Do they mean us?

The Gary Becker and Richard Posner blog has an exchange this week in which they agree on the desirability of the US allowing a larger number of skilled immigrants. As someone who advocates more liberal migration policies, I agree with them that it would be in America’s interest to relax its immigration rules.  But two things caught my eye about the way this was discussed.

First, I was disquieted by the way they expressed their shared worry that immigrants from some countries might be terrorists. Becker says:

I do, however, advocate being careful about admitting students and skilled workers from countries that have produced many terrorists, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Richard Posner says: 

I would not describe as "profiling" a system of screening would-be immigrants that, without fixing quotas on a national basis, screens more carefully applicants from nations that are breeding grounds of terrorists. The efficacy of such screening is another matter; the less effective it is, the stronger is the argument for reducing skilled-worker immigration from countries in which terrorists are admired and recruited. 

I find it hard to put my finger on exactly why this exchange is unsettling. In part it is because they appear to be judging whole nations as "breeding grounds for terrorists", based on a small number of violent extremists. This is a form of generalisation which we would find repugnant if applied to other nations.  (What if Britain concluded that "we should be very careful before we employ Americans: the US is a breeding ground for people who don’t believe in science"?)  In part it jars because some of the terrorists come from exotic places like Bromley and Dewsbury.  Should UK citizens be regarded as particularly suspicious if they apply for Green Cards because we are a nation in which "terrorists are admired and recruited"?  The tone of the exchange has the strange quality of being at the same time unworldly and rather unpleasant.

Second, I was disturbed how little concerned either Becker or Posner appear to be about any obligation the US might have to have regard to the interests of the developing countries that they leave.  Becker says:

I believe that it is a winning situation both for the US and for the nations that trained them because these emigrants send back remittances, and some of them return to start businesses based on the experiences they gained in the US.

This is doubtless true, and I am not suggesting for one moment that this concern is a reason for restricting immigration from developing countries.  But if we are to benefit from importing skilled professionals from abroad, we might give some consideration to what steps we might take to minimize any adverse consequences to the countries that they leave, which in many cases paid for them to acquire the skills from which we propose to benefit.  For example, it might make sense to relax the residence requirements on applicants for Green Cards to allow them easily to return to their country of origin for part of the year, to use (and transfer) their skills there if they wish; or to find ways to help the exporting countries to increase training to replace the skilled workers they lose.

1 thought on “Do they mean us?”

  1. I think you’re being excessively sensitive here.

    Look at it the other way: if one of the tiny minority of extremists wanted to infiltrate the USA, how would they do it? Yup, via your new skilled immigrant program.

    In other words, the applicants from these countries are not necessarily a randomly-chosen sample.

    The risk which Becker and Posner identify is real.

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