The national debate over a more rational immigration policy is bellicose and vexing. I wonder why.
We can all agree on a policy that allows a nation to move forward. It should begin with a few premises.
The first should be whether the policy satisfies the evolving ideals of our nation. We are a people who believe in hard, innovative work. In this increasingly competitive global economy, moving forward also means innovating locally.
The second principle is that we are privileged to live here, as are those who wish to come.
We also have a capacity for compassion that can help protect those who are ostracized in their own nation. We welcome those who seek refuge from oppression and abuse, but citizenship remains a privilege and not a right.
If one accepts these principles, an optimal immigration policy should be relatively simple.
Most countries have adopted such a policy. The United States is unique in placing the desire to unite families as a primary criterion. Other countries place paramount the needs of the nation’s economy. Countries such as Canada create a much easier path to citizenship for those with exceptional expertise and those highly trained in their adopted country.
While these goals are often economic, an enlightened country also sees value in diversification to enhance its ideas and culture. These are the elements of the creative class that will allow us to compete in a global economy.
Little of our national debate seems fixed on the need to create and attract more scientists and engineers, more mathematicians and technologists, and more entrepreneurs and innovators. These should be the primary conversations.
Instead, the debate either voices the concerns of those who believe, not incorrectly, that a law is a law and illegal immigrants ought not be rewarded, or to those who argue families deserve to be reunited and made legitimate voting members of our country.
Both sides pander to their bases. One side appeals to conservatives who fear the changing demographics and the ultimate effect on their party’s power and electability. Meanwhile, the other side realizes a path to citizenship for the poor and downtrodden also has the fortunate consequence of increasing their party base. A few million more voters who will vote predictably will define presidential elections for decades to come.
Certainly, those who came here illegally and held jobs that most Americans won’t take should have some opportunity for legitimacy. The children of these immigrants who have excelled in schooling and act as American as every other young person should not suffer for the decisions of their parents. They are our nation’s natural human resource, and we should be pragmatic and compassionate. We should construct pathways that allow them to be productive members of our society and economy.
But, while illegal immigrants who have come across our southern border are the looming elephant in the room, our policy ought not be driven by that issue. This is a country that has invited immigrants who are willing to accept the premise of the American Dream. Immigrants have contributed to our nation’s success. We are a smart nation, and we can figure out how to best use this human energy in a time when our national innovation is flagging.
Avenues to legitimize the most earnest already here, and a policy to attract the world’s best and brightest, first to our universities and then to our citizenry, seems to make sense from many perspectives. The brass ring ought to be a bit harder to grasp for those who have come illegally and a lot easier to grasp for those who we solicit.
Unfortunately, politicians muddy the waters. Their posturing is oriented not by the principles of optimal public policy, but rather in their calculations of how to increase the power and electability of their party. Ultimately, immigration debate appears less concerned about how to build a great nation and more maniacal about how to build a reelection campaign. Perhaps too many entrenched politicians have been drinking the Kool-Aid fed to them by their party that they can no longer separate the needs of a nation from the aspirations of politics.
We understand. We prize innovation and a vibrant economy as we attract and cultivate the best and brightest. Immigration ought to be a privilege both to those who come and for those who receive them. It seems simple enough.
Colin Read contributors to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.