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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Picking Apart Immigration

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After our brief detour through Fermi’s Paradox, it’s time to return to politics, if only because it’s been so crazy. It’s a few days shy of a month since the inauguration and whatever your criticisms of Trump might be I don’t think anyone would say that he’s been lethargic. As of this writing he’s issued 12 executive orders, along with 12 presidential memorandums and four proclamations. Interestingly, this is actually about the same rate, if not a little slower than Obama’s pace during his first few weeks. Though I don’t remember anywhere near the same level of uproar. Which probably says something.

Trump being Trump I assume that everything he does generates some level of controversy, but the greatest controversy has been reserved for his seven country travel ban. And if I’m going to dive back into politics I might as well dive in at the deep end. Which I guess means that I’m less likely to break my neck, but more likely to drown? Or perhaps what it means is I’ve stretched the metaphor too far. In any event let’s talk about Trump’s travel ban and the issue of immigration more broadly.

Of course it’s difficult to deal with anything this controversial without courting controversy yourself, and I imagine this is going to be one of those blog posts which may get me into trouble. But that’s why they call me Jeremiah.

The travel ban is controversial for at least three reasons. First because it was enacted by Trump and at this point anything Trump does is going to be controversial. Second because of it’s shoddy and rushed implementation. And third because it’s part of the larger immigration debate which was hugely polarized long before Trump even entered the scene. I would argue that the actual travel ban, when considered in isolation, is not that controversial. You could certainly imagine Bush enacting something similar in the wake of 9/11 and getting very little push back. Perhaps you disagree with me on this, that’s fine. The point I’m really trying to get at is that while I think the ban looks differently when viewed in isolation, it’s very difficult to do that. The issue of immigration is so divisive already that any particular policy is going to come with a certain amount of rage already built in. But, perhaps if we can’t isolate the ban we can at least look at the broader issue of immigration in isolation from the very emotional subject of Donald Trump. In other words I think the best way to understand the travel ban is to start at the exact opposite end of things, with a 50,000 ft. view of immigration in its entirety.

For this 50,000 ft. view I’m going to start with a thought experiment. For the purposes of our experiment I’m only going to talk about the US, even though Europe is arguably dealing with an even larger immigration crisis. With that caveat in place our thought experiment is, how many people would immigrate if there were zero restrictions? Fortunately, for us, they do polls on this subject and so we don’t have to guess. According to these polls, as of 2010 there were an estimated 145 million people who wanted to come to the US. That’s a good number to start with, but there are several reasons to think that it might be low.

First, 2010 was before the recent migrant crisis, in particular it was before the Syrian Civil War.  Presumably, at a minimum, there are a lot more Syrians who would like to come to the US in 2017 than there were in 2010. Second, the population has continued to increase in many of the places where people are most eager to emigrate. (For example the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has gone up by at least 120 million people since 2010). But the biggest reason for assuming that 145 million is low, is that those are just the people who have the US down as their first choice. The true number of people who want to immigrate period is actually 458 million, and I assume that if someone from Syria has put down New Zealand as their first choice, that if that doesn’t work out they’re more likely to change their immigration destination, rather than giving up all together. In other words I’m sure they’d “settle” for the US if the US had no immigration restrictions and New Zealand did. Finally, it’s unclear how the current immigration system factors into the polling. The poll question was just “To which country would you like to move?” I assume at least some people factor in the legality of immigrating when answering the question and if there were no restrictions the number of people who would like to move to the US would almost certainly go up.

You are welcome to follow the link to the poll and come up with your own number, but as far as I can tell 145 million is the bare minimum, and I don’t think it would be at all unreasonable to assume that the number might be as high as 640 million. If you suspect that I didn’t pick that number at random, you’re right, it’s twice the current population of the US. And given that there are billions and billions of people worse off than even the most impoverished Americans, the 640 million estimate might still be too conservative. In any event, as I frequently say, I can’t predict the future, so I don’t know how many people would actually immigrate if there were zero restrictions, but it does seem like picking a number in the hundreds of millions is a very safe bet. So rather than telling you what my estimate is, or fixing on some number as a best guess, I want you to just pick a number. How many people would come to the US if there were really no restrictions on immigration? If the number you pick is lower than 100 million I might accuse you of being naive, but you’re free to choose whatever number you feel is reasonable. Do you have the number? Good.

Now, based on that number, do you think it would be feasible to get rid of all restrictions on immigration? Of course there are all sorts of reasons for it being infeasible. It could be politically infeasible or logistically infeasible, it could be infeasible from the standpoint of assimilation, or, to pick what I imagine would be one of the most common objections it could be infeasible because it would end up letting in too many terrorists. We’re going to talk about all of these issues in just a minute, but let’s imagine that you’ve already considered all of them, and despite that you’re of the opinion that it is feasible. Perhaps you think free market forces and the invisible hand would end up solving all the difficulties. At this point, if, after coming up with a number and considering feasibility, you consider it doable, then great. Go ahead and advocate for that, go ahead and fight for that solution. I feel that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, but at least there is zero hypocrisy. At least it’s a coherent ideology. And who knows it might be worth trying. In other words you’re done. You can skip the rest of the post. You already have a solution to the immigration problem.

However, I suspect that if you’re intellectually honest than you will admit that we probably can’t have completely unrestricted immigration. No one seriously imagines that you could triple the population of the US, and even increasing it by 50% (the 145 million estimate) would be colossally difficult even if there weren’t political obstacles. And the election of Trump, if it has done nothing else, has, at a minimum, demonstrated conclusively that there are political obstacles to more immigration.  Having established that unrestricted immigration is not an option, all that is left is restricted immigration. But what standard should we use in arriving at these restrictions? There’s obviously two sides to the issue, and most people approach restrictions from the standpoint of, “Who do we want to let in?” but when speaking of restrictions it makes at least as much sense to approach them from the standpoint of, “Who do we want to keep out?” But as the first approach is more common we’ll start there.

To start with let’s establish a baseline by looking at how we currently handle immigration. Once we have some idea of the current standard, we can move on to discussing other possible standards. Perhaps the easiest way to discuss the current situation is by providing a few statistics:

  • The current number of legal immigrants in the US currently stands at 42.4 million as of 2014.
  • Of these 50% are from Latin America, and over half of the Latin American immigrants (or 27% of total) are from Mexico.
  • The top ten countries for immigration are either in Latin America, large countries themselves (China, India) or have a long standing relationship with the US. (Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam).  
  • The top ten countries account for 60% of all immigrants.
  • Of the 42.4 million immigrants 11.4 million are here illegally, and of those 62% are from Mexico.

Based on these numbers, if I were going to describe the standard underlying the current system I might say that it’s “proximity”. The closer the country is the more immigrants there are. Obviously you would also have to factor in poverty and need to a certain extent, though Canada still comes in at #11, and most people would not consider the Canadians to be noticeably more impoverished than the Americans. But they are proximate. As I mentioned, there are a fair number of Chinese and Indian immigrants, but that’s mostly because there’s a fair number of Chinese and Indians period. If you looked at the number of Chinese immigrants as a percentage of all people who are ethnically Chinese you’d find that the percentage is pretty small. Therefore I still think proximity is the best standard for describing our current system. Once again, if for some reason an immigration system based on proximity seems perfect (or as perfect as we’re likely to achieve) then, like the people in favor of zero restrictions, you can skip the rest of the post.

In case it isn’t clear, my goal is not to convince you of the correctness of my opinions on immigration, but rather to help you examine your own opinions with a little more depth. Having covered the current system, let’s move to examining some other potential standards for deciding who we should admit and what a system would look like if it was built around that standard.

The first standard I’d like to discuss and the value that many people point to when talking about immigration is the value of need. When you hear about refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War or Iraqis who helped out American troops, and now fear for their life, these are people invoking the value of need. Within the LDS Church we heard something very much along these lines with Elder Patrick Kearon’s talk during last April’s General Conference. I am certainly sympathetic to this standard, and would be happy to count myself as a devotee. But as we’ve already seen, just because we’ve decided on a standard doesn’t mean that we can suddenly let in everyone who meets the standard. Ideally we’d welcome the most needy people because that’s where we can do the greatest good.

As I said I’d be happy to count myself as an adherent of the standard of need. Which is in part why the current immigration system is so depressing. Definitely there is some allowance for need, but it’s remarkably small. If we compare the list of the ten poorest countries in the world with the list of countries with more than 50,000 immigrants, we find that only two of the bottom ten countries even appear on that list. Mexico, which is generally ranked around 68th in per capita GDP (putting it in the upper half and almost in the upper third of countries) dominates immigration statistics. But under any rational standard of need, which recognized that we couldn’t take everyone, we would almost certainly exclude a country whose biggest food issue is eating too much of it.

Another standard which is commonly referenced is the standard of admitting immigrants based on their usefulness. Many people who extol the virtues of immigration often point to all of the businesses which have been started by immigrants, or they might mention that the CEO of Microsoft is an immigrant. Once again, there is a small allowance for this sort of thing in our current immigration system, the best known example being the H-1B Visa. But many people argue that with programs like the H-1B, that it’s far more a question of cost than of competence. Companies like Apple and Microsoft and Facebook and Google hire people on the H1-B Visa not because there are no Americans capable of doing the job but because hiring Americans is expensive. By this I am not saying that there’s no benefit to allowing people like Sergey Brin and Elon Musk to immigrate, or that there’s not some benefit to the economy at large. Merely that the number of people who are truly unique is pretty small. There is only one Einstein, but there are thousands of junior database administrators. Which is to say that this standard, unlike the previous standard does not truly apply to that many people and even as it is currently implemented it excludes far more people than it includes.

As I said when examining people based on their usefulness it’s less about a unique skill set and more about reducing cost. At first glance this seems like straight indefensible greed. But advocates will argue that this is not the case. That importing skilled (and unskilled workers) is the best thing to do economically. The issue then becomes economically best for who? Several people have remarked that you see very few billionaires who are opposed to immigration, but there are a lot of people in the bottom 25% who are very opposed to immigration. And I would argue that they probably have a point. When you consider the increasing automation of low-end jobs (and the subsequent competition for those that remain), the increasing inequality and above all the increase in generalized despair. It seems evident that when people talk about what’s economically best they may only be talking about a very narrow slice of the country and its citizens.

As I mentioned above when people talk about immigration being a net good, when they advance a theory of the “more the merrier”, they are largely operating from this capitalistic, invisible hand standard. But as we’ve agreed we can’t accept everyone, there has to be a cut off, and the problem with this particular standard is that the cut of is extremely vague. First off we may have already passed it and secondly it becomes difficult to shut off immigration even if we have. Not only is there the expectations of current and future immigrants but there are also the expectations among business owners that they will continue to have access to cheap labor. Thus you can easily end up in a situation where immigrants and business owners may continue to benefit long past the time when it has become a net loss to the society at large.

At this point we have three standards for accepting immigrants: need, utility, and economic benefits. You can certainly see how our current system mostly does a horrible job of trying to combine all three which results in defaulting to a system of immigration being decided by proximity. Additionally there are certainly other standards which I haven’t mentioned but all of them come down to a question of who gets admitted and who gets rejected.

Now I’d like to turn towards examining two standards which approach things from the standpoint of who should be excluded. The first standard is very simple. It’s the legal standard. When deciding whether to admit or reject immigrants what does the law say? This is another standard under which our current system does very poorly, with the law being completely disregarded in many cases and in many places. It is also the standard which has prompted perhaps the greatest amount of debate, with things going so far that the sides can’t even agree on which terms to use. One side speaking of immigrants being illegal while the other side speaks of them being merely undocumented. I’ve spoken before about the dangers of abandoning the law. And while I don’t think this is quite as high stakes as the presidential question, it’s still a very bad idea to route around laws you find inconvenient.

The second exclusionary standard I’d like to discuss involves assimilation. One of the biggest throttles to immigration is the speed at which we can assimilate new immigrants. This is of course if you believe in the need for assimilation, which many people do not. I don’t have the space to get into a full discussion of all the various arguments being made by the two sides, but I think that anyone who suggests that no assimilation is required, is frankly, being ridiculous. Under that standard if you forcibly deported all the people from North Dakota and brought in the entire country of Bhutan (they have roughly the same population), you would expect that, other than the cuisine and the language, you wouldn’t notice any difference. They would have the same educational attainment, the same economy, the same roads, etc. As I said this is ridiculous. You may disagree with the level of assimilation required, you may disagree with what assimilation should involve, and we may have serious differences on the speed of assimilation, but there is a limit to the number of immigrants who can be assimilated, and I am strongly of the opinion that the emphasis on diversity has actually slowed down the rate of assimilation.

In the end what’s missing from the issue, and what I’ve, in some small way, attempted to provided is rational discussion. I don’t really care which standard you feel we should apply in deciding who to accept, or whether you feel like only the barest amount of assimilation is necessary or whether you feel that Trump is a gigantic bigot. What I do care about is getting people to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made. If you’re in favor of lots of immigration, I assume it’s because you believe that there are lots of benefits. Do you also believe that there are some downsides as well? If so what are they? What are you willing to do to mitigate them? Perhaps you think that we already do a lot to mitigate these risks, but even with the best screening in the world there are going to be some immigrants who do bad things. Bad things which wouldn’t have happened if there were no immigrants. How much bad stuff are you willing to tolerate? Would you be okay with another 9/11? The point is not to say that there is going to be another 9/11, but to get people to rationally consider the tradeoffs of immigration. And, as I said from the very beginning, even in the best case scenario, we are going to have to reject some, if not most of the people who want to come to the US.

In closing, this point about rational discussion is critical. For years both parties have avoided it. And every single presidential candidate going back to Reagan has essentially taken the position that immigration is an unmitigated benefit. There was no debate, there was no discussion, everyone in power (with a few exceptions) advocated greater levels of immigration and turned a blind eye to the current system’s many problems. This is, until Trump came along. He was a horrible candidate, his twitter feed is a study in bad decisions, he is almost certainly a narcissist, and he had scandals that would have sunk anyone else, but he talked openly about immigration, and pointed out the many problems with the current system. And now he’s President. Was it solely his stance on immigration? Maybe, but it’s also certain he wouldn’t have won without it. In the end by refusing to openly and rationally discuss immigration the people in power gave an enormous boost to the first candidate who did. And that candidate just happened to be Trump.

If you, like me, advocate a standard of need, then consider donating to this podcast. If on the other hand your standard is quality then perhaps you can donate in spite of your standard.


  1. My only experience with immigration directly has come from sponsoring employees on H1B visas and then ultimately for permanent residency. I've recruited for multiple engineering positions over the past 10 years and about 90% of the time I'm not able to find a qualified resource that is already a permanent resident/citizen. If things work out with the employee within three years we have to start the process for permanent residency and part of that process is to look for someone who is qualified to do the job who is already a resident. I've had to go thorough this process 6-7 times and only once have I found someone who was qualified.

    1. That's interesting. The 90% of the time that you feel like you can't find someone who's already a citizen is it that you can't find someone for the money you're offering or you can't find someone for any amount of money?

  2. Since we don't include the salary in the posting for roles, and since engineering jobs are the highest paid jobs with a four year degree I'd have to say I can't find someone for any amount of money.

    1. Well I have a few responses:
      1- It is good to hear from someone who is actually using the system. Obviously there are two sides to every story, and it could very well be that competence is more of a factor than I thought.
      2- Even if it is necessary to get competent workers from outside of the US I still think it represents a fairly small part of the overall question of immigration. In particular high skilled workers with guaranteed jobs should assimilate fairly smoothly.
      3- But the biggest question is how far upstream do we go? It is possible that too many of our best and brightest are being snatched up by the financial industry or the start-up scene. If you could make as much as an engineer as you could as a trader at Goldman Sachs then you'd probably have more candidates. Which is to say that, as always it's difficult to assign a true value to something because there are so many external factors.