TCS Daily

That Vision Thing: Toward a Real Immigration Reform

By Ilya Shapiro - February 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Three weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the confused message that President Bush sent with his proposal for a new guest-worker program, and the ineffectual result it would have on this country's incoherent immigration scheme. My piece decried the lack of policy in our immigration policy and suggested the need for a new framework to decide who to let in and for what purpose. Assuming the premise that the status quo patchwork of inconsistently enforced immigration laws is unacceptable, and that we can neither throw open the borders altogether nor completely clamp them down, what might a new vision of immigration policy -- a real reform -- look like?

First we have to decide what the purpose of immigration is in this brave new world where both economies and terrorists are "globalized." Is it to maintain a young, dynamic population in the face of aging Baby Boomers, declining birth rates, and unsustainable Social Security obligations? Is it to take in the world's tired, poor, and oppressed such that America can remain the land of opportunity and fulfill its manifest destiny as a shining city upon a troubled hill? Is it to fill gaps in the labor market, whether they present a lack of software engineers or gardeners or nannies?

Immigration reform must clearly be driven by all three of these big-picture considerations, as well as by practical concerns such as the reality of illegal immigration across the Rio Grande and the need to distinguish between "real" immigrants and people entering the country to perpetuate gang violence, sexual slavery, drug cartels, and terrorism.

How these somewhat disparate goals are reconciled will only be known once the political process has run its course, yet a reasonable approximation of the result of such a national debate is possible.

The complaints that one hears about the status quo is that too many immigrants (legal and illegal) are unskilled, don't speak English, and otherwise have little ability or desire to incorporate themselves into the American way of life. Immigrants are also seen (rightly or not) as being a disproportionate burden on law enforcement and the welfare system. A politically feasible reform must in some way address all these issues.

Leaving aside refugees -- those fleeing persecution rather than "merely" seeking a better life -- there will always be three broad types of potential immigrants, roughly paralleling the American upper, middle, and lower classes. The first is the "investor" immigrant, who has money that he would gladly spend to set up a new business or improve an existing one in exchange for a green card. The second is the "skilled" immigrant, who would eagerly harness his human capital to the yolk of American enterprise and thereby go farther then he ever could back home. The third is the "unskilled" immigrant, who desperately wants a better life but can contribute only blood, sweat, toil, and tears, and hope. A workable reform should thus be conceived through the lens of these three immigrant categories.

The first category, of investor-entrepreneurs, already exists to a certain degree, and is open to those wishing to invest $1 million -- or half that in economically depressed areas. This type of immigrant is obviously already wealthy, usually skilled, and often has no problem with linguistic assimilation. Assuming that we maintain (or erect) suitable controls to filter out money-launderers and terrorists, there is no reason to curtail this class of moneyed would-be Americans. Indeed, the government could sell green cards directly, and use the funds to subsidize social services for poorer immigrants (and non-immigrants).

The second category, of skilled or educated people, exists only for purposes of the non-permanent H-1B working visa, as I detailed previously. Why not open it up to allow direct applications for permanent residence? -- an "independent" class of immigrants who would not need to rely on employers or spouses for sponsorship. Countries like Canada already use a "point" system, such that applicants are evaluated on criteria such as level of education, type of profession, age, and English skills. (While a lot can be said about the foolishness of Canada's refugee regime, our northern neighbors have the right idea on independent immigration -- and not just because this is how my parents immigrated from Russia in the early 1980s.) If the criteria are set right -- and given the vast network of civil society -- there should be virtually no problem in assimilating skilled immigrants, let alone with crime and economic concerns.

The third category, the vast humanity of the unskilled blue-, pink-, green-, and no-collared workers, can only enter and stay in the country illegally, and this group is of course the target of President Bush's plan. Yet we need these people too, not just to be maids, busboys, and day-laborers, to fill the jobs that Americans can't or won't do (despite the unemployment rate and explosion of leisure time), but because we want to make the world a better place. We want not only to promote reforms in Mexico and Central America -- not nearly enough Mexicans come here to validate the concern that we serve as a safety valve that postpones economic restructuring -- but to serve as an example to France and Germany and others in the West who talk jingoistically of American chauvinism while discriminating against and ghettoizing immigrants as a matter of national ideology. We also want people with diverse -- for lack of a less politicized term -- backgrounds, as it is healthy to have a segment of population that worked its way to the middle and upper strata of society rather than being born (or entering) there.

The unskilled immigration application would also have to be based on some sort of standardized criteria, to identify such qualities as natural intelligence, ambition, capacity for hard work, and willingness to adapt culturally. There would need to be some combination of IQ, TOEFL, and SAT tests, as both a measure of the desired criteria and an incentive to learn English. Introducing such "gate-keeper" norms would improve the quality of our unskilled workforce, while widening the "gate" would make immigration of all kinds (and the stricter enforcement of violations of immigration law) more politically palatable.

The absolute and relative sizes of the three categories -- along with those of special categories such as family reunification and temporary workers -- would, again, have to be determined by the political process. The point is that, for the sake of the legitimacy and coherence of social and economic policy, we could and should accept more legal immigrants and far fewer illegals.

Ilya Shapiro, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, is currently clerking on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. A TCS contributor, he last wrote for TCS about President Bush's recently proposed immigration reform.


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