What, if instead of proposing how to fix immigration, we first troubleshoot the problem in a similar manner as engineers or business people solve their problems? The opening question is:
How it got started?
Up to about one hundred years ago, almost every European who arrived at our shores was allowed to enter and settle. It is less known that about one-third of those arriving returned home a few years later. By the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of immigrants were from impoverished and overpopulated Eastern and Southern Europe. These mostly illiterate people formed ethnic enclaves in large American cities and became an eyesore to many Americans who were beginning to enjoy the benefits of their newfound prosperity. The federal government was asked to step in.
The humble beginning of a big screwup
In 1907, the Congress formed a Dillingham Commission (from the name of a Vermont senator) to study the problem. Researchers went to countries where immigrants were coming from. They looked at immigrants’ influences on various industries. They checked immigrants’ criminality, dependence on welfare, and assimilation. Forty-one volumes, thousands of pages long, were prepared with the final report, published in 1911. The conclusion was simple: Compared to the Anglo-Saxons dominating the earlier wave of immigration, the immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were of inferior quality, thus not desirable in the United States. For example, Poles were portrayed as not nurturing family values, depending on welfare and not assimilating. Jews were condemned, first because most of them stayed in their ethnic enclaves, and second because those who assimilated went into universities, forming Jewish academic elites there. Whatever Jews did or did not do, they were not welcome in America.
The Immigration Act of 1924
Starting in 1917, the findings of the Dillingham Commission resulted in a few temporary immigration restrictions. They were finalized in the Immigration Act of 1924, which – despite many modifications later on – still defines the core concept of our immigration policy. By this act, the Congress granted itself the power to determine how many immigrants are allowed into the country as a whole, and who they could be. The Immigration Act of 1924 arbitrarily limited the number of legal immigrants to 164,667 per year, when in the decade prior to World War I about one million legal immigrants had arrived every year. Eighty-four percent of the new quota was given to European Anglo-Saxon countries.
Immigration as a gift
The growing economy after World War II required more immigrants. At the same time the clearly racist restrictions of the Immigration Act of 1924 became embarrassing. Those two factors led to a policy change in 1965. Emboldened by the power and prosperity of the country, Americans magnanimously decided that the right to immigrate should be a gift that a wealthy nation can grant to the very few among the misfortunate people around the world. The most obvious was to give this gift to family members of people already living in the United States. This is the core change made by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. When it became awkward that this policy deprived the chance of immigrating legally for people who did not have family already here, in 1990 politicians invented diversity visas, better known as the visa lottery. The absurdity of government managing immigration reached its pinnacle.
The balance of one hundred years
One hundred years ago, immigration was overseen by a small government agency. Today it is a humongous apparatus of coercion. What did the government achieve during the past century? In years 1860-1920 foreign-born were 14% of the American population, all of them legal immigrants. Now it is about 13.5%, but illegal immigrants comprise about 3.5% of the American population; legal immigrants are only about 10%. During the century of attempting to get immigration under control, the government has made it a bigger and costlier problem than it was originally.
What went wrong?
Immigration controls as we have them since 1924, in their essence, are not about immigration; they are about government manipulation of the labor market. The grandiose scale of this manipulation reflects the hubris of intellectual trends at the beginning of the 20th century. Overwhelmed by the great industrial and scientific progress, some anointed themselves as knowing how to engineer social progress. This line of thinking brought to life the Soviet Union, which in the 1920s looked like a promising alternative to the faults of capitalism. The same reasoning was behind Prohibition, by the way voted in by the same Congress that implemented immigration regulations in the years 1917-1924. Since then, Prohibition has been repealed and the Soviet Union has collapsed, but our immigration policy, reflecting the same ideological concept, still stands.
Why did it not work?
There are two arguments for government control of immigration: maintaining American identity and protecting American jobs. Both of them are un-American.
The first one is clearly racist, as it implies that people of a certain origin, race or religion would be better Americans than others. The rationality of this approach can be upheld only if we accept that the most important phrase from the Declaration of Independence needs to be modified to: “all Americans are created equal.”
The second argument can be upheld only if we modify the remaining part of the same sentence from the Declaration of Independence implying that the government role is not in providing freedom to pursue happiness but to deliver happiness to its people. American jobs are the jobs that entrepreneurial Americans create in the United States. If these jobs are taken by immigrants, it means that born Americans did not take advantage of the opportunities available here and did not prepare themselves to qualify for these jobs, or have unrealistic pay expectations. Although initially most immigrants will accept lower pay, ultimately they strive for the same as all Americans, ending up earning as much as those Americans who claim of being replaced by immigrants would gladly accept.
The economic meaning of our immigration policy boils down to government protecting the least industrious Americans from the competition of foreigners at the cost of limiting the freedom of enterprise of the most entrepreneurial ones. Enforcing the law, which about half of Americans question on ideological, economic and moral grounds, is next to impossible. This is the reason that our immigration law has been poorly enforced. It could be much better enforced in a totalitarian state such as the Soviet Union was, but we are not there yet.
What can be done?
We have to start with an acknowledgment that the core provisions of our immigration policy, as established about a century ago, need to be questioned. One can envision a much simpler system, whereby foreigners could have a greater ability to come and work legally in the United States as guest workers. Those who stay for a longer time, let us say five years, should qualify for permanent resident status, opening a path to citizenship five years later. All other immigration channels should be eliminated. If someone wants to bring a family member, he or she should pay for it or help this person to find a job. This approach would mean taking away from Congress the power of establishing immigration quotas, and empowering individual Americans to decide which foreigner to hire or bring as a guest. The government role would be to provide security clearance for foreigners invited. Most of the current immigration enforcement apparatus could be dismissed. Can we trust that acting on their own individual interests, Americans can manage immigration better than the centralized federal government? It would follow the original American spirit, and – for this reason – it is worth consideration.