Debating Immigration Myths

Article excerpt

American immigration policy has profound consequences for the labor market, the economy, and even the size of the United States population. It is the most enormous of our discretionary policies and is once again being widely debated. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, legislators will emerge no more informed about the actual consequences of immigration than when the debate began. For immigration policy continues to be driven by mythology rather than analysis.

The current policy, going back to a 1965 law, was championed as an integral part of the civil-rights movement. Legislators promised it would correct decades-long discrimination against non-European would-be immigrants without increasing immigration levels.

The legislators were wrong. Certainly the flow of immigration has shifted away from Europe. Now it overwhelmingly and unintentionally favors Latin America and Asia. Africans comprise about 13 percent of the world population of 5.8 billion but only about 3 percent of annual immigration to the US. Meanwhile, immigration more than doubled between 1965 and 1990 - from 300,000 a year to 650,000 a year. The 1965 act was changed in 1990, and since then immigration has increased even more, hovering between 800,000 and 1 million annually. (These figures do not include illegal immigration, estimated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service at 300,000 a year.) It should have been obvious in 1965 that the new law would result in higher levels. It made family affiliation the primary basis for visa eligibility and placed no cap on the number of immediate family members (spouses, children, and parents). This essentially established an avenue for unlimited "chain migration," central to our immigration system now. It should have been equally clear to legislators that, as the majority of immigrants entered on the basis of family affiliation rather than skills, the immigrants' level of skill and education would decline. Today 36 percent of immigrants enter with less than a high school education, and only 8 percent on the basis of possessing an identified skill. But in 1965 it was more important to appear pro-immigrant and pro-family than to ask whether the policy being crafted was either sustainable or ultimately in the national interest. Legislators in 1996 face the same dilemma. Nowhere has this phenomenon been more clearly illustrated than in a recent Senate debate over legal immigration. Sen. Spencer Abraham, a freshman Republican from Michigan, persuaded his GOP colleagues to strike down an amendment offered by veteran Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, also a Republican. It would have begun placing limits on chain migration by eliminating the provision that currently allows the married adult sons and daughters of US citizens to immigrate. …