“Pro-immigrant” restrictionists — the fine print

Post by Vipul Naik (regular blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

NOTE: This post is mostly US-specific, but some of the observations may also apply in other countries. I don’t have enough knowledge to comment about other countries.

The US’s leading restrictionist think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies, describes itself on its website as “low immigration, pro immigrant.” NumbersUSA, another restrictionist group focused more on having a grassroots influence and affecting the decisions of policy makers, also makes it clear that it opposes immigrant-bashing. And John Tanton, the man who helped found and raise funds for CIS, NumbersUSA, and FAIR, clearly describes himself as “pro immigrant” on his website.

Clearly, the Southern Poverty Law Center is skeptical of such claims, as they note here:

Although the think tank bills itself as an “independent” organization with a “pro-immigrant” if “low-immigration” vision, the reality is that CIS has never found any aspect of immigration that it liked.

Nonetheless, having read the book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal by CIS director Mark Krikorian (which I blogged about earlier here), I think that some restrictionists (though not all) are pro-immigrant. For instance, I was impressed by Krikorian’s thoughtful and detailed response to the civil rights implication of state-level immigration crackdowns. Clearly, Krikorian, and his colleagues at CIS such as Steven Camarota, take seriously the concern that crackdowns on illegal immigration might hurt recent legal immigrants who share the ethnicity of the majority of illegal immigrants.

But they are “pro-immigrant” only in a very specific sense of the word. There is some fine print there, that may not be that obvious to many people who first hear the term “pro immigrant.” In the rest of this post, I will elaborate on the fine print.

  • Pro-immigrant is not the same as pro-potential immigrant: Restrictionists want to reduce the number of people that immigrate, though they differ on who should ultimately be let in. What’s clear, then, is that they are “pro” only those immigrants that they finally agree on letting through, not “pro” the large numbers of people who want to get in. The extreme case would be a restrictionist who wants literally zero immigration. Such a person might also self-describe as pro-immigrant, but in mathematical jargon, this is a “0/0″ type error. It simply doesn’t make sense to ask whether somebody is pro-immigrant if they don’t want any immigration. It’s a poorly framed question. Nonetheless, restrictionists are okay with some immigration, and I don’t doubt that they are enthusiastic proponents of the welfare of these immigrants. But still, being pro-immigrant while being extremely selective about who gets to immigrate is qualitatively very different from being pro-immigrant in an open borders world.
  • Pro-immigrant is only pro-legalimmigrant: Restrictionists are quite clear about what needs to be done regarding “illegal” immigrants (I put illegal in quotes because the term has come under much criticism) — they need to leave. Restrictionists are pretty clearly not “pro” these immigrants for any useful definition of pro. Admittedly, restrictionists prefer attrition through enforcement to mass deportations, and they want to deport as humanely as possible. But it’s pretty clear that illegal immigrants aren’t the immigrants whom restrictionists would fight for.
  • Pro-immigrant advocacy forms a very small part of the agenda of these groups: Mark Krikorian’s book The New Case Against Immigration is a case in point. This 304-page book has less than 3 pages describing the pro-immigrant part of Krikorian’s agenda, most of which boils down to friendlier and better service at immigration bureaucracies and more help with adjusting to US language and customs.
  • Pro-immigrant does not necessarily mean that they say good things about the effects of immigrants. Pro-immigrant restrictionists will defend the rights of immigrants, but will not go so far as to say that recent immigration has been good for natives. In fact, in order to argue against future immigration, they have to make a case for how current immigration has been harmful to natives, while at the same time defending the rights of those who have already immigrated. This is, needless to say, a source of some tension and internal contradiction, since many of the recent immigrants whom groups like CIS and NumbersUSA seek to reach out to in order to widen their support base are people who would have been unable to immigrate had CIS and NumbersUSA been more successful in influencing US immigration policy. But it’s not a big source of tension for these groups to negotiate.

I will close by making a couple of miscellaneous remarks.

  1. In his book, Mark Krikorian considers a 2 X 2 of possibilities: “high-immigration pro-immigrant,” “high-immigration anti-immigrant,” “low-immigration anti-immigrant”, and “low-immigration pro-immigrant” and puts himself squarely in the last box. Fair enough. He then describes the Know Nothings (whom John has referenced in a previous blog post as high-immigration, anti-immigrant. Krikorian’s reasoning is that the Know Nothings did not oppose immigration itself, but only opposed various rights and privileges for immigrants. In contrast, Krikorian advocates lower levels of immigration, but better treatment of those who get to immigrate.

    This distinction is somewhat valid, but less so than Krikorian makes out to be. Back in the days that the Know Nothings operated, it was simply considered far less technologically feasible or morally permissible to restrict immigration to the US, as I described in this blog post. To the extent that such an option was permissible, it seems that (going by the Wikipedia page) they did want to use it to the full. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page is lacking a citation for this claim, so it’s possible that I’m wrong. I still suspect, though, that they would have advocated immigration restrictions to the extent that it was considered morally permissible and technologically feasible.

    Moreover, the Know Nothings’ attitudes to Catholic immigration is quite similar to the attitude that restrictionists (including some “pro immigrant” restrictionists) have toward illegal immigration. In the 19th century, the legal versus illegal distinction was far from clear-cut because the modern passport regime had not yet begun. So, if one really wants to compare the Know Nothings to present day people, we should consider the attitudes of present day people to the sum total of all immigrants, both legal and illegal, not just to illegal immigrants.

  2. There are many situations where these groups use “pro-immigrant” arguments to reach “low immigration” conclusions, by rejecting out of hand various keyhole solutions as anti-immigrant. For instance, in his book, Krikorian opposes all guest worker programs, describing such programs (including the H1B visa program) as indentured labor. They oppose any keyhole solution that might lead to a two-tiered system, since they are opposed to the idea of second-class residents. In his book, he proposes instead that any worker who’s good enough to be let into the US should be good enough to get a green card. Interestingly, a lot of pro-migration folks seem to agree with the crux of these arguments, furthering the difficulty of implementing keyhole solutions necessary to realistically enable freer migration. But that’s a topic for another post.

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