Immigration Reform

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 21, 2010

Once you accept the principle of subsidiarity in government (see Surprised by Subsidiarity), you are actually embarking on a new philosophy of life. This philosophy holds that the normal role of higher human authority is to facilitate and coordinate the natural talents and energies which are or ought to be operative at lower levels. This view has a profound impact on how we think government should work, and how to think outside the Federal box.

Take, for example, the problem of immigration in the United States. There tend to be too simplistic schools of thought on immigration. The first school usually argues that it is the role of government to provide for the needs of everybody who enters the country through massive social programs. The second school typically argues that it is the role of government to stem and even reverse the migratory tide through massive policing programs. But what might things look like if government instead tried to influence or harness migratory patterns in order to facilitate the development of a constructive migratory dynamism?

If “migratory dynamism” becomes a persuasive political slogan, remember that you heard it here first! More seriously, we do need to recognize that immigration is a very complex topic that cannot be effectively addressed through any single policy. Still, it is possible to attempt to combine a sound Catholic sense of solidarity with a sound Catholic sense of subsidiarity in order to discern the positive features and energies available in mass migration which might possibly be used to turn the entire process into a socially constructive movement. In other words, we ought to look at the ways in which immigrants themselves can contribute substantially to solving the problems that immigration invariably creates.

In an article in the January issue of First Things, management professor Reuven Brenner of McGill University suggests revising immigration policy to maximize the influx of “the vital few whose contributions to economic growth is disproportionately high” (see Our Muddled Masses). Having taken a close look at such remarkably productive twentieth century social settings as Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, and even the United States until the 1990s, Brenner notes that in each case these societies actually benefitted from “immigration shock” because they were extremely open to the arrival of well-educated, creative, hard-working people who grew up in less opportune environments and were looking for a place to live which would reward the kind of creative initiative that can build wealth. The resulting immigration included a high proportion of scientists, engineers, architects, physicians, managers, technicians and other professionals who were able to make an immediate economic impact, often even starting new businesses which in turn employed immigrants who were not so well-educated or well-trained. In every case, despite the massive immigration in these places, their economies prospered, with immigrants providing an important part of the solution to the very problems which inevitably accompanied their arrival. The same thing happened, Brenner points out, in 17th century Holland.

Brenner argues that there are now several places around the world where such persons, raised mainly in the global south, can migrate to better their socio-economic lot, so that the United States finds itself in competition for the very talent pool which can mitigate or solve its immigration problems. He recommends policy revisions which encourage the arrival of such people in large numbers, which would in turn provide a way to harness the energies of many more immigrants who are not yet in a position to contribute substantially to the economy.

If Americans, along with many others around the world, are torn between hospitality and xenophobia when it comes to immigration, then this approach might well facilitate the former while reducing the latter. It envisions using government to bring out the best in what the community itself has to offer, rather than seeking to control everything through bureaucratic regulation, massive programs, or impossible police responsibilities. It recognizes the value of human liberty and the benefits which flow from each person’s active participation in the shaping of his own future. This sort of thinking puts subsidiarity at the service of solidarity. Because immigration is necessarily a national issue, this proposal rightly looks to the Federal government for part of the solution. But it still represents the kind of thinking we need—thinking outside the Federal box.

Previous in series: The Pope's ‘green’ message: not standard environmentalism
Next in series: The Corrosive Society

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 24, 2010 7:01 PM ET USA

    Legal versus Illegal immigration. What is the role of government? To enforce the laws. Thus illegal immigration should have been stopped by the government. Social welfare programs undermine subsidiarity. But government wants to control rather than empower the citizens. That is why social welfare is used to control. Many people gladly sell their subsidiarity for 30 pieces of silver. In the end, when they find that they have made a bargain with the devil, they cannot give the silver back.

  • Posted by: fisherman129 - Jan. 23, 2010 7:59 PM ET USA

    This is an interesting position. One problem with it is the brain drain from backward countries that could use their educated people in their own country to help it develop... We attract these educated people who then can't help their own country... Might this be an unintended consequence. The other problem is that we do not educate our own Americans to fill in the jobs - our own kids need discipline and encouragement to get the education needed to help us, instead of importing the educated

  • Posted by: - Jan. 22, 2010 5:59 PM ET USA

    Very true, but for many years our policy has been based upon "family reunification." That means that one person comes here illegally...but then manages to get legal status through marriage, amnesty, occupational shortage, etc. Then, there is this terrible division of the family! And that must be cured by bringing the rest of the family here as well we are told.