The Merit of Merit-Based Immigration

Handing out flags at a naturalization ceremony in Oakland, Calif., in 2013. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)The general idea is a good one: The U.S. has interests of its own, and immigration should serve them first and foremost.

Having chain-migrated his way into the White House and a little bit of political power, Donald Trump’s son-in-law is shopping around an immigration plan. And if you can get past the hilarious juxtaposition of the words “merit-based” and “Jared Kushner,” it’s a pretty good one.

As things stand, the majority of immigrants to the United States (the majority of legal immigrants, anyway) qualify for entry on the basis of having a family member legally present in the United States. This is the mechanism behind what is known as “chain migration,” in which one member of a family provides entry to another, who provides entry to another, who provides entry to another, and so on.

In contrast, a small share of immigrants — about 12 percent — enter the country on the basis of a job offer or the possession of certain skills or education that make them desirable to employers. (Others enter as investors, coming in as potential employers rather than potential employees.) These are everything from doctors to software developers.

Kushner’s agenda is to reverse those proportions, reducing the number of entrants through family-based immigration and loosening up restrictions on highly skilled workers. The plan would also eliminate the “lottery,” the visa system under which 50,000 applicants are selected randomly (almost randomly, anyway) in the name of diversity, albeit a kind of diversity that excludes Canadians, Englishmen, Indians, Brazilians, Nigerians, and many others. It is difficult to think of a worse criterion for the admission of new Americans than randomness.

The Democrats already have declared the proposal dead on arrival, in part because it does not address the status of those illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — and because it contains funding for border-wall construction, a formerly unobjectionable policy that has since Donald Trump’s election inspired lively opposition among Democrats, who wish to deny the president a symbolic victory. An E-Verify mandate would be a more effective policy, but a border wall makes a better backdrop for a press conference.

Consider this proposal in terms of first principles.

There are few genuine advocates of “open borders” in American politics, but it is not the case, as our talk-radio friends sometimes insist, that no nation has ever thrived without well-policed borders. Victorian England, for example, had practically open borders — they did not even require a passport for visitors. But there are good reasons for border controls, ranging from public health to national security. The Democrats may insist that “no person is illegal” in front of some audiences, but they have not yet adopted open borders per se in their party platform, and many of their blue-collar and union constituents are very hawkish on immigration, especially illegal immigration.

If we agree that a polity has the right to decide who joins it and on what terms — and genuine self-government is inconceivable without such an assumption — then it follows that a polity has the right (and possibly the duty) to look after its own interests in deciding on standards. Because of our lamentable racial history, we Americans tend to be very touchy about anything that looks, sounds, or smells like “discrimination,” though we accept readily enough that Ireland is not engaging in Jim Crow–style racism in giving preference to would-be immigrants with an Irish grandparent, that India is not showing invidious bias in giving preference to immigrants of Indian origin, etc. We get all torqued up over the politics of language, but who would think the authorities in Japan or Iceland wicked to privilege fluency in their native languages?

Being Americans, we apparently care a great deal less about culture and a great deal more about money. And so many immigration reformers have settled on largely economic metrics for evaluating applicants. There is not anything inherently wrong with that, though the calculations there can be a little tricky. The people who own software companies think we need more immigrant programmers; the people who work as programmers often have other views. Many countries with the kinds of health-care systems Democrats would like to impose on the country have attempted to address their subsequent physician shortages through immigration rather than, say, paying doctors more. As it happens, the buyers and the sellers in any given market often see things very differently from each other. In any case, the considerations touching the $200,000-and-up labor market are different from those of the $35,000-and-under market.

It’s complicated, but the general idea is a good one: The United States has interests of its own, some of those interests are economic, and immigration should serve American interests first and foremost, with humanitarian concerns and other considerations subordinated.

But while we should be skeptical of the federal government’s ability to fine-tune the labor supply, we should not shy away from asking it to do one of its fundamental jobs and secure the border and the ports of entry — and finally get control of illegal immigration. The debate on reforming legal immigration would proceed with more ease if the government were to address the lawless conditions at the border, which are a problem in and of themselves and which also diminish its credibility in the broader question of immigration management.

Unrealistic? Maybe. But no less unrealistic than deputizing Jared Kushner as the ambassador for merit-based living.

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