Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Immigration Middle Ground

Published in National Review Online on August 14, 2014



Reihan Salam is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review. Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the editor of National Affairs, and a contributing editor of National ReviewThis article is adapted from one that ran in the August 25, 2014 issue of National Review.

‘Are you for immigration reform or against it?”

In 2013, in the wake of President Obama’s reelection, Washington went through another round of a familiar argument. As in the past, it took the form of this yes-or-no question about a package of immigration policies calculated to please politically powerful constituencies rather than to address the problems of our immigration system.

The purpose of this exercise, which has recurred for a decade now, is not to achieve compromise between the two broad factions in our immigration debate: the economic and cultural cosmopolitans who want to dramatically increase immigration, and the economic and cultural populists who believe a more restrictive immigration policy better serves the national interest. The purpose, rather, is to patch together a coalition of cosmopolitan interests, from the Chamber of Commerce to La Raza, that is broad enough to roll over the populists — whose objections are dismissed as being rooted in ignorance or racial anxiety — instead of accommodating their legitimate concerns.

The most recent effort to achieve this purpose, like its predecessors, was supported by the elites of both political parties. It even had the backing of organized labor, which is increasingly dominated by public-sector workers with little to fear from low-wage competition. But, as ever, the effort ran into trouble with populist critics — most of them now Republicans — whose opposition was again sufficient to kill it.

As usual, the failure of the familiar package left its champions committed to simply trying the same thing again. House Republicans spent much of the past year fearing that their leaders would conspire with Senate Democrats to bring a version of the package to the floor, and those leaders spent much of the year promising business groups they would do just that while promising the rank-and-file they would not.

But, in a new twist, immigration has now returned to the front pages not because the reform package reappeared, but rather because a crisis at the border has brought some of our immigration system’s problems to light. The spring and summer saw a large surge of Central American minors reaching our southern border and seeking asylum in the United States. Their numbers overwhelmed the Border Patrol, and efforts to provide them with humane temporary shelter and to decide how to deal with them in the longer term quickly became a high-profile controversy.

Some politicians in both parties suggested that the influx may have stemmed from President Obama’s 2012 decision to grant “deferred action” to illegal immigrants who had come to America as minors before 2008 — that is, to allow them to stay and work without fear of legal sanction. Critics reasoned that this policy suggested to Central Americans that the U.S. was opening its doors to minors. It is impossible to say whether or to what degree the policy in fact contributed to the border crisis, but the sense that it may have, combined with the perception of disorder, caused a shift in public opinion, with support for legalization declining and frustration with our broken system growing. By the beginning of August, immigration had become the issue on which the public gave Obama his lowest marks.

Meanwhile, the president has further polarized the immigration debate by hinting that he may use his executive powers to, in effect, unilaterally legalize millions of people who entered the country illegally over the last several decades. This would in essence be a vast expansion of the constitutionally dubious amnesty he already provided for minors. This possibility raised the prospect of a constitutional crisis alongside the border crisis, and made immigration all the more central in our politics.

In both cases, immigration has come to the fore not as an up-or-down vote on the same old ideas, but instead as a set of palpably real problems for our political system. In different ways, both crises have illuminated the shortcomings of the usual immigration debate, and seeing these shortcomings could help the country find a more constructive alternative.

The essential components of the recurring elite proposal are a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants; more immigration by the highly skilled; and a guest-worker program, combined with other significant increases in immigration by less-skilled workers, to help employers hold down wages. In return, this proposal offers little more than the promise of finally enforcing laws that already exist regarding border security, visa controls, and employment-status verification; no meaningful policy concessions to the populists are on the table. This combination of policies is a good way to unite the various interests that favor far more open borders, but it does not constitute a tenable response to the divisive questions of our immigration debate or to America’s needs in the 21st century. And while populist critics deserve credit for opposing ideas that a growing number of Americans reject, their own failure to offer a compelling alternative is a key part of why we find ourselves at an impasse.

A more coherent and plausible approach would begin by examining the problems that immigration policy should help alleviate. Here are the five most important.

First, we now have a large population of unauthorized immigrants, the vast majority of whom we will not (and should not) deport. In many cases they are deeply rooted in American life but living in a legal limbo that undermines both their prospects and the rule of law. Second, we confront a changing global division of labor in which America’s comparative advantage lies in highly skilled work. This has created new opportunities for skilled workers and asset owners while squeezing workers with lower literacy and numeracy. Third, we have an immigration policy that has swelled the ranks of people with lower literacy and numeracy, complicating and counteracting our efforts to fight poverty and promote mobility. Fourth, decades of large-scale immigration under these circumstances have given rise to concentrated ethnic poverty, which has tended to undermine assimilation. And fifth, ongoing immigration of the less skilled has put downward pressure on the wages of immigrants already in America — who make up over 16 percent of the work force — and thereby worsened all the other problems.

Most of these problems are not normally taken up in our immigration debates. The cosmopolitan consensus speaks only to the first, albeit in a way that fails to address concerns about fairness and the rule of law. It would modestly increase America’s comparative advantage in the global economy by allowing more highly skilled workers to immigrate, but would also exacerbate the domestic downside by increasing the numbers of less skilled immigrants. In every other respect, it would simply make things worse.

These criticisms cannot be met by pointing to America’s traditional openness to immigration and to the great benefits immigrants have offered our country. In the past, America’s immigration policies were generally well adapted to its economic needs and circumstances, and changed with the times. The nation has also generally been far more committed to assimilation than it is today, and when the pressures of mass immigration have grown too great, our immigration policies have accordingly grown more restrictive.

In light of these challenges, we need to think clearly about what a 21st-century immigration policy should look like. Marching blindly into a doubling of legal immigration massively weighted toward lower-skilled workers, as the 2013 bill would have had us do, or creating a class of “guest workers,” is not a way to vindicate the nation’s principles or meet its needs. And decades of polling has consistently found that only a small minority of Americans favor increasing the overall level of immigration, a fact that the president and his allies are careful never to mention.

So what would a well-designed immigration policy — one geared to our actual problems, and to the practical necessity of finding middle ground — look like?

First, and perhaps most controversially, it would seek an enduring compromise on the question of illegal immigrants. Writing in National Affairs last year, Peter Skerry of Boston College persuasively sketched out such a compromise. Skerry argues that both sides of the debate have painted false portraits of unauthorized immigrants — one side depicting them as victims and the other as villains. These immigrants have come to America in search of economic opportunity and have been largely welcomed, yet they have come and stayed in knowing violation of our laws. America has invited them in even as it has pushed them away, and both aspects of their situation need to be addressed.

Skerry says this means that both mass deportation and a path to citizenship should be regarded as untenable dead ends, and that we should instead find middle ground by offering this population permanent legal residence without citizenship. This approach acknowledges the legal, cultural, economic, and humanitarian concerns surrounding the status of illegal immigrants. It imposes a clear and permanent penalty on those who came here illegally, one that takes into account the special place of citizenship and political participation in American life. Yet it also lets unauthorized immigrants continue to work here, and gives them the chance to see their children grow up as Americans. And it has the virtue of simplicity, avoiding the intricate and administratively daunting scheme of fines and multi-step paths through various legal categories that the cosmopolitan consensus has favored.

Second, an immigration compromise must conduce to the integration and assimilation of immigrants. Formal civic-education requirements — such as administering a simple civics test to immigrants before they are granted green cards and requiring them to complete a civics course before they are naturalized — could help achieve those goals. But the core solution must be to deemphasize extended-family unification as an organizing principle of immigration policy, and to significantly favor higher-skilled over lower-skilled immigrants. These changes would counteract — rather than reinforce, as today’s system does — the tendency toward concentrated ethnic poverty.

An immigration compromise should also be designed to help address problems not directly related to immigration, such as persistent poverty and the daunting fiscal difficulties confronting our entitlement and welfare systems. This will require, again, favoring skilled immigrants — who are likely to pay more in taxes than they will receive in benefits over the course of their lives — and curtailing immigration by individuals likely to fall into our existing patterns of poverty and immobility.

To summarize, this package of reforms would consist of legalization without a path to citizenship for those here illegally, and a gradual rebalancing of legal immigration toward higher-skilled workers and away from extended-family unification, temporary workers, and lower-skilled immigrants. It would offer a more plausible resolution of the illegal-immigration question than the current preferences of either the cosmopolitans or the populists, and it would provide a legal-immigration system resembling those of immigration-friendly and economically developed countries such as Canada and Australia.

Border and visa enforcement would not be part of this compromise, but would instead have to precede it. Enforcing existing law must not be a concession one side makes to the other in negotiations; it is an absolute obligation of the executive branch, which presidents of both parties have neglected lately when it comes to immigration. A compromise such as the one we have described could be designed to take effect only when the Department of Homeland Security has submitted to Congress an enforcement plan that a majority of each house deems adequate, or else when a majority of each house deems the actual implementation of such a plan to have met key markers regarding border security, visa-expiration enforcement, and workplace verification. Such an approach could strike a reasonable balance between the necessity of enforcement and the likelihood of legislative approval, and thus help bring about the overall immigration compromise we need.

The policies outlined here would constitute a real middle ground between the cosmopolitans and the populists rather than an effort to roll over the opposition. It would be designed not to meet the political requirements of building an elite coalition, but to address the problems of our immigration system and the needs of the country.

Since the Democratic party has put itself almost uniformly behind the cosmopolitan consensus while the Republican party (like the country) is divided, this compromise would need to come first from Republicans. It would be a natural project for an ambitious Republican politician with an interest in seeing real immigration reform achieved, a sensitivity to the needs and circumstances of immigrants (legal and illegal), and a gut-level grasp of the moral, cultural, economic, and legal concerns of the populists in our immigration debate.

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