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ICYMI: Yglesias of Vox: “The case for immigration”

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At the White House today, Republican Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) unveiled legislation to slash legal immigration levels by at least 50% (some estimates go as high as 70%).

In light of this legislation, and President Trump’s unsurprising embrace of it, we excerpt a piece by Matthew Yglesias of Voxfrom April, championing immigration as a pathway to American greatness, economic strength and cultural enrichment and debunking the argument that merit-based immigration is consistent with American interests and ideals.

Find the piece in its entirety here, with excerpts below.

George Washington set in motion a strategy so radical that it made this country the wealthiest and strongest on Earth — it made America great.


He embraced a vision for an open America that could almost be read today as a form of deep idealism or altruism. “America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions,” he told newly arrived Irishmen in 1783. He assured them they’d be “welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

But Washington’s vision wasn’t primarily about charity or helping others. It was about building the kind of country that he wanted the United States to become. Greatness would require great people. America would need more than it had.

The contemporary debate around immigration is often framed around an axis of selfishness versus generosity, with Donald Trump talking about the need to put “America first” while opponents tell heartbreaking stories of deportations and communities torn apart. A debate about how to enforce the existing law tends to supersede discussion of what the law ought to say.

All of this misses the core point. Immigration to the United States has not, historically, been an act of kindness toward strangers. It’s been a strategy for national growth and national greatness.

Washington and his fellow founders could have established America as a kind of exclusive club. The present-day United States undoubtedly would still be a prosperous and pleasant nation. But our cities would be smaller, our global influence would be reduced, and many fewer of the world’s cutting-edge companies would be based here. We would suffer, as small countries tend to, from our talented and ambitious young people seeking their fortunes in bigger places abroad. With many fewer people, it wouldn’t be the great nation it is today.

While a lot has changed since Washington’s time, two fundamentals have not. The United States is still a country with a mission and a desire for greatness on the world stage. And America’s openness to people who want to move here and make a better life for themselves is fuel for that greatness.

Few of our problems can be solved by curtailing immigration. Many could be solved by welcoming more foreigners to our shores.


The debate is about immigrants, not skills

A common rhetorical move in the United States is to argue that the problem with the current American system is that green card issuance depends too heavily on having relatives in the United States, rather than on having a job offer or labor market skills. The Trump administration has taken to calling the alternative, which they feel to be in place in Canada and Australia, a “merit-based” system.

This “merit” language is, for starters, an incredibly offensive and reductive way to think about human beings. Indeed, one suspects that Trumpniks would be the first to object if I were to refer to the Republican Party’s base of whites without college degrees as lacking “merit.”

What is true is that since people with more degrees — and especially people with degrees in technical subjects — earn above-average incomes, highly educated immigrants have a more positive budgetary impact than less educated ones. Altering American immigration policy to put more weight on in-demand skills, educational credentials, and ability to either attract above-market salaries or work in a field where expanding the size of the workforce is deemed socially desirable is a perfectly reasonable proposal.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to see this as the genuine core of the contemporary immigration debate.

Back in 2013, for example, Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA) introduced the SKILLS Act, which would have limited the existing “diversity visa” program and replaced it with a skills-based program that would have increased the total number of immigrants in the United States. The Congressional Budget Office score confirms that shifting policy in this direction is a fiscal winner, but no Democrats would support SKILLS, viewing it as a poison bill designed to undermine the then-ongoing quest for comprehensive immigration reform. More tellingly, it only had 22 co-sponsors in the House, and even though it passed the Judiciary Committee, it was never brought to the floor for a vote. It was not reintroduced in the next Congress, nor has it been reintroduced this Congress.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is already acting to curtail guest worker visas for skilled technical workers. Steve Bannon, who appears to be the administration’s point man on immigration issues, has long been suspicious of economically successful immigrants.

What’s more, whether or not you see a strong case for switching to a more skills-oriented system, America’s current immigration laws already make it so that newly arrived immigrants are better-educated than the native-born population.

Last but by no means least, even “unskilled” immigrants serve to increase the supply of skilled labor through their work in the household sector. Patricia Cortes and Jose Tessada find that cities with larger numbers of less skilled immigrants see higher labor force participation and more hours worked by highly skilled women, who hire more hours per week of maids, nannies, and cooks, allowing them to shift their labor efforts out of unpaid home production and into market work. Immigrants who do work mowing lawns, cleaning pools, and other household activities likely have a similar impact.


And for those who believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the value of America’s ideals, accepting a future of decline and retreat in the name of ethnic purity should be unacceptable. That the more homogeneous America will be not just smaller and weaker but also poorer on a per capita basis only underscores what folly it would be to embrace the narrow vision. That hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to move to our shores — and that America has a long tradition of assimilating foreigners and a political mythos and civil culture that is conducive to doing so — is an enormous source of national strength.

It’s time we started to see it that way.