An Urban's Rural View

If the States Controlled Immigration

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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America is a nation of immigrants, it's also a nation of controversy over immigrants. For years the country has been deadlocked over illegal, or undocumented, immigrants -- on how to keep them out and what to do with the 10 million already here. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

Immigration is central to the American experience, so central that the Harvard historian Oscar Handlin began his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 book "The Uprooted" with the words, "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history."(…)

Yet if America is a nation of immigrants, it's also a nation of controversy over immigrants. Americans were already arguing about immigration back when they were colonial subjects of King George II. In 1753 Benjamin Franklin sought limits on the number of German immigrants to Pennsylvania, complaining they didn't learn English. (…)

Later it was the Irish immigrants who vexed Americans, and still later the Italians and the Poles. For decades the Chinese and Japanese were kept out altogether.

These days the controversy centers on illegal, or undocumented, immigrants -- on how to keep them out and what to do with the 10 million already here. The country has been deadlocked over these issues for years, just as it deadlocked over immigration issues in the past.

Could a new idea break the deadlock? Maybe, maybe not, but when one pops up it's worth examining.

One relatively new idea comes from libertarian writer Shikha Dalmia. Her proposal: Have Washington turn immigration over to the states.

Sound radical? Canada has done it. Ottawa gives each province an immigration quota based on population, allowing them to decide which immigrants to sponsor.

Dalmia would go further. Washington wouldn't assign immigration quotas; the 50 states would "set their own limits on foreign workers," taking as many or few as they chose. (…) States, she argues, "understand their own labor markets" and would do a better job than the feds of finding the immigrants their employers need.

At first glance, letting the states decide would seem to have political as well as labor-market advantages. States that disdain immigrants wouldn't have to take them. And under Dalmia's scheme, immigrants couldn't move to new states until they became citizens.

What's not to like, then? Plenty, apparently. Last time I looked, Dalmia's New York Times op-ed had garnered more than 1,500 comments, many of them critical.

The critiques were all over the lot. Several challenged her starting-point assumption, which is that the U.S. needs faster population growth. Dalmia notes that the U.S. birthrate has fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. She puts it at 1.73, below not only replacement but the world average of 2.4. (…) By some measures, the U.S. has been below 2.1 for more than a decade. (…)

When the birthrate falls far below replacement in a country like Japan, which accepts few immigrants, population shrinks. There were 2 million fewer Japanese last year than in 2009. (…)

In the U.S., thanks to immigration, a birthrate below replacement merely slows population growth, dragging down economic growth, as well.

Does that matter? Most economists would agree that population growth is desirable. Many farmers would as well; labor shortages bedevil some ag sectors.

Some environmentalists, however, think the country would actually be better off with fewer people. Less pressure on scarce resources like water. Smaller carbon footprint.

Similarly, some populists want more jobs and higher wages for existing Americans, which they think are more likely with a population that's shrinking or only growing slowly. Immigration, in their view, just helps big business keep wages low.

If you accept Dalmia's assumption about the need for faster population growth, one option is to encourage Americans to have more babies. The government could dangle cash incentives. Dalmia, though, cites a study indicating that even getting back to 2.1 would be "ruinously expensive."

Assuming the U.S. wants faster population growth and can't raise the birthrate sufficiently, more immigrants are the obvious answer. In addition to their quantitative contribution to economic growth (more workers produce more, consume more and pay more taxes), they arguably make a qualitative contribution.

For example, in recent years more and more of the immigrants have been highly skilled Asians, whose entrepreneurship has made the economy more dynamic. Dalmia cites studies indicating that immigrants have been among the founders of large numbers of fast-growing companies, and that immigrants or their children had founded 40% of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies.

If immigration is the answer, Dalmia maintains the states would do a better job of it. She may or may not be right. It's not clear, in any event, that her proposal could pass political muster.

While many more-populated states would likely welcome the chance to show what they can do, other states might oppose a state-run system. They might worry about disproportional population growth in states with greater labor needs and willingness to accept immigrants. That would eventually give those states more Congressional seats and electoral-college votes.

Still, whatever one thinks of Dalmia's proposal specifically, there's much to be said in general for making more of society's important decisions locally.

One way or the other, U.S. agriculture is eager for a resolution to today's immigration controversy. According to USDA, around 70% of U.S. farm workers are foreign born, and just under half are "unauthorized." Many dairy farmers and fruit and vegetable growers couldn't operate without immigrants.

As a farmer I know likes to say, we have a choice: Import labor, or import food. If we choose labor, we should welcome new ideas on how to get immigration right.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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