The debate over US immigration has persisted for nearly 350 years. The cast has changed but the arguments have not. Benjamin Franklin famously warned about the “Germanization” of Pennsylvania, predicting that German immigrants would no sooner abandon their language or culture than Americans would adopt their complexion (whatever that meant!).
In reality, immigrants fuel our economy and enrich the American spirit. Our nation could not have become the richest and most powerful nation on earth without our immigrant pedigree. Nor are we likely to remain so if we abandon it.
Some might be tempted to think that the immigration era ought to be over. As Milton Friedman once famously said, we can’t have open borders and a welfare state at the same time. And yet the converse is equally true: we can’t sustain our promises to current and future generations without plentiful immigration. For that reason, we need young, hard-working immigrants more than ever.
For the first time in our history, our population is no longer self-sustaining. Without a reversal of the birthrate decline—which is not likely to happen—we will have fewer workers supporting an ever-increasing number of retirees. That leaves us with three options: reduce benefits, raise taxes, or increase the number of young, hard-working immigrants. The first is not politically palatable, the second would harm our economy—only the third is a win-win.
A major part of the debate, which has split conservative policy analysts, is whether immigrants contribute to the economy or represent a net drain on social services. The answer is that it depends on who the immigrants are. Workers, both high skilled and low skilled, are net contributors to the economy. Highly skilled workers are net job creators, producing far more tax revenue than they consume. Lower-skilled workers are essential to production in key industries such as agriculture and tourism. When Alabama cracked down on illegal immigration, it cost the state billions of dollars in gross domestic product.
The trouble is that our current immigration laws favor less-productive over more-productive immigrants. Nearly two-thirds of legal immigrants come as the result of family preferences—not only spouses and children but siblings and parents. They in turn become eligible for family preferences, leading to a chain migration that crowds out work-based immigration. Indeed, only about 13 percent of our visas go to immigrants on account of their work or skills.
Other countries are figuring this out and are working to attract the best and brightest, an advantage once held by our country. The United States gives out fewer work-based visas than does Canada, which has only one-tenth of our population. Other countries, such as Chile, New Zealand, and even China, are increasing immigration opportunities for high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Given the abysmal state of our K–12 education system, we cannot produce enough high-skilled graduates for technology jobs. Hence we either import more skilled workers or export the jobs.
The “Gang of 8" proposal in the US Senate is far from perfect but does improve nearly every important aspect of immigration policy. It strengthens border security, reduces family preferences, limits welfare benefits, increases high-skill visas, and creates a guest-worker program for low-skilled workers. The House of Representatives has a chance to make the bill’s provisions even better.
We are not writing on a blank slate. If comprehensive immigration reform is torpedoed yet again, we will keep in place a disastrous immigration system—one that promotes illegal immigration because it provides too-few outlets for legal immigration. We can restore America as a beacon for people who want to work hard and prosper—but only if we jettison a dysfunctional system and embrace immigration policy that reflects our nation’s needs in the twenty-first century.
Clint Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, research fellow with the Hoover Institution, and coauthor (with Jeb Bush) of Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution (Simon & Schuster, 2013).