My brilliant and thoughtful friend Reihan Salam was kind enough to critique last week’s immigration posts. Here, I think, is the gist of our disagreement:
My basic frustration with my interlocutors on the immigration question is this: is access to the U.S. economy a fixed pie or not? If you’re arguing that it’s not, you will lose every political debate, because U.S. citizens don’t believe, rightly or wrongly, that everyone in the world should, by virtue of being a free and equal human being, be allowed to work and settle in the U.S. If you’re arguing that it is, we get into thorny questions of what kind of immigration policy we should have and how we should go about implementing it.
This passage left me scratching my heads. Reihan carefully avoids answering his own question here, but reading between the lines, he seems to be conceding that the pie isn’t fixed. However, he argues, “immigration doves” like me (and, he claims, himself) can’t afford to say so because the general public can’t handle the truth.
This is a deeply un-Salamian position to take. One of the things that makes Reihan’s work so delightful is his contrarian streak. If fixed-pieism is false, then Reihan, of all people, should be willing to say so even if the argument is a loser at the polls.
With that said, I actually agree with his assessment of the political climate. The low level of economic literacy among the general public makes it extremely difficult to convince voters that the American economy could gracefully accommodate much higher levels of immigration, even though that’s what the evidence shows. But that’s precisely why it’s important that the immigration debate not be primarily a debate about economics. The beauty of the DREAM Act, and Jose Vargas’s campaign on its behalf, is that it focuses the debate on concrete injustices perpetrated against specific, sympathetic immigrants. It’s much easier to whip up public anger about “illegal immigration” in general than it is to defend the deportation of an individual immigrant like Julio Hernandez.
Now, Reihan wants me to explain what I would consider an “acceptable immigration enforcement regime.” But I think this is the wrong place to start the analysis. No conceivable set of enforcement measures can enforce our current, broken immigration rules; that’s one of the reasons we need to change them. If we did a better job of welcoming immigrants who will make positive contributions to our economy and the federal treasury, one of the happy side effects would be that it would be a lot easier to deport the minority of criminals and deadbeats we really don’t want in our country.
But more generally, I reject the proposition that unless I’ve developed a comprehensive immigration reform agenda, I’m not allowed to make value judgments about individual parts of the immigration system. It’s obvious that Jose Vargas should be allowed to stay in this country. The exact details of how we accomplish that—whether we pass the DREAM Act, raise the quota for skilled Filipino immigrants, grant blanket amnesty, etc—is a question that reasonable people can disagree about. But our current immigration system is indefensible, as is the large number of people who seem to believe the top priority is to crack down even harder on its victims.
I also want to endorse Adam Ozimek’s response to Reihan’s arguments.