Why does the U.S. have immigration laws?

Why does the U.S. have immigration laws?  I ask not over exasperation that a Senate gang-of-eight is once again considering a blanket amnesty for people who have been living in the U.S. illegally as part of comprehensive immigration reform, but from a purely practical perspective.  It stands to reason our immigration laws are there as guidelines to enforce our immigration policy.  So at some level we must have an immigration policy, right?

Think of it in the context of admission to an elite university.  Every year there are tens of thousands of high school graduates who would benefit greatly from being accepted to Harvard or Yale or M.I.T..  Yet those schools don’t just let anyone who manages to wander onto their campuses attend classes and, after hanging around campus long enough, deem the folks who self-admitted themselves worthy of a diploma.  Nay, those institutions have a rigorous screening process through which they identify a select few students who meet their standards for admission.

If those elite institutions were bound by the same principles as our immigration policy then anyone who took it upon themselves to enter onto the campus would be tolerated, sanctuary dormitories established, and their uninvited presence welcomed until such future time when a diploma is bestowed upon them for their plucky indifference to the rules.

So as politicians discuss immigration reform we get plenty of anecdotes about kids whose parents came here illegally and illegal immigrants who’ve “played by the rules” while working in the U.S. their whole lives.  We get bromides about jobs Americans won’t do and reminders that America is a land of immigrants.  What I’ve yet to hear, though, is a discussion on what our immigration policy is supposed to accomplish.  Is it too much to expect our elected officials to articulate the specific goals are we trying to achieve through our immigration policy and laws?

For example, how many people should be permitted to immigrate to the U.S. each year?  Has anyone ever asked or answered that question?  Should we welcome one million new immigrants each year?  Three million?  Five million?  It seems to me this should be the very first thing defined as part of our immigration policy but as far as I know no one has ever said, “Our goal is to allow x-number of people to immigrate to the United States each year.”  Instead Congress haggles over retroactively granting permanent residence to those who are currently living here illegally.

I know there are limitations on certain types of visas like H1-B foreign workers in technical fields but just how many immigrants should to be allowed into the country each year?  It’s interesting that foreign students who come to the US legally are watched very closely, very limited in the time and type of work they’re permitted after graduation and then required to leave after a very limited number of years.  Once their schooling and practical training is complete these highly educated, highly skilled, highly motivated, tax-paying, law-abiding foreigners are expelled…after ten or so years of living lawfully in the U.S.

Conversely, the low-skilled people who come here illegally get the red carpet treatment from the people pushing a path to citizenship under comprehensive immigration reform.  Does it make any sense at all to ensure well-educated, law-abiding foreigners are forced to leave while courting scofflaws who lack the education and skills required in the “high-tech economy” Obama’s always talking about?

It appears the number of immigrants the U.S. permits each year is to be defined by how many foreigners choose to ignore immigration law and live here illegally.  When a politician says any immigration reform must include a path to citizenship for all illegals who are currently living in America they are in effect granting foreign nationals the authority to determine how many people are permitted to enter the U.S.

Realistically, if we open our borders and everyone on Earth who wished to live in America were permitted to with no delay or regulation our population would double, maybe triple, very quickly.  That might be a very good thing, then again it might not.  I do believe the U.S. should welcome people who want to come here and build a better life.  But I also believe we must manage the flow of immigrants to ensure they can be properly assimilated to American culture.

What is an appropriate number of immigrants to allow into the U.S. each year?  That should be the very first question answered when immigration policy is discussed.

Once we’ve set a goal for total number of immigrants, what qualifications should we expect from people who wish to immigrate to the U.S.?  It seems as though the answer to that question is, “Be born somewhere you aren’t required to pass through customs to physically enter the U.S.”  Geographical proximity is a very poor qualifier for selecting who is permitted to enter the U.S. and be granted permanent resident status.

Granted, a lot of industries have benefited from the influx of cheap, unskilled labor from Latin America.  Those benefits have surely trickled up to many other Americans in the form of lower prices.  But it has also effectively frozen many unskilled native born citizens out of the labor market and created a perception there are some jobs Americans won’t do.

Shouldn’t we define which types of people we allow to live in the U.S. be codified through our immigration policy?  What should potential immigrants have to offer the U.S.?  What level of education?  What professional skills?

Looking beyond factors strictly related to the types of jobs they can fill, shouldn’t we consider their backgrounds?  Are they law-abiding?  How strongly do they believe in American values?  Will they assimilate to our culture?

For whatever reason – fear of being branded a racist, perhaps – establishing a set of qualifications for current and future immigrants isn’t discussed.  Since immigration will have a significant impact on how America looks in the future, shouldn’t we take steps to permit only the best and brightest people around the world to immigrate?  If we’re truly committed to diversity shouldn’t our immigration policy ensure people from many different cultures enter the country?

As it stands now, 90+% of the people being considered for any proposed path to citizenship will have come from Latin America.  Latin America has ~10% of the world’s population.  Why should our immigration policy discriminate against people from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East?  There a plenty of desperately poor folks around the world who would welcome an opportunity to chase the American dream.  Why should immigration reform only reward those who don’t have to board an airplane or boat to reach the U.S.?

Finally, why does immigration reform have to be comprehensive?  Call me crazy, but whenever Congress undertakes comprehensive “reform” of any complex matter I feel a lot like a dog watching its owner stuff a bitter pill into a piece of cheese.  There’s no way to craft a practical set of immigration laws in one all-encompassing bill.  Lord knows Washington wants to shove something down our throats and move on to the next manufactured crisis but that doesn’t mean we should let them.

Every day we learn about a new unintended consequence of the 2,000+ page Obamacare bill.  What are the odds any comprehensive immigration reform passed and signed into law wouldn’t be riddled with the same?  Would anyone actually be permitted to read and find out what’s in it before it was brought to a vote?

If immigration reform is the elephant in the room Congress must remember that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  Let’s talk about how to enforce the immigration laws that are already on the books before we create a new set of books.  Then let’s discuss how many people we wish to immigrate each year.  Then let’s talk about the qualifications and characteristics we can use to define which people are allowed to fill that annual quota.

America is an elite institution and we need to be selective when deciding who to admit.  Until Congress can offer a concise explanation of why we have immigration laws, what they’re intended to accomplish, and how they’re to be enforced Americans need to put the kibosh on comprehensive immigration reform.

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