There are encouraging signs, in the conservative press at least, that immigration reduction is catching on. Now one of the things that is going to have to be decided is what quantitative immigration rate the immigration-reduction movement should aim at. Unfortunately, most people are not instinctively quantitative when it comes to politics. They are pro- or anti-immigration and don’t think about numbers in any detail. For example, how many of you who understand that immigration is in crisis — let alone those of you who don’t — know how many immigrants entered the U.S. last year? (The answer is at the bottom of this article.) My penultimate fear on this issue, second only to nothing being done, is that we will be fobbed off with nice-sounding reforms that make a lot of satisfying gestures but don’t achieve the needed quantitative result. The 1965 Immigration “Reform” Act that created the current mess was accompanied by the promise that it would not result in significant numbers of immigrants, so we have no excuse not to realize that the opposition is systematically dishonest about this issue. Let’s crunch some numbers.
In order to answer the question of how many immigrants per annum America should take, we must go back to political first principles. These principles are so simple that they seem obvious when stated, but a disturbing number of thinkers about this issue seem to have forgotten them. To wit:
- Immigration policy should be set like any other public policy: for the good of our country. We do not set immigration policy for the benefit of immigrants. They are foreigners. We are not out to hurt them or do them injustice, but we do not run our country for their benefit. What they gain from any policy choice should be irrelevant to analyzing it; the issue is what America gains.
- No-one has a right to immigrate here; immigration is a privilegethat is ours to extend or revoke as we see fit in accord with our democratic process.
- As reformers, we should concern ourselves with the actual consequences of any legislation that is signed, not with paper promises and nice gestures. It is essential to distinguish between the real immigration rate (the actual number of people entering the country) and the nominal rate (that which is set by legislation.) Any legislation must be written with an eye to controlling the real rate. For example, illegal immigration must count towards any targeted total, and that we must remember that letting immigrants in today will mean letting their relatives in tomorrow so long as family-reunification laws exist.
- Whatever gets enacted into law, there will be leakage and later political compromises and revisions. Therefore the law should err on the side of a lower number rather than a higher one. If , however unlikely, we somehow conclude later that we have taken in too few immigrants, it is always easy to let more in. But if we take in too many, it is very hard, if not impossible, to send them back.
The key to understanding immigration policy is that the annual immigration rate is not set as a single number by a single piece of legislation. It is the product of myriad different programs that permit immigration, each of which applies to a different category of person. ( Click here for a detailed official breakdown by the Immigration and Naturalization Service .) I will untangle these separate programs in another article, but the key point to grasp now is that some of these programs will be a lot easier to cut than others. For example, there exist a finite number of nuclear families who are already American citizens and would like to bring in other family members from overseas. These cases, which currently amount to about 250,000 immigrants per year, will be very hard to legislate out of existence because of the hard-luck stories this would immediately put onto the evening news. Other forms of immigration, starting with the illegal immigration caused by our failure to enforce existing laws, will be politically easier to reduce. It follows that we must reduce more than we want in these latter areas to make up for the likely tendency to reduce less than we want in the former.
I personally believe that the original justification of immigration to America was the presence of a vast empty frontier and that this justification vanished along with it. Consequently, today we should be taking basically no immigrants at all outside a very limited number of special categories. If you agree with this conclusion, skip to the last paragraph. If not, read on.
In my view, the only serious conservative alternative to a zero-immigration policy is to set the number of immigrants at something approximating the normal average flow of immigrants into the US over our nation’s history. This alternative view concedes that our current level of well over a million per year is excessive, but holds that some immigration is good for the country.
It is the view that immigration is not the problem, excessive immigration is, and seeks to go back to a gradual, manageable flow of people.
Now the average level of immigration for the whole of American history prior to the disastrous 1965 Immigration "Reform" Act was about 200,000 per year. Combine this figure with various other factors, and policy wonks have, over the years, come up with 400,000, 350,000, or 300,000 as reasonable, the last figure having been proposed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which you should join, in 1992. 300,000 has the advantage of equaling the number of Americans who emigrate each year, resulting in zero net migration, an attractive figure to aim at simply because it has a non-arbitrariness that avoids endless horse-trading over numbers.
But there’s a kicker that, in my view, makes all these analyses irrelevant: what I call the immigration backlog. Even if we decide that historically normal levels of immigration are desirable, we still have to deal with the fact that immigration is a cumulative process and therefore we have to deal with the effects of past excess immigration first. It’s like the way a fat person cannot expect to become healthy simply by reverting to a normal caloric intake, but must first go on a diet to burn off the accumulated excess. We have a vast overhang of unassimilated immigrants who need to be absorbed before we should take in any more. That figure of 200,000 per year is only reasonable if the previous years have also had reasonable numbers, which in 2002 they certainly have not.
How big is this excess? If we take 200,000 immigrants per year as the normal level, then this would imply 7,400,000 immigrants since 1965 ((2002-1965)x 200,000.) Instead, we have taken in more than 24,000,000. (Source: CIS ) This leaves a surplus of roughly 16,600,000. At a rate of 200,000 per year, we are going to have to have zero immigration for 83 years before we reach a zero baseline and ready to start taking in our normal average again. We have, in effect, by our profligacy used up our quota for years into the future. I realize these numbers are shocking, but my point is that whatever reasonable position you take on immigration levels – whether you believe in zero immigration or historically normal immigration – the only logical outcome for the foreseeable future is virtually zero immigration. And this is true regardless of what quibbles you may have with the specific figures.
And this doesn’t even take into account past illegal immigration! Simple respect for the rule of law requires that we expel all illegal immigrants. Period. They broke the law; they should be held accountable. Some people who understand the importance of the rule of law on all other issues get rather fuzzy about illegal immigration. But the laws of this country are the enactions of a democratically-elected government, so when we show contempt for those laws, we are showing contempt for American democracy. The fact that we are American democracy makes it all the more pathetic: this constitutes a fundamental lack of national self-respect. We have the most generous immigration laws in the world, and they’re still not good enough for some people. (I’ll never forget being accused of “treating illegal aliens like criminals” by one particularly dim reader. What do you, sir, call people who, by definition, have broken the law?) It is estimated that there are 6,000,000 illegal immigrants in America. They need to be identified and deported. If it takes us 20 years to expel 6,000,000 illegals, that makes for a negative immigration rate of 300,000 per year. That’s in addition to whatever we decide to do about legal immigration.
At this point, some people start squealing about a police state. This is just the alarmist name-calling which we hear all the time from the Left. There is absolutely no need whatsoever for America to adopt extreme or non-traditional tactics to deport our backlog of illegals. Present judicial and police methods are quite enough, if only we would engage the political will to use them. We already do deport people — though in utterly inadequate numbers — and we do it without doing anything that violates civil liberties or the other principles to which we are justly attached. A million illegal aliens a year are arrested by law enforcement, and nothing is done. We need to replace this with a policy of deporting anyone discovered to be illegal in the process of an arrest. We must require police departments to verify the residency status of arrestees and require them to turn illegals over to the INS. I was shocked when I learned that this is not already done. Police are there to enforce the law; this is the law; end of story.
Some may find my conclusion that a net negative immigration rate is appropriate to be radical, but in fact it’s just common sense: we made a mess and so the logical thing to do is unmake it so far as we can. Because immigration, unlike some other things in social policy, is a cumulative phenomenon, it makes so sense to stop the ongoing damage and not repair that which has already been done. It’s like fixing a hole in the bottom of a boat and then not bailing out the water that has already leaked in. We should be bailing out people who are not in the national interest for years to come. And I can’t help noting with glee that most of them will be Democrats.
Note: We took in approximately 1.3 million legal and illegal immigrants last year. Source: Center for Immigration Studies .