Wall Street Journal
By Greg Ip
March 22, 2017
However much they quarreled over illegal immigration, political leaders in both parties used to agree that the U.S. needs more legal immigrants to sustain its aging labor force.
Among Republicans, that consensus is dissolving. One dissident who bears watching is Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He says the U.S. admits too many legal immigrants based on family ties rather than skills, education or the ability to assimilate.
Mr. Cotton and fellow Republican Sen. David Perdue have introduced a bill that would cut legal immigration in half. And while it’s a low priority in Congress now, Mr. Cotton may one day influence the approach of President Donald Trump, who has also argued for less legal, and illegal, immigration.
The core of Mr. Cotton’s critique is that historically, immigration comes in big waves. The country struggles to assimilate the newcomers, resulting in a backlash. The last such backlash came in 1924 when the Immigration Act virtually slammed the door shut on foreign entrants, including Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe. Mr. Cotton believes that if Congress had tapered the influx sooner, it would have avoided the draconian restrictions of 1924.
He traces today’s tensions to the system of legal immigration put in place in 1965. Its emphasis on family reunification, he claims, has tilted the immigrant pool toward workers more likely to compete for work with low-skilled Americans.
“When new immigrants get a chance to get their feet beneath them, learn the language, move up the ladder of success, and assimilate to American culture, they tend to behave just like every other group of Americans have,” Mr. Cotton says in an interview. But that requires a system that doesn’t slow down assimilation or aggravate poverty. “I worry that the system we have now is tending in that direction.”
The U.S. now awards roughly 65% of immigrant visas based on family ties to current citizens and permanent residents and just 15% based on employment. Most of the remainder are refugees, asylum seekers and applicants from countries underrepresented in current immigration.
Family sponsorship heavily shapes the future inflows of migrants. In a 2013 study, Stacie Carr and Marta Tienda of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research found that every 100 immigrants admitted between 1981 and 1985 without benefit of a family sponsor went on to sponsor 260 family members. For unsponsored entrants between 1996 to 2000, that figure had risen to 345. Because so many of these later migrants were older parents, this reduces their rejuvenating impact on the labor force.
Mr. Cotton would like to emulate Canada and Australia, which admit more than 60% of immigrants based on skill. His bill would make most relatives ineligible for sponsorship, except children and spouses, while leaving the employment quota unchanged. His staff estimates that would reduce annual legal immigration to about 540,000 after a decade.
Whether immigration depresses wages is hotly debated. An exhaustive review by the National Academy of Sciences concluded the impact is “very small” for the overall population, while varying between zero and sizable for the unskilled, depending on the study.
Still, Mr. Cotton says economics are only part of the problem; immigration creates other strains, on “security, community, identity.”
More practically, Mr. Cotton says the public wants fewer immigrants, and when mainstream politicians don’t listen, voters turn to candidates who do, such as Mr. Trump and western Europe’s many populist anti-immigrant parties. “As an elected official you can listen to those concerns and try to solve them…or you can stick your head in the sand and let it fester.”
There are problems with Mr. Cotton’s approach. The first is that despite his admiration for Australia and Canada, his bill would admit one-tenth as many skilled immigrants, relative to population, as those countries. He would thus leave the country short of the workers needed to sustain even today’s slow economic growth—never mind Mr. Trump’s much higher growth ambitions—and support the mounting ranks of retired baby boomers.
The second is that while Mr. Cotton argues for fewer immigrants based on economics and assimilation, Mr. Trump hammers away at the threat of crime and terrorism, particularly by Mexicans and Muslims. Mr. Cotton doesn’t condone Mr. Trump’s language, nor does he disavow the supposed link between crime and immigration. Yet independent researchers overwhelmingly find that immigrants commit less crime than the native born, says Alex Nowrasteh, a pro-immigration scholar at the Cato Institute.
Such unsubstantiated stereotyping colors what should be a fair-minded debate over less-open borders. Mr. Cotton’s case, despite its shortcomings, deserves one.
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