Saving openness to immigration

We can't let the politics of asylum kill the golden goose

Separate from my distaste for America’s new crop of Magyarphiles, I’ve been meaning for a while to write a more serious post about immigration policy because this is the issue where I most worry that America is on the verge of losing the plot.

The country has now lived through several big waves of asylum seekers at the southern border. One in 2014-15 during Barack Obama’s second term, one in 2018-19 during Donald Trump’s term, and another one that started building last winter after Biden’s election. The country has also long been dealing with the problem of millions of people who’ve been settled here for a long time and are well-integrated into our labor force and our communities. The country also has lots of legal immigrants through various channels and the pace of legal immigration varies according to various executive branch actions. Also, Congress might act to change the rules of legal immigration.

These issues tend to get melded together in public debate, with right-wing activists primarily focused on the asylum seekers and progressive activists primarily focused on the long-settled undocumented population while the media covers the interplay between the two in a confusing way. But the main source of immigration to the United States is legal immigration. And contrary to what you sometimes hear on the internet, the Trump administration dramatically cut legal immigration. Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue have proposed legislation to dramatically cut legal immigration. And Stephen Miller, the leading ideologist of the immigration restriction movement, clearly supports large cuts in legal immigration.

But it’s noteworthy that when you listen to conservative messaging about Biden and immigration, they are never talking about legal immigration. They talk about the “border crisis” — i.e., difficulty processing asylum seekers.

And the plan is to use Americans’ sense of chaos at the border to seize power and shut down legal immigration. Meanwhile, the White House — now fearful about the politics of immigration — hesitates to take any pro-immigration steps while local TV news in every border state is full of this crisis coverage. As a country, we urgently need to get a grip, draw distinctions more clearly, and make policies that recognize the enormous benefits of immigration without creating a sense that we’ve lost control of our borders.

Immigration is really good

I think openness to immigration is generally one of the most underrated things in the world. How great is immigration? It’s so great that George Borjas, the big voice for skepticism of immigration, concedes that immigration has net benefits for native-born American workers. It’s really rare to get a policy where the absolute most skeptical argument leveled by experts is “the benefits aren’t as big as my opponents say, and also the distribution of the benefits is skewed.”

But I would say that Borjas is wrong, and the benefits of immigration are quite a bit larger than is said by the literature he’s participating in.

The basic argument that you see guys like him and economists like David Card, Michael Clemens, and Giovanni Peri arguing about involves trying to do statistical analysis of the wage trends in a metro area experiencing a large flow of immigrants versus a metro area without such a flow. And the findings here range from Borjas-style “it’s good for most people but bad for the least-educated natives” to a more Peri-style “it’s good for everyone.”

But what about András István Gróf moving here from Hungary and becoming CEO of Intel? What about Abdulfattah al-Jandali moving here from Syria and his son growing up to be the founder of Apple? What about Carlos Santana moving as a kid with his parents from Tijuana to San Francisco and becoming an iconic rock musician? The average localized labor market impacts of immigration miss the outsized impact of super-achievers among immigrants, and critically, among the children of immigrants who tend to speak the language fluently and have better opportunities to get ahead.

Most of America’s billion-dollar startups have at least one immigrant founder. And while the benefits of that kind of economic dynamism do accrue in part to the specific metro areas where their companies are, the spillovers are huge and contribute mightily to America’s world-leading economy. But even comparing America to other countries understates the benefits of immigration to the United States.

If Kati Kariko had not immigrated to the United States and pioneered mRNA vaccines, America would be much worse off. But we’re not the only country that would be worse off if she’d stayed in Hungary — Canada and Germany and the United Kingdom and everyone else using the shots would be worse off. One of the few countries not benefitting from Kariko’s ability to move to the United States is Hungary itself, whose weirdo government is lying to the public to convince them Russian- and Chinese-made vaccines are just as good.

Border chaos is not good

Now, by contrast, tons of people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border, getting arrested, making asylum claims, then overwhelming the system’s ability to detain claimants or process their claims is not good.

The concept of asylum is very noble. But the architects of U.S. asylum law clearly did not envision a situation where Africans would travel to Mexico in hopes of making asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border. I think that the people freaking out about this are wildly overestimating the downside risks and wildly understating the upside benefits to the entrance of less-skilled migrants from Central America (or indeed Africa). And since internet rightists seem incapable of processing the idea of sincere disagreement with their paranoid worldview, I want to emphasize that I live in a neighborhood with lots of Central American and African immigrants, and my son goes to school with lots of children of Central American and African immigrants. It’s fine.

That being said, less-educated immigrants are both less economically beneficial and also provoke much more political backlash than skilled ones, and that’s true even though backlash to immigration isn’t really about economics.

I used to reject this logic on the grounds that the humanitarian benefits of less-skilled immigration are important.

But I talked this over with some leading Effective Altruism types and they convinced me that Denmark’s mix of generous foreign aid and stingy immigration is more beneficial to the world than the U.S. mix. And immigration is so much more of a hot-button political issue than foreign aid. So I think Americans should work toward a politically sustainable and economically beneficial approach to immigration while pushing to boost our spending on global public health.

Most of all, though, uncontrolled flows of migrants freak people out, and the current dynamic is not what any normal person thinks of asylum as being for. It is harsh to slam the door shut on it, but all things considered, I think it’s the right choice.

Biden’s immigration mistake

It’s worth emphasizing that a surge of asylum-seekers is not necessarily a problem for an incumbent president. It happened during Trump’s administration and he turned it to his political benefit by claiming that it showed how much we need him and his tough approach.

The issue for Biden is that I don’t think his team decided during the transition what it was they wanted to see happen. Now imagine that Biden had no desire to change any of Trump’s immigration policies for any reason. Nonetheless, it would have been strongly in the interests of smugglers to lie to people and tell them that Biden was opening the borders, and some people would have believed the liars and there would have been a surge in arrivals. Similarly, the rebound in U.S. economic activity was all-but-inevitably going to create some increase in interest in coming here. But what worsens the situation is that Biden did want to change some of Trump’s immigration policies, in part because many of his policies have nothing to do with the asylum system and in part because Democrats have a longstanding promise of a path to citizenship for the long-settled undocumented population. Those changes are inevitable fuel for liars.

But then on top of that, Biden did announce changes related to asylum-seekers, canceling Trump-era agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua and canceling the “remain in Mexico” deal.

Now, this would be a reasonable thing to do if Biden believed, as many advocates do believe, that it would be a good idea for the United States to grant asylum to large numbers of migrants from Central America. But when people started coming, it became clear that Biden didn’t want that at all. In fact, he is relying heavily on a separate Trump-era rule from the Centers for Disease Control to expel people.

Whenever we talk about this on the Weeds, Dara Lind, who’s a real expert on such things, cautions me not to assume we can draw a simple line between Biden’s announcements and migrants’ actions — especially in light of the continuing CDC Title 42 expulsions. And I agree that it’s hard to estimate the magnitude of the impact of Biden reversing Trump’s diplomatic initiatives. But in terms of Biden’s communications with Americans, it has confused the issue. If you want Americans to believe what they believed about Trump in 2018 — that people are coming despite the president’s desires rather than because of them — then why tear up the agreements? As a reporter, I can explain to you the mix of internal coalition management and wishful thinking that led to this end. But it does not make sense as a policy.

And even worse, because Biden is still expelling people under Title 42 and is not saying yes to a flood of asylum claims, it’s created a second anti-Biden narrative that he hasn’t changed anything on immigration policy. But Biden is easing restrictions on skilled technology workers, he’s dropping Trump’s efforts to curb student visas, and he’s raising quotas for properly vetted refugees. Largely because of Covid, I think Biden has not gone as far as he should in rebooting legal immigration. But he really has done stuff here. It’s just overshadowed by the competing realities that he’s not opening the borders to a flood of asylum claims, but there is a flood coming.

Externalization is the least-bad solution

I think the somewhat ugly lesson of European immigration policy is that externalizing enforcement works. Officially, the way this works is that you offer foreign aid to struggling regions in order to tackle the “root causes” of migration, and then that will lead to less emigration. Realistically, the Europeans are paying African governments to do their dirty work of halting migrant flows for them.

And in effect, that’s what Trump had put in place by his last year in office. Due to the timing of when he made those deals and the rapid ascent of the pandemic, I don’t think we really know how durable those arrangements would have been, especially across a transition of administrations. But whatever might have been, it’s bygones now and Biden sort of needs to start over — and do so under circumstances where AMLO in Mexico and the leaders of Central America feel kind of snubbed. But the idea that the Biden administration is going to actually solve all the root problems in Central America and create prosperous states with the rule of law is sort of fantastical.

Not that these aren’t good aspirational goals — they clearly are, and the United States should do whatever we can to help achieve them. But even if you’re extremely optimistic, the job isn’t going to be done by November 2024, and we now have asylum-seekers from outside the region anyway.

People got upset when Kamala Harris said this, in part because it seemed hypocritical in light of some of the other things she’d said in the past.

But fundamentally it’s a good message and the whole team should say it. Harris is the daughter of immigrants and nobody thinks she just has a gut-level revulsion against foreign-born people. But the fact is that trying to come to the southern border is very dangerous, and the country is not in fact granting these asylum claims. She and Biden don’t want people to come, so they should say that. They should try to do the diplomatic work to get migration blocked in Central America and southern Mexico. And they should keep plugging away on improving American immigration policy.

More and better immigrants

When conservatives aren’t talking about slashing legal immigration, they say they’d like to change the immigration system to put more emphasis on skills and less on family connections.

I think Democrats ought to explore that possibility, while completely rejecting the concept of linking that switch with Tom Cotton’s vision of cutting immigration levels in half. What they are ignoring here is that the current flow of immigrants to the United States is already highly educated, so doing this would actually reduce the number of skilled immigrants arriving.

There are a lot of different ways we could go from where we are right now to further enhance the number of skilled immigrants in the United States.

  • You could adopt the Cotton/Perdue points framework, but just not do the part where they cut the total number of visas.

  • You could keep the current family-based framework but add on an education layer so that more distant relatives with English proficiency and STEM degrees (or whatever kind of degrees you like) get priority over closer relatives without those skills.

  • You could create new visa categories like allowing specific regions to sponsor visas for skilled immigrants.

Something that I am particularly attracted to is trying to create some non-capped visa categories. If I was traveling in Denmark and my kid got sick, I would have no hesitation about him being treated by a Danish doctor. We ought to have some kind of commission certify that foreign countries’ doctors are adequately trained to practice medicine in the United States, and then allow age-appropriate doctors from those countries to come in unlimited numbers. We should do the same for dentists.

I am extremely pro-immigration and would ultimately take this logic pretty far. If you’re under 40, speak English, and are a graduate of some suitable list of universities around the world, why not come to America? The politics of immigration is really, really, really tough. The public is kind of arbitrarily anchored on the status quo, and both increasing and decreasing legal immigration are very unpopular. So I’m not expecting huge short-term changes. But if we could improve the skill mix without decreasing the number of immigrants, I’m optimistic the politics will improve and we could move from there to push for more immigration.

The dark road

Immigration is the policy issue that worries me.

I believe that to the extent there’s an answer, openness to immigration is the secret sauce that makes the United States so uniquely prosperous and successful. We have a lot of immigrants, we have had a lot of immigrants for a long time, we are the number one desired destination for the plurality of immigrants, and in a way that’s not true for a lot of other countries, we have a well-established template for immigrant assimilation, immigrant success, and ethnic change. In America, we can elect an anti-immigrant demagogue with a Slovenia-born wife.

But even though American culture and American society are more immigrant-friendly than what you see in most places, it’s still not the case that there is a huge mass constituency in favor of immigration. Instead, what we had for a long time in this country was an elite consensus.

That consensus frayed in the breakdown of bipartisan immigration talks in 2007, frayed again in the 2012 campaign, frayed further in the breakdown of bipartisan immigration talks in 2013, and just straight broke during Obama’s final three years in office. Trump did not break it personally, though he did walk through the door that the breakage created. And because it’s really not personal to him, the future of anti-immigrant politics doesn’t hinge on him or his whims in the way that the future of anti-NATO politics does.

Some people look back on the restrictionist era of 1924-64 and think it all worked out fine. I see an era in which unique geopolitical circumstances sent Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi and the “Martians” to this country running from Hitler. Then came Operation Paperclip and the German rocket scientists. Some extraordinary people like Andy Grove fled here from Communism.

Now I think restrictionists believe that this shows we can be a global hub for talent without being open to mass immigration in general. And I hope that they are right! If we only let in 1,000 immigrants a year, they’d better be really talented scientists. But I’m hoping that we will not live through those kinds of geopolitical calamities, in which case the best shot for keeping the American talent magnet running is the one we used for most of our history: just being a pretty generically open place that is broadly considered a good place to move. I don’t want to lose that to demagogues. And I also don’t want cosmopolitans to throw the game to them by refusing to make any compromise with the electorate.

People would like strict enforcement of the immigration rules, and we ought to give it to them and use that to create space for constructive changes to the rules. It’s unfortunate that Obama’s effort to do that in 2013 didn’t work. But we should remember that it’s really hard to pass laws in America, and we shouldn’t over-read failures. He got 68 votes in the Senate and the bill would have had majority support in the House if John Boehner had brought it to the floor. That, to me, is the broad contours of a strategy that had real merit. The post-2014 approach of saying "we don't love these rules, so we're going to be a bit iffy about enforcement" hasn't delivered security for the people it's intended to help and seems to have only pushed the larger politics of immigration backward.