A Scattering of Immigration Issues

By Mike Koetting           February 15, 2018

In the last post I allowed that countries have good reasons to put some bounds on the amount of immigration.  It’s not obvious how to do that and this post can’t answer that question.  But it does address some of the considerations that bear on this problem, which is currently very much under discussion.

  1. How many people do we want in the country?

This is an important starting spot.  We know that the native-born fertility rate is below replacement level and continuing to drop.  (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/upshot/american-fertility-is-falling-short-of-what-women-want.html)   Thus, immigration policy becomes a key driver of demographics.  While population will continue to climb somewhat in the short and medium term no matter what we do, according to the Census Bureau, overall population would pretty much flatten out over the next 40 years if we were to stop all immigration.  (The estimates below were based on 2008 census projections.  Since then, estimates of overall population growth have dropped, partially on basis of anticipated lower immigration.  But more recent estimates still project that any population growth at the end of 40 years will be primarily as a result of immigration.)

Immigration w and wo

Moreover, without any immigration, there would actually be a small drop in the working age population over that period.  That, combined with increases in the elderly population that are already baked into projections, could make the economics of the country pretty ugly.

This suggests that at least some level of immigration is useful to the economic health of the country.  Note, however, immigration is not in itself a stable solution to this disparity since those workers will also get old.  But it gives us time to arrive at a more sustainable approach to balancing the number of workers and the number of elderly.

On the other hand, without any dramatic changes in the current immigration policy, the Census Bureau now believes total American population would probably increase about 27% over the current population level to something like 410 million people by 2050.  That is a lot of people.  It is reasonable to ask if, as a society, we want that many more people, regardless of how they got here.

  1. What do we mean by an immigrant, anyway?

Immigrant is really a legal description:  someone born outside the country.  But that obscures a lot.  I have a good friend who was brought to the US at age seven.  She’s an immigrant.  But she is much more an American than anything else–including being elected for many terms to the Illinois House of Representatives.  On the other hand, the American-born daughter of a recent immigrant (legal or illegal) would not be an immigrant but might have a totally different place in the society based on the situation in which she is raised, including the effectiveness of the education and other opportunities provided.

It seems to me that once a person speaks English and is participating in the economy and the civil society, statuses other than “immigrant” become a lot more important for understanding what’s happening our society.  Refining our concepts might lead to a more helpful conversation.

  1. What kind of immigrants should we be accepting?

One argument is that we should focus on “merit-based” immigration—e.g. those with transferable skills and/or earnings potential.  There are a number of advantages to such an approach.  Canada and Australia focus their immigration systems around this idea.  A totally different concern, however, is how many refugees should the US accept.  The argument for refugees is about what we can do for them as opposed to what they can do for us, at least in the short run.  Not surprisingly, most refugees offer a much less attractive profile.

At this point, a few numbers might be in order.  For the last several years, the US has let in about one million people as legal residents.  About ¾ of these will go on to become citizens, although the process will typically require five years.  The remainder will return home, stay as permanent residents or die.  Of the 1 million each year, between 80 and 90 thousand have refugee status.  This is less than 10% of all people entering the country legally and is an infinitesimally small portion of the country overall, about .02% of 1%.  Even while recognizing that refugees create more demands on the country than other kinds of legal immigrants, this seems like a rather puny effort for a country as rich as the United States.  Regardless of what happens with the overall number of immigrants, it seems to me this number should be materially larger.

Three further thoughts:

  • The ability to have a policy on refugees depends on having a functional way to distinguish refugees from other would-be immigrants, a difficult task since it is not always an all-or-nothing situation. The determination is easier for people who live across the ocean and have clearly lost their old life than for people coming from Mexico or Central America.  I don’t know enough to recommend how to make this distinction for people from the Americas.  It might make more sense for the US to invest significantly in helping these countries ameliorate the situations that create these refugees.
  • I think the current overall level of immigration (about 1 million per year) is about as high as makes sense for the time being. I could even see arguments for selective lowering.  Increasing the number of refugees would suggest a reduction in other sources of immigration.
  • I believe that family-based immigration should probably be retained. I don’t have a strong inclination as to whether any necessary reductions in total number come from the current merit-based or immigration “lottery” quotas.  There are arguments for each.
  1. Any idea that we can make decisions to limit immigration depends on our ability to secure our borders.

You don’t have to be a Republican to concede that if we can’t secure our borders, policy “decisions” about how to handle immigration are probably not meaningful.  There are experts in this area and they should decide what makes sense.  But we need for these decisions to be in the hands of people who will make recommendations using a sound basis rather than a sound bite.

This does not say anything about the disposition of illegal immigrants already settled in the country.  From a policy point of view, they are water under the bridge.  The actual costs of forcing these people out of the country—not to mention the moral costs—are prohibitive for the benefit of saying:  “You shouldn’t have come here illegally.”  Currently securing the borders makes sense; trying to achieve retroactive border security is more temper tantrum than policy.

  1. What are the implications of our policies on other countries?

For the last two years, all the American Nobel prize winners in scientific fields were immigrants.  About 25% of all physicians and nurses in the US are immigrants.  There is no doubt that coming to America allowed them better opportunities to pursue their goals.  But it is equally true that these “brain drains” have diminished the capabilities of the countries they left.

Americans aren’t used to thinking about the impacts of their actions on other countries—especially in the age of “America first”.  But maybe we should.  The world continues to get smaller.  If it continues to get more and more and unequal at the same time, there will not be enough border security in the world to contain the pressures.

And so…

This is hardly a primer for what to do about immigration policy.  A couple days surfing the Internet gave me a feel for how devilishly complicated it is.  There are economic issues, political issues, cultural issues and moral issues.  They are overlaid on a messy network of laws and bureaucratic procedures and many of the people at whom they are directed have strong incentives to circumvent them.  Still, if we don’t try to make thoughtful decisions, we may wind up piddling away the legacy that really has made America great—a place that welcomes the underdog to a country ruled by laws and gives them a chance to start anew and contribute to our society.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “A Scattering of Immigration Issues”

  1. “It might make more sense for the US to invest significantly in helping these countries ameliorate the situations that create these refugees.”

    Yes, yes, yes! This was the Green position in the fight in 1993 to block NAFTA and get it rewritten. It was easy to see that the way it was going to whack Mexican farmers — though not the big export plantations of agricultural commodities. A joint US-Mexican effort to build up community-based economics would have removed the reason so many people felt they had no choice but to leave their home, parents, and grandparents to seek a job in the US. But developing community-based economics and trade with adjacent regions within a country does not fit anywhere in the neoliberal thinking about “creating wealth.”


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