Setting the Foundation for a Real Immigration Debate

By Mark Krikorian on August 4, 2016

National Review, August 4, 2016

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg recently wrote that “No One’s Actually Talking About Immigration.” What she means is that the Democrats’ promotion of amnesty by trotting out cute illegal-alien kids and the Republicans’ focus on border security don’t address the questions that really matter:


How many people should we let in, of what education and skill level? How should we handle marital visas? What tradeoffs are we willing to make between national unity and the humanitarian and practical benefits of migration?

Oh, hear those crickets! No one wants to ask those questions, much less provide answers.


McArdle overstates her case — after all, I did write a whole book addressing just these questions. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of truth to her observation.

On the Republican side, politicians focus mainly on border control and Islamic immigration (and welfare eligibility, which McArdle doesn’t address) because that helps paper over the differences among their constituencies. Rank-and-file Republican voters are sympathetic to lower numbers, while the GOP coalition’s more libertarian voters and the corporate leadership class largely oppose any meaningful limits on immigration, for reasons ideological (Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush) and/or self-interested (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Restaurant Association).

As important as border control is, it does serve to distract attention from all the corrupt and fraud-ridden visa programs that import ever-more people “legally.” This is related to the “legal good/illegal bad” fallacy, where GOP politicians try to satisfy both voters and donors by saying they oppose illegal immigration but want to increase legal immigration.

The reason for the crickets on the Democrat side when it comes to anything but amnesty (almost the exclusive topic of Hillary’s immigration page) is that the Left’s immigration plan consists of a single word: “More.” Like their libertarian and corporate fellow-travelers, leftists will deny they support unlimited immigration, but will oppose any action that enforces actual limits on immigration. If they were “to discuss those questions — frankly, with numbers,” as McArdle puts it, they’d have to admit they’re for unlimited immigration, which they know very few actual voters favor.

All that having been said, McArdle overlooks the revealed preference of the entire Democratic political class, and an important minority of the Republican: the legal immigration provisions of the Schumer-Rubio Gang of Eight immigration bill. McArdle’s indictment is correct even here to the extent that almost no one in Congress or the media addressed the legal-immigration sections of the 2013 bill, focusing instead on the amnesty and the bogus enforcement mandates.

But the huge increases in that bill tell us what we need to know about the political class’s views on immigration levels. Eliminating immigration limits would have been politically impossible, but Schumer and Rubio would have saved themselves a lot of trouble by simply replacing the whole legal-immigration section of the bill with that same word, “more.” The bill would have granted an estimated 30 million green cards in its first decade, 10 million to amnesty beneficiaries, and 20 million to regular legal immigrants, double the level under current law. What’s more, it would have nearly doubled the admission of “temporary” workers. The bill pretended to place more emphasis on skills and education in selecting immigrants, but the points system was designed to increase the importation of both cheap labor (to satisfy business interests) and relatives of current immigrants (to satisfy the ethnic chauvinist groups).

So the real reason “no one’s actually talking about immigration” is that many of those who would do the talking know the public won’t like what they’d say. I had an experience with this years ago, when I was putting together a publication I titled “Blueprints for an Ideal Legal Immigration Policy.” I reached out to people on all sides of the debate, looking for 1,500 to 2,000-word pieces laying out what they wanted at the end of the day, in actual numbers and actual categories. I made clear I would publish whatever they submitted, editing only for typos.

I found McArdle’s observation that “the ‘against’ side of our national conversation comes closer to a coherent position” to be correct. I got most of the top restrictionist voices to submit something, though even there some of the pieces were merely op-eds, without the concreteness I was seeking.

But on the other side, I mostly had to settle for the second or third string because their top Washington actors on immigration were unwilling to commit to anything. Cecilia Munoz, then vice president of the National Council of La Raza (and now Obama’s domestic-policy director) was kind enough to thank me for reaching out, but said they’d have to pass, without offering reasons. I never even got an answer from Frank Sharry, then head of the National Immigration Forum.

It was nonetheless a useful exercise, if only because it forced me to organize and set down my own thoughts on the matter, which I later expanded into the recommendations chapter of my 2008 book. Though McArdle undoubtedly supports a much higher level of immigration than I do, I’d be interested in her answers (and the answers of all those who opine on immigration) to any number of questions. For example, should we continue to admit, without numerical limitation, the foreign parents of adult U.S. citizens? Should we keep the category for adult siblings of U.S. citizens (now capped at 65,000 with millions on the waiting list)? How should we measure a potential immigrant’s likelihood to contribute to the economy: salary, academic degrees, IQ? Should immigrants or “temporary” workers ever be tied to an employer or should they only be admitted as free workers able to change jobs at will? Should we change the current method of setting the number and distribution of refugees to be resettled?

I don’t mean to suggest only those with a fully articulated legislative program have a right to comment on immigration. But these are first-order questions, not things that require deep expertise, and one’s views may shift as you work your way through them and confront the likely results of various choices. Anyone writing on immigration should give it a try.