Beyond the question of which vulgar term President Donald Trump used to describe poor and backward countries that he believes give us undesirable immigrants, there is the more substantive issue of whether the United States should change its policies to favor immigration based on merit and skills.
To those who support such a shift — including Trump — the issue is simple: American immigration policies should focus first and foremost on America’s needs and interests, not those of foreigners seeking admission. But while there are good arguments for admitting skilled and educated immigrants — some of whom, by the way, come from poor and dysfunctional countries — the American tradition of liberty also points to a different approach.
American conservatives generally scorn excessive government regulation and believe that a free society functions best when the market is mostly allowed to regulate itself, not guided by technocrats who think they know best. Yet on this issue, they often look to countries they otherwise criticize as too socialist — such as Canada. The Canadian immigration system determines applicants’ value to the nation by giving them points for education and work skills. But doesn’t this approach smack of the technocratic, regulators-know-best mindset? Can bureaucrats reliably predict the market’s future needs, let alone the future value of an individual?
On Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that a “good nation” should not admit “somebody who is illiterate in their own country,” who “has no skills” and will not become successful.
Yet, uneducated, unskilled people who escape oppressive, economically devastated societies might be highly motivated to learn and succeed in a nation that gives them a chance. This was the story of millions of people who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th Century and who were often viewed with suspicion and disdain by nativists as ignorant, debased rejects unfit for American life. But those immigrants and their descendants helped shape the American century.
On the website of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, the astute social commentator Kay Hymowitz writes that there were important differences between America then and the nation today. We have costly welfare programs that can be overburdened by indigent newcomers; low-skilled jobs are not the path to upward mobility that they used to be. And yet the American economy is still uniquely dynamic and flexible, especially in its openness to entrepreneurship. An immigrant who does not have quantifiable skills to impress a bureaucrat or a corporate employer might have the drive, creativity, and talent to be tomorrow’s capitalist — or a parent of children whose contribution to society no one can predict.
On Carlson’s show, Sessions criticized Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) for reportedly quoting the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus” — which celebrates the Statue of Liberty and her welcome to “huddled masses” — in a meeting on immigration. Carlson commented, “Not really a case you would expect a Republican to be making.” But one Republican who admiringly cited that poem and its vision was Ronald Reagan, who gave a moving speech on the legacy of immigrants at the lighting of the Statue of Liberty’s torch in 1986.
Skills-based immigration has its place. We can also do more to discourage welfare dependency among new arrivals. But let us not cut off the path of legal immigration to those who come here seeking freedom, opportunity or a better life — even if their worth cannot be measured in points.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.