The Case for Shutting the Door

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed

November 3, 1995

Ric Oberlink

Does our nation need more workers competing for a limited number of jobs? Do our overburdened and overcrowded schools need more students crammed into the classrooms? Will our scenic parks be more enjoyable when shared with additional multitudes? Does precious wildlife habitat become easier to save in the face of additional human encroachment?

The obvious answer to these questions is no, and therein lie sound reasons for why the cuts in immigration in the bill recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee fall well short of what is needed: an all-inclusive ceiling of 200,000 admissions a year. As introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the bill proposed cutting the current 800,000 annual admissions to 585,000 a year for the next five years and 535,000 thereafter. Amendments added during committee hearings bumped the numbers back up to more than 700,000 for the next five years.

The Smith bill incorporated many of the recommendations of the Commission on Immigration Reform. In all fairness, the report by that bipartisan commission, chaired by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, does provide a useful analytical framework for examining immigration policy. However, its recommendations are lacking in many respects.

The fundamental flaw of the commission's approach was that it responded to legitimate public concern by trying to trim around the edges. Instead, it should have addressed the first question of any immigration policy: What is the appropriate number? After establishing that level, it could then proceed to the second tier of allocating the available spaces.

A number of groups and individuals, as well as another bill in Congress, are calling for a five-year moratorium on immigration except for reunification of immediate family members. A sensible approach for the long term is to set the number of admissions at replacement level, the same number as emigrate from the United States, now roughly 200,000 a year. This would allow us to eventually stabilize the country's population.

The Smith bill, tracking the commission's recommendations, does take a major step forward by limiting family reunification to nuclear families--spouses and minor children of U.S. residents--not extended families, such as adult siblings. The extended-family policy has brought us the chain migration that has driven up legal immigration levels in recent years.

The immediate-family reunification numbers should be further reduced by defining as "minors" those under the age of 18, rather than the current 21. Instead, an amendment to the bill expanded this category to include unmarried sons and daughters up to age 25.

Another unfortunate amendment was the restoration of 27,000 "diversity" slots for "underrepresented" countries. This category had been eliminated in the original bill. Nothing makes clearer that U.S. immigration policy is a joke than the annual spectacle of millions of applications flooding into this mail-in lottery for admission to our nation.

One more easy reduction from the commission's proposals would be virtual elimination of the "employment" category. With an unemployment rate of 7.2% in California--1.13 million would-be workers--it's hard to believe that we need more workers, skilled or unskilled. If we do, let us train them, not import them.

The great danger of the commission's recommendations is that they will lead to another failed "grand compromise" like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Under that legislation, illegal aliens were to be given amnesty while employer sanctions were to stop illegal immigration. The sanctions were ineffective and unenforced; illegal immigration increased. Those who were granted amnesty have, in turn, provided much of the basis for the large numbers admitted for family reunification.

The new grand compromise is the proposal to eventually reduce the annual ceiling by almost one-third in exchange for faster processing of the family reunification backlog. The danger is that support will coalesce around the latter, while loopholes, vote-swapping and back-room deals will thwart implementation of the former.

Critics of reducing immigration often assert that America is an "immigrant nation" and immigration is an American tradition. Of course, all nations are immigrant nations if we go back far enough in history. Immigration has not been a constant in our nation: Times of high immigration have been followed by periods of low immigration, creating a "breathing space" that facilitates assimilation. From 1930 to 1970, years in which the nation overcame great adversity and enjoyed great progress, immigration averaged only 180,000 people a year.

Since every other nation in the world has rejected massive immigration, the overwhelming burden is on those who advocate it for the United States--even at the new levels proposed by the commission. Let them come forward and make their case. The arguments--economic, social and environmental--for a huge reduction are formidable.


Ric Oberlink is executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization, based in Sacramento.