What Should U.S. Immigration Policy Be? (47:22)
Immigration policy has become something of a political football. Some are proposing more open pathways to citizenship. While others have been more concerned about protecting people, who are already in the United States. In this episode, Dany Bahar, Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development, at the Brookings Institution; Alex Nowrasteh, Director of Immigration Studies at the Cato Institute; and Jessica Vaughan, Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies discuss: what should the United States’ immigration policy be?
Sallie James: Immigration policy has become something of a political football.
Reporter #1: President Biden is wasting no time unveiling his immigration plan. In fact, in his first hours in office, he signed several executive orders undoing many of former President Trump’s policies.
Sallie James: Some are proposing more open pathways to citizenship.
Reporter #2: The new poll finds that many Americans want more, not less immigration, to the U.S.
President Biden: On day one, I’m sending to the United States Congress an immigration bill providing a pathway for 11 million undocumented, and I’m going to make sure every dreamer is protected.
Sallie James: While others have been more concerned about protecting people who are already here.
Former President Trump: In order to protect American workers, I will be issuing a temporary suspension of immigration into the United States. We must first take care of the American worker.
Sallie James: If Americans can broadly agree on nothing else, we should be able to agree that much of the bitterness and political tribalism that drives our public discussions is unhealthy for our country. In order to debate contentious public policy issues in a respectful and engaging manner without abandoning deeply held principles, the Cato Institute, in collaboration with the Brookings Institution, present Sphere. In this episode: What should U.S. immigration policy be? I’m Sallie James. Joining me for this discussion today are Dany Bahar, senior fellow for the Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution, Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, and Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. Welcome to Sphere. I want to start by referring to the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, part of which is written at the base of the Statue of Liberty and reads, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ Is this a vision of immigration that you all think is still relevant today? And perhaps more directly, which fundamental principles should guide U.S. immigration policy? Alex let’s start with you.
Alex Nowrasteh: Thank you. So it is, I think, a principle that should guide U.S. immigration policy. U.S. immigration policy should also, of course, serve the interests of the United States and be consistent with our values. We should allow people to come here legally and naturalize unless there is a very good reason to block them. And the only good reasons really to keep people out is they threaten the property or safety of the United States or American citizens who are here. Now, this is the philosophy that reigned at the beginning of our country’s founding. Now currently, it’s very difficult for the vast majority of immigrants who want to come here legally to even get in line to try to do so. For the few visas where people can get in line, the wait time for some of these visas can be decades. It is almost impossible for people to come here legally. On top of that, federal immigration law is more complicated than the income tax code, or at least almost as complicated as the income tax code. Legal immigration is not a possibility for most people. Now, Ellis Island, which was a gateway through which many of our ancestors entered the United States, was nicknamed the Island of Tears because it turned back 2% of immigrants who arrived, mostly for pretty good reasons. Now, that system was replaced with a bureaucratic monstrosity that exists to this day. Under our current system, almost 90% of people can’t even apply to legally come here in the first place. The result of this centrally planned system is chaos, illegal immigration, and lower economic and cultural growth for the United States. It is an American value to welcome people. Restrictionists say we need to turn our back on this unique cultural attribute. I don’t want to become like any other country that has closed borders. Immigration and our traditional openness to it is part of what makes America exceptional. Not the only thing to be sure, but it’s an important part of it. Furthermore, the evidence of the benefits of immigration for Americans is overwhelming. Their contributions to the economy, American population growth, the lower violent and property crime rates, contributions to American culture, and their rapid assimilation to American norms are all tremendous and benefit the United States greatly. These new Americans, the immigrants themselves, come here for economic opportunity and freedom. As a result, they make us bigger, richer, and a better country that is a beacon for others around the world. Having a more open immigration system is consistent with our values. It is good for Americans. It is good for the world.
Sallie James: Jessica, what are your thoughts?
Jessica Vaughan: Well, I think most people are familiar with the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty and think it’s a beautiful poem and a beautiful sentiment, but our government policies are not made by poetry or dictated by poetry. Our immigration policy has to be in the national interest. And so, there are really three guiding principles that we should have for our immigration policy. One is that the emphasis needs to be on admitting people who will succeed here and become Americans. You know, and that as a practical matter means more of an emphasis on people with skills and merit-based legal immigration rather than family ties. Currently, more than 60% of immigration is based on family sponsorship, and while we, of course, want to have some of that, as a practical matter, that has led to too many immigrants who are not self-sufficient. Right now, about two-thirds of all foreign born in our country are accessing forms of welfare. So, that’s a sign that our admissions are not succeeding in bringing in people who are going to be self-sufficient. Secondly, we need to avoid an immigration policy that brings negative effects for Americans as a whole or even particular groups of Americans and legal immigrants. And primarily this has happened from our current policy by the admission of people who are competing directly with Americans and legal immigrants at the lower end of the wage scale. There’s – study after study has shown that our current immigration policy has had some negative impacts on working Americans through the erosion of wages and displacement of Americans from jobs. And so, we can avoid that through our policies. And we must avoid that so that our immigration policy isn’t marginalizing people who most need help remaining self-sufficient. So, finally, you know, we want to encourage immigration, but we need to have reasonable limits on immigration that are set by Congress, which is the most accountable branch of government. And that’s the branch of government that our Constitution has given the responsibility for immigration policy. So, we have reasonable limits that are set by Congress and are enforced fairly and humanely to preserve the integrity of our immigration system so that Americans can have confidence in our immigration system and want to preserve it.
Sallie James: Thank you. Dany, what principles do you suggest should guide U.S. immigration?
Dany Bahar: So, thanks for the opportunity of being here. You know, I think that – I loved how you opened with a poem. I think the poem – I don’t think it’s only a vision, it is even a prediction of what happened in America for the past 100 years. It is the fact that America received the poor and the tired of the world, and that was one of the biggest blocks explaining the success, the economic success of America in the past 100 years. There’s plenty of evidence on this by many very esteemed colleagues who have worked on this. I myself am an immigrant, but I’m also a researcher, as an economist, have all these benefits. And I think the evidence is overwhelming. So, you know, when we come to policy, of course, policy has to try and fix the needs that the country has, as in any other country, based on evidence. I think that that’s kind of a very narrow or decent definition of what should be driving policy. And I think when we look at the topic of migration, I mean I’m happy to discuss with Jessica on the evidence that she put forward, but I think the overwhelming evidence when it comes to fiscal accounts, which was just mentioned, shows that migrants actually contribute significantly throughout their lifetime in terms of the fiscal accounts of the country. There is a report of the National Academies of Sciences that came out a few years ago. It is a 600-page report, but you have to look at page 434, in which they show that migrants actually create a positive fiscal balance flow to all levels of government, with a net present value of $259,000. I think that there’s very little evidence showing that there’s a negative impact of immigrants on the labor outcomes of natives. There is a discussion in the literature. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, but I think overwhelmingly these effects are – when they exist, they are very, very tiny. But beyond that, there’s a very important point that I’d like to make today, which is that for decades, and this maybe is a self-criticism to economists, we have been focused too much on the very tiny question on whether immigrants are affecting or not the labor outcomes of natives. Because there’s so much more that immigrants have brought to America and to many other countries in the world by reaching their full potential that simply without them, America wouldn’t be what it is today. I’m talking about entrepreneurship, where migrants are overwhelmingly playing a huge role in creating new firms and larger firms in America, giving jobs to Americans, I’m talking about innovation, where there’s overwhelming evidence showing that a lot of the productivity increases that we can attribute to innovation is thanks to many immigrants that have decided to come here, to America, and reach their full potential. I’m even talking about fundamental workers, what some people might call unskilled workers. You know, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and we’ve seen how important these fundamental workers are to the U.S. economy. And if you go right now to the website of the BLS, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will see that in the next 10 years the occupations that are going to grow the most are not only doctors and engineers, but they’re also cooks, and personal aides, and people that are fundamental workers that are going to need to come from other countries. So, I think that everybody plays a huge role in making America a successful country, a successful economy, and, if anything, what we need is more and not less immigration.
Sallie James: It seems that Americans are increasingly agreeing with this. A recent Gallup poll found, for the first time since Gallup started asking the question in 1965, that more Americans favor increasing the amount of immigration allowed in the United States than favor decreasing it. So, 35% to 28%. 36% of Americans think immigration should stay at its current level. Responses were divided quite a bit along political lines, so we could argue that responses might be caught up in the broader political debate. But Jessica, what do you think these poll results tell us?
Jessica Vaughan: Well, immigration is one of the issues in which there is a very, very wide gap between regular Americans and elite groups in American society. I mean, we find that overwhelmingly, you know, elite groups, like in academia, in big business, in big advocacy groups, big tech, these groups favor more immigration because they’re not affected by the negative outcomes, whereas people who are paying taxes, seeing their communities having to accommodate large numbers of illegal immigrants, and people who are experiencing a decline in their wages, or who have been displaced by the arrival of immigrants, whether they are illegal immigrants or even contract visa workers, for example, in technology occupations, they’re all acutely aware of the problems with our immigration system and particularly the problems of the limits not being enforced or set too high. And so that’s why we have this big gap between regular Americans and elite groups in society over immigration. The people who are affected by it the most are the ones that are concerned about immigration being out of control. And I mean, like every policy, immigration policy has winners and losers, and some people are benefiting from it, employers, and immigrants themselves. But there are people who are harmed by our current policies, and we simply should not have policies that where the effects fall disproportionately on Americans and legal immigrants who most need our help, and again, that tends to be people at the lower end of the earning scales. People who, for whatever reason, haven’t had the benefit of a college education, or who are just starting out in the labor force, like teens, these are all groups that have been – experienced problems because of too much immigration. And too much of the kind of immigration that disadvantages them.
Sallie James: Alex, I’m not sure whether your research has shown a similar or has reflected the divide to which Jessica just referred. Do you think Americans are ready for more immigrants?
Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah, absolutely. I think Americans over the last several decades have seen a lot of the benefits of immigration to the United States, have experienced it personally in their lives, in their communities, or in the nation overall. I think some of the biggest evidence of this is that the places where the immigrants themselves go, which is primarily to American cities, and primarily to suburbs of American cities, are the places where pro-immigrant sentiment is the greatest. If these immigrants had such a negative effect on U.S. society and the U.S. culture, this is where we would expect Americans to be most opposed to immigration. But it’s actually where we find that people are the most supportive of immigration, even when you narrow it down and take a look at native-born Americans who are polled in these areas. When you look around the country, it’s places where there just aren’t that many immigrants to begin with where people are the most opposed to them. So, it’s not through any kind of experience, or through seeing their kind of wages go down, or anything like this, but the places where immigrants are going, you know, they’re going to the big cities because that’s where a lot of the opportunity is, and then when they get there, they increase the opportunity by working in these areas, by starting new firms, but also just by being consumers who buy the goods and services produced by other immigrants, but also by other Americans. A lot of the places in this country that are doing very poorly, even before the pandemic, places in former coal country, for instance, places in the Midwest, places like West Virginia, these are places that just do not have that many immigrants. They’re not – their declines in economic output are not caused by foreign-born competition or anything like that, but by other factors. So, these are folks who are suffering. They have problems, of course, but their problems cannot be blamed on foreign-born folks coming to the United States. It can’t be blamed on immigrants who are adding to our opportunities in this country. But it’s due to other factors and other problems. So, it’s common. We see this in lots of areas. People are upset about policy in the United States, and they try to blame it on individuals, or groups, or other policies that in a lot of the cases really have nothing to do with these problems and unfortunately immigration is a scapegoat for a lot of other problems that people have in the United States that should be addressed through other policies.
Sallie James: Dany, I want to come up back to a point you made earlier about your research showing that immigration is beneficial to all parties, that it helps the immigrants themselves, but also people here in this country. Can you tell us a bit more about what your research shows and specifically perhaps address some of the points that Jessica has made, and Alex is disputing? But does your research – is able to answer some of the questions?
Dany Bahar: Thanks for asking that. I think that, you know, I definitely agree. I don’t think that this is a black and white conversation, just because a lot of this research is still going on and we’re really trying to understand and quantify, which I think is an important word, to quantify these winners and losers. It is true every policy change will bring winners and losers. And I think that when it comes to migration, the more evidence we see, it is not a one, you know, it’s not a one-bullet question, but the more evidence we see is that the net gains for immigration are overwhelmingly offsetting any possible losses. And again, I think it’s important to talk about numbers. The fact that there are people that are being displaced, that could be being displaced, I think the evidence shows that for the most part it’s immigrants, other immigrants are in the country that are the biggest competition to immigrants who are flowing in, not natives, and I think it’s important to look at this discussion not only from the very narrow view of labor, but it is also important to look at it from the from the view of all the other benefits that immigrants would bring. There are, you know, my research, but I’m going to mention also research of many of my colleagues. There’s research by Giovanni Peri in California who has shown in amazing research that when immigrants come, and he’s talking in particular about unskilled immigrants or fundamental workers, that allows Americans – I’m paraphrasing, he has looked at different countries – but that would allow Americans who are also without college degrees to move up in the occupational ladder. So, Jessica said in an example when you allow, for instance, for immigrants from Central America to come to the U.S. and they will take tasks you know, in restaurants and so on, in the back of the restaurant, that would allow Americans to become the host of the restaurant. They will actually at the end experience a higher wage. We have, you know, huge evidence on how the innovation in the U.S. is even more increasingly reliant on workers who are immigrants, first or second generation, from Chinese heritage, and Indian heritage, and the number is really off the roof. We have a lot of evidence on the firms, very recent evidence from Ben Jones from Northwestern University showing that immigrants create firms at a higher rate than natives, and these firms tend to hire many more workers, many of them of course natives, than similar firms created by Americans. So, there’s a lot of evidence that it’s out there that I think, even though it’s hard to quantify, it’s also very hard to – it’s not very convincing to say that the losses that these people could be bringing are higher than the gains. I think the gains are so overwhelmingly large that I think it would be hard to think that in net, the U.S. is not benefiting from all this migration.
Sallie James: I want to change topics just a little bit. Jessica, I read with interest your testimony to a House committee last year regarding oversight and resources at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If one of the concerns you raise about immigration is the USCIS being under-resourced and therefore processes not being adhered to in the way they should be, I’m wondering if one solution to that might be to charge immigrants more for the USCIS services, meaning higher fees to process visas, perhaps higher income taxes when they start earning income. Would increasing USCIS’s funding and have it be immigrant-funded, would that address the problem as you see it?
Jessica Vaughan: Well, the funding of USCIS certainly is a problem right now. Under law, that agency, which is responsible for adjudicating applications for immigration benefits, is – it must be funded by the fees that the sponsors of immigrants or immigrants themselves pay. The USCIS is required to set those fees at the cost of processing the applications. So – and they’re not cheap at the moment, either. So, I don’t think it would be possible to increase fees as a way of trying to recoup some of the costs of immigration for a number of reasons. One is that most of the costs of our current legal immigration system are borne by state and local governments, which pick up the tab for, for example, schooling, for welfare benefits that immigrants are able to access, for health care services, and so on. So, it’s really not possible to recoup that through the actual fees that immigrants pay. And the other issue is that what the National Academy of Sciences study that Dany mentioned found is that not all immigrants are having the same fiscal or economic impact after their arrival, that certain categories of immigration are producing more immigrants and more Americans who are self-sufficient, and others simply are not. And it’s primarily the employment-based immigrants who turn out not to be a net fiscal cost for taxpayers and it’s the family immigrants and the humanitarian admissions that are more reliant on welfare programs to survive here. And so that has to be addressed, really not through taxing immigrants more or taxing Americans more, but pursuing a policy that minimizes the possibility that the immigrants we admit are not going to be self-sufficient. Now, I think most people would expect to provide a lot of public support in the form of welfare benefits to people who come as refugees because they’re, you know, typically fairly destitute when they arrive. It’s really the family categories which represent more than half of all immigration where this is an issue. But I want to point out that simply acknowledging the problems with our immigration system is not blaming immigrants for these problems. It’s blaming the policies that result in these problems. I think it’s very important to emphasize that, that we need to be willing to have an open, honest, and fact-based discussion on what those impacts are, who may be disadvantaged, who is benefiting from immigration programs, and not, you know, not be accusing others of blaming immigrants or, you know, or ignoring impacts on those who are affected by these policies.
Sallie James: Alex, you pointed about how difficult it is for the vast majority of prospective immigrants to come here legally. But is it fair to allow those that have come here illegally to just jump the line?
Alex Nowrasteh: Well, no, I don’t think it’s really fair, but we have to understand why people come to this country illegally. And in almost every case, it’s because there is no legal way for them to come here lawfully. We want people to respect the law. I want native-born Americans and immigrants to respect the law, but in order to respect the law, the law itself must be respectable. We have a very complicated and restrictive law that forces ordinary people to make decisions that break that law, and the result is a population of illegal immigrants that’s 10 to 12 million large in the United States, and we haven’t reduced at all the incentive to reduce this number of people. In the early 1950s, there were somewhere around two million illegal immigrants in the United States, mostly Mexicans, working in the Southwest. The Eisenhower administration, to its credit, expanded lawful temporary migration opportunities through the Bracero program. And as a result, by the mid-1950s, that population of illegal immigrants had shrunk by about 90%, and the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border fell by 95%, because they realized that they could come in lawfully on a visa, work for a short period of time, and go back to their home countries. So, there are lots of problems with these different policies. You know, we’ve heard problems about welfare, about education, but it is a lot easier, I think, to fix those problems, try to build a wall around the welfare state rather than around the country to try to address these problems directly rather than trying to indirectly affect them by tinkering with immigration policies on the margin to try to get an outcome to fix a problem in an entirely different area of welfare law.
Sallie James: Jessica, what criteria would you use to govern who should come to this country? Because I’m thinking as an economist, and I know Dany is an economist as well, if we allow – rather than set numerical limits for how many immigrants the country should allow, or could you know, reasonably absorb for another better word, if we allowed you to set the parameters for who should, what the criteria should be for who should come to this country, would you then agree to let the market decide the number of people who could meet your criteria?
Jessica Vaughan: No, I think that is the job of Congress, to decide how many immigrants we’re going to have, and in which category, and then give the government the resources and the authority to enforce those limits. There’s simply more people in the world who would like to have the opportunity to live in the United States of America than we can possibly accommodate through our immigration system. And voters need to have a say in that as well, and they do through their representation in Congress and, as I said, our Constitution has entrusted Congress with the responsibility for deciding those questions, and people can disagree reasonably about what the category should be and where the limits should be, but I don’t think that it’s possible to allow the market to decide this. Unfortunately, when we don’t control illegal immigration, for example, we find out what happens with market forces, and that is that we get an oversupply of workers at certain levels and that when you have an oversupply of workers, the price of the work goes down. We’ve seen over and over again how an influx of workers into a particular economy or occupation drives those wages down. You know, whether it’s hotel workers in Boston when they were undercut by contractors bringing in illegal workers, or in, you know, among white-collar workers who’ve seen an influx of legal temporary guest workers who employers are choosing and replacing Americans with. So, the market hasn’t given us great results so far, and this is one area of policy that needs to be controlled through regulation, and Congress has the responsibility to do that.
Sallie James: Dany, I saw you shaking your head there. What has your research shown about points Jessica just raised?
Dany Bahar: Look, I mean, I think that I’m an economist. I’m also a realist. I mean, I think that, of course, you know, Congress in the U.S. and the government is going to set up the policies that they think will generate the best outcomes for the American people. It’s important to quantify things, because it’s not enough to say that some people might get hurt and some people might be on welfare just to generalize that, you know, we should – I mean, you know, cap migration. I mean, I think that when it comes to policy making, you can’t base yourself on anecdotes, you have to base yourself on evidence, and the best possible evidence that you can see out there in terms of quantifying effects. I just think that, you know, when you start thinking about policies to cap migration by categories, I mean, you’re setting up yourself for failure. I mean, how are you going to know if this person that is applying – is this person going to add to welfare? Is this person actually going to add to tax gains? But maybe this other person, maybe you know, the brother, or maybe not the brother, the parents are going to be on welfare, but he or she himself will add, you know, tons of taxes. Immigrants pay taxes, by the way. I’m an immigrant. I pay lots of taxes. immigrants also consume. Immigrants eat, you know? Immigrants buy clothes. Immigrants also are not only a supply shock of labor that, you know, it’s unrelated to anything else that is happening there, also a demand. They also provide a demand shock. When a lot of people come to an economy there’s also an increase for production. And an increase of production, that of course also increases the pie. So, thinking about – I think that the debate here is that when you think about migration as one pie, and you know, our jobs as one apple, and once you have the apple, I can’t have the apple, that’s not what the evidence shows. That’s not what economic theory shows, that’s not what most of the overwhelmingly empirical research shows in the U.S. and in other countries, because when immigrants come and create more jobs, they create more apples, right? So, you know, if we go back like 100 years ago, or more when women faced a lot of problems in integrating into the labor force, I don’t think it was fair to make the argument that, you know, we shouldn’t let women integrate into the labor force because they’re going to lower the wages of men. That discussion is absurd. And you know, I think we all agree on that. So, it’s a very similar discussion that we’re having today when we know that women significantly contribute to the well-being of everybody, of economies and beyond, right, socially and politically. We have similar evidence with immigration, so I think that again, narrowing the discussion to cases, anecdotal cases where immigration hasn’t worked, where people are more on welfare, where some workers have been displaced without really being able to quantify the effect and putting, you know, the losses against the gains, that doesn’t give us a full picture. So, I think that when it comes to policy, again, we need the full picture. We need to quantify the gains, quantify the losses, and I repeat myself: Overwhelmingly these gains are offsetting every possible loss that you can imagine when it comes to immigration to the U.S.
Sallie James: So, in the spirit of Sphere, I want to see if we can reach any type of agreement on this issue, and so I’ll ask each of you for your thoughts in turn. Is there anything that you all agree on, apart from the fact that the system is broken, and we need to fix it? Are there points you see that anyone has raised as a good place to start finding common ground, for example, people are slipping through the tracks, or the cracks – excuse me – or we’ve got under-resourced you know, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services? Jessica, I’ll start with you. Any points of common ground you can see?
Jessica Vaughan: Well, I think we all agree that immigration is a good thing overall for our country and that we want to have it. What we disagree on is how much immigration we should have, and you know, that seems to be – that’s the fundamental question that Congress has been grappling with for a long time now. But I do think we all can agree that there are some downsides to unfettered immigration as well and, you know, we can produce competing studies that you know, that show what these are, but you know, I think there is plenty of quantitative data that shows that there are downsides to our – the immigration that we are currently experiencing, whether it’s on the fiscal costs, the net fiscal costs, or the labor market problems that occur, wage depression, and displacement of Americans. So, you know, but none of this is to say that we shouldn’t have immigration. It’s about arriving at policies that are not going to be harmful or that have negative effects on as few people as possible while still maintaining an immigration system that people have confidence in.
Sallie James: Dany, what are your prospective points of common ground that you can see?
Dany Bahar: Well, I think we understand, in general, all of us are people who understand that immigration has a lot of benefits. And I think that what immigration is simply – migrating is simply the act of a human being trying to go to a place where he or she feels they can reach their full potential. And I think that you know, when you look at all the international flows in the world, like trade, and capital, and migration, migration is by far the smallest one. You know, trade is like a huge percentage of world GDP, investment is a huge percent of world GDP, migration nowadays is only 3.5% of the world population are migrants. It has stayed pretty much the same in the world in the past decades. Of course, in America it has gone up to the levels that it was maybe 100 years ago, but I think that, you know, we agree on the fact that immigration brings winners, also brings losers, like any other policy out there. I think that the importance to me is to quantify those – the ability, what do we gain as opposed to what do we lose? And I think, again, here is where we disagree. I think that the evidence I’ve seen, some of it I produced it myself based on my own research in the U.S. and many other countries, the evidence is overwhelmingly showing that the gains are higher than the cost. And I do appreciate what Jessica said in terms of pointing that it is not a discussion about the immigrants themselves, it’s a discussion about the policy makers, and this is a problem that didn’t start yesterday. It’s a problem – America has this broken immigration system for decades. And I think it’s important for people like us to continue with our points of view to show that you know, this discussion is welcome and it’s important, but what we can’t accept – we cannot accept in any circumstance, is a rhetoric, that we saw a lot of it, unfortunately, the past four years, that is blaming immigrants as scapegoats of everything that is going on in the country and in the world. I think that most immigrants are people who want to thrive, who want to contribute, who want to have a good life, and want to help their families, and they’re trying to reach their full potential, and this is not a discussion about them. I think it’s a discussion about policy and these are wonderful people who have suffered a lot for the past four years in particular and I think it’s our turn now to make it clear that they are human beings who have the right to achieve their full potential wherever they are.
Sallie James: Alex, do you see any avenues for reaching commonality around this issue?
Alex Nowrasteh: So, we all have the same broad goal, and we all support a good policy that’s beneficial to the United States and to the immigrants themselves, but we just fundamentally disagree on a lot of the core issues. I mean, you asked earlier in your question, you know, I think you all agree with the statement that the immigration system is broken, and I actually don’t think it’s broken compared to the intentions of the people who wrote it. I mean, the intention is to vastly reduce immigration to the United States. The current immigration law has succeeded in doing that, and it has had the predictable consequence of creating a large black market which every restrictive legal system has produced. So, even on these like fundamental issues, right, of saying whether it’s broken or not, it’s doing what it’s intended to do with predictable consequences. We disagree on the issue of whether there is sort of a fixed pie of jobs and economic output in the United States. We disagree about whether the government itself or whether the market should regulate a lot of these visas to different extents. We disagree on the types and quality of research that go into this. So, I think we all want the same broad policy, but we have a lot more to talk about, to discuss, and to debate about what that policy looks like, about how to measure whether it’s successful, and just to get down sort of the basic model or framework by which we judge whether this policy would be successful. So, you know, we agree on the broad goals, but all of the details about how we achieve those goals and even how we measure them, I think we broadly disagree on.
Sallie James: Okay on that cheery kumbaya note, I’ll just ask you each for your final thoughts. Dany?
Dany Bahar: I think that all of us who are here talking and for all of us that are listening, I want to invite you to imagine America without immigrants. And what do you see? You will see Silicon Valley that it’s half empty, and much less innovation. You will see many less firms from Fortune 500 company firms, a lot of them founded by immigrants or children of immigrants, to fewer mom and pop shops in your neighborhood. You will see an educational system that is very monotonic and very non-diverse, as well as an academic system like that. And, you know, for the most part, you also will see that your day-to-day interaction when a lot of the fundamental workers that are helping you thrive in this pandemic and in general are not going to be there and ask yourself, ‘Are these gaps going to be able to be filled by Americans?’ And ask yourself even something more, which is, ‘In this America that you imagine, is America going to be really better off?’ And I think that to me, the answer is very clear, that America can’t thrive without immigration. And immigrants have shown that they’re part of not only of the American dream, but they help achieve the American dream. And yes, there are discussions, and some things could be fixed, and some things are not working as well as maybe some people think that should do, and there are ways to achieve them, but just to take anecdotes and qualitative research to propose these fixes is not enough. We really have to go with the quantitative evidence, the most rigorous that there is out there, where we show again and again that the gains from migration are much larger than the possible losses. So, all in all, for America to continue to thrive, it needs more, not less, immigration and I think that’s pretty clear when you look at the evidence.
Sallie James: Jessica?
Jessica Vaughan: Sure. Americans have lost confidence in our immigration system and that’s because there has been too much illegal immigration, and the standards and rules on temporary work programs and even legal immigration programs have been ignored and abused, and we need to have some reforms. But Congress has made the mistake of overreaching for massive immigration bills that for which consensus cannot be found. So, what we need going forward is in addition to continuing to talk as we have today about these issues and how best to study our policies and the effects is for Congress to try to move forward in smaller steps on narrowly defined issues so that consensus can be forged, and so that we can move ahead with an immigration policy that Americans support, and want to have, and will have confidence in that works for our country and for immigrants.
Sallie James: Alex, you get the final word on this question.
Alex Nowrasteh: The legal immigration system is almost as restrictive and complicated as the U.S. income tax code. A strong and far – it’s moved basically very far from that of the founding principles of the United States. What we need is more liberalization in the immigration system to allow more legal immigrants to come to the United States, to be invited by Americans to come here to start businesses, to work, to consume, to have families, and to basically make this country a larger and better place. Immigration is one of the most regulated sectors of the United States economy, and as a result, that’s why we have a large black market of illegal immigrants here in this country. If we want to solve this problem sustainably in the future, we need to create a large legal system for even lower-skilled workers to come to this country legally to be able to work. The government cannot regulate a black market. It can only regulate a legal market. So, if we’re complaining about the quality of people, we really need to have an open legal system so that the government can have better control over those who are entering the United States. More Americans than ever before support expanding legal immigration. The economy in the United States is not a fixed pie. Immigrants help grow this pie and they grow it best and largest when the market decides how many immigrants should come to the United States. People are the ultimate resource. They have always been the ultimate resource. We’re not just stomachs and mouths that eat and that consume, but we also make things. Immigration is also the sincerest form of flattery. We can do a great benefit to ourselves, to the world, and a service to our values by expanding legal immigration and taking advantage of these people who want to become Americans.
Sallie James: The purpose of Spere is to debate and consider deeply contentious issues in a respectful forum. I thank the three of you for modeling that so incredibly well here with me today. For more information about Sphere, please go to projectsphere.org. Thanks so much for watching.