Separate Questions On Immigration

By Steven A. Camarota on January 17, 1997

San Diego Union-Tribune, January 17, 1997

It now seems likely that some time this year Congress will again attempt to reduce legal immigration.

The soon-to-be-released legal-immigration numbers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service for fiscal year 1996 are expected to show an increase of about 180,000 or 25 percent to around 900,000. This will only provide further impetus to what will undoubtedly be an acrimonious debate.

When the immigration debate does begin, there will inevitably be many on all sides of the issue who will fail to understand the difference between immigration policy and immigrant policy. This confusion makes an already complex and contentious discussion even more confused. Therefore, it is important to make the distinction clear.

Immigration policy deals with the question of who may come and how many. Our current immigration policy is based primarily on family relationships. Of the 700,000 to 900,000 legal immigrants admitted each year, roughly 70 percent are granted admittance because they are related to someone residing in the United States. Some countries, such as Canada, instead give preference to skilled immigrants with the goal of benefiting the economy.

In addition to the selection criteria, there is also the closely related question of how many people ought to be allowed in. Unlike the United States, most countries set an absolute limit on the total number of immigrants allowed in each year. Thus, admission criteria and numbers are the central issues surrounding immigration policy.

Separate from immigration policy is immigrant policy. The main questions here are what rights and privileges should be extended to foreigners living among us and what obligations and responsibilities should be expected of them. Until recently, our policy was to treat noncitizen legal immigrants substantially the same as natives - the major exception being voting rights.

Despite the clear distinction between immigration and immigrant policy, journalists, politicians, activists and the general public continue to confuse the two. Probably the best example of this confusion can be found in the new welfare reform legislation, which denies benefits to most recent immigrants. What this law represents is an attempt by Congress to use immigrant policy to affect immigration policy. This, despite the fact that there is no evidence that welfare has any impact on the level of immigration.

The primary reason for the bill is that it is easier to deny immigrants, who cannot vote, access to unpopular programs than it is to confront the problems created by our current immigration policy. With polls consistently showing large majorities of Americans favoring significant cuts in legal immigration, Congress decided to make a show of doing something about the issue. And it seems to have worked. Much of the popularity of these provisions stems directly from the mistaken belief that cutting off immigrants amounts to a change in immigration policy.

In my view, this legislation is wrong - I believe that the United States should have an immigrant policy that treats legal, noncitizen immigrants the same as natives, with the exception of voting rights. My argument rests on our national traditions, the Constitution, basic fairness and what's best for the country as a whole.

However, I also find the arguments for significantly lower levels of legal immigration compelling. The latest research on the wage suppression effects of immigration on the wages of less-skilled natives indicates that our immigration policy reduces the wages of low-wage workers by dramatically increasing the supply of this type of labor. Studies done separately by scholars at Harvard, UC Riverside, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the University of Chicago and my own research all indicate that immigration is making the poor poorer.

Moreover, Census Bureau projections, issued last March, forecast a U.S. population that will be 80 million to 100 million larger in 2050 than it would be without future immigration. As someone concerned about the environment and the quality of life for our children, common sense strongly suggests that an additional 80 million to 100 million people living in the same land area must create more environmental degradation than would otherwise be the case. Because I believe that the plight of the working poor and the environment should be high on the national agenda, I favor a significant reduction in immigration.

Some hold precisely the opposite position on immigrant and immigration policy. For example, Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), who was instrumental in derailing a proposed modest reduction in legal immigration in the last Congress, was also a strong supporter of cutting welfare benefits to legal immigrants. This view is very troubling because it says in effect, "You may come, but don't expect to be treated like one of us."

Whatever immigrant or immigration policy one favors, it would be very helpful in the upcoming debate if the distinction between the two is kept clearly in mind by all involved. Only in this way are sensible policies regarding both immigrant and immigration policy likely to emerge.