Should U.S. Immigration Policy Be More Like Qatar’s or Sweden’s?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 6 2014 11:04 AM

Is the U.S. More Like Sweden or Qatar?

Before we can reform immigration, that’s what we need to decide.

A man chants during an immigration rally on May 1, 2014, in Los Angeles.
A man chants during an immigration rally on May 1, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Yet again, House Speaker John Boehner is in trouble with conservative lawmakers. This time it’s because he wisecracked at a Rotary Club luncheon about his fellow House Republicans’ failure to take action on immigration reform. “Here’s the attitude: ‘Oooooooh, don’t make me do this! Ooooh, this is too hard!’ ” Boehner said to the assembled Rotarians. And with that, Boehner sent the message that like virtually all elite Republicans, from Wall Street donors to policy wonks, he believes that comprehensive immigration reform is a no-brainer and that the conservatives who’ve been fighting against it are either cowards who don’t have the guts to stand up to their constituents or troglodytes too thick-headed to understand that when Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page all agree on something, they can’t be wrong.

If nothing else, being an immigration reform cheerleader is a clear way for conservatives like Boehner to signal that they’re not unenlightened bigots, like those right-wingers from the sticks they so disdain. Supporting immigration reform is also cheap from a budgeting perspective, since welcoming large numbers of less-skilled workers appears to cost taxpayers very little if you deny them access to subsidized health insurance, food stamps, and other anti-poverty programs, an approach favored by virtually all pro-immigration conservatives.

But there’s a small problem with this line of thinking. The comprehensive immigration reform proposals that have won bipartisan support, like the Senate immigration bill backed by the “Gang of Eight,” are heavily tilted toward the short-term interests of big business while not being tilted enough toward the interests of law-abiding immigrants hoping to enter the middle class. What we need is an immigration policy that will help rather than hinder our efforts to integrate the millions of struggling immigrants who already live and work in this country into the American mainstream and keep them from becoming a permanent underclass.

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The idea behind comprehensive immigration reform is that we ought to combine three separate things. The first and most politically contentious part is granting legal status of some kind to some share of the 11 million to 12 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. The second and least politically contentious part is welcoming a larger number of skilled professionals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and the like. The third and most underappreciated part is welcoming large numbers of less-skilled workers, whether through a guest-worker program or some other mechanism.

Politically speaking, wrapping these three very different things in the same neat package makes a lot of sense. Comprehensive immigration reform unites high-tech companies looking for cheap software developers; agribusiness companies looking for cheap agricultural laborers; and ordinary voters, many of whom are immigrants themselves, who recoil at the idea of mass deportations that could, among other things, break up families and communities. Think of it as mutual hostage-taking.

No, GoogleAppleFacebook, you can’t hire more brainiacs from Belgium unless we grant legal status to the unauthorized. No, DREAMers who want to stay in America, you don’t have the political muscle to get legal status without also getting the lettuce lobby on board.

The other question, however, is whether this neat little package makes any logical sense. And the answer is that no, it does not.

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