Debating Immigration Myths

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.

Supporters of the Simpson position argued that the current policy, which produces continually increasing immigration levels, must be reformed to help alleviate strain on our low-skill labor market and our educational system. Senator Abraham argued against Simpson, essentially saying that Republicans risked appearing nativist - that is, favoring native-born Americans - if they passed the amendment. Abraham prevailed by a vote of 80-20.

Legislators' fears of being labeled "nativist," "anti-immigrant," "anti-family," or worse have made honest debate impossible. Because any proposal to reduce immigration - regardless of the data used to support such a position - is considered taboo, immigration has effectively been converted from a discretionary policy into an entitlement. Levels can go up, but they can never come down.

So powerful is this taboo that, since 1965, Congress has ignored two congressional commissions that recommended the United States reverse course on immigration. In 1972 the US Commission on Population Growth and the American Future urged that immigration be frozen at the then-current level of about 400,000 annually. Congress took no action. Most recently, in 1995, the US Commission on Immigration Reform (also known as the Jordan Commission), which was convened specifically to report on the consequences of the 1990 immigration law, recommended that immigration levels be reduced from nearly 1 million to 550,000 annually. Attempts to follow up on commission recommendations have been defeated.

It's true that immigration policy says much about our nation's values. That's why it is especially important that legislators make a commitment to regularly examine the policy and ensure that it is achieving the goals set for it. Legislators must also abandon their categorical dismissal of proposals that would reduce immigration. Virtually everyone accepts the wisdom in placing some limits on immigration; proposals to reduce or increase immigration simply define the boundaries of what those limits should be. The only policy that is genuinely "anti-immigration" is one stopping all immigration permanently.

Immigration policy is too important to be motivated by mythology rather than facts. It's time for legislators to integrate a whole range of data when reviewing policy options. Short of that, it can hardly be said that our immigration policy is serving the national interest.

*Mark W. Nowak, former executive director of Population-Environment Balance in Washington, writes about population issues.

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