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Welcome to America

The business of immigration is more than business.

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By PETER SKERRY
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Immigration Wars has gotten a lot of attention because of its proposal to offer undocumented immigrants permanent legal resident status in lieu of citizenship—and because of Jeb Bush’s subsequent walking it back and expressing a willingness to support some kind of a path to citizenship for illegals. Just as noteworthy is the book’s critique of the bedrock of our immigration policy—family reunification—and its proposal to eliminate preferential visas for immigrant parents of U.S. citizens over 21, who, along with the noncitizen spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, are currently granted permanent residence outside of otherwise rigid quotas. Similarly significant is the book’s support of an array of biometric identification procedures to monitor the entry and exit not only of visitors to this country, but also of individuals, including citizens, seeking employment.  

Immigrant children at Ellis Island, 1908

Immigrant children at Ellis Island, 1908

The most striking, and unremarked on, proposal is for a “market-driven system of immigration,” with the number of work visas “automatically adjusted .  .  . on an annual basis to reflect changes in market needs.” Emphasizing the importance of “priorities based on objective criteria,” authors Bush and Clint Bolick acknowledge that “any future Congress could, of course, adjust the formula.” But as they envision, “the point is that appropriate shifts in immigration numbers would not require congressional action and thus would not be subject to the vicissitudes of politics.”  

How seriously should we take these proposals? Bush and Bolick’s critique of family reunification is bold and seemingly strikes at the heart of a policy framework under which two-thirds of the more than one million green cards awarded annually are on the basis of family ties, as opposed to about 13 percent on work-based criteria. But when it gets down to specifics, our authors do not actually eliminate visas to the immigrant parents of citizens, or to their adult sisters, brothers, and children—the sources of so-called chain migration. Indeed, Bush and Bolick end up either bungling or fudging the overall number of immigrants to be admitted under their proposal. Undoubtedly, this is because they are intent on increasing the number of immigrants arriving here annually (despite current political resistance, which they acknowledge). But if they don’t really mean it, why raise the issue of family reunification and antagonize its primary beneficiaries: Asians and Hispanics?

Under the Bush-Bolick proposal, increased numbers of immigrants would be driven by employment criteria—either as skilled or unskilled workers, the latter as “guest workers” on renewable annual visas who, after five years, would be eligible for green-card status and eventual citizenship. But the more fundamental point is that all such workers would be admitted on the basis of market demand, as determined by employers, with minimal input from politicians, bureaucrats, or labor unions. 

It is, of course, unlikely that such “objective criteria” would ever be agreed upon, and equally unlikely that Congress would cede its authority in this critical domain—either to employers or to bureaucrats. But even if we assume that allowing high-tech firms to hire as many skilled employees as they claim to need would help achieve the 4 percent annual growth in GDP that Bush and Bolick set as their goal, would affording similar latitude to landscapers, restaurants, and hotels to hire unskilled laborers result in commensurate growth? The answer depends, in part, on the fiscal demands such unskilled immigrants put on public services. Addressing this point, Bush and Bolick emphasize that America needs high levels of immigration precisely because “the  diminishing ratio of workers and those whose social services depend on them is shrinking alarmingly.” To back this up, they cite an authoritative 1997 study by the National Research Council reporting that “immigrants on average pay $1,800 more in taxes than they consume in services.”

Unfortunately, Bush and Bolick misinterpret this finding. Piling error upon error, they cite a Brookings Institution study that, itself, misinterprets the 1997 research. The original study does conclude that the average immigrant pays more in taxes than he receives in government benefits. But it then clearly notes that “most people would find this figure misleading .  .  . because it does not include the fiscal impacts of the immigrants’ young children born in the United States.” When such impacts are factored in, the $1,800 fiscal surplus turns into a $370 fiscal deficit.

A related issue involves our emerging reliance on skilled immigrant workers in the critical STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. According to Bush and Bolick, one reason for our lack of STEM graduates is our poor performance in educating immigrant children, especially Hispanics. Thus, they acknowledge that “we would not need nearly so many immigrants if we were able to produce more highly skilled American students, workers, and creators.” But at what point do we get caught up in a kind of Ponzi scheme in which we take in educated immigrants to make up for our inability to educate the children of other immigrants?

Bush and Bolick argue that the remedy for such ills is “a market-driven system of education” that would afford immigrant families substantially greater school choice. And yet, however worthy such proposals may be, might it not also make sense to limit the number of unskilled immigrants until we do a much better job of educating their children? The authors feint in this direction—only to retreat and argue for increased numbers of both unskilled and skilled immigrants.    

Yet the larger problem with the Bush-Bolick proposal goes deeper than mere numbers. They fail to articulate what the national interest is in increased levels of both unskilled and skilled immigrants. To be sure, they invoke the usual rhetoric about ours being “a nation of immigrants,” but they quickly reduce immigration to a matter of revitalized economic growth. As they put it, “Getting immigration policy right will enable us to reclaim the prosperity that in recent years has eluded our grasp.” This is obviously an important objective, and one which immigration policy can do a lot to help us achieve. But it will also require difficult policy choices that will hardly be guided by “objective criteria” determined outside of the political process. Nor should those choices be delegated to the legitimate, but inevitably narrow, self-interested needs of employers. 

At one point, Bush and Bolick highlight how much agriculture in Alabama suffered when the state clamped down on illegal immigration, warning that if we don’t fix our overall immigration policy, agriculture there and elsewhere will be lost to overseas competitors. They specifically point with alarm to China, where “half the world’s apples are now grown.” But what they fail to do is make a serious case as to why we should care if China dominates the world apple market. To be sure, we would have reason to be concerned if China were a serious competitor in computer sciences or genetic research. But is there some strategic reason to protect the world market share of American apple growers—other than the obvious self-interest of the growers themselves? About the former, we hear nothing from Bush and Bolick, which clearly reflects their preoccupation with the latter. And that is simply not an adequate or realistic basis on which to achieve the kind of reform that immigration policy so desperately needs. 

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.