Blueprints for an Ideal Legal Immigration Policy

By Richard D. Lamm and Sen. Alan Simpson on March 1, 2001

In a famous African parable, six blind men each encounter a single aspect of an elephant and, unable to observe it whole, nonetheless proclaim with conviction the true nature of the beast. The man who feels the elephant’s side concludes that it is like a wall, the man who feels the tusk imagines it a spear, while others feel a snake, tree, fan, or rope, corresponding to their respective encounters with the animal’s trunk, leg, ear, or tail.

In much the same way do many lawmakers encounter America’s immigration policy. An issue of enormous size and complexity, U.S. immigration policy today is crafted with almost no consideration of its overall shape and impact. Most immigration proposals in Congress today deal only with individual parts of the animal — grants of residency for select groups, increased visas for certain "skilled" immigrants, reorganization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and at the most myopic level, private immigration bills intended to benefit specific individuals. Missing from proposals like these is any sense of how they fit into a coherent policy framework animated by basic principles of the national interest.

The piecemeal quality of today’s immigration legislation would suggest that members of Congress and the Executive Branch either do not recognize any basic principles governing immigration policy beyond clichés and sentimentality, or they cower at the thought of tinkering with a politically sensitive issue, despite its profound role in shaping America’s future. Our long experience in this issue leads us to conclude it is perhaps some of both.

The exception to this tendency proves the rule: The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed during much of its tenure by Barbara Jordan, did offer in 1995 a comprehensive blueprint for reforming our dysfunctional legal immigration system, animated by clearly articulated principles. Congress chose not only to ignore the Commission’s recommendations, but failed to offer any competing blueprint. Thus, most political discourse on immigration today accepts as given the Byzantine conglomeration that is current policy.

It is worth noting that other complex issues do not suffer from the fragmentation characteristic of today’s immigration policymaking. The debates over health care, Social Security, or education, for instance, are very complex and feature very different points of view, but the participants nonetheless offer comprehensive proposals shaped by their respective beliefs. Even the tax code, larded as it is with loopholes, exceptions, and special provisions, does not escape at least discussions of broad reform, such as calls for a flat tax or sales tax.

Capitol Hill and the White House are not alone in their myopic approach to this issue. Media treatment of immigration focuses too often on human-interest stories lacking any broader context. Amid the tales of illegal aliens denied drivers licenses, immigrant entrepreneurs "revitalizing" our economy, or luckless immigrants running afoul of criminal deportation rules, there is little sense of how immigration policy is impacting the nation as a whole — precisely the sort of coverage that might lead lawmakers and the public to the healthy reexamination of the status quo.

It is within this climate that the Center for Immigration Studies solicited essays laying out coherent, transparent policy regarding legal immigration, authored by many of the nation’s leading experts on immigration. This publication seeks to step back from heated rhetoric and provide a forum for competing blueprints of a comprehensive U.S. immigration policy. The 15 essays are necessarily brief, given the comparative format, but serve as a distillation of competing views, providing readers the opportunity to explore further, if they desire.

The Center has sought to represent the full spectrum of opinion regularly articulated by mass immigration’s supporters and critics, in order to offer policymakers and opinion leaders as wide a variety of views as possible. And while we are satisfied with the diversity of opinion offered herein, it is important to note that two of the most prominent organizations advocating high levels of immigration, the National Immigration Forum and The National Council of La Raza, refused to participate. Their unwillingness to articulate a comprehensive immigration policy agenda is conspicuous.

In any case, we believe this publication successfully encompasses a wide variety of thinking on immigration and should stimulate fruitful discussion of this contentious topic. With the arrival of a new administration, the time is ripe for a bottom-up reconsideration of policies which so deeply and broadly affect the shape of the country we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

Finally, we are indebted to the Center for Immigration Studies for its efforts at recruiting the impressive range of experts contributing to this endeavor. The Center has emerged as a leading voice in the drive to inform policymakers and the public about immigration’s far-reaching impacts, and this publication is in keeping with that mission.

Richard D. Lamm is the former Democratic Governor of Colorado and a professor at the University of Denver.

Alan Simpson is a former Republican United States Senator from Wyoming.