Reihan responds. His thoughts are, as always, worth reading in full. But let me just quickly comment on this:
But my sense is that there is an upper bound on the number of foreigners that U.S. citizens will welcome to work and settle in the United States in any given year. I don’t know what that number is, but I imagine it’s not much higher than, say, 1.5 million per annum at the very high end. I am willing to accept that as a starting point, i.e., we’re not going to allow 3 million or 7 million or even 1.6 million. Chances are that a number smaller than 1.5 million would reflect the preferences of a voting majority, e.g., 800,000.
I don’t think this model of how the electorate thinks about immigration—first decide how many “slots” there are going to be and then decide how to dole them out—bears any relationship to reality. I think Reihan is right that if you ask the average voter how many immigrants she’d like to admit each year, she’d give a depressingly small answer. But fortunately, public opinion on this (like every other issue) is underdetermined, incoherent and highly susceptible to framing. There are many voters who think we admit too many immigrants in general but can be persuaded that it’s worth making an exception for certain immigrants whose situations seem particularly sympathetic. So not only does each DREAM kid not take up a full “slot,” I suspect that the process of debating and enacting the DREAM Act will actually increase the number of “slots” by improving the public view of undocumented immigrants in general.
This is how politics works. If you want fewer abortions you focus on “partial birth” abortions. If you want legal pot, you start with medical marijuana. If you want universal vouchers, you start by focusing on vouchers for kids in failing schools. If you want to end the estate tax, you focus on the relatively small minority of families who are forced to sell off their business to pay the tax man. This kind of half-measure is not only much easier to enact, but it also tends to move public opinion to be more favorable to the 200 proof version. In an ideal world, voters would be perfectly rational and omniscient and we wouldn’t have to play these kinds of games. But they’re not, so we do.