Should Immigration Policy be based on Quantity or Quality?

For the most part, the immigration debate in America is predicated on different fundamental assumptions. Because the start-points are starkly different, coherent discussion seems impossible.

One side, call them the pro-immigration group, appears to start from the premise that, “Immigration is good.” Therefore, the policy ought to be focused on how to efficiently allow immigration in. Issues like legal status, quotas and other such matters are secondary considerations, particularly since they tend to impose restrictions on immigration. In fact, anything that would impose limits is generally viewed as “bad.”

This perspective also seems to place great value on mitigating perceived human suffering. The views on asylum for victims of persecution seems to have been dramatically expanded. Economic conditions have been added to political and human rights concerns. Logically, this opens the door to almost anyone since, relative to most of the world, America is a better economic place.

In other words, immigration (allowing near unrestricted inflow) is the objective (in strategic terms-the desired end state).

The other side of the debate, is often termed (erroneously, in my view) as anti-immigration, xenophobic or racist, because they desire substantive conditions on immigration. This perspective starts with the premise, “Immigration is a mechanism whereby the specific needs of society are enhanced.” If it does not promote some national objective or fundamentally improve the society’s quality of life, it ought to be questioned and scrutinized. Traditionally, the society has been viewed primarily in terms of what we now call citizens or legal residents.

Immigration is a means to an end, not the end unto itself. And, there are many other competing ways to accomplish those objectives. Therefore, immigration has no inherent positive or negative quality. Whether immigration is good or bad depends on what you are trying to accomplish, how well it would promote the identified objectives and how efficient it is relative to other options.

This inherently imposes restrictions. After all, some people who want to enter may not fit a category deemed essential to a national interest. The fundamental question is, “What are the national interests that immigration should support?” We refuse to have this debate.

In effect, the debate centers on the difference between “quantity” and “quality.” If one assumes that immigration is the objective and an unequivocal public benefit, then the more you can allow in, the better society will become. Ironically, under these circumstances, diversity tends to take a back seat if the mechanism used to ensure diversity of inflow in any way restricts the gross number of immigrants.

However, once the immigration policy is about quality, (i.e. finding people that further your other national objectives), you immediately open the door to prejudice-the preconceived opinion towards or against something. The struggle is to base selectivity on reason and objectivity rather than bias. It is certainly worth questioning whether we are capable of this in the divided polity we have today.

There seems to be greater logic in the broad view that immigration is a resource or tool to help improve our society (a means to an end). The days of unrestricted immigration to settle an unconquered land are over. In fact, such a past policy was rife with its own prejudice, i.e., the notion that America was “unsettled” and needed to be filled up with “civilized” people. The original occupants of this land would take exception to this view I would suspect.

No society can afford to lose control of its borders. Furthermore, it is untenable to simply not know who is in your country, if for no other reason than to ensure they comply with the laws, and conversely, that they are protected by the law. After all, there is significant evidence of exploitation of illegal immigrants currently.

There are two other key points. First, unrestricted immigration would put a significant strain on already stressed public assistance programs. While it is likely that our economy would grow with immigration, that growth is largely dependent on the skills of the people entering. Furthermore, there is skepticism about the true motivations driving immigration (in a “self-selection” process). One could certainly give any expedient reason if they want to enter, partiularly if there is only cursory vetting of the story.

We face significant challenges and the prospect of a reasonable policy solution seems remote. Sadly, real live people (those that are here-legally and illegally, as well as those desiring to come) are caught up in partisan politics. It is difficult to fathom that Nancy Pelosi”s filibuster, shutting down the US government, was anything but a play for an ethnic vote. Likewise, playing to a statistically unsupportable proposition that our manufacturing jobs have been taken by illegal immigrants is equally deceptive. Both extremes are unhelpful in resolving the problem.

Reality seems clear-cut. We need to reasonably secure our borders. We need to reasonably vet asylum-seekers. We need to find a reasonable way to provide and account for workers that are legitimately needed to support our economy. American exceptionalism demands that we also remain (relatively) open to those who are oppressed and seek a better life.

We are a country of immigrants and we must find a resolution that balances security and prosperity with that legacy.

I am not sanguine that we can have a reasonable debate and therefore doubt we will create any immigration policy that substantively moves our society forward.


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1 Response

  1. Jim Marmora says:

    In my view politics has become all about “winning “ and not in compromising and moving the country forward. I had really hoped Mike Bloomberg would have run and won the Presidency. I think he could have pulled moderates from both parties and created a de facto middle of the road party. We could then, at least, have civil conversation about this and other divisive issues.