The Right Immigration Policy
Date: Tuesday, November 14 2006
The Right Immigration Policy
Not amnesty or guest workers, but newcomers who would strengthen us
We Americans are having the wrong immigration debate, couched in the wrong terms. Those who oppose open borders, and especially unlimited flows of low-skilled workers from Mexico, are accused of being anti-immigration. Anyone who doubts that it’s good for America to have an amnesty for illegal immigrants and a “guest worker” program that will produce even more low-wage, low-skilled immigration is quickly branded a modern-day nativist and Know-Nothing.
But it’s possible to oppose all those things and still support healthy levels of immigration. The right debate should be about what kind of immigrants America should be admitting. It should ask how immigration can best benefit our economy and citizens. Countries with booming economies, countries that are, like the United States, immigrant magnets—Australia and Ireland, for instance—have set their immigration priorities in precisely this way, creating much more rational systems than ours. Managed as part of our broader economic policy, immigration can provide America with badly needed skills, boost productivity, and raise our living standard.
But we’ll never get to an immigration system that serves our national interest until we stop debating the issue in terms set down 50 years ago.
Open-borders advocates are right to say that immigration made America great: we are indeed, as the cliché goes, a nation of immigrants. But it’s important to understand why previous generations of immigrants succeeded in America, how they helped the country grow, and how today’s immigration differs. The popular image of the 24 million who came during the first great migration, from the 1880s to the 1920s, is that they were Europe’s “tired” and “poor” masses, desperately escaping political or religious persecution and stagnant economies, making their way here with a few threadbare possessions. But what’s forgotten is that many were also skilled workers. A 1998 National Academy of Sciences study noted that the immigrant workers of that era generally met or exceeded the skill levels of the native-born population, providing America’s workforce with a powerful boost just when the country was metamorphosing from an agrarian into an industrial economy.
Even though nativists agitated to bar these Southern and Eastern European immigrants because they were not Anglo-Saxon, it was not until after World War I that Congress—stunned by the growing radicalism of European workers in the wake of the Russian Revolution and by postwar turmoil in Europe—finally enacted immigration quotas based on national origin, with the purpose of shifting the balance of immigration back to Northern European countries. Those quotas helped cut immigration in half, though it was the Depression that truly ended the great migration, turning America into a net exporter of emigrants during the 1930s, as 60 percent of those who came for a better life left when the economy soured, according to the National Academy of Sciences study.