The First Principles of Immigration Policy

By Mark Krikorian on September 1, 1996

National Defender (published by the Daughters of the American Revolution), September 1996

Both houses of Congress recently passed bills intended to reduce illegal immigration, although they decided not to reform our system of legal immigration. Immigration may continue to be a hot topic through this fall's presidential election campaign, and is likely to come up again in Congress next year or the year after.

But despite all the attention in government and the media to immigration, there has been precious little discussion of what the principles of immigration policy should be, only cliches about "diversity" and "a nation of immigrants."

An examination of first principles can lead us to conclusions about the shape of a sound immigration policy. In thinking about this question, we might best start with our Constitution - the Preamble to the charter of our Republic can serve as a useful framework for considering this issue:

"We, the People of the United States, in Order to ...

... form a more perfect Union ...

The first priority of an immigration policy must be to ensure that it does not undermine our national unity. This has two implications: the number of immigrants admitted should not be so great as to overwhelm society's assimilative forces, and the people selected for immigration should have characteristics likely to lead to their assimilation.

A tribalist view of American nationhood might interpret this second conclusion to mean that our racial and ethnic balance should be kept where it is. But given the multi-ethnic nature of our nation from the very beginning, an immigration policy based on national origins would be as inappropriate now as it was in 1965, when such a policy was ended by Congress.

Instead, we should seek to perfect our Union by selecting immigrants who have the education and skills and language abilities that will help them integrate - economically, socially, politically - and ensure that their descendants eventually are amalgamated (through intermarriage) into the American nation, rather than relegated to an underclass at the margins of society.

... establish Justice ...

Whatever laws we establish regarding immigration (or anything else, for that matter) must be enforceable and enforced. This would imply that: our border should be secured and all traffic across it legal; those not allowed to come to the United States should be kept out; those in the country illegally should be removed; visitors should be made to leave when their permission to be here expires; people not authorized to work in the United States should be prevented from working; promises of financial support for immigrants should be enforced.

Our nation should say what it means and mean what it says with regard to immigration - something we have often neglected.

... insure domestic Tranquility ...

Immigration should be crafted so that it does not create disharmony in our society - through, for instance, the creation of new underclasses - and should not exacerbate problems that already exist - witness the riots in Los Angeles and in Miami, where friction between poor black Americans and immigrants exploded into violence.

A related factor in ensuring domestic tranquility is the selection of immigrants who are compatible with our society and familiar with modern urban life, so as to avoid some of the cultural clashes so common today. This is not meant to refer to ethnic distinctions, but rather to a prospective immigrant's class background, or perhaps more appropriately, his home society’s level of historical development.

Consider two immigrants - one a stone-age Laotian tribesman from a hunter/gatherer society with no written language, the other an Indian physician born and raised in a large city and educated in English. Which is more likely to upset the domestic tranquility? Through no fault of his own, the tribesman's cultural assumptions and general worldview are far more likely to clash with those of his American neighbors, coworkers and local ordinances than is the case with the Indian.

Female circumcision, matrimonial kidnapping, animal sacrifice and other pre-modern practices disturb domestic tranquility, and those likely to engage in such practices should probably be avoided - not because of any inherent shortcomings, but because they are as yet unprepared for life in a modern technological society. (And life in such a society can be even harder on the unprepared immigrant than on the host nation.) This, not skin color, is at least part of what many people are anxious about when they complain about immigration from the Third World.

Here again, selecting immigrants based on education, skill, work experience, knowledge of English, etc. can help meet this objective, since modern city-dwellers (wherever they live in the world) are more likely to have these attributes than pre-modern peasants and tribesmen. Likewise, admitting immigrants in smaller numbers, whatever their level of education, would reduce the inevitable disturbances of tranquility that accompany immigration.

... provide for the common defence ...

Our immigration policy should be such that it does not endanger the nation's safety. This means not allowing massive, uncontrolled flows like those from Cuba and Haiti (and not allowing the preconditions for such flows, like special preferences for Cubans who manage to get here). Likewise, we must be able to exclude dangerous aliens and quickly deport those who get in, so that we can prevent crime and terrorist plots.

... promote the general Welfare ...

In setting immigration policy, newcomers' economic impact on the nation must be considered. Geographically concentrated mass immigration, especially of unskilled workers, is harmful -- by allowing continued access to cheap foreign labor, it depresses wages, displaces Americans from their jobs, increases the gap between rich and poor, and retards automation, innovation and other forms of economic progress.

Mass immigration does not promote the general welfare, but rather the welfare of certain special interests - agribusiness, restaurant and hotel owners, garment manufacturers, upper-middle-class families employing nannies or gardeners. It is a phenomenon whose benefits are enjoyed by the few but whose long-term costs are borne by the many.

Sound immigration policy should ensure that the numbers and attributes of newcomers are such that they promote economic development as well as economic growth, encourage the integration of the native poor into the economic mainstream, and contribute to America's economic competitiveness abroad.

... and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity ...

Finally, immigration policy must ensure that we leave our children a country no worse, and hopefully a little better, than when we found it. This has a number of implications: immigrants should not be admitted in such numbers that they and their children will have an adverse demographic and environmental impact in the future; immigration should contribute to economic advancement, not subsidize stagnating industries of the past; and immigration should not be allowed to create new, permanent divisions in our society that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will have to grapple with for generations to come.

... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."