Commentary

Should the US Reduce by 50% the Number of Legal Immigrants and ‘Immigrant’ Students?

By Daniel Griswold
This article appeared in the Wichita Eagle on April 23, 2002.

Slashing immigration and student visas by half would hurt our economy, divide families, and reduce America’s influence in the world — all without making us one bit more secure from terrorist attacks.

Among the 19 terrorists responsible for September 11, only one entered on a student visa and none applied to immigrate. Like the vast majority of foreigners who visit the United States each year, the terrorists entered legally with tourist visas. In fact, of the 30 million foreigners who entered the United States last year, less than 1 million applied to stay permanently as immigrants and only 500,000 came as students.

An arbitrary 50 percent cut in categories that cover only 5 percent of the foreigners who enter the United States each year would do nothing to make us more secure. The call to cut immigration is only an opportunistic attempt by the usual anti-immigration groups to tie their issue to the national security bandwagon.

Of course, the U.S. government should “control its borders” against terrorists. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies must share information in real time with the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs to bar entry to anyone connected with terrorism. More agents must be posted at ports of entry to more thoroughly screen for high-risk travelers. Computer systems must be upgraded and new technologies adopted to screen out the bad guys without causing intolerable delays at the border. People applying for student visas must be checked more carefully before entering and tracked more closely once they arrive.

Immigrants, today as in the past, come to America to work, save, and build a better life for their families. They make our economy more productive, boosting output by billions of dollars and filling gaps in our labor market. Large sectors of our economy, from tourism and health care to education and high tech, would be crippled if our borders were closed to immigrant workers. According to the National Research Council, the typical immigrant family and its descendents will pay $80,000 more in taxes during their lifetimes than they consume in government services. Since passage of the welfare reform act of 1996, welfare use by immigrant households has plunged.

Foreign students benefit the United States and their home countries by adding to the world’s stock of human capital. They experience first-hand the American system of liberty, pluralism, and free enterprise, and spread those ideas abroad. They boost our economy by spending $12 billion a year on tuition and other expenses. It would be folly to close the door to hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign-born students because of one terrorist who exploited the system.

On top of the economic damage, a drastic cut in immigration would be anti-family and anti-humanitarian. It would deny entry to foreign-born wives, husbands and minor children of U.S. citizens and other legal permanent residents. It would close the door to refugees fleeing war, persecution, and famine.

The major border security bill now making its way through Congress, S. 1749, would address legitimate issues of security without any of the self-destructive cuts in immigrant and visa numbers sought by the anti-immigration crowd. We can do what needs to be done to keep dangerous people out of our country without sacrificing the many benefits of welcoming students and immigrants to America.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of the new book, Mad About Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization (Washington: Cato Institute, 2009).