By L. Gordon Crovitz, WSJ
The U.S. is at a low point in a long history of failed immigration policy: President Obama announced last week there will be no reform bill and asked Congress for $2 billion to clear the border, where tens of thousands of Latin American children are languishing in camps, lured by false rumors they could stay.
This means the estimated 11 million people who have been living in the country illegally will remain, with de facto amnesty but no path to citizenship. It means tens of thousands of foreign-born technologists trained in the U.S., and untold numbers of entrepreneurs, will go home to China and India or become Canadians or Australians.
How did the U.S. lose touch with its immigrant roots? Beyond today’s partisan bickering, the larger problem is that politicians make the mistake of treating people seeking to build an American life as burdens instead of as benefits. This is not the first time.
Thirty years ago, on July 3, 1984, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “In Praise of Huddled Masses.” It said: “If Washington still wants to ‘do something’ about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders.”
That was an ideal rather than an immediate prescription. “Perhaps this policy is overly ambitious in today’s world, but the U.S. became the world’s envy by trumpeting precisely this kind of heresy,” the editorial said. “Our greatest heresy is that we believe in people as the greatest resource of our land.”
The editorial was provocative, including to nativist conservatives; a writer for National Review called it the “high-water mark of loony libertarianism.” There is a tradition of anonymity among editorial writers, but let’s just say I had something to do with that editorial, which was approved by the late Robert Bartley, the Journal’s longtime editor.
The editorial appeared during the debate about the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which passed in 1986 and remains the last broad reform of immigration. That law gave asylum to three million people living here illegally. But it criminalized the hiring of undocumented aliens and did little to manage the borders. It failed to establish clear paths to citizenship or establish any measure for how large the population should become.
Still, Simpson-Mazzoli welcomed more people as citizens during a time of divided government. The president, Ronald Reagan, and the Senate were Republican, the House Democratic—the inverse of today’s Washington. But this was “Morning in America,” and Reagan’s favorite words were “growth” and “opportunity.” Mr. Obama is presiding over a fifth year of 2% growth, with his favorite words being “inequality,” “us” and “them.”
During its first hundred years, the U.S. had open borders. The Declaration of Independence had charged King George with “Obstructing the Laws for the Naturalization of Foreigners” and “Refusing to encourage their Migration hither.” Waves of 19th-century immigrants arrived from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, each group quickly contributing and ultimately assimilating. Racist laws limiting Asian immigration and establishing ethnic quotas were eventually abolished.
Economics strongly favors more immigration. The Congressional Budget Office last year estimated that legalizing the 11 million undocumented immigrants would boost federal revenues by $48 billion over 10 years while costing $23 billion in public services. Adding more skilled workers would bring in $100 billion over a decade, mostly from increased income taxes.
There is consensus for more work visas for farm and construction workers. There is broad agreement on the Dream Act, giving residents who arrived as children a fast track to citizenship. Silicon Valley is beyond frustrated. Steve Jobs fell out with Mr. Obama in 2011 when the president, insisting that only comprehensive reform would do, rejected a proposal to give visas to every foreign student earning a college degree in science, technology, engineering and math. “It infuriates me,” Jobs said.
We should be having a debate about immigration that acknowledges that the increasingly free movement of ideas and capital needs to be matched by the free movement of people. We should also ask whether there’s any reason the U.S. should only have one-third the population of India and one-quarter the population of China.
That 1984 editorial included a qualification: “So long as we keep our economy free, more people means more growth, the more the merrier.” Government policy has made the economy less free and encouraged a crabbed, protectionist attitude toward immigration.
The editorial concluded: “America, above all, is a nation founded upon optimism. . . . The issue is not what we offer the teeming masses, but what they offer us: their hands, their minds, their spirit, and above all the chance to be true to our own past and our own future.” Let’s hope that observation proves to be as timely today.