Monday, June 13, 2016

Immigration Thought Cliches

In the age of Twitter, we seem incapable of complex thought.  Instead, we paper over complexity with triviality.  Many examples could be furnished.  I shall illustrate three from the public discourse surrounding immigration.

Thought Cliche the First: We are a nation of immigrants.

To which one answers: so?  Harvard is a college of students.  The sentence is descriptive; it does nothing to assist us in developing a coherent immigration policy.  Shall we have open borders?  Should Harvard let in every student who applies?  We are no nearer to formalizing the best means by which immigrants should be selected from a pool of candidates.  Perhaps they should be chosen haphazardly.  Perhaps Harvard should throw out the SAT and GPA and letters of recommendation and...

Thought Cliche the Second: Immigrants are here to work hard.

Considering no one is certain whether the number of illegal immigrants, to say nothing of the legal ones, number twelve million or thirty, one is dubious that all motives have been accounted for.  Even supposing they had, it remains totally unclear why good motives should override the desires of those who set immigration policy.  To stick with our analogy: those who apply to Harvard possess good motives.  Ought the university therefore be required to grant admission to every applicant?

Thought Cliche the Third: Immigrants do jobs Americans won't do.

Perhaps.  But the cliche is missing an important qualifier: at the wages Americans prefer to work.  That immigrants from poorer countries are willing to work for less money than Americans is, though not universally true, a reasonable conjecture.  It does not follow that in the absence of immigration, the work would remain undone.  Employers could raise wages until the market clears.  The argument would be stronger if unemployment were low and wages were generally rising.  Neither is true.

There is nothing simple about mass migration.  It is no trivial task to create a policy that benefits the citizens of the immigrant's destination, as well as those of his former land.  And, of course, the policy must benefit the immigrant himself, as well as his family.  The policy, moreover, must be enforceable.

To gloss over such complexity does no one any favors.  But there are those who are well served by the thought cliches that don't so much calcify our debate as ensure it does not take place.

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