Immigration is a federal government program. Like many programs, it can be beneficial. But also like many programs, it has become overgrown and no longer serves the national interest.
A modern society like ours doesn’t need any immigration. With a third of a billion people spanning a continent, the idea that America can’t prosper without importing people from abroad is silly.
“We no longer need settlers for virgin lands,” as Jack Kennedy said in “A Nation of Immigrants.”
Not only have we settled the land, but factories employ an ever-smaller share of the workforce. And robotics and other advances will eliminate whole job categories, further reducing the need for extra labor. Any job that can be automated or digitized will be, from driving trucks to reading X-rays.
But it’s not just that we don’t need immigration. In a modern society, high levels of immigration actually create serious problems that didn’t exist in the past.
Take jobs and wages. In the farming and manufacturing economy of the past, you didn’t need much education to succeed in the job market. Today’s knowledge-based, high-tech economy is different. Both poor Americans and immigrants find it harder to get ahead. More than 50 million working-age Americans aren’t in the job market at all. As for immigrants, they never catch up economically. Even after 20 years, they are still much more likely to be poor than the native-born. As Harvard economist George Borjas puts it in his new book “We Wanted Workers,” “there seems to have been a dramatic slowdown in economic assimilation.”
The welfare state is another new development. A century ago taxpayer-funded support for the poor was extremely limited. Today we have an extensive system of payments for the poor, so that no one falls below a certain minimal standard of living.
But those payments add up. The National Academies of Science came up with several different estimates of the cost to taxpayers of current immigration policy, based on different assumptions. All showed immigration to be a drain on the federal budget, the largest of the gaps between taxes paid and services provided being nearly $300 billion a year. And this isn’t caused by illegal immigration; legal immigrants cost taxpayers much more, since they’re eligible for many more programs. As free-market economist Milton Friedman said, you can’t have open immigration and a welfare state.
Assimilation is another area where things have changed. It’s important that people who move here from abroad “buy in” to America and that we all, immigrant and native-born, come to see ourselves as one people, all in the same boat. That’s never been an easy or automatic process, but it’s harder today than ever before.
Assimilation isn’t harder because today’s immigrants come from different places; they’re actually very similar to those who came a century ago. But cheap and easy travel and communications make it easier for newcomers to maintain ties with the old country, meaning it takes longer for old attachments to weaken, something that’s necessary if they’re going to commit to full membership in their new home. What’s more, our institutions don’t promote assimilation like they used to, instead teaching that America really isn’t all that great after all. If that’s true, why embrace America’s history as your own and consider yourself part of this new people? Better to stay separate.
None of this means the federal immigration program should be ended. Instead, we need to downsize it, discontinuing categories that no longer serve our interests and focusing only on those that have truly compelling rationales. The categories we should keep would come under three headings:
Family: Husbands, wives and little kids of American citizens. Few would disagree that we should permit our fellow citizens to (legitimately) marry a foreigner or adopt a baby abroad. But other relatives — siblings or parents or adult sons and daughters — should not have special immigration rights, as they do now.
Skills: America can benefit from genuine “Einstein immigration,” the arrival of world-class talents who are at the top of their fields. But there’s not that many people like that, and we currently pretend that many ordinary workers are best-and-brightest immigrants.
Humanitarian: Large-scale refugee resettlement is morally questionable, since we can help 12 refugees in the Middle East for the cost of bringing a single one here. Whatever amount we decide to spend on refugee protection, we must make sure we get the most bang for the buck.
All this would translate into an immigration flow of perhaps 400,000 a year — still more than any other country, but less than half the 1 million we take now. By focusing on categories that matter most, the immigration program can be reformed to minimize the problems and maximize the benefits.