Give Higher Priority to Refugees

Blueprints for an Ideal Legal Immigration Policy

By John Isbister on March 1, 2001

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John Isbister is a professor of Economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

I think the number of legally admitted immigrants, roughly 800,000 in a typical year, is about right. What needs changing is not the overall number, but the priority given to the different categories of immigrants. Family and employer sponsored immigration should be cut, and the number of refugees increased.

I come to this recommendation by trying to think about the question from the perspective of the least well off people. The gap between rich and poor, both within countries and between countries, has grown enormously, and it constitutes a severe social injustice. Perhaps justice does not require each person in the world to have an equal income, but it surely requires each person to have roughly equal opportunities. When some children are born into affluent families and countries, while others are born into life-threatening and impoverished circumstances, the ideal of equal opportunity is so far from reality as to be a joke. American immigration policy could make a contribution to equal opportunity in the world, although it could not by itself solve the problem.

The difficulty with using equality of opportunity as the criterion for designing an immigration policy is that it leads in different directions. Some observers—most notably political theorist Joseph H. Carens, in a series of influential papers1—argue that justice requires completely open borders. Carens’ central proposition is that immigration controls restrict access to privilege. Americans live a privileged life, not because we deserve it on account of our merits, but because we have been born to it. By erecting border controls, with armed guards, we protect our privilege and prevent others from sharing in it. We have no more right to keep foreigners out of our country, he implies, than we do to keep fellow citizens off a public beach.

The argument for open borders has a certain weight, but it is countered by another argument based on social justice that leads in the opposite direction. Americans are not responsible for all the inequalities that exist in the world, the latter argument goes, but we are responsible for the inequalities among our fellow citizens. Massive immigration would likely exacerbate domestic inequalities, lowering the wages of the unskilled while raising profits and the return of capital. The Wall Street Journal regularly calls for open borders, not, one presumes, out of its deep regard for the plight of the world’s most disadvantaged, but out of a commitment to the prosperity of American businesses. Those whose priorities are different often argue that immigration hurts the plight of minorities and less skilled people in the American labor market. This sort of argument leads to a recommendation to eliminate or at least greatly restrict immigration.

In resolving this conflict, I think we must grant that American policymakers have a greater responsibility at home than to justice abroad — in the same way that parents have greater obligations to their own children than to other people’s children. They must be concerned with justice abroad, since American policies have such an enormous impact on the rest of the world, but they should not sacrifice the interests of the least-well-off Americans in pursuit of global justice. An immigration policy that harmed low-income Americans would not be morally justified.

The welfare of the disadvantaged at home is the only grounds, I think, on which the American government is justified in controlling the overall flow of immigration. Immigration restrictions are not justified because the newcomers bring unfamiliar languages and cultures with them; the genius of American society almost from its beginnings has been the ability to absorb many of the world’s cultures and mold them into a functional mosaic. Restrictions are not justified merely on the grounds that immigration might lower Americans’ average standard of living. It would probably not have this effect, since any reduction in average wages would be balanced by an increase in profits, and in any case Americans already have one of the world’s highest average standards of living. Neither are restrictions justified on the grounds that immigrants exploit American taxpayers by absorbing more in government services than they contribute in taxes; the weight of the evidence is that they do not. The problem of justice that would result from unlimited, or greatly increased, immigration is that in all likelihood rich Americans would become richer and poor Americans poorer, and this is the opposite of what they both deserve.

This leads me to think that the current number of immigrants is about right. Of course it could be changed somewhat in either direction without grave consequences for social justice, but it should be neither halved nor doubled. When illegal immigration is added to the legal flow, the American population grows by a little over a million newcomers a year. A million is a lot of people, every year, to be given the opportunity to improve their life circumstances substantially by relocating. It is not an insignificant way in which the United States contributes to the world’s welfare. Analysts argue about whether the current level of immigration hurts the economic prospects of the country’s poor people. Different sorts of reasoning lead to different sorts of answers. I am most persuaded by the great majority of careful, cross-sectional econometric studies that show virtually no impact by today’s immigration upon the economic circumstances of Americans. These studies, conducted by many different economists and using a variety of methodologies, have looked at the impact of immigration on both wages and employment, and have considered Americans generally, low-income Americans, Americans in particular locations, and Americans of different races. Almost without exception, they find either trivially small or zero effects.

It appears, therefore, that the current level of immigration does not harm the prospect of low-income and disadvantaged Americans. If the level were to be greatly increased, however, all bets would be off, and the impact on the standard of living of poor Americans would begin to be harmful. I think we would be taking a serious risk, therefore, by greatly relaxing immigration controls.

The problem with our immigration policy is not the overall number, but rather the distribution of the number. Currently two-thirds of the available slots go to relatives of American citizens and residents, while about 10 percent are allocated to employer-based preferences and, in a typical year, 15 percent to refugees. The proportion available to refugees should be greatly increased.

Refugees are the victims of civil and international warfare and persecution, almost always innocent victims. Michael Walzer describes the precarious situation of people who are members of no state:

. . . [They] are vulnerable and unprotected in the marketplace. Although they participatefreely in the exchange of goods, they have no part in those goods that are shared. They are cut off from the communal provision of security and welfare. Even those aspects of security and welfare that are, like public health, collectively distributed are not guaranteed to non-members: for they have no guaranteed place in the collectivity and are always liable to expulsion. Statelessness is a condition of infinite danger.

"Statelessness is a condition of infinite danger," and think how refugees become stateless. They are persecuted and sometimes tortured, their homes are destroyed and their relatives are killed. They are told that they are useless, or if not useless, a threat to the state and to the state’s legitimate citizens. Sometimes they are attacked for their political views, sometimes simply for their ethnicity or other characteristic over which they have no control. For one who has not been a refugee, it is hard to imagine the terror. They are the victims of warfare and oppression in the former Yugoslavia, in Somalia, in Rwanda, in Vietnam, in East Timor, in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, and in many other parts of the world. In some of the former Nazi concentration camps a single marker has been erected saying the same thing in different languages — nie wieder, never again, plus jamais — yet the dislocations and exterminations go on.

No one knows with certainty how many refugees there are. The estimates made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are over 20 million in most years. Those numbers are certainly undercounts, however, because the definition of a refugee with which the High Commissioner must work is a restrictive one. It does not include "internal refugees," people who have been driven from their homes but are still within the boundaries of their own country. It also does not include "economic refugees," people who have had to flee because of persecution or warfare but because of economic catastrophe. Whatever these other groups are called, some of them are just as desperate as the people who fall within the official definition of refugees. Taken together, the number of refugees, broadly defined, is certainly greater than the total number of immigrants who are going to be admitted by the United States or even by all the rich, developed countries taken together. Still, they are among the neediest people in the world, and they are surely the neediest of the applicants for immigration. The norm of equal opportunity cries out for the world to come to their aid.

An argument against refugees is that they often prove more difficult than other immigrants to integrate smoothly into American life. They usually do not have family members in the country who can help them make the transition to a new culture, certainly when the refugee flow from a certain area first begins. They are more likely than other immigrants, therefore, to require public assistance. For a country to accept refugees is to take on a burden for a period of years. This is a burden, however, that people in a rich country can bear.

What about family-sponsored immigration? Family reunification is a worthy goal. It is painful to be separated from one’s family, and the pain can be overwhelming if the separation is thought to be permanent. The American immigration system responds to the needs of families; sometimes the entire purpose of immigration is described as being the unification of families. It is hard to see, though, why the state should favor a few of our families to the exclusion of meeting other justifiable social goals, as it does when it reserves two-thirds of the immigration slots for family reunification. The problem with family reunification is not that it is an unworthy goal, but that it squeezes out other worthy goals. Each immigrant who arrives leaves behind many relatives in the home country, and when some of them arrive, they too leave different family members behind. We are enmeshed in intricate family networks that can overwhelm the immigration system in a kind of chain reaction.

While family reunification is a just goal of immigration policy, it should predominate only if one takes a perspective on justice that completely excludes obligations to foreigners. Taken as a group, refugees are far more needy of the help that American residence could provide than are the typical relatives of U.S. residents. The latter are separated from some of their loved ones, and that is a serious matter, but their lives are not in danger if they stay home.

It is hard to justify employment-based immigration. For the most part, but not always, this category of immigration speaks to narrow special interests, not to the national interest, and it has the potential to harm Americans. To begin, immigrants sponsored by an employer are typically the least needy of the applicants. From the point of view of a country’s obligations to disadvantaged foreigners, they should rank last. Even from a national perspective, a compelling case for their services seldom really exists. This is not, of course, how employers see it. They face expanding markets on the one hand and a labor shortage on the other; if they cannot fill their labor needs they will not be able to meet the market demand. From a broader perspective, though, a labor shortage is almost always a positive phenomenon. Faced with a shortage of labor, employers have alternatives to using immigrants, alternatives that will benefit Americans. They can raise wages, in order to attract people to the jobs, they can provide on-the-job training so that people not presently qualified for the job can acquire the needed competency, and they can develop productivity-enhancing technology. Without the incentive of labor shortages, they are unlikely to take these measures.

Sometimes the need for immigrant workers is defended on the grounds that particular foreigners will bring skills so valuable to the workplace that they will enhance production, improve its quality, and even generate jobs in ways that American workers could not. This may sometimes be the case, and when it is a few employer-sponsored slots are justified. It is not typically the case, however, at least with technically skilled immigrants. They normally are paid salaries lower than Americans of comparable training receive, and this would not likely be the case for a person who was the crucial link in her production chain.

I suggest that the United States adopt the principle that half its immigration slots go to refugees and asylees. Whatever the total number of immigrants, they would get half. This policy would have the salutary effect that, if interest groups in the country succeeded in raising the family and/or employment categories, they would necessarily raise the refugee numbers as well. Presuming for the moment, however, that the total remains at 800,000, this would mean that 400,000 would be allocated each year to refugees. In order to free up the needed positions, family-sponsored immigration should be reduced to 350,000 slots, or about 44 percent of the total, down from two-thirds. With very few exceptions, family immigration should be restricted to spouses and unmarried minor children of citizens and legal residents. Employment-based immigration should be cut drastically, to 20,000 or 2.5 percent, leaving only enough positions to respond to exceptional opportunities that would be created by the arrival of a newcomer. This would leave about 30,000 slots to be used for a lottery or for other emergencies.

Whatever the limit on refugees, the Attorney General should always have the authority to permit exceptions, in cases of grave danger. The United States should never again be in the position, as it was with the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, of turning away people from its borders to a likely death.


Joseph H. Carens, "Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders," Review of Politics 49 (1987): 251-273. Carens’ extensive contributions to the argument for open borders are reviewed in Peter C. Meilaender’s, "Liberalism and Open Borders: The Argument of Joseph Carens," International Migration Review 33 (1999): 1062-1081.

Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice; A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 31-2.