The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Yesterday, President Trump announced his support for a bill first proposed by GOP senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue that would drastically reduce legal immigration. The plan would cut immigration levels in half, and institute a "merit-based" point system to allocate many of the remaining immigration slots. All told, it would reduce legal immigration by over 500,000 per year. The bill would also reduce refugee admissions to a maximum of only 50,000 per year, compared to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017. If nothing else, the administration's endorsement of this bill should put to rest the oft-heard claim that Trump only opposes illegal immigration.
I. How the Bill Would Inflict Massive Harm on Millions of People.
If it gets through Congress, this bill would inflict massive suffering on enormous numbers of people. Hundreds of thousands who could otherwise find greater freedom, happiness, and prosperity in the US will instead be consigned to poverty and oppression in the Third World, in many cases for the rest of their lives. For many of the excluded refugees, their fate could be severe persecution or even death, or at best prolonged misery in refugee camps.
Some may dismiss these effects because they are not the "fault" of the United States. The US government, they might say, is not responsible for poverty and oppression in other countries. Perhaps so. But immigration restrictions are not just a matter of the US standing aside and letting injustice continue elsewhere in the world. They involve the use of government coercion to prevent would-be immigrants from finding freedom in this country, taking jobs with willing American employers, and so on. That is why most people today agree it was morally wrong for the US government to deny entry to Jewish refugees in the 1930s, even though the US was not responsible for the repression they faced in Europe, and even though it was not yet clear that the Nazis would seek to exterminate the Jews, as opposed to "merely" oppress them.
Refugees and potential immigrants would not be the only victims of Trump's proposed policy. Many native-born Americans would suffer too. Increased immigration restrictions reduce their ability to interact with, work with, and hire immigrants. If, like many conservatives, you believe it is wrong for the government to tell us what kind of health insurance we must buy or what kind of food we can eat, you should also be skeptical of letting the government dictate which immigrants you are allowed to associate with or engage in economic transactions with. Immigrant workers, business owners, and entrepreneurs also make major contributions to the economy, which would be severely curtailed if Trump's proposal is implemented. Instead of improving the economy, as advocates hope, the bill would do serious damage to it. As GOP Senator Lindsey Graham points out, the bill would particularly damage sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and many service industries.
II. The Bill has no Benefit Remotely Comparable to the Enormous Harm.
A policy that inflicts enormous harm on would-be immigrants and also hurts many natives could perhaps be justified if it created some comparably great benefit. That is not even remotely the case here. The administration claims that it could protect American workers from wage competition. Economists across the political spectrum agree that immigration has large net benefits for Americans, overall. It is possible that immigration lowers the wages of some low-skilled workers, particularly high school dropouts, though even here the evidence is mixed. Even the specific case of the Mariel Boatlift, which the administration likes to cite in support of its position, does not actually support it, according to recent research, well summarized by Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute.
Even if immigration does reduce the wages of low-skilled natives, or some subset thereof, it doesn't follow that restrictionism is the right solution to this problem. We do not generally assume that the government should use force to insulate people from the effects of labor competition. If workers moving from West Virginia to much wealthier Virginia create competition that reduces pay for some already in the latter state, few argue that the government should take steps to prevent it. Competition is part of the price we pay for a dynamic economy that increases wealth for all in the long run, including by reducing the price and increasing the quality of goods produced by new workers.
If compensation is nonetheless desirable, there are far better ways to do it than consigning large numbers of immigrants to a lifetime of Third World poverty and depriving the US economy of the benefits they create. As economist Bryan Caplan outlines, we can instead tap some of the vast wealth created by immigration and transfer it to low-wage native workers, for example by boosting the earned income tax credit. We can also adopt policy reforms that would make it easier for both immigrant and native workers to move to areas with greater opportunity—an approach that would simultaneously lift up the poor and greatly benefit the overall economy.
The administration claims that its "merit"-oriented point system will improve the quality of immigrant labor. In reality, as Alex Nowrasteh explains, the proposed bill would do nothing to increase the quantity of high-skill immigration to the US. Indeed, it would result in a far lower rate of such immigration than exists in Canada and Australia, the ostensible models for the approach it adopts.
The bill's approach also has an even more fundamental flaw: it assumes that bureaucratic measures imposed by the federal government are a good way to measure worker "merit," in this case a crude point system that takes account of English proficiency, higher education degrees, age, and whether the applicant has a job offer that pays at least 150% of the median household income in the state in question. The best judges of worker merit are not federal officials but potential employers. They are the ones in the best position to know what qualifications are actually useful for the job at hand, and they have far better incentives to get the decision right than government bureaucrats do.
Conservatives are generally among the first to recognize this when it comes to assessing native workers. It is no less true with respect to immigrants. At the risk of stating the obvious, it should be clear that there are many jobs for which a college degree is not a relevant credential. It is similarly clear that people can be valuable contributors to the economy even if they make less than 150% of the median household income in the state where they live.
The bill's criteria also err by ignoring the possibility that workers can improve their language proficiency and other credentials after arriving in the US. Data show that today's immigrants assimilate and rapidly improve their English proficiency at roughly the same rate as in past generations. They also often increase their education level after coming to the US.
To put the point differently, it is worth asking whether the rest of the population would be better off if we deported some large percentage of the native-born Americans who would score poorly on the bill's point system. After all, many millions of Americans do not have college degrees, have jobs that pay less than 150% of the median household income, and so forth. The answer is obvious: even aside from humanitarian considerations, getting rid of this portion of the population (or some large fraction of it) would make the rest of us worse off. Workers of different skill and education levels can each benefit from the productivity of the others. What is true of native-born workers also applies to immigrants, as well.
Similar points apply to other standard right of center complaints about immigration that might be pressed into service to defend this bill—including claims that immigrants overburden the welfare state, increase crime, or destroy American culture. Like the labor quality argument, these objections, too, are in most cases false, overblown, or susceptible to less draconian fixes.
Here, as elsewhere, it is a grave error to assume that the world is a zero-sum game, whether between the rich and the poor, between different racial and ethnic groups, or between immigrants and natives. If we want to make America great again, we should remember that all of these groups can prosper together—and that immigration is a big part of what made this nation great in the first place.