Michael Clemens on the “path to citizenship”

Michael Clemens, who heads the migration-related initiatives at the Center for Global Development, recently wrote a blog post titled Care About Unauthorized Immigration? The ‘Path to Citizenship’ Is What Matters Least. Like my co-blogger Chris, Clemens is critical of overemphasis on the path to citizenship. Clemens:

I am not saying that the status of unauthorized immigrants isn’t important. I’m saying that the policy step of a path-to-citizenship is unlikely to be an important determinant of the unauthorized immigrant population, even in the short term.

This is clear from U.S. history. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan created a path to citizenship for most of the 3 million unauthorized immigrants then living in America when he signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Watch what happened to the unauthorized immigrant population. By 1990, just four years later, you couldn’t even tell that anything had happened: [view graph at original link]

Later in the same post:

If you’re concerned about the phenomenon of unauthorized immigration or the plight of unauthorized immigrants, pay less attention to the path-to-citizenship. Keep one question foremost in your mind as you read the forthcoming details of the Senators’ and president’s proposals: What are they offering U.S. farmers to get the labor they need without going under? What are they offering U.S. parents to get the childcare they need without breaking the bank? These are the provisions that will shape unauthorized immigration for tomorrow’s America.

My thoughts:

  • From a pro-open borders perspective, the path to citizenship is the least important of all issues being discussed.
  • From the political externalities perspective, the path to citizenship is very very important.
  • I think that while Clemens is correct that citizenship or the lack of it is not much of an incentive to migrate, the data offered by Clemens don’t quite support that conclusion. The graph displayed by Clemens does suggest that a path to citizenship will not reduce future unauthorized immigration. I’m not exactly sure who argues this, though it does seem like the sort of thing that somebody who hasn’t thought clearly about the issue might say. But restrictionists usually argue the opposite — that a path to citizenship for past unauthorized immigrants will incentivize increases in future unauthorized immigration. This, I suspect, is true. Clemens’ graph doesn’t extend much before 1986, but it’s easy to see that the rate of increase must have been slower before 1986, because the total number of unauthorized immigrants couldn’t have been negative. So, it does seem like the 1986 immigration reform incentivized future unauthorized immigration. What’s not clear, though, is whether citizenship specifically had that effect over and above being granted legal status. So overall, the marginal effect of citizenship seems to be unclear.
  • Even if a path to citizenship is not important for migrants or for open borders advocates, it’s very important for political parties, who are after all negotiating with their political competitors about future voters — the people who’ll decide the parties’ future fate. I don’t see eye to eye with Peter Brimelow, but he’s right that granting citizenship to migrants is about electing a new people, and political parties have a self-interest in electing people who’ll elect them. This doesn’t mean they’d always follow that self-interest — there might be other pragmatic and ethical considerations — but the issue will weigh heavily in negotiations. BK pointed out in the comments that even pro-immigration Republicans don’t expect large numbers of newly minted immigrant citizens to vote for the Republicans, hence they are more likely to support guest worker programs. Democrats do seem to have an advantage with migrant votes, and hence support a path to citizenship, but supporting guest worker programs may cost them union support, which might make them reluctant to do so, as Alex Nowrasteh pointed out:

    So why doesn’t the proposed immigration reform include a comprehensive guest-worker program? Surprisingly, the main issue is not opposition from conservative Republicans. It is unions and their supporters who do not want it.

    In the 2007 immigration reform push, an amendment that would have ended the guest-worker program after five years destroyed Republican support.

    The then-leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers and the Teamsters all wrote letters opposing guest workers and supporting the amendment.

One thought on “Michael Clemens on the “path to citizenship””

  1. No one’s talking about a path to citizenship. It’s always a path to SUPER-citizenship in which the immigrants receive all sorts of privileges and immunities (preferences in college admissions, preferences in government contracting, preferences in hiring, preferences for government loans, etc.) that native White Americans don’t have. That’s monstrously unfair.

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