Hold the Emotions: A Rational Approach to Immigration

March 1, 2007
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Tamar Jacoby

Let’s face it, for most of us — for most Americans — immigration is a deeply emotional issue. I’m no exception. As the child of what I call a “melting-pot marriage” — my father’s folks came from the Pale of Settlement by way of Ellis Island, my mother traced her family back to the Mayflower and had letters from a great-great-great who wrote home from the Revolutionary War — I have an instinctive empathy for immigrants and believe passionately in that miraculous balancing act we call e pluribus unum.

But like most things, immigration must be approached with the head as well as the heart, and policy must be made on the basis of national interest, not emotion.

Does that mean there is no place for compassion? No place for universal human rights or the worth and dignity of each human being? Of course not. In policy, as in our personal lives, we must act as humanely as possible with due regard for the consequences our actions will have for others. But we must also recognize that there are billions of people around the world drawn to the lure of life in the United States, and generous as we may feel, we cannot admit them all as immigrants. Refugees fleeing persecution are a different matter, and our obligation to them is somewhat sharper. But in no case can the obligation be unlimited. The human right to relocate in pursuit of a better life — if there is such a right — does not trump Americans’ right to define their state as they see fit and to admit and exclude whom they please.

Still, the situation is not as dire as it sounds, and taking care of ourselves does not have to mean acting like monsters. Most of the world’s struggling billions are not in a position to come to the U.S. and are not waiting on our doorstep to be admitted or turned away at whim. What you might call natural forces — demography, geography, the laws of supply and demand — determine the number actually prepared to migrate to the U.S., and these factors work together surprisingly effectively to limit the flow. Indeed, the challenge for American immigration policy today is not so much to keep out billions we don’t want, but rather to create a legal, orderly path for the smaller number we need.

Sound implausible? Here’s how it works. The dynamic starts with demography: our native-born workforce is aging, shrinking, and becoming ever more educated. Just 50 years ago, half of all American men dropped out of high school to look for unskilled work. Today, fewer than 10 percent do — but we still need unskilled workers to grow our food and bring it to market, to build our homes and businesses, to keep our living spaces clean, to watch our children and look after our elderly parents.

Meanwhile, in a lucky accident of geography — lucky, at least, for us — Mexico and the countries of Central America happen to have more workers than they have jobs, and millions of these young people are eager to come to the U.S. to work. The infusion of eager hands has been a huge boon to the U.S. economy, driving more than half of the economic growth of recent decades. And — a final bonus — this system has its own, built-in thermostat. Immigrants, whether legal or illegal, receive few if any welfare benefits. Most don’t want to stay in the U.S. if there’s no work available. Thanks to modern communications — cell phones and the Internet — news about the job market in the U.S. now makes its way in real time to the villages of Mexico and Central America. And as a result, the number of workers arriving annually lines up fairly neatly with the number our economy needs: over the past few years, roughly 1.5 million a year.

Of course, immigrants, skilled and unskilled, are more than just economic building blocks — what Marx called “elements of production.” They also bring hope and vitality and rejuvenating enthusiasm for the things that make America American. As President Bush has said, they “renew our soul.” But our immigration policy — our annual quotas — still ought to be driven by economics and based on supply and demand. Anything else is a recipe for chaos: either too much competition for the jobs available (if the quotas are too large) or the rampant illegality we live with today because the quotas are too restrictive (roughly one million a year, in contrast to the 1.5 million workers we need).

Bottom line for me: we’re lucky. Our economic self-interest lines up with our history and our values — and together, they argue for a fairly generous immigration policy.

Only one additional factor would give me pause — if today’s immigrants were not assimilating as our parents and grandparents assimilated, learning how to succeed in the U.S. and what it means to be American, even as they balance this with the traditions they bring from the Old Country. If I thought Spanish was replacing English as the number one language in the United States, or I saw Mexico’s authoritarian politics displacing American democracy, I’d say forget about the economic growth — some American interests are bigger and more important than economics. But the good news is that most of today’s immigrants are assimilating — as successfully as our ancestors. Most who choose to spend their lives here are eager to become citizens. Their children are learning English; they’re moving up the social ladder. And if anything, most newcomers are more patriotic than the native-born.

So for me, there’s no conflict — and in my view, no problem for America. We need to fix our immigration policy, expanding quotas so that they line up with economic reality, and we ought to be doing more to help the new arrivals become Americans, by, for example, providing English classes. But in the end, we can satisfy our hearts and our heads, remaining a nation of immigrants — arguably the secret of our success.

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Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is editor of Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means To Be American and author of Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration (both by Basic Books). Her articles and essays have been published in a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and Foreign Affairs. In 2004, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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