Letter from the Editor: The Ideal Level of Immigration

Monday, October 26, 2015

What is the goal of immigration policy? The state of public debate and media coverage would lead you to believe that the United States has a broken immigration system and that the remedy should focus on securing the southern border to achieve zero illegal immigration. But is that a wise approach if the ultimate goals are to grow the US economy and strengthen national security? What if zero illegal immigration can only be achieved at great cost to the economy and no benefit to security?

Although I tend to think that zero illegal immigration is an appropriate goal, many thoughtful scholars disagree.

This issue of Peregrine intended to focus on this question, but two recent events demand our attention. First, the presidential election of 2016 began with two record-setting debates whose main topic of discussion was immigration reform. One candidate suggested that if he were not a candidate no one would be talking about immigration. We must note, however, that the tone of these debates is markedly different than four, eight, or twelve years ago, with many fewer mentions of a comprehensive approach and a greater emphasis on incremental progress and priorities. That’s a win for policy over politics.

The second shocking event is the Syrian refugee crisis, a consequence of a multifront civil war that has displaced more than half the citizens of Syria. More than four million refugees have fled the country, with nearly two million in Turkey and thousands fleeing to Europe. Thousands more are fleeing Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, putting tremendous pressures on the Middle East and the European Union.

Although the United States accepts roughly seventy thousand refugees and asylum seekers a year, President Obama has declared that an additional ten thousand from Syria will be welcome. Because US law requires refugees to apply for permanent residency within the first year, I wondered if US citizens might be open to granting temporary residency. This month’s survey asks questions along those lines.

Ultimately, our laws, policies, and administrative goals reflect common values expressed through democracy but that involve trade-offs. Can we still be a nation of immigrants if birthright citizenship is repealed from the Constitution? Is lowering income inequality such a high priority that it justifies keeping out poor migrants and refugees?