The case for skills-based immigration

I suspect that the charge of “racism” is really a stand-in for something else. To critics of the bill, references to a more “merit-based” system are really a way of saying that the richer you are, the better you are. Scripture says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of America, Cotton and Perdue are calling for something like the opposite.

Having grown up in New York City, home to millions of poor immigrants, I appreciate the visceral power of this line of argument. If we want fewer immigrants who earn low wages—and who find themselves forced to rely on Medicaid, SNAP, and the earned-income tax credit, among dozens of other safety-net benefits, to provide a decent and dignified life for themselves and their families—well, what does that say to the millions of such immigrants who already live in our country? What does it say to their children, or to the employers who’ve come to rely on them to do difficult, dangerous, and dirty jobs that natives would not do for so little money? America is a large-hearted country, and it’s no wonder that the implicit message of the RAISE Act strikes many Americans as unduly harsh.

But compassion shouldn’t blind us to the truth, which is that there is a trade-off between how generous countries are to immigrants and how many of them they can feasibly welcome, as Martin Ruhs observes in his book The Price of Rights. At one extreme you’ll find countries that welcome vast numbers of immigrants, such as Qatar, where 94 percent of the work force and 70 percent of the population is foreign-born, yet which offers immigrants virtually no rights or social protections. At the other extreme is Norway, which admits a relatively small number of immigrants from outside Europe but treats them exceptionally well.