Immigration Debate: Focus on Lowering Numbers


Central American migrants surrender to a U.S. Border Patrol agent south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, March 6, 2019. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Efforts to cope with the fallout can miss the point.

Immigration was not a major theme of the recent Republican convention, but there was one sentence that caught my attention. In his speech on the first day of the event, Donald Trump Jr. said, “If Democrats really wanted to help minorities and underserved communities . . . they’d limit immigration to protect American workers.”

He included other things in that list, such as school choice and supporting police. But the unadorned call for reducing immigration was notable — not illegal immigration, not low-skilled immigration, not criminal immigration, just immigration. And not ameliorating its consequences or fixing the problems of a “broken” system — just reducing the level.

Whether or not Don Jr. meant to do so, that one sentence pointed to an approach that’s more effective — and less inflammatory — than many of the policies pursued by Republicans. Too often, those skeptical of today’s immigration policies expend inordinate energy on the symptoms of excessive immigration rather than addressing the actual problem: too much immigration.

One example is the effort to exclude illegal aliens from the census count for the purposes of reapportioning seats in the House (and for drawing House and state legislative districts). Of course it’s absurd that illegal aliens effectively have representation in Congress. And since they can’t vote (and seldom do — noncitizens who vote seem to usually be legal residents), including illegals in the reapportionment calculations gives greater weight to the votes of citizens in the House districts where illegals live than to citizens in other districts — where there are fewer eligible voters, each vote counts more, creating something akin to rotten boroughs.

But how is the Census Bureau supposed to do this? It’s required to count everyone, but then somehow identify individual illegal aliens, and their places of residence, and subtract them from the count used to apportion House seats and draw districts? If this were possible for more than a handful of people, ICE would be able to just go and pick them up and deport them. If having a large illegal population is a problem — and it certainly is — then how about we try to shrink it?

The best way to do that would be through worksite enforcement. And while we’re starting to see more of that, it’s still woefully, almost comically, inadequate. The division of ICE with the worksite portfolio (Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI) focuses on customs work and doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about illegals filling American jobs. So what we’re essentially doing is asking the Census Bureau to do ICE’s job. Good luck with that.

Another example of focusing on immigration symptoms rather than immigration itself is welfare use. Immigrants are significantly more likely to use taxpayer-funded services than the native-born are. This is mainly because of their lower average level of education, which translates to lower incomes, which means they’re more likely to qualify for welfare benefits.

The usual response to this longstanding problem has been to avoid addressing immigration policy and instead simply try to deny immigrants access to welfare. In 1996 Congress explicitly chose to address symptoms rather than the cause; it expanded the ban on immigrant use of welfare in the broader welfare-reform bill, while rejecting the Barbara Jordan Commission’s recommendations to trim legal immigration back to the levels of the 1980s.

And it didn’t work. Within five years immigrant welfare use was right back where it had been before the changes. There were a number of reasons for this; George Borjas found that some states picked up the slack, while at the same time naturalization increased among welfare-dependent immigrant groups, since the immigrant-specific rules didn’t apply to citizens. But the basic reason is this: A modern society is not going to let kids starve, or people die on the steps of the emergency room, just because they’re not citizens.

And even this administration’s efforts to tighten the “public charge” rules (excluding people likely to use welfare) and shift to a more “merit-based” system — sensible as they are — aren’t going to make much difference in the end unless numbers come down. The proposed public-charge rules are about as tight as they are likely ever to be, and yet they permit significant use of taxpayer-funded safety-net programs before triggering exclusion and don’t even consider welfare use by the children of immigrants, where the real public expense is. And “merit” doesn’t quite mean what people think. Immigrant college grads earn significantly less than comparably educated Americans, in part at least because foreign degrees on average don’t translate into the same level of skills as U.S. degrees. As a result, even educated immigrants are much more likely to use welfare than educated Americans.

In short, if you’re going to admit large numbers of immigrants, you’re going to create a significant welfare burden for taxpayers. The only way to avoid that is to admit fewer immigrants.

Another attempt to ameliorate the effects of mass immigration is seen in the plethora of rules designed to protect American workers from the large-scale importation of foreign workers. The various employment-related programs — both permanent and “temporary,” high-skilled and low-skilled — have a variety of different worker protections: Some require jobs to be advertised before a firm is permitted to import a worker, other visas require payment of the “prevailing wage” or the “adverse effect wage rate,” yet others limit the nature or duration of employment for foreign workers.

And none of it really works. Mind you, I’m all for these rules, and more, because without them things for American workers would be even worse. But in reality, they’re a poor substitute for simply not importing workers in the first place. The rules are routinely gamed by lawyers and consultants vastly more numerous and cunning and motivated than the well-meaning but hapless regulators at the Labor Department. And what does the “prevailing wage” mean, anyway? By the time something like that is calculated (even assuming perfect information) and translated into policy decisions, the information is out of date.

I understand the reason immigration-controllers advocate such rules; in the face of implacable business lobbies demanding unlimited immigration, this is often all you can get, and sometimes even Democrats will support some of these restrictions. But the real goal always needs to be the abolition of these programs, not merely the amelioration of the harm they do.

All these efforts at addressing symptoms are essentially defensive, and my hat’s off to those fighting in the trenches. But victory comes only through offensive action. And the first step toward being able to take the offensive is to ensure that your own side knows the goal. So, to adapt Don Jr.’s observation, if Republicans really wanted to help minorities and underserved communities — and all American workers and taxpayers — they’d limit immigration.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.






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