Bryan Caplan  

A Deal on Immigration is Most Unwise

The Laughable, the Divine, and... We're Number 11, We're Number ...
Last week, Will Wilkinson published a piece in the New York Times on the political strategy of immigration.  While Will assumes a moderate persona, he's long been in favor of large increases in immigration.  In terms of ultimate goals, then, we're fellow travelers.  But in terms of strategy, we're worlds apart.  The heart of Will's position:

So a deal that includes money for the wall ought to be a no-brainer for Democrats. Every viable proposal under discussion includes a hefty "border security" element, but not any of them include a literal solid wall spanning the entire southern border..

Democrats should also be willing to make reasonable concessions on family reunification (so-called chain migration) and the diversity lottery (intended to bring immigrants from underrepresented countries). Shifting visas from certain family-reunification to merit-based categories should be similarly tolerable.

But Democrats should reject a DACA compromise that would reduce the overall level of immigration. Immigrants yet to arrive matter too. Consistent worst-case-scenario thinking means assuming new legislation will set immigration policy for the foreseeable future. A DACA fix that cuts legal immigration could eventually deprive at least as many people as are currently covered by DACA from ever having a shot at the American dream.

Two key points:

1. Chain migration is the root cause of relatively high immigration, at least in the U.S.  The 1965 immigration act accidentally liberalized immigration; most of what we've seen since is the product of this glorious accident.  As Gjelten explains in his A Nation of Nations:
Perhaps the most important factor explaining [the 1965 Act's] relatively easy passage was that both the immigration reformers and the immigration restrictionists managed to convince themselves and each other that the legislation would not change the immigration picture all that much.  In future years, the advocates of tighter immigration controls would look back at the passage of the 1965 Act as a major cause of the immigration wave that followed, with millions of Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans moving to the United States.  The administration officials who insisted that no such inflow would occur were proved wrong, but they were not alone.  Ironically, it was Congressman Michael Feighan, a long-time supporter of the national origins quotas and a close ally of the immigration restrictionists, who was most responsible for opening the United States to more non-European foreigners... Fifty years later, about two thirds of all immigrants entering the United States legally were family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and the 1965 law was even known in some quarters as "the brothers and sisters act."
While it's theoretically possible the U.S. could scale back chain migration without cutting overall immigration, it's extremely unlikely.  Under current law, anyone with relatives in the U.S. has a built-in team of lobbyists and well-wishers.  My wife and father-in-law got in because my mother-in-law was already here, pleading with her Congressman's office for help.  The H1-B gives employers some incentive to play the same role, but it doesn't seem nearly as effective. 

I'll admit that's speculative, but this isn't: Chain migration is the mechanism that's actually allowed relatively high immigration these past fifty years.  It has worked.  It does work.  If we keep it, it will keep working.  If you favor immigration, giving it up in exchange for legislative promises is folly.

2. What will happen without a deal?  Will urges worst-case thinking:
When the legal protection of 800,000 people is at stake, Democrats need to expect the worst, even while hoping for the best. That means assuming that if DACA expires without a fix, the administration will be aggressive about deportations, the Senate will remain Republican, judicial stopgaps will fail, a Republican will win the White House in 2020, hundreds of thousands will be pushed into the shadows and many tens of thousands will be rounded up, detained and ejected from the country.
If you're trying to craft a prudent strategy, though, you should focus on what's likely, not what's scary.  And Will's scenario is highly unlikely.  Why?  Because Dreamers are sympathetic.  Very sympathetic.  They're kids who look and sound as American as apple pie.  As a result, they are less politically vulnerable than virtually any other non-citizen.  And even if Will were right, there's a silver lining: Any politician who targets Dreamers doesn't just endanger his own career.  The optics are bad enough to endanger the cause of immigration restriction itself.  Visualize the deportation of the heroic Jose Antonio Vargas.  I absolutely do not want to make any martyrs, but the blood of the martyrs is still the seed of the church.

Furthermore, if we're going to indulge in worst-case thinking, why not tell a story where compromise costs pro-immigration forces the moral high ground, leading to a slippery slope into 1920's era nativism?  This is hardly fanciful.  Remember: the 1965 liberalization was a glorious accident that still managed to lock-in relatively high immigration for a half century and counting.  A deal with restrictionists really could hand them what they want for decades to come.

Compromise is particularly foolish because time is on the pro-immigration side.  The fraction of Americans who favor more immigration has tripled since 2002.  Nativists have a temporary advantage, but so far they've disappointed their base and disgusted moderates.  If you care about immigration, the best path is just to stonewall and wait a few years.  Instead of a mixed bag of "reform," we can get something worth fighting for: liberalization.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
James writes:

Wouldn’t America be better off importing skilled >120 IQ immigrants rather than the relatives of the less intellectually well-endowed?

Put another way, what’s wrong with the Australian system?

Nicholas Weininger writes:

Bryan, you may be right, and I hope you are right, that it'll prove politically infeasible to deport DACA recipients en masse. But that's a hell of a gamble to take with so many innocent people's liberties and, in many cases, lives. In other contexts, notably around the morality of war, you've made a cogent case that to morally justify gambling with other people's lives in this way, you need a level of confidence in a good outcome that is rarely epistemologically justified in practice. What makes this kind of gamble different?

I think you're probably wrong, fwiw, because I think you're underestimating the persistent appeal of truly vicious levels of nativism. Rationalizations for excluding the outgroup are more often than not effective at overcoming even the most sympathetic of individual cases; large majorities are strongly nativist in most places and times, including most places in our own time. That sad historical reality is not, in my view, balanced out by a recent hopeful upturn in the polls.

DWAnderson writes:

A few thoughts:

1. DACA recipients are a sympathetic group, but (i) amnesty for them encourages the practice in the future, which the public is not so sympathetic to, (ii) the actions of the current administration are hard to predict giving them leverage by threatening DACAns, and (iii) if anecdotal examples will dictate the narrative I suspect you can find anecdoctes about DACAn criminals too. So being a sympathetic group only gets you so far.

2. So far, chain migration has been a successful mode for increased immigration mainly because it has only been important to the recipients. That is less likely to be true while the issue takes a more prominent place in the national discussion.

3. As a practical matter chain migration has crowded out other types of immigration-- and is arguably one of the reasons for the lottery (as desire to get people from underrepresented regions who did not have family here. It is true that this is only true so long as there are limits on immigration, but that is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. If you accept that premise why favor non-nuclear family members over other criteria for choosing immigrants?

4. With immigration now prominent in national politics why not make it more politically attractive by moving to a merit based system? Why doesn't that have the best shot at preserving or expanding current levels of immigration?

Philo writes:

@ Nicholas Weininger:

You write that "large majorities are strongly nativist in most places and times, including most places in our own time." But America is not a typical country. In most countries the nativist is seeking to "flock together" with fellow citizens who belong to his own ethnic group; but American nativists cannot rely on such feelings of ethnic solidarity, because the country is already ethnically so diverse. One's fellow citizens already include a lot of "the Other"; letting in a lot of foreigners would not cost us our ethnic homogeneity, because we are starting from a condition of heterogeneity. This makes American nativism unusually weak.

Ahmed writes:


"Wouldn’t America be better off importing skilled >120 IQ immigrants..."

The number of college-education baristas tells me that the US has an excess of human capital. How does importing more human capital help?

Scott Sumner writes:

Great post.

Mark writes:

Allowing DACA immigrants to stay seems to be sometime most congressional Republicans favor (or at least tacitly accept) and I get the impression many are also generally ambivalent about Trump's border wall. An agreement is probably reachable in Congress with relatively little compromise.

However, Trump may still refuse to sign it without a wall (or he may sign it; he's not very predictable, needless to say) and/or congressional Republicans may ask for something in return, even a token concession (not necessarily even relating to immigration), to show their base as evidence of success. So while I think the general mood, in congress at least, political theatrics (i.e., letting DACA go by the wayside for a chance to blame the other side for refusing to compromise) may get in the way. Nor is it guaranteed voters will punish the anti-immigration congressmen/senators, if they can be persuaded that they offered a reasonable compromise that was shot down.

john hare writes:


I think you have a point. On net, IQ and education signals may be less important than their attitude about striving for improvement. I associate with many immigrants from several countries. Several are company owners with employees, but got here without having the IQ or ED credentials that seem so popular.

IMO, a migrant worker that makes $25,000.00 a year and pays his own bills is a net gain, while a genius PHD along for the ride could be a net loss. Thinking in investment terms might help. A $100.00 hand truck may be a better investment than the $20,000.00 forklift in some cases.

Nathan Smith writes:

When I saw the post title, I thought, "Uh-oh, we disagree this time."

It turns out we don't. One less-than-maximally-horrible aspect of the current US immigration system is that it doesn't sin against family togetherness quite as deplorably as it might. Even to save the Dreamers, letting more brothers and sisters, mothers and children be separated for life by still more barbarous migration restrictions is too high a price.

With respect to THE WALL, however, I disagree. I don't think the Wall matters much, but it's very important to Trump, so I think immigration advocates should want to see it built, while getting maximum concessions in return. The Wall in exchange for citizenship for Dreamers, and nothing else, would be a good deal. My only reason to hesitate to welcome it would be that we might get still more.

Justin D writes:

To add to DWAnderson's first point, I think that it's at least possible for Trump to successfully attack DACA recipients character to emotionally turn (some) people's attitudes against them.

I know this is possible because I had this exact emotional reaction after watching DACA recipients shout down Nancy Pelosi of all people. My immediate emotional reaction was "what a bunch of entitled jerks, I wouldn't care if they were deported." That's not my actual considered position (the heart is deceitful above all things, and all that), but I can't ignore just how powerful a 20 second clip of dreamers behaving badly was in generating an emotional reaction completely at odds with my own political position on the topic.

And regardless, Trump's base by and large wants the DACA recipients out of the country. Consider that 'heroic' Jose Antonio Vargas was described as the 'most obnoxious illegal immigrant' by Red State, which should give you a sense of how Trump's base feels about people like him. Additionally, DACA just isn't an issue that many reluctant Trump voters would abandon him over. If you disagree with Democrats on most issues, then you aren't going to start voting for them regardless of what happens with the dreamers. Thus, the political cost to Trump of going after dreamers may be much smaller than it seems on its face.

Biggie Smalls writes:


My understanding is that comparative advantage allows positive economic consequences even when we let in people with fewer skills. Imagine if we took everyone below IQ 120 out of a major city. We'd have a far lower supply of low-skill labor, which would still be demanded to some extent, relegating talented people to less productive occupations than they'd otherwise hold. The division of labor is both wealth-creating and limited by the extent of the market. Expand that market, get more wealth. (Please excuse/correct any oversimplification - I am but a layman.)

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:

I don't quite understand the position that mass immigration should be welcomed for its own sake. Presumably we want only as much immigration as our current taxpaying population (the ones with skin in the game) wants - no more, no less. Perhaps you think that current American taxpayers really do want massively increased immigration, but I'm not sure about the evidence for that. If you don't believe that, then you're acknowledging that all these immigrants will be inviting themselves to this country against the wishes of the taxpayers, which hardly seems libertarian.


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