just out of the North American market” more closely represents reality. But even if Hendricks is correct that such home-grown talents are not now available, it is unclear why increasing compensation for these skilled positions, rather than holding the line on pay by importing talent, would not increase the domestic supply in the long run. Which may be why the Silicon Valley CEOs are pressing so hard for comprehensive reform, without which “the odds of high-skilled [legislation] passing .  .  . is close to zero,” according to Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. 

Consider the analogy of the law business. When it was booming and compensation was rising, students flocked to law schools. Now that the bloom is off that rose, and law firms are either not hiring or keeping compensation under control, law-school enrollment is plummeting, so much so that some schools are threatened with closure. The price system works, in labor markets as well as in the markets for goods and services.

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