A Deal on Immigration is Most Unwise
By Bryan Caplan
Last week, Will Wilkinson published a piece in the New York Times on the political strategy of immigration. While Will assumes a moderate persona, he’s long been in favor of large increases in immigration. In terms of ultimate goals, then, we’re fellow travelers. But in terms of strategy, we’re worlds apart. The heart of Will’s position:
a deal that includes money for the wall ought to be a no-brainer for
Democrats. Every viable proposal under discussion includes a hefty
“border security” element, but not any of them include a literal solid
wall spanning the entire southern border..
should also be willing to make reasonable concessions on family
reunification (so-called chain migration) and the diversity lottery
(intended to bring immigrants from underrepresented countries). Shifting
visas from certain family-reunification to merit-based categories
should be similarly tolerable.
Democrats should reject a DACA compromise that would reduce the overall
level of immigration. Immigrants yet to arrive matter too. Consistent
worst-case-scenario thinking means assuming new legislation will set
immigration policy for the foreseeable future. A DACA fix that cuts
legal immigration could eventually deprive at least as many people as
are currently covered by DACA from ever having a shot at the American
Two key points:
1. Chain migration is the root cause of relatively high immigration, at least in the U.S. The 1965 immigration act accidentally liberalized immigration; most of what we’ve seen since is the product of this glorious accident. As Gjelten explains in his A Nation of Nations:
Perhaps the most important factor explaining [the 1965 Act’s] relatively
easy passage was that both the immigration reformers and the
immigration restrictionists managed to convince themselves and each
other that the legislation would not change the immigration picture all
that much. In future years, the advocates of tighter immigration
controls would look back at the passage of the 1965 Act as a major cause
of the immigration wave that followed, with millions of Asians,
Africans, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans moving to the United
States. The administration officials who insisted that no such inflow
would occur were proved wrong, but they were not alone. Ironically, it
was Congressman Michael Feighan, a long-time supporter of the national
origins quotas and a close ally of the immigration restrictionists, who
was most responsible for opening the United States to more non-European
foreigners… Fifty years later, about two thirds of all immigrants
entering the United States legally were family members of U.S. citizens
or permanent residents, and the 1965 law was even known in some quarters
as “the brothers and sisters act.”
While it’s theoretically possible the U.S. could scale back chain migration without cutting overall immigration, it’s extremely unlikely. Under current law, anyone with relatives in the U.S. has a built-in team of lobbyists and well-wishers. My wife and father-in-law got in because my mother-in-law was already here, pleading with her Congressman’s office for help. The H1-B gives employers some incentive to play the same role, but it doesn’t seem nearly as effective.
I’ll admit that’s speculative, but this isn’t: Chain migration is the mechanism that’s actually allowed relatively high immigration these past fifty years. It has worked. It does work. If we keep it, it will keep working. If you favor immigration, giving it up in exchange for legislative promises is folly.
2. What will happen without a deal? Will urges worst-case thinking:
When the legal protection of 800,000 people
is at stake, Democrats need to expect the worst, even while hoping for
the best. That means assuming that if DACA expires without a fix, the
administration will be aggressive about deportations, the Senate will
remain Republican, judicial stopgaps will fail, a Republican will win
the White House in 2020, hundreds of thousands will be pushed into the
shadows and many tens of thousands will be rounded up, detained and
ejected from the country.
If you’re trying to craft a prudent strategy, though, you should focus on what’s likely, not what’s scary. And Will’s scenario is highly unlikely. Why? Because Dreamers are sympathetic. Very sympathetic. They’re kids who look and sound as American as apple pie. As a result, they are less
politically vulnerable than virtually any other non-citizen. And even if Will were right, there’s a silver lining: Any
politician who targets Dreamers doesn’t just endanger his own career. The optics are bad enough to endanger the
cause of immigration restriction itself. Visualize the deportation of the heroic Jose Antonio Vargas. I absolutely do not want to make any martyrs, but the blood of the martyrs is still the seed of the church.
Furthermore, if we’re going to indulge in worst-case thinking, why not tell a story where compromise costs pro-immigration forces the moral high ground, leading to a slippery slope into 1920’s era nativism? This is hardly fanciful. Remember: the 1965 liberalization was a glorious accident that still managed to lock-in relatively high immigration for a half century and counting. A deal with restrictionists really could hand them what they want for decades to come.
Compromise is particularly foolish because time is on the pro-immigration side. The fraction of Americans who favor more immigration has tripled since 2002. Nativists have a temporary advantage, but so far they’ve disappointed their base and disgusted moderates. If you care about immigration, the best path is just to stonewall and wait a few years. Instead of a mixed bag of “reform,” we can get something worth fighting for: liberalization.