Why Immigration is Such a Hard Problem

Solving our Immigration Crisis, Part 1

By James Robison & Jay Richards Published on January 18, 2016

For the first time in a generation, immigration policy is a leading issue in the presidential campaign, and it involves not just immigrants to our south, but refugees from war-torn regions of the Middle East. Donald Trump has made it his signature topic, and many of the other GOP candidates are maneuvering to get on the good side of GOP primary voters, who are more and more skeptical of immigration.

Unfortunately, the debate has gotten nasty fast. After South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley addressed the issue of immigration in her response to the State of the Union speech last week, Ann Coulter tweeted (only half-joking) that she hoped Donald Trump would deport her.

It’s time for people of goodwill to step back from the partisan wrangling and think carefully about this issue. If caring and principled people ever needed to come to the table of reason, it is now. This is the first in a series of articles in which we’ll try to encourage thoughtful debate rather than heated rancor. 

For Christians, some issues, such as unborn human life and the nature of marriage, should be no brainers. But immigration policy is different. There’s no reason Christians must all agree on the details, because it involves genuine but competing goods that are hard to keep in balance. Reasonable people may weigh these competing goods differently.

One sign of the issue’s complexity is that views on immigration don’t divide up neatly into “liberal” and “conservative.” Some, such as the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, focus on the economic benefits to the free flow of labor, and so tend to be pro-immigration. On that narrow question, they’re right. Just as capital in a free market will flow to the places it is most valued, labor will do the same.

This has happened for centuries within US borders. Adding members to the population through birth and immigration may lead to short term job displacement for some — that’s why the rate of immigration matters — but it’s committing the “lump of labor fallacy” to argue that adding people to the population will cause long term job loss. If that were so, then virtually all of us would be unemployed. There isn’t a fixed amount of “work” to be done, so that once we get enough people to do it, then there’s nothing else for the rest to do. This is just bad economic thinking.

There is an infinite variety of ways for people made in the image of our creative God to create value for themselves and others. If you encounter an argument against immigration that would work just as well as an argument against free trade, then you can be pretty sure the lump of labor fallacy is lurking nearby. If someone can do something better and less expensively than you can, then perhaps that is a sign that you are supposed to do something else, not that the system is unjust. This is simply division of labor, from which everyone benefits in the long run.

The trouble with foreign immigration, however, is not so much economic (at least in the long term) as social and cultural. Labor, unlike capital, can’t be transferred by wire or shipped by Fed Ex. It’s not a commodity. Labor involves people — families, religious beliefs, virtues and vices, contagious diseases, political and personal histories. That’s why undisciplined immigration can have a negative cultural impact on a nation. In order to maintain our laws and culture, the flow of immigration must be gradual enough to allow immigrants to assimilate, and the government must have a policy of assimilation for it to happen at all.

In addition to those who support open immigration on economic grounds, there is a vocal minority who supports blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants, either because of their concern for the well-being of immigrants, because they think the Bible requires it (it doesn’t), or because they assume, somewhat cynically, that the beneficiaries will be loyal supporters of the politician, or political party, which granted amnesty.

Labor unions are harder to pin down on immigration. They are often suspicious of immigrants (legal or otherwise) because they fear immigrants will undercut their union wages. Nevertheless, unions often support immigration reform as long as it promises to increase union influence. 

Immigration Policy is the Main Problem

Apart from these competing concerns is the schizophrenic unofficial policy of the federal government. We should direct our frustration toward bad policy, not toward immigrants. Our immigration laws often make it hard for legal immigrants to maneuver — Microsoft has to petition the government annually to make it easier for the company to hire foreign employees — yet make it easy for an immigrant to overstay his visa or to swim the Rio Grande and stay here indefinitely.

We all know that in the last few decades the US has grown lax in securing its borders and enforcing immigration laws. It’s also become a vast entitlement state, so that even immigrants who want to make a life for themselves can end up on the public dole. Many of our institutions encourage relativism and treat assimilation as some sort of racist plot.

James C. Bennett boiled down the dilemma: “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism … pick any two.” These three policies are like territorial cats. You might get two to live under the same roof, but not three. Democracy (that is, popular vote) and immigration can co-exist as long as immigrants are assimilated and adopt the same constitutional values as their adopted country. Immigration and multiculturalism (that is, cultural relativism) can co-exist in a brutal dictatorship (without democracy) because, even if a million Mayflowers arrive with pilgrims and don’t assimilate, the pilgrims lack the political power to transform the country. And democracy and multiculturalism can co-exist if the cultural variety was present at the beginning, and no new immigrants with contrary values are admitted afterwards.

The key point is that immigration plus multiculturalism plus democracy are likely to give rise to dangerous ethnic and religious factions, which may even threaten society as a whole. This is obvious in the extreme: Imagine granting American citizenship to 100 million Islamists, all at once, who are opposed to individual human rights, representative government, and religious freedom. How do you suppose the next election would turn out? And the one after that? We should take no one seriously in this debate who refuses to recognize this simple point. Immigration policy cannot be a social suicide pact.

Add the unsustainable entitlements to the mix, and you get a deadly powder keg.

These different elements — lax enforcement of the law by the federal government, multiculturalism, and a vast welfare state — have caused many Americans to see immigration only as a liability. What we need is a solution that can transform immigration into a real asset. We’ll discuss that in our next installment.

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