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Handling Immigration in a Way that Addresses Legitimate Concerns

Summary:
Many people oppose immigration for either racist reasons or looking down on non-citizens in a way that is just as bad as racism. One way to suss out whether this is true in a given case is to call their bluff when they say (as they often do) that they are opposed to illegal immigration. OK, fine. Let’s be against illegal immigration, but let’s dramatically increase legal immigration. And, as I’ve often said on Twitter, if I get to choose the realized quantity of legal immigration that is a hardcore target, you can choose all the rules of who is favored for immigration and what hoops they have to jump through in order to reassure us that they are trying to assimilate and become American in whatever behaviors and attitudes we think are important in new Americans. Other than if it helps in

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Many people oppose immigration for either racist reasons or looking down on non-citizens in a way that is just as bad as racism. One way to suss out whether this is true in a given case is to call their bluff when they say (as they often do) that they are opposed to illegal immigration. OK, fine. Let’s be against illegal immigration, but let’s dramatically increase legal immigration. And, as I’ve often said on Twitter, if I get to choose the realized quantity of legal immigration that is a hardcore target, you can choose all the rules of who is favored for immigration and what hoops they have to jump through in order to reassure us that they are trying to assimilate and become American in whatever behaviors and attitudes we think are important in new Americans.

Other than if it helps in getting more immigration, I don’t want immigration to get caught up in the culture wars. The reasons I am for immigration are first, that we need a lot more Americans in order to maintain the geopolitical influence of the USA on a par or ahead of China and second, that allowing people from poverty-stricken countries to immigrate is one of the easiest ways to lift people out of desperate poverty. It may be OK to privilege the interests of citizens over non-citizens to some degree, but I hold to “The Aluminum Rule” that we should give a weight in the social welfare function to non-citizens at least .01 as large as we do to citizens.

But not all opposition to more legal immigration is due to racism or looking down on non-citizens. Some is based on a legitimate fear that to much change could upset good things that we have now. The talk by Roger Scruton at the top of this post points to the conservative advice of “hesitate” when thinking about something that will induce social change and to the value people put on “home,” whatever home means to them in practice. To me, these legitimate fears are why conservatives and Trumpian populists should get a big hand in the details of immigration rules, while the rest of us (progressives, liberals and centrists) insist on a much larger quantity of legal immigration.

The analogy I use in ‘Keep the Riffraff Out!’ is that we should be a proselyting nation as the Mormonism I was a part of until age 40 is a proselyting religion. We need more Americans in the world. And marvelously, due to the virtues of our nation, there are many, many people eager to become Americans. (Anything that has helped make us rich—and especially anything that has given us wages for folks at the bottom of the heap that look very, very attractive to those in other countries—counts as a virtue of our nation!) But to pursue the analogy further, to become a member of the Mormon Church (with some dysfunctional historical exceptions) one has to go through some very specific and detailed instruction and make some serious promises.

I don’t see an ethical objection to putting quite stringent requirements on immigrants. The key is that they be allowed to live and work and send their kids to public schools in the United States and that the requirements seem reasonable to enough potential immigrants that a much larger number of people per year immigrate legally to the US in the future than in the recent past. As an example of some of the restrictions I think should be seen as OK in the interests of getting a deal on immigration, it could be OK if they had a reduced access to the social safety net for some period of time, and it could be OK if they didn’t become fully naturalized to get voting rights for 18 years from the time they first legally immigrate. (The delay in becoming fully naturalized might be important in getting a deal with Republicans.)

What about tilting legal immigration more strongly toward high-skilled immigrants? I am OK with that, too. Although it doesn’t lift as many people out of desperate poverty, it does help the US in its competition with China and probably gives people a more positive attitude toward immigration, which could later make possible some increase in immigration that saves people from desperate poverty. Thus, a big increase in legal immigration, but only for high-skilled immigrants would be a step in the right direction.

What about those who are now here in the US illegally? My view is that if we increase legal immigration rates by enough, that those who came illegally can go far back in line and still be able to become legal immigrants within a reasonable amount of time. Of course, this points to one place we need to not go too far toward allowing only high-skilled immigrants. It is valuable to have a policy that allows illegal immigrants to become legal immigrants without that policy looking like “amnesty.” (Although I worry that any policy that gives illegal immigrants a path to becoming legal immigrants would be called “amnesty.” I’d like to know specifically what policy that gives some path to becoming legal is definitely not “amnesty.”)

Some readers might counter my policy urgings by saying we should help people improve the countries they are in so they want to stay there. There are two answers to that. First, helping other countries to improve their situations, beyond what is already happening, is very difficult. Second, if contrary to my view that improving things in other countries is hard, we could have a wild success in that regard, it would lead to limited immigration even if we had an open borders policy. So thinking it is possible to be wildly successful in making things better in other countries isn’t a good reason not to dramatically increase legal immigration.

In closing, let me say that I am not in favor of open borders. In one of my earliest posts on immigration, “You Didn't Build That: America Edition,” I write:

As stewards of this unbelievable American system, we need to regulate the pace of arrival so that the system itself is not overwhelmed and destroyed, but unless this unbelievable American system itself is threatened, let us open our doors wide to others who have not had the good fortune to be born Americans.

But I also wrote:

We didn’t build this unbelievable American system, and it is not our private property. We don’t have a moral right to exclude other human beings–human beings like us–from the benefits of this unbelievable American system.

On immigration, don’t miss these posts and earlier posts they link to:

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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