The Impossible Question of How Many Immigrants We Should Take From Mexico

Over at his excellent policy blog, Reihan Salamconcludes a post as follows:

We are a wealthy country with a vibrant culture. If our immigration policy is motivated by humanitarian concerns, we obviously wouldn’t focus on Mexico as opposed to the world’s poorest countries. And if our immigration policy is not motivated by humanitarian concerns, we’d presumably want to place a greater emphasis on drawing skilled migrants rather than less-skilled migrants, as Richwine and many others recommend. In either case, we’d need a very different immigration system. The main case for the status quo, or for a comprehensive immigration reform that entrenches existing patterns, seems to rest on interest group politics.

Maybe that’s right, but it doesn’t seem self-evident to me.

If we’re concerned with self-interest, the United States should certainly admit more high skill immigrants, but perhaps it should also prefer Mexican immigrants to similarly skilled immigrants from poorer countries. Were I arguing for that proposition, I’d point out that the Mexican diaspora can help future immigrants to transition and flourish more easily than (for example) a French speaking Haitian. Presumably our proximity and similarity in cultures matters too. I’d add that if our immigration policy serves as a release valve in some countries (which countries most benefit from that?), and remittances serve as a kind of indirect foreign aid, then our interest in Mexican stability might also militate in favor of preferring immigrants from our southern neighbor to newcomers from places father afield.

And if our concerns are strictly humanitarian, we cannot just consider poverty levels in a prospective immigrant’s country of origin: we must also consider how economically successful immigrants from that country are upon arrival in the US, their pattern of remittances, how efficiently their relatives back home use those remittances, whether there is a brain drain effect, even cultural factors that affect how happy people are moving to a foreign place far away from friends and family… it gets very complicated.

I don’t actually have an opinion about whether we should take more or fewer immigrants from Mexico, or what our immigrant mix would be if we wanted to maximize humanitarianism — about the only thing I know is that it’s in our self-interest to take a lot more high skill immigrants, and that all the other questions grappled with in this post are insanely complicated.