Immigration Reform

Why has “comprehensive immigration reform” — defined as legislation that increases legal immigration, legalizes many illegal immigrants who have put down roots here, and increases enforcement of the laws going forward — consistently failed of enactment over the last 20 years? I took a stab at answering the question in a recent column, prompted by George W. Bush’s renewed push for the idea, a push that I suggested was likely to fail for the same reason its predecessors had.

Cameron Hilditch raised several objections to my analysis here at NRO. First, he writes, I’ve made “an exclusively interests-based case for immigration restrictionism, a case that takes no account of historic American values on the issue.” But I didn’t make a case of any kind for restrictionism. In the passage that Hilditch seems to have in mind, I merely observed that if you want to persuade people that more immigration would make the U.S. “better off,” as Bush said, you should explain how. Note also that skepticism about increasing immigration is not the same thing as advocacy of reducing it.

Second, Hilditch faults me for allegedly being dismissive of the economic case for high-skilled immigration. I plead not guilty. My actual point was that a higher level of immigration, which Bush advocates, is not necessary to have more high-skilled immigration. You could couple more high-skilled immigration with less low-skilled immigration. An argument for more high-skilled immigration is therefore not an argument for more immigration in general.

Third, Hilditch suggests that Republicans who have doubts about creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants are mistaken since it “is not only morally right but practically inevitable.” Neither his moral nor his practical argument touches the principal doubt I mentioned: the suspicion that promises of enforcement will not be taken any more seriously than they were after the 1986 amnesty. I don’t think a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants is inevitable; it has been held off already for nearly 20 years.

Fourth, he writes, “If America is going to pursue a nakedly restrictionist immigration policy, let’s dispense with all the talk of shining cities on hills and last best hopes of Earth.” Unless we are defining anything short of open borders as “nakedly restrictionist,” America isn’t going to pursue any such policy.


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