by Reihan Salam
By prioritizing immigrants with strong skills, we’d make the safety net much easier to sustain for those with low skills.
I am the proud son of immigrants from Bangladesh. I was raised in New York City, which has benefited enormously from the energy and ambition of the millions of people born abroad who’ve chosen to make it their home. But I also believe that America’s immigration system needs to work for America, and right now, that is simply not the case.
We need a new immigration system. So what should it be? We’re often presented with two stark choices: Severe restrictions or open borders. I think there’s a better way. But before I offer a solution, let’s look at the usual suspects. The case for open borders is, on the surface, pretty attractive. Tens of millions of people around the world would be grateful to come to America for the chance to live in peace and earn a decent living. The vast majority of them mean us no harm.
Why not give them a chance to share in the blessings of liberty? The simple answer is that our country is more than just a marketplace. We’re a democracy based on a social contract. Americans pay taxes so that, among other things, the poorest, most unlucky among us can still lead decent and dignified lives. If you can’t work, you might be eligible for unemployment benefits or disability. If you do work but your paycheck doesn’t go far enough for you to afford medical care or food for your kids, we have a safety net designed to help you stay afloat.
Liberals and conservatives disagree on how extensive this safety net ought to be, but they all agree it needs to be there. The question is, how we far are willing to stretch it?
A century ago, immigrants who found they couldn’t make it in America had little choice but to go back home. That is no longer the case. These days, immigrants who can’t earn enough to support their families have access to many government benefits. That doesn’t make them bad people. In an age of offshoring and automation, wages for menial jobs don’t go very far. If we only admitted a modest number of low-skill immigrants—say, as political refugees—we could easily handle it. But over the past forty years, we have allowed millions of low-skill immigrants into the country, both legally and illegally. While highly-educated immigrants pay far more in taxes than they consume in benefits, the opposite is true of immigrants with less than a high school diploma
Immigrant engineers working for Google, Amazon and Apple do just fine without government help. The immigrant janitors and busboys who serve them struggle to afford housing and to give their kids a decent start in life. Without government aid, many would go hungry. If we were to open our borders, the number of low-skilled immigrants would skyrocket, and so too would the cost of meeting their needs. Ironically, this would only exacerbate the wealth disparity that so animates the open borders crowd.
Maybe the rich could wall themselves off in gated communities. But the growing ranks of the poor and even the middle class would have to deal with ever more strained social services. That could provoke resentment strong enough to set off real class warfare.
If open borders are a bad idea, so too is severely restricting immigration. For one, immigration has always been part of the American story. And it continues to be an essential source of talent, from Silicon Valley to medicine to pro sports. Why shut ourselves off from the dynamism and energy that immigrants can bring?
Thankfully, there isa way to fix this problem. We can modernize the system to give priority to those who have strong skills and job offers—people, in other words, who will pay more in taxes than they need in benefits. Today, we admit about two-thirds of immigrants on the basis of family ties and only 15 percent on the basis of skills. We need a course correction. We should limit family immigration to immediate family members—such as spouses and minor children—while greatly expanding the number of skills-based visas.
A skills-based points system would be a huge boon for people around the world looking to live the American Dream. It would give them a predictable, step-by-step guide for how to better their chances at a green card. Just as importantly, by prioritizing immigrants with strong skills, we’d make the safety net much easier to sustain for those with low skills—whom we’d still admit, albeit at a more modest level.
Let’s announce to the world that if you’re ambitious, if you have skills we prize, the golden door is open. If you can support yourself and your family, and add to our economy, we want you. If we aspire to an immigration system that works, this the most realistic—and idealistic—choice.