Jeremy Beck's picture

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  by  Jeremy Beck

A core part of NumbersUSA's mission is to provide a civil forum to discuss a single policy issue: the numerical level of immigration. With that goal in mind, here are ten immigration reads from 2018 to put us in a thoughtful and productive frame of mind for the new year.

  1. "The Two Sides of Immigration Policy" by John B. Judis, The American Prospect, February 1, 2018
  2. "Why Are Parents Bringing Their Children on Treacherous Treks to the U.S. Border?" by Julie Turkewitz and Jose A. Del Real, The New York Times, June 22, 2018
  3. "The Flaw In The Stature of Liberty," by Karen Shragg, July 21, 2018.
  4. "Happy Labor Day from NumbersUSA" by Eric Ruark, NumbersUSA, September 3, 2018
  5. "Immigration Ethics for a world of limits," by Philip Cafaro, The Overpopulation Project, September 11, 2018
  6. "Illegal immigrant families exploit 'catch-and-release' loopholes, surge over border at record levels," by Stephen Dinan, The Washington Times, September 12, 2018
  7. "The immigration conversation we need to have - and soon" by Megan McArdle, The Washington Post, October 23, 2018
  8. "The border is tougher to cross than ever. But there’s still one way into America." by Nick Miroff, Washington Post, October 25, 2018
  9. "Democrats Can’t Keep Dodging Immigration As a Real Issue" by Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine, October 26, 2018
  10. "The Left Case Against Open Borders" by Angela Nagle, American Affairs, Winter 2018

One year ago, Customs and Border Protection reported "the lowest level of illegal cross-border migration on record," based on apprehensions. But the next border dilemma - one that would dominate immigration reporting for the better half of 2018 - was already underway. Beginning in May of 2017, apprehensions of children traveling alone or with adults were steadily increasing. The CBP report noted with concern that "transnational criminal organizations continue to exploit legal and policy loopholes to help illegal aliens gain entry and automatic release into the interior of the country."

The first caravan of 2018 was spotlighted in March. Approximately 1,200 self-identified international workers approached the border with hopes of using the asylum system to start new lives in the United States. A second major caravan of approximately 6,200 reached the border town of Tijuana, Mexico in November, just as the number of adults arriving with children reached a new record high. Media interest was so intense that the sheer number of caravan stories became a story of its own. In the controversially-high amount of coverage, reports from Julie Turkewitz and Jose A. Del Real of The New York Times, Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times, and Nick Miroff off The Washington Post stand out. Rather than enabling our collective addiction to outrage, their stories illuminate how policies designed to protect children are now contributing to their endangerment, as strategies to reach the interior of the United States have shifted. Whereas, in mid-2017, human smugglers told The New York Times that their business had dried up, today, coyotes have a new business model: offer discounts to adults who bring minors with them as "passports". As Nick Miroff reported in his story and twitter thread, "this is the new way to get into America." Congress has not addressed the situation, and more economic migrants than ever (the vast majority of whom are neither criminals nor legitimate asylum seekers) are seeking to take advantage.

The caravan dilemma is worth thinking through, not only because it is likely to persist in 2019, but because it asks certain questions of us that will require answers if we are to reform immigration policy to meet the challenges of the present and the future.

"There are billions of decent, hard-working people living in the world," Megan McArdle writes. "Do all of them have a right to migrate to the United States merely because doing so would make them better off?"

"This is not an abstract question," writes Andrew Sullivan. "It’s a pressing, practical, and in some ways existential one. It cuts to the core of whether the United States has to choose between being inhumane to the point of betraying some core moral principles and remaining a sovereign nation in control of who joins its population."

"The extraordinary surge of asylum seekers is testing the limits of whom, exactly, the United States is willing to protect," writes Miroff, "challenging the stone-carved ideal of America as the place that welcomes the tired and poor, 'yearning to breathe free.'"

Turkewitz and Jose A. Del Real report that the situation "has plunged the nation into a debate about the limits of its generosity."

One can hope. Although such questions are difficult, something very positive could come out of a national conversation that addresses them head-on with both empathy and pragmatism. The odds of that happening as the 2020 presidential election ramps up to speed may be long, but it would be a collective failure - of politicians, the media and ourselves - if we didn't try.

What's needed now, McArdle argues, is less anecdote-driven reporting and more synthesis of the "micro and macro problems": (1) we can't admit everyone who would like to live in the United States; and (2) we can't enforce any kind of limit without shutting out our fellow human beings who, through no fault of their own, didn't win the "birthplace lottery."

"The ultimate goal of ethics," writes Colorado State University philosophy professor Phil Cafaro, is to secure "the flourishing of all people and of the rest of life on Earth." This will require the establishment of "just, sustainable societies everywhere in the world, not the acceptance of failed societies across large swathes of it and the relocation of huge numbers of people elsewhere."

The government's job is to set policy in the national interest, but that shouldn't stop America from considering the impact our policies have within our larger international community. Our immigration challenge is to balance our responsibility toward our fellow Americans with our responsibility toward our brothers and sisters around the world, as well as our fellow earthlings and the Earth itself.

Economically speaking, immigration benefits almost all immigrants and a good many Americans. Immigration grows the economy. If we measure economic success by the size of the Gross Domestic Product, then the more immigration the better. But GDP is just one way to measure life in America and for all its usefulness, it measures "neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country," as Robert Kennedy said in 1986. And although the greatest wave of immigration has benefitted the GDP, Glenn Hubbard, Dean of Columbia Business School told the Wall Street Journal this year that "people who got left behind could be forgiven if they said, 'Why am I supporting something that benefits 'on average,' when this just means Columbia M.B.A.s get it all?' "

If many Americans benefit from the lower cost of goods and services that immigration contributes to, then others subsidize that benefit in the form of lost wages, particularly prior immigrants and high school dropouts. Immigration reform must take our responsibility toward them into account as well.

Some historical perspective would help. John B. Judis describes how immigration moderation in the mid-20th century helped pave the way to the middle class for wage-earning Americans, including recent immigrants, while immigration expansion in the late 20th/early 21st century was one of several factors that contributed to the decline of unionization and a growing underclass. Along the way, we lost the thread that when it comes to immigration, the numbers have always mattered. Angela Nagle writes:

"The destruction and abandonment of labor politics means that, at present, immigration issues can only play out within the framework of a culture war, fought entirely on moral grounds. In the heightened emotions of America’s public debate on migration, a simple moral and political dichotomy prevails."

Few newspapers have a "labor beat" anymore. The economics of immigration are mostly discussed within narrative frameworks built around the concepts of rights and justice...for immigrants. Those are necessary considerations but not sufficient. At minimum, those frameworks leave little room for the consideration of trade-offs. If one assumes more immigration is tantamount to "more justice," then the narrative is rigged against the concept of limits.

"Justice is the first virtue of political institutions and policies," says Cafaro (a member of NumbersUSA's board), "but justice involves the fair distribution of limited resources. There can be no considered judgment regarding fairness, without an understanding of applicable limits - in this case, both environmental and socio-political."

In Nagle's analysis, these developments have created a toxic situation where "moral blackmail and public shame" combine with "big business and financial interests" to "provide moral cover for exploitation." To raise concerns about "two sides of immigration" that Judis writes about, is to open oneself up to charges of racism, xenophobia and nativism.

We saw this play out in 2012, when Jennifer Wedel asked President Obama why the government continues to issue and extend H-1B visas while unemployed American engineers, like her husband, remain unemployed. It made for a good story, but instead of a broader investigation of the trade offs of H-1B policy, press secretary Jay Carney was asked if the president was concerned that Wedel's question reflected a "feeling of xenophobia" in the country. It took three more years for The New York Times to cover the displacement of American workers. The Washington Post still hasn't covered the story. The Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, best known for being the founder of Amazon. Amazon received the second most H-1B approvals from the government in 2017.

Under these conditions, many see what the mathematician Eric Weinstein describes as an "attempt to use immigrants cynically to transfer wealth from American labor to American capital," under the moral cover provided by a media establishment incapable of being honest about the full picture.

The caravans present an opportunity to elevate the conversation.

"No economic system dependent on immigration is sustainable," writes Eric Ruark, and "Humans are more than just economic beings." A world of limits requires more than just economic thinking. Our political system has trained us and the media to focus on the short term gains and losses. But as some of the most profound impacts of our policies can't be measured within an election cycle. That is the essential message of our "Immigration By The Numbers" video.

The naturalist author Karen Shragg takes a decades-long view to consider our responsibility as stewards of our "limited life-giving resources":

I am in my sixties now. Our population in the US has doubled in my lifetime. Those additional 163 million consumers have transformed this country. They are responsible for our crowded cities and traffic problems, more pollution and less open land. More people make a wide variety of negative impacts on the environment and it doesn’t matter from this perspective the nationality of those additional people. We are all consumers. We can and should try to consume less but we all need water, energy, food, jobs, open land and none are in a limitless supply. The consumption in the US is so high that those who keep the statistics on this like Global Footprint Network, tell us that it would take five planets to supply the globe with enough resources if everyone were to consume like us. Adding more high level fossil fuel consumers is horrendous for our climate too. I acknowledge that this is a very difficult discussion to have. I don't pretend to have all of the answers. But I know for sure it is a part of the equation that needs to be on the table.

We have inherited a rich ecological world, human and non-human, within our national boundaries and without. What will we pass on to future generations? Our immigration policy will partly answer that question, whether we muster the courage to ask it or not.

Happy New Year!



Note: In addition to the stories above, Nyla Rush, Nolan Rappaport, Rich Lowry, Mark Kirkorian, John Daniel Davidson and Andrew Arthur provided invaluable analysis in 2018 of the legal and policy loopholes necessary (if not sufficient) to understanding the current state of the asylum system and its connection to the situation at the border.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Updated: Fri, Jan 11th 2019 @ 2:30pm EST

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