A Response to Reihan on Immigration

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.

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9 Responses to A Response to Reihan on Immigration

  1. jamie says:

    I tend to agree with you, and not with Reihan, on this subject. But I think you’re not really thinking through the implications of saying stuff like “let Jose Vargas stay in this country.” Well, of course. But if we let him stay, why do we not let the single mother working to support her two children stay? Where do we draw the line between Vargas and other illegal immigrants who haven’t committed any crimes (other than coming here illegally, of course)? I think you need to draw out much more clearly what the world would look like if we don’t enforce our current immigration laws to persuade people who are on the fence like myself.

  2. jamie,

    I think it’s important to distinguish means and ends. The goal should be to let everyone who’s going to make a positive contribution to society in. Does the single mother qualify? That might be a difficult, fact-specific inquiry. I might like to know if she has a job lined up, if she has a criminal record, if she speaks English, etc. The exact rules are complicated and we’ll probably have to figure them out as we go along. But the point is that the fact that Vargas doesn’t have a way to stay here suggests that our current rules are way to restrictive. I think everyone should be able to agree that we should relax them, even if people don’t all agree on how much.

  3. I’m trying to be encouraged by a discussion about moving towards more open immigration, but all this social engineering talk is turning my stomach.

    The ends are people, not living room furniture. The means are prisons and guns, and if pointing a gun at someone is easier for you if they don’t speak English, well, no comprende.

  4. Mercer says:

    “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. ”

    The majority of voters don’t want millions of low illegal immigrants given amnesty and and do not want higher levels of low skilled legal immigrants. You think immigrant critics can be persuaded into accepting amnesty and more low skilled legal immigrants by focusing on people like Vargas instead of the millions of low skilled immigrants.

    I think otherwise. Talk about Vargas as much as you want. I bet it will make no difference with the majority’s hostility to amnesty and more low skilled immigrants.
    They can see that much of the elite class wants more immigration and does not care about enforcing any immigration law.

  5. jamie says:

    @Tim-I certainly agree that we should relax the rules-on pure numbers, we should let way more people into the US than we currently do. I’m skeptical that your “value-added” test would really work-as someone who works with refugees on a daily basis, it would be very difficult for me to make that determination for each refugee, even after some of them have been in the country for a year or more. The reason why I want to press you on the mechanism of increasing immigration is because I think in order to make reforms work politically we’ll need BOTH empathetic stories like Vargas AND concrete ways to make it clear that the immigration reforms bring an economic benefit to American citizens.

  6. Eli says:

    Tim, I’m not sure what your “positive contribution” standard (with respect to a hypothetical single mother) actually entails. Is the purpose of the standard to ensure that we’re not admitting people who might end up on the dole? If so, would it not be better to admit people and simply deny them the right to state-funded welfare services than not to admit them because they might be net consumers of state resources? Are you concerned that even without access to such services some non-criminal, non-terrorist immigrants might still make non-positive contributions, or is the purpose of the standard to exclude only criminals and terrorists?

  7. would it not be better to admit people and simply deny them the right to state-funded welfare services than not to admit them because they might be net consumers of state resources?

    This is a good idea in principle but isn’t very practical. If an Hispanic woman shows up in theemergency room, I don’t think we want to have doctors let her die in the waiting room if she can’t produce papers. Similarly, I think it would be a hard sell to say that we’re not going to prevent her kids (who might even be American citizens) from attending public schools.

    Now, as I understand it the evidence suggests that immigration in general doesn’t have a significant negative effect on the state’s fiscal position. So if it were up to me we’d be pretty generous about letting in people even if they might wind up costing taxpayers money. But if forced to do a limited liberalization, which political reality may require, it makes sense to start with the many, many people who we can be confident will be gainfully employed and paying taxes.

  8. Max says:

    Again, I think looking at immigration as an economic issue misses the point. The conservative middle class opposition to immigration stems from their otherness – language, religion, race, culture, etc. If the immigrants were coming from Europe and were fluent in English, there would be no issue.

  9. Gil Maduro says:


    A nation cannot possibly label itself as sovereign if it doesn’t control its borders. Our immigration problems are complex and touch upon many aspects of life, economic, social, cultural, legal and political. Moral considerations are at best a very flimsy basis to conduct a constructive immigration policy. To favor a widening of immigration without taking into consideration what I consider the relevant aspects as listed is foolish. I agree with you that it’s more than economics, but what you and those who favor liberalization must accept ( or refuse to) is that opening the borders, irrespective of it’s purported economic benefits (structural unemployment of citizens not withstanding) is that it has the very real potential of changing our way of life on all those aspects mentioned and not necessarily in a good way. The problem is that that is extremely difficult to asses and it takes time and getting to know the individual, which in turn would beg the question since it presupposes that the individual is here already.
    There is nothing wrong with wanting to preserve my Western European mores and ways of life. There is nothing wrong with being skeptical of liberalization because it could very easily lead to the debasement of what I value. The reality is that if the first act of an immigrant is to break my country’s laws, well I have a very big problem with that. You come to my home by invitation. Period.

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