By Bryan Caplan
The last time I faced off with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, he sketched his ideal immigration policy. (start at 15:10)
Who should get in? Three types of people:
1. Spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.
2. “Einsteins.” Mark tentatively suggests a minimum IQ of 140, but the core principle is admitting people at the “tops of their fields on the planet.”
3. Humanitarian cases, “very strictly limited” – about 50,000 per year.
I suspect many – perhaps most – Americans would embrace the Krikorian Criteria, or at least prefer his approach to the status quo. Which leads me to a thought experiment I call Retroactive Krikorianism. Imagine Mark’s criteria had governed U.S. immigration policy since the founding of the American republic. Now ask yourself two questions.
1. How many of your immigrant ancestors would have met any of the Krikorian Criteria?
Personally, all of my immigrant ancestors would probably have fallen short; I’ve heard they were smart, but no “geniuses.” Most of Mark’s ancestors wouldn’t have made his cut either. You could dismiss this as special pleading, or even a sign of Mark’s integrity. But Mark and I are hardly weird cases. I doubt more than 5% of current Americans could honestly claim all their immigrant ancestors would have gained entry under the Krikorian Criteria. Given Mark’s rules, then, almost none of us would be here today. Indeed, most Americans have at least one ancestor who would only have been admitted under something approaching open borders.
2. Would this country be a better place today if Mark’s criteria had kept these immigrant ancestors out?
You could say, “Under Retroactive Krikorianism, far fewer people would enjoy life in the United States. But at least life would be markedly better for the descendants of the original colonists.” But the latter clause is hard to believe. Consider: The U.S. has close to the highest standard of living in the world. It’s the center of global innovation. It’s the heart of global culture. It’s easy to imagine far fewer people enjoying this bounty, but very hard to imagine that sharply curtailing immigration would have made the bounty per-person noticeably greater than it already is.
My point: Though the Krikorian Criteria appeal to many Americans looking forward, they would appeal to virtually no American looking backwards. Open borders, in contrast, scares Americans looking forward, even though most of them wouldn’t even be here to enjoy America if something close to open borders hadn’t prevailed in the past. True, times change.* But it’s better to base policy on massive benefits that really happened rather than hypothetical disasters that have failed to materialize for centuries.
* Anti-immigration arguments, in contrast, barely change with the times. How many of the arguments now featured on the CIS website would be any less relevant in 1850 or 1900? At tonight’s debate, Mark told me his The New Case Against Immigration spells out the radical differences between historic and modern immigration, but if he really eschewed the timeless complaints about immigration, it would be a very short book.