Towards a Rational Immigration Policy

Over the past few years, confusion has developed among some in the conservative movement who have allowed a legitimate concern over border security to become conflated with anti-immigration politics. As this confusion threatens to saddle the Republican Party with a platform that would be both detrimental to the nation and catastrophic to conservatism’s political prospects, it is imperative, at this point, that we step back and consider, on the basis of first principles, what a proper immigration policy should be.

It should be clear that the bedrock foundation of any rational immigration policy should be to seek the benefit of America, rather than that of potential or existing immigrants, or any other particular group either supportive or antagonistic to them. That said, let us consider the effect of immigration upon our economic well-being.

In any economy, the entire population is supported by the part of it that is of working age. Therefore, it behooves any society to seek to maximize the ratio of working-age citizens to the total. Other things being equal, it follows that the most attractive acquisition a society can make is a young adult, whose childhood and education have already been paid for, but whose entire working life still lies ahead. Of course, all other things are not equal. Those with more skills are greater prizes, as they cost more to create and are likely to be more productive in life. This being the case, it is absurd to deny young foreigners who graduate American universities a path to citizenship.

This logic remains valid, albeit with less clarity, for young adults of a lesser eminence but still, on-net, above-average prospects, including but not limited to those in the military or college-accepted high school graduates who would be enfranchised by the DREAM act.

This being the fundamental economic reality, the primary counter argument that has been mustered against it has been that of labor protectionism. Thus, for example, in a recent PJ Media article attacking Mitt Romney’s proposal to guarantee a green card to every foreigner who earns a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degree in the United States, Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, writes:

As for stapling the green card to the STEM diploma, this is little more than a marketing tool for U.S. universities to attract more foreign students into paying for degrees in fields that are already saturated. There is no shortage of STEM professionals in the United States; on the contrary, the census shows that there are 1.8 million American engineers who are unemployed or working in other professions.

Setting aside criticism of its questionable statistic (the total number of U.S. unemployed is 13 million), the illogic of this argument is astonishing. Where, pray tell, does Ms. Vaughan imagine that jobs come from? Are they a fixed resource with only so many to go around? Then, is it the case that there were 150 million jobs available here when the pilgrims landed and they have now been filled up? Are the present high American unemployment rates actually being caused by overpopulation? If so, why then were unemployment rates three times as high in 1932, when the U.S. workforce was 1/3 its present size?

No, jobs are not a resource that exists separately from people, jobs are created by people. Immigrants are notoriously entrepreneurial, and the statistics back up the stereotype. While immigrants comprise 13 percent of the American population, they own 18 percent of small businesses and, according a recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, were responsible for 30 percent of the growth of U.S. small businesses over the past two decades.

So immigrants as a whole are net job creators. But of all immigrants, STEM graduates are by far the most promising because their advanced training allows them to create not only small businesses, but large ones, including such recent examples as Intel, SpaceX, Google, eBay, Nvidia, and Yahoo. The nation is indeed suffering from a shortage of such people.

Furthermore, the idea that by excluding immigrant talent from the U.S. workforce we can prevent it from competing with Americans is risible. Rather, by excluding skilled or educated foreigners, we guarantee that they will compete with American workers and businesses from their home countries, which will pay them less or allow them to hire local labor at lower than U.S. pay scales. As a result, the jobs, industrial capabilities, and tax revenue that they could have created here will be created over there instead, while America’s position in the world market will be further eroded. To cap it all, by giving up the effort to compete for such talent without a fight, we effectively build a Berlin Wall for the benefit of our foreign competition, allowing them to retain skilled people without making the concessions to both liberty and living standards that would otherwise be forced upon them.

Vaughan objects to American universities financing themselves by charging out-of-state tuition to foreign students. But what’s not to like? Foreign students that come to the U.S. and pay triple the tuition of their American counterparts provide a major subsidy to our educational system. Each such person effectively pays not only for his own college education, but that of two Americans as well. If we were to add the incentive of a green card to the degree, the numbers of such people would expand considerably and make university education much more affordable for Americans.