It's Time to Look at Who We Are Admitting, Not Just How Many

By Richard D. Lamm on March 1, 2001

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


There are two common paradigms that are employed in the debate about U.S. immigration policy. Proponents of high levels of immigration hark back to the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century as the "golden age" of immigration. They like to point out, correctly, that America absorbed large numbers of immigrants and that within a generation or two, the offspring of those immigrants were making remarkable contributions to this country.

For advocates of reduced immigration, America’s "golden age" of immigration was the period from the mid-1920s to about 1970. During these years immigration was low in absolute and relative terms, while the United States emerged as the dominant world economic and military power. Moreover, this period saw the emergence of robust middle class and real economic and social gains for American blacks.

The two paradigms share one important characteristic: they both have their eyes fixed firmly in the rear view mirror. There are lessons to be learned from both epochs, but they are both largely irrelevant to the debate about immigration policy at the dawn of the 21st century.

The fact that America, more or less, successfully assimilated the great wave of immigration of a century ago tells us little that is useful to our present situation. The fact that America made enormous social and economic progress during a period of low immigration is similarly an interesting but moot point.

For better or worse, the United States and the world have entered a new era, and there is no going back. Technology has irrevocably changed how we live and work, and will ultimately transform notions of community and nationhood. That is not to suggest, as avid free-marketeers seem to believe, that national and social identity will have to give way to the global community and economic expedience. It does mean, however, that Americans and most everyone else will find their lives more directly and immediately affected by a much broader array of factors.

While technology is revolutionizing many aspects of our lives, it cannot change essential human nature. As workers and consumers our needs and desires change. As human beings, our basic needs and desires for freedom, security, and identity are immutable. Technology and globalization have spurred economic growth that has improved the material life of most Americans. But there is more to life than faster computers, smaller cell phones, and a rising Dow Jones.

The challenge for government in formulating immigration policy in the coming years will be to take advantage of the global economy without becoming enslaved to it. A nation is more than an economy, and citizens are more than workers and consumers. While a robust economy is vital to any nation, social harmony, national and cultural identity, open space and other factors are also part of the equation that measures quality of life.

Far from eliminating the purpose of the nation-state, the globalization of business accentuates the need for entities that protect other aspects of people’s lives. Defining who comprises a nation (and, therefore, whose interests it protects) will become more important as commerce becomes more global and less accountable to any one nation or community. Because immigration plays a critical role in defining the nation, the policies that govern the movement and settlement of people will take on added significance in the new century.

Designing a new policy for immigration in the 21st century ought to start with a simple, but often overlooked, principle: immigration policy is a public policy and it must serve the public interest. In other words, it must do the greatest good for the greatest number of American citizens.

Some years ago, John Tanton, one of the founders of the modern immigration reform movement, posed the three essential questions of American immigration policy:

  1. How many immigrants should be admitted?
  2. Who should they be?
  3. How do we enforce the rules?

The first two questions apply to legal immigration policy, while the third deals with illegal immigration. Answering these questions remains essential to formulating an immigration policy that serves the national interest, but they have been posed, I would suggest, in the wrong order.

Immigration reform advocates have been far too focused on the "How many?" question, without first answering the "Who?" question. It is a little like going on a shopping trip and asking, "How much money will I need to bring?" before asking, "What do I want to buy?" An immigration policy that is clear about who it wants will have a far easier time setting limits because in defining who we want, we also define who we don’t want.

Currently our immigration policy is driven by three factors: The desire of people in other countries to live here; the desire of individuals to bring a particular relative to join them in this country; and the desire of individual employers or industries to gain access to foreign labor. None of these factors by themselves meets the litmus test of good public policy. Moreover, the omission of public interest considerations from the equation makes it virtually impossible to set firm limits. Without an overarching public interest definition, it is hard to justify setting numerical limits and sticking to them.

An immigration policy that serves the national interest would be one that admits people whose presence here is likely to create economic benefit and opportunity for Americans and who have the ability to adapt most easily to the culture and language of their new country. There are a limited number of people who would like to be immigrants to the United States who meet these criteria, just as there are a limited number of people who meet the criteria for admission to Harvard or for employment at Microsoft.

It is quite clear what economic path this country must take if we wish to sustain our pre-eminence in the new century. One need not be a rocket scientist or a software engineer to figure out which would-be immigrants are best suited to succeed in the emerging economy. While some might condemn this as an elitist immigration policy, much of public policy is elitist. Governments at all levels make capital investments to attract industries they believe are likely to return money to their community in terms of jobs and tax revenues, while choosing not to spend money to keep or attract businesses they do not value as highly.

The likelihood of immigrants succeeding economically in this country correlates directly to their likelihood of successfully assimilating into the cultural and linguistic mainstream. Even under the best of circumstances, people who are uprooted from their native lands and customs encounter a degree of culture shock when they immigrate to a new country. These difficulties are compounded when immigrants find themselves marginalized economically as well. When we admit people whom we know are likely to be trapped at the low end of the economic ladder, we are deliberately sowing the seeds of alienation and social tensions.

There is no doubt that the United States, a nation of 275 million people, could get along just fine with no immigration at all. However, that’s not going to happen. Immigration in the 300,000 to 500,000 per year range is all but inevitable. The admission of immediate family members of U.S. citizens and legitimate refugees alone accounts for nearly 300,000 people annually. And though we could live without any additional immigration beyond immediate family and refugees, there are people out there whose contribution to the overall welfare of the nation outweighs their impact on the environment, or even on citizens with whom they directly compete.

After two decades of lobbying for reducing immigration for its own sake, it is evident that the effort has no political traction. By avoiding the "Who?" question, immigration reform advocates have failed to put forward a public interest vision for immigration policy. Stating a preference for lower levels of immigration is not a substitute for stating a purpose for immigration.

Those who have been advocating immigration reform have attempted to craft a policy based on what they don’t want to happen. They don’t want population growth, or they don’t want job displacement, or they don’t want to lose the cultural and linguistic unity of the country. It is important to define what we don’t want a policy to do, but it is critical to define what we do want it to achieve.

Anyone who has been involved in formulating policies learns very quickly that there are no ideal policies, only better and worse ones. If we were to adopt immigration policies that admitted zero immigrants, we would have no immigrant poverty or crime, no native job displacement, no expensive bilingual education programs, and no immigrant-generated population growth. On the other hand, we would gain none of the benefits that some immigrants create by their presence in this country.

Up to a point, we tolerate a certain number of highway fatalities and air pollution in exchange for the enormous benefits that automobiles have added to our lives. We live with the knowledge that occasionally airplanes fall out of the sky and kill people, because the benefits of air travel are self-evident. There is a price to be paid for everything, and some moderate level of immigration-related problems can and should be tolerated for an immigration policy that is geared toward bringing people here who will have a significantly positive economic and social impact.

The cost/benefit ratio for immigration can be vastly improved upon. By paying closer attention to whom we admit to this country, we can substantially reduce the cost part of the equation, without reducing (and perhaps even enhancing) the benefits.

Among the unacceptably high costs of our current policy are:

  • A federal prison population that is 25 percent foreign-born.
  • An earnings gap of 23 percent between immigrants and native-born.
  • A public assistance dependency rate among immigrant-headed households of 21 percent, compared with only approximately 14 percent among native-headed households.
  • Nearly 40 percent of immigrants falling into the bottom quintile of wage earners.
  • A 44 percent loss in wages among American workers with a high school diploma or less attributable to competition from immigrants.

Closer attention to whom we are admitting would bring down every one of these, and other fiscal and social costs of immigration. The only "cost" that cannot be directly addressed by emphasizing the "who?" over the "how many?" is the impact on population growth. Indirectly, however, because the pool of potential immigrants would be substantially smaller under such a policy, and because better educated, more affluent people have fewer children, even that "cost" will ultimately be reduced.

Researchers and scholars such as Lawrence Harrison and George Borjas have done extensive research into what characteristics lead to the likelihood of immigrant success. While Borjas found, alarmingly, that some 40 percent of immigrants are at the very bottom of the income ladder, he also found that 14 percent are in the top fifth.

People who can come here and wind up in the top 20 percent on the income structure are people this country should want. Whatever transitional difficulties may arise, whatever short-term displacement of a small number of Americans that may result, whatever impact they may have on the environment, is more than offset by the obvious human capital they possess.

A brief outline of an immigration policy that conforms to the principles of good public policy would include the following:

1. A heavy emphasis on personal skills and entrepreneurship. In a highly competitive global economy, people who can innovate are highly valued and will expand opportunities for everyone around them. On balance, people with sophisticated technical and management skills will tip the cost/benefit scale in the right direction. Identifying people who possess such characteristics should be the focus of our immigration policy.

2. Limiting family-based immigration to the immediate nuclear family. Automatic immigration entitlements to family members beyond spouses and unmarried minor children are both unsustainable and violate the principle of serving the public interest. More distant relatives who wish to immigrate to this country should be judged on their own qualifications and on an objective assessment of their likelihood to be substantial contributors to American society.

3. A uniform, electronically verifiable Social Security card. Even the most well designed immigration policy will fail if it lacks an effective enforcement mechanism. In the modern age, with hundreds of millions of people entering and leaving our country every year, mostly for very legitimate reasons, there must be a secure and effective means of distinguishing who is entitled to live and work here, and who is not. Government must apply the same technology that banks and credit card companies employ every day, with almost 100 percent accuracy.

As we hurtle toward greater global economic integration the role of the nation must be refined and adjusted, not abandoned. The United States, like all other nations, must have an immigration policy that is flexible enough to take full advantage of the new opportunities that technology and globalization present, but which bears in mind that people are more than just economic units and that a healthy society is more than just the sum of its GNP.