Arguing that the current legal immigration system is deeply unfair, Manjoo points out that his family — immigrants from South Africa — had to navigate a Jupiter Ascending-level of confusing bureaucracy just to be allowed to contribute to American society. (Some might question whether that is what newspaper columnists do, but we opinion writers must stick together.) He asks: “[Why] had I deserved that chance, while so many others back home — because their parents lacked certain skills, money or luck — were denied it?”
“Imagine,” Manjoo writes, “that if you passed a minimal background check, you’d be free to live, work, pay taxes and die in the United States. Imagine moving from Nigeria to Nebraska as freely as one might move from Massachusetts to Maine.”
This vision makes many Americans cringe, but that is Manjoo’s point: Rationally, it shouldn’t. “America’s borders were open for much of its history — if your ancestors came here voluntarily, there’s a good chance it was thanks to open borders,” he writes. “People worry that immigrants will bring crime, even though stats show immigrants are no more dangerous than natives. People worry they’ll take jobs away from native workers, even though most studies suggests that immigration is a profound benefit to the economy, and there’s little evidence it hurts native workers.”
Moreover, increased immigration, skilled and unskilled is a strategic necessity. “America is an aging nation with a stagnant population,” Manjoo explains. “We have ample land to house lots more people, but we are increasingly short of workers. And on the global stage, we face two colossi — India and China — which, with their billions, are projected to outstrip American economic hegemony within two decades.”
But here is where Manjoo’s case becomes too good to be true: “If we worry that they’ll hoover up welfare benefits, we can impose residency requirements for them,” he writes. Manjoo seems to be arguing that people who come to the United States “as freely as one might move from Massachusetts to Maine” would be denied government benefits for a certain period of time, forcing them to sink or swim to prove they are not here to mooch.
Manjoo decries the “bottomless unfairness” of the U.S. immigration regime, but then he proposes a system in which new migrants would easily gain the right to live, work, pay taxes and integrate into American society with substandard access to health care, unemployment insurance, food security and all the other benefits a modern government provides. He would create a new underclass.
The country’s current underclass — its 11 million-or-so undocumented immigrants — illustrates the problem. These people account for a substantial proportion of those who lack health-care coverage in the United States. In a state such as California, which has a huge number of undocumented people, a large section of the labor force, often performing backbreaking or perilous work, has no health coverage. When they become seriously ill or get into an accident, they seek care at emergency rooms, posing a question to policymakers: If they get subsidized care anyway, why restrict them from a better-structured system to deliver care before they get sick?
California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, proposed on his first day a plan to extend Medicaid benefits to the state’s young-adult undocumented population. The federal government will not fund the expansion, so the cash would have to come entirely from state money. In the absence of federal action, Newsom would shift a status quo in which the country benefits from undocumented labor but does not acknowledge these immigrants’ needs.
If California has understandable trouble watching hard-working undocumented immigrants go without state benefits, it would be even harder to deny government help, even temporarily, to those Manjoo would offer legal status and social legitimacy. Suffering is difficult to ignore in one’s backyard.
Manjoo also fails to acknowledge the all-but-inevitable backlash a new wave of immigration would invite, as illustrated by Germany’s experience with accepting large waves of refugees over the past decade. The Brexit debacle, too, has been as much about blocking immigration from Eastern Europe as anything else. Manjoo’s oversight does not so much undercut his argument about the pure merits of open borders as it does express how hard it would be to make his plan a reality. Minds would have to change radically.
Admittedly, that may begin with columnists challenging politicians to be more forthright. But those columnists must themselves be forthright.
Three years ago, a senior Singaporean official enviously told me that the United States’s greatest strength is that everyone wants to come here. We have the pick of the world’s talent and generations of lower-skilled workers ready to keep the nation young, vibrant and prosperous. The United States must end the conversation that characterizes this blessing as a curse, and the nation should move to one about how to more effectively benefit from it. But those who favor doing so should be clear-minded about the challenges as well as the opportunities.