The raw emotions generated by immigration policy—provoked by heartrending stories of families torn apart by deportation, or citizens murdered by illegal immigrants—have scrambled political allegiances and confused public debate. Republicans, usually the champions of family values and small government, now want to restrict family reunification and give bureaucrats the power to screen people who want to enter the country. Democrats, traditionally the allies of the working class, want big business to select immigrants and have given scant attention to the legitimate interests of working-class natives.
The only way to end this politically charged debate is to think carefully about benefits and costs as well as politics and perceptions. We need a new immigration system that offers liberal admission policies but targets its benefits to native workers rather than corporations.
Economic research provides little doubt that immigration benefits our economy. Highly educated immigrants offer their skills, entrepreneurial drive and much-needed expertise for our most important industries. Low-skilled migrants are willing to do back-breaking but vitally important labor that most Americans refuse. Both types bring their purchasing power, which increases the demand for American services and American-made goods, and their cultural heritage, which enriches ours.