»  National Review Online

December 15th, 2009

  An Immigration Time-Out


I find myself increasingly oppressed by the feeling that our big national policies are not merely mistaken, but deeply irrational.

Take the president's recent "jobs summit." Like several other people — Pat Buchanan for example — I was baffled by the absence of any talk about limiting immigration. As Pat points out:

How can [Democrats] justify bringing in another 1.5 [million] immigrants in 2010 and another 1.5 million in 2011, when 25 million Americans they are supposed to represent are unemployed or underemployed?

Beats me, Pat; but then, the politics of U.S. immigration beats me altogether. Every time I engage with the topic I find, usually within the first few minutes of engagement, that I am confronted with a terrifying possibility: Either a great many well-credentialed people with highly paid jobs and prestigious titles are barking mad, while I am sane; or else vice versa. Please, please let it not be vice versa.

Take Steven Landsburg. Steven's new book, The Big Questions, has a lot of good things in it, as one would expect from an author who proudly declares himself a math geek. His explanation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (pages 135-141) is a model of clarity in the popularization of science. His geometrical illustration of a Talmudic rule on the division of an estate (pages 205-213) shows the mathematical imagination at its best.

Landsburg is an economist by profession — a professor of economics, in fact — and has the economist's insight that many matters commonly discussed in terms of morality can be reduced to cold arithmetic: "When things are priced correctly, there's no need to moralize about them." He gives some illuminating examples.

Reading the book, one is carried along effortlessly on this gentle current of math-based good sense until Chapter 19, whose title is "On Not Being a Jerk." Suddenly we are in white water — actually, in the strange looking-glass realm of open-borders fanaticism.

Landsburg summons up our memories of Goofus and Gallant, protagonists of the moral-education comic strip in the Highlights for Children magazine:

Goofus erects a border fence. Gallant says, "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me." … Goofus, being a jerk, would consign millions of unskilled Mexicans to lives of desperate poverty because — well, because he doesn't think they count for very much.

Now, we have it on the authority of the Pew Research Center pollsters that one Mexican in three would move to the U.S.A., given the opportunity. That would be 37 million, to add to the 12 million Mexican-born residents we already have. Perhaps Goofus thinks that 49 million immigrants from one country would be too much of an imposition on American citizens, and a demographic catastrophe for the sending nation. Why is that jerkish?

And why this favoritism towards Mexicans? They do not live "lives of desperate poverty." The CIA World Factbook shows a 2008 per capita GDP of $14,300, ranking Mexico as the 79th richest of the 229 jurisdictions listed — richer than Romania, Turkey, and Brazil. To put it another way, there are 140 places in the world poorer than Mexico. Why isn't it Gallant who's being a jerk, favoring these comparatively prosperous Mexicans over the much poorer people of Albania ($6,000), Kyrgyzstan ($2,200), Nepal ($1,100), and Zimbabwe ($200)? Why is that not jerkish?

Landsburg is off to the races, though. We get five pages on the jerkishness of refusing settlement rights to Mexicans, including those who don't bother to ask permission, culminating in (page 186):

Today it's a crime to hire illegals. Tomorrow, I fear, it will be a crime to date them. Or to smile at them. Or to walk past them and fail to punch them in the nose.

See, this business about enforcing immigration laws is just the thin end of a wedge. If today we stop employers from hiring illegal immigrants, then tomorrow we'll be voting for miscegenation laws and compulsory assault and battery.

Er, what happened to that cool-headed mathematical disdain for moralizing?

Yes, it's nuts; and Steven Landsburg, on this one topic, is nuts. He's not alone, either, certainly not among economists. I recently did a Q&A with the actual magazine The Economist, and found myself looking at this question:

You have been a strong supporter of both democracy and restrictions on immigration. If it came down to it, which of these two values would you think more important for the United States? If, in a multistate referendum, the voters of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona decisively rejected building a wall between Mexico and their borders, and a group of aggrieved citizens decided to do so anyway — or decided, let's say, to patrol the border on their own, with firearms that they used often — would you support the renegades or the majority's decision?

This is The Economist, a prestigious magazine read by bigfoot politicians and captains of industry, staffed by people with sheaves of advanced degrees in difficult subjects; yet they apparently think that if a referendum in three states were binding on the other 47, that would be an instance of "democracy." Ye gods.


What is on display here in both cases is that in the U.S.A., among a sizable segment of the cognitive elites, immigration is the focus of a hysterical cult. The contemplation of this topic causes literate, well-educated people to take temporary leave of their senses. It also excites them to a moralizing frenzy, in which those who disagree are seen as irredeemably wicked, in the grip of dark forces, gloating in cruelty, all pity choked with custom of fell deeds — or at the very least, as jerks.

To anyone outside the cult, it is all very bewildering. Immigration is just a policy, like farm subsidies or tax credits. To those of us who have actually moved our place of work and residence from one country to another — I have done it nine times** — it is also a humdrum business of grappling with travel agents and moving firms, accountants and lawyers, issuers of visas and driver licenses. There is nothing romantic or spiritual about it. You are moving your life from one jurisdiction to another, that's all.

Nor is an immigrant exercising any transcendent human right. Who on earth ever thought so? If I seek to settle in Country X, I am asking Country X a favor, which the authorities there might properly refuse. If they do refuse, I have no grounds for complaint. It's their country.

A story: I grew up listening to my dad rhapsodize about New Zealand, where he had spent the happiest days of his life. Thus enthused, after graduating college and working a couple of years, I decided to give New Zealand a try. I went to New Zealand House in London. There was a guy at a desk in the lobby. I approached him and stated my purpose. He pushed a printed sheet of paper at me. It was a list of occupations, most of them skilled manual trades — carpenters, electricians, and an astonishing number of things to do with sheep. "You in any of those occupations?" asked the Kiwi. Me: "No. I'm a computer programmer." He took back the sheet and scrutinized it. "Nope. Don't see it. I guess we've got all we need. Sorry!"

I never did get to see New Zealand. I did, though, walk out of New Zealand House with a grudging respect for the clarity and rationality of their immigration procedures. (Forty years on, they maintain those high standards. They recently denied a settlement visa to a British woman on the grounds that she was too fat.)

That is immigration policy as it should be practiced, with a calm eye to the national interest and some thought-out notions of who you want settling in your country, and who you don't want. It's your country, built up and fought for by you, your parents, and your ancestors. Foreigners should follow your rules or go find some other country to apply to. If admitted for settlement, they should expect to pass through a probationary period when they undergo some surveillance and have fewer rights in law than citizens have. (When I first came here, in 1973, foreign residents were required to check in with the local police once a year.)

This is commonsense, rational stuff. It is likewise rational to shut off the immigration spigot when your own citizens are struggling in a recession. Congress could write and pass the necessary legislation in an afternoon. Why would we not do this? Why, in conferences and summits and initiatives to get unemployed Americans back to work, why is it not even talked about?  Why? Because we're nuts, that's why.

** England to Hong Kong, 1971; Hong Kong to England, 1973; England to the U.S., 1973; the U.S. to England, 1978; England to China, 1982; China to England, 1983; England to the U.S., 1985; the U.S. to England, 1990; England to the U.S., 1991.