Immigration Issues Aren’t Going Away

By Mike Koetting June 13, 2019

About 15 months ago, I had a series of posts on immigration. The issue has not gone away. In fact, Trump continues to bang the drum loudly on the all too plausible belief this is an issue that not only animates his core base, but slightly extends it to people who are genuinely concerned about this issue. The truth is that immigration is a real issue for both political parties, but a difficult and complicated one that can not be solved with slogans.

A recent article by David Frum in The Atlantic lays out the terms very clearly. This article is must-reading for anyone who wants to talk about immigration. It is a thoughtful, nuanced set of considerations, but essentially comes down to the question of whether it is possible to maintain a country and a set of national values without having borders and a common definition of citizenship.

Frum’s Arguments Cannot Be Ignored

He starts from the undeniable factual basis that the foreign-born population of the US is today close to its all time high, almost 15%. Countries of Western Europe, whom we think of as peers, are even higher relative to historic markers. He then notes that, while there are huge benefits to this immigration, there are likewise material political and social costs.

As Frum underlines, while economists agree immigrants don’t harm the overall economy, immigrants do change the distribution of costs and benefits. Even with overall growth, there is no evidence that lower income non-immigrants reap those benefits: the benefits are primarily divided between the immigrants themselves and the upper income Americans who are better off with an abundance of workers willing to work for less.

The consequences are jarring to many parts of society and we can’t simply dismiss the issue. Even if expressions on one side or the other are crude and wrong, there is a real issue.

Demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address….Voters get to decide what the country’s problems are. Political elites have to devise solutions to those problems. If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.

Frum is very clear that the answer is not to pretend that immigration can be “stopped”. Immigration is both inevitable and desirable for first-world countries. Rather, we need to make a decision about how many immigrants we want each year and under what rules. While he considers a number of rules options, he is fairly prescriptive that unless we reduce the number of immigrants, the issue will continue to roil the body-politic. He may well be right, but that is a proposition that needs a wider discussion.

He is, however, absolutely right that whatever we decide about the number of immigrants, we need subsequent decisions about how to implement and enforce the decisions. He dismisses Trump’s border wall for the foolishness it is, but he also observes that America is in a peculiar limbo where so many of our immigration-related mechanisms are broken, unresolved or misaligned. A systemic fix is necessary but we can’t even talk about it in those terms.

“Prickly City” By Scott Stantis

The Issue Is Not Going Away

The problems raised by immigration are going to be a structural feature of the world for as far as we can see. Ending hostilities in Syria or stabilizing Central America are good things, but will not get this issue off our political agenda. The reality is that some societies are much better places to live than some other places. And everyone knows it.


The above chart shows differences in per capita GDP. But this is only one blunt measure. There are many other aspects—the degree of inequality within the country, the barriers to changing one’s status, the extent to which minorities feel threatened, the stability of the society, the threat of adverse climate change, and a host of other factors. But advanced countries come out better on most of these. While emmigration obviously has risks and problems, it is hard to think about the issue without concluding that a material number of people in less developed countries will want to come to more developed countries.

Paradoxically, the largest pressures are not felt from the poorest people wanting to escape. They may want to, but they have fewer means. The bigger pressures are from those who are starting up the ladder—have some education, have enough resources that travel is possible, and the idea of living in a different place is not at all beyond their imagination. Thus, the growth in incomes around the world, while it encourages some people to stay where they are, fuels dreams of still better lives in others.

The number of potential immigrants is eye-glazing. Egypt will add 50 million to its population over the next three decades and one-quarter of young male Egyptians would work abroad if they could. Twenty-six African nations will double their population in the same time period, to a mind-boggling 2.5 billion people—which is roughly the total number of people in the entire world in 1950. Three-quarters of all Nigerians and Ghanaians and more than half of the population of South Africa and Kenya report they want to leave. Pakistan, in 2050, will have almost as many people as the U.S. has now.

The pressure only increases from here.

Is There a Moral Dimension?

Beyond putting some decency boundaries around treatment of current migrants and appropriate policy for people who have been here for a long time and put down roots, Frum doesn’t address the question of what is a just solution.

I keep coming to the question of why exactly it is that I get to enjoy the many benefits of being American while other people should not be allowed those same benefits. Because white people took the land from the Indians 250 years ago? Because the evolution of the world was such that they set up a particularly smart government? Because my ancestors came here 150 years ago? These were big and momentous events, but my participation in them is purely happenstance. I can’t come up with a really compelling reason why I should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of these earlier sacrifices indefinitely…while others are prohibited from buying in with their own sacrifices.

Well…Another Fine Mess

So, I argue that social and political realpolitik dictates that we adopt a program of managing immigration and then I throw a bucket of moral cold water on the enterprise. What am I suggesting?

  • I think an argument that says “Throw open the borders and let it work itself out” could be justified. But it’s a bad idea. There would be way too much chaos before we reached a new equilibrium point—if we ever would. I think we need to adopt a new immigration policy (including enforcement) and get on with it.
  • It must follow from a realistic national discussion. There are no easy answers, but, as Frum argues, it can’t be an imposed solution. The issue is too close to the core of any society.
  • Whatever policy we settle on should be generous. I am not saying that will be easy, but it should be shaped In a context of what’s good for the world and workable for America, not what’s best for America and the devil take the rest.
  • We need to spend much more time thinking about the rest of the world. For all the recognition that the world is shrinking, we still want to put our fingers in our ear and sing “Nah-nah-nah-nah.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed that, “for the majority of the human species, and for tens of thousands of years, the idea that humanity includes every human being on the face of the earth does not exist at all. The designation stops at the border of each tribe, or linguistic group or maybe even at a village.” Do we want to get beyond that?

“Prickly City” By Scott Stantis

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.

2 thoughts on “Immigration Issues Aren’t Going Away”

  1. Dear Mike,
    Thanks as always for thinking about the unthinkable. I think one thing that makes the conversation so difficult these days is the fact the people in charge of our borders pretend that they have a solution (shut the borders completely, especially to people from “shithole countries”), and when that solution doesn’t work, amping their rhetoric and looking for someone to blame, e.g. libtards and the leaders of those countries.

    If we want a more rational and humane immigration policy, we have to throw the rascals out, something they are busy trying to make as difficult as possible. But until that happens we need to recognize the grave moral and humanitarian crisis occurring at our southern border. International law prescribes the sorts of things you need to do when someone arrives seeking asylum. Our Leader (maybe we should just call him Der Führer) has abandoned those protocols in favor of terrorizing the desperate people who are seeking to escape the criminal and environmental conditions in their countries, for which the US is often in large part responsible.

    As much as we need a sensible and comprehensive re-working of our immigration laws, we need to muster our moral outrage and do whatever we can to ease the suffering of those asylum seekers trapped by ICE and DHS at our border.

    Lee Rossi


  2. True…that’s the sine non qua, but: (1) we need to have a policy about what to do then; and, related (2) we need to understand that it will be harder to throw out the rascals if we aren’t honest about what direction we want to move. I think Frum is right that the candidates are not the only people deciding what are the issues. If we get blinded by the outrageous handling of the issue by the current administration and ignore the legitimate underlying issues, we strengthen their hand.


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