The Magazine

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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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.