Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Immigration Dilemmas

James Skillen


November 25, 1996

The tragic news from Central Africa, where hundreds of thousands of refugees move across bloody borders, reminds us that questions about immigration into the United States should, by comparison, be relatively easy to resolve.

This past summer, Congress and the president began to face up to the serious matter of illegal immigration, realizing we must halt the illegal flow. Otherwise, the country may never be able to deal justly with legal immigration. Public confidence in government cannot be sustained if, for example, businesses and individual households are able to get away with using (and misusing) illegal immigrants to lower their labor costs at the expense of poorer and unemployed citizens and legal immigrants.

With respect to legal immigration the questions are greatly complicated by the conflicting interests of those who compete to shape the laws. Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the primary criterion for allowing immigrants to enter the U.S. has been having a family connection. This sounds healthy enough, but insofar as it has led to increased immigration of older relatives and unskilled workers, it has sparked criticism of the rising costs of welfare, health-care, education, Social Security, and other public services.

There is no magic number of annual immigrants on which politicians, economists, and business and labor leaders can all agree. From a humanitarian point of view, many believe that the United States should open its doors to as many immigrants as possible. Those who worry about political and economic stability here at home, on the other hand, call for a much more restrictive policy. They sense that those already living here are becoming more and more angry with government for allowing new immigrants to displace current workers or to become dependent on tax-supported welfare.

The roughly one million legal immigrants entering America each year would not seem to pose much of a threat to our population of 265 million. However, by the year 2050, the statisticians tell us, 93 percent of the annual population growth will result from those who will have immigrated between 1991 and 2050. And most of those immigrants will come from Mexico, other Latin American countries, Asia, and the Pacific. It thus appears that some of the fears about current immigration patterns may be due to an underlying racism that associates some immigrant peoples with poor work habits and public dependency.

In view of all these factors, the most important question about immigration, it seems to me, is not the number of immigrants to be allowed into the country each year, but how to resolve our domestic disagreements over education, welfare, and other social policies as they relate to our increasingly multicultural society. Popular anger over recent immigrants benefiting from Social Security or welfare provisions is not much different from popular anger over many non-immigrants benefiting from those same programs. Immigrants, in other words, should not have to bear the brunt of popular anger over conflicted domestic policies.

In the coming year, Congress and the president should cooperate to achieve the following objectives: (1) stop illegal immigration; (2) if necessary, reduce slightly the number of legal immigrants; (3) increase the range of criteria by which to judge eligibility for immigration beyond that of "family connection"; and (4) give much more serious attention to reforming domestic welfare, education, Social Security, and health-care policies.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”