What is the Purpose of Immigration Policy?

Though there’s scarcely been any mention of immigration policy in the 3-1/2 years since President Obama took office, all of that changed on Friday when he announced that he would halt enforcement action on illegal immigrants who were brought to this country by their parents as young children – growing up knowing no other country than the U.S.  Now the news seems to be about nothing else.  Was the president right?  What would Romney have done?  Will he reverse this decision when (not if) he takes office?  There was also talk of the need for “comprehensive immigration reform.”  Perhaps the most incisive question I heard in the wake of Obama’s decision was “How can immigration policy be made to work for us?” 

How indeed, if it can be made to work for us at all?  It begs another question:  what is the purpose of even having an immigration policy?  I think the answer is that immigration serves three purposes:

  1. It fulfills our obligation as a member of the global community to reciprocate when other nations are willing to accept migrants from the United States.
  2. It fulfills our obligation to accept our fair share of refugees fleeing war and persecution. 
  3. Once the above two obligations have been met, additional immigration serves only one other purpose – to grow our population. 

Others may suggest some unquantifiable reasons and purposes – to enrich the diversity of our people, as an example, or to uphold our tradition as a nation built by immigrants.  All such sentiments are rooted in a deeper concern for immigrants than for what’s best for our country.  The fact is this:  that once we have met our obligations to admit as many immigrants as other countries are willing to accept from us – including refugees – the ultimate question is whether it makes sense to grow our population by admitting more.  Here are some critieria that should be applied:

  1. Are we short on labor?  With 18 million Americans unemployed, does it make any sense to import more workers?
  2. Do we have sufficient resources to support a larger population, including food, energy, metals, minerals and lumber and others?  For example, does it make any sense to import more oil consumers when we already must import the majority of oil that we consume?
  3. Is our impact on the environment below a sustainable level, and have we met all of our obligations to reduce our impact?  For example, given that we have committed to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, does it make sense to import more emitters? 
  4. Given that, beyond a critical level, a rising population density dooms an ever-growing percentage of Americans to unemployment and poverty, does it make any sense to increase our population density with more immigrants?

If the answers to the above questions are “yes,” then by all means, let’s welcome more immigrants.  But can anyone answer yes to even one of those questions with a straight face? 

Every year, America welcomes another 1.5 million immigrants only because that’s what we’ve always done.  No one ever stops to ask whether it makes any sense whatsoever.  We just do it.  We stoke the unemployment lines with unneeded workers.  We drive up the demand for imported oil.  We worsen our impact on the environment and we make life incrementally more miserable for every American. 

Shame on President Obama, not for his action on Friday but for squandering 3-1/2 years of opportunity to inject some common sense into immigration policy.

2 Responses to What is the Purpose of Immigration Policy?

    • Pete Murphy says:

      The problem is that, technically, the article is right. The most effective way to grow the economy – in macro terms – is by flooding it with immigrants. Double the population of metro St. Louis by bringing in immigrants and the size of the overall economy will almost double. It’s the “almost” that economists don’t understand. Sure, the economy will be nearly twice the size but, because the area is now much more crowded, per capita consumption and per capita employment will decline. Thus, higher unemployment, especially among native-born Americans crowded out of the job market by immigrants brought in for the express purpose of taking jobs. Local government officials are happy – their tax base has nearly doubled. Corporations are happy – their sales volume has nearly doubled. The immigrants are happy – they’ve got better jobs than the ones they left at home. But individual Americans are very unhappy – thanks to high unemployment, declining wages and benefits, and much worse overcrowding.

      Relying on immigration to boost the economy is like pigging out on junk food. It’s fun and feels good while you’re doing it, but it’s slowly killing you.

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