Human Rights Alarmingly Absent in Think Tank Immigration Proposals


By Hazel Guardado
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations

The voices in the immigration debate are many. Politicians, activists, NGOs, and academics play a key role in shaping this discussion through various mediums, such as books, articles, reports, media campaigns and direct action. Among these actors, think tanks, organizations which focus on complex problems and predict or plan future developments, are especially important. Think tanks are essential because they are traditionally regarded as impartial actors, informed by their research and representing a variety of political opinions. While no actor should be regarded as objective, it is true that think tanks hold a special weight in the debate and are awarded more authority than activists and other individuals.

At a time when most agree that the U.S. immigration system is “broken,” what are think tanks saying about immigration? In an analysis of three of the most prominent think tanks, the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), the Brookings Institution, and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), certain patterns stand out. While these groups offer a variety of solutions to the current immigration debate, an examination of their rhetoric reveals a focus on immigrants as “goods” that can be used according to demand.

First is the idea that immigration law and the economy are “disconnected,” as explains Doris Meissner, former Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and director of MPI’s Immigration Policy. By this, she means that the number of visas currently available do not match the needs of the labor market, a situation which has generated and contributes to generate a large number of undocumented immigrants who come to the U.S. to work. A CFR Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy echoes this idea by arguing for limited temporary worker programs. “That for much of this decade roughly 800,000 migrants could come to the United States [without proper documentation] each year and find jobs is a clear indicator that the legal migration system has not remotely reflected market demand,” CFR explains.

Both think tanks challenge that common assumption that immigrants offer a threat to U.S. citizens by competing for jobs. Instead, as Doris Meissner argues, foreign-born workers act as complements to the labor market rather than competition, since their skills tend to be concentrated on the low end and high end. For example, CFR cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that “the majority of the fastest-growing jobs over the next decade will be ones that demand little or no higher education, including health, leisure, and hospitality services,” or the kinds of jobs that most immigrants do.

Jobs on the high-end are also occupied by immigrants, but not often enough, argue CFR and MPI. In Foreign Policy Begins at Home, Richard Haass, president of CFR, argues that attracting skilled foreign immigrants is essential if the U.S. wants to remain competitive. The CFR Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy also argues that “America’s economic future, as well as its diplomatic success, depends greatly on its ability to attract a significant share of the best and brightest immigrants from around the world.”

A major reason that high-skilled foreign immigration is associated by think tanks with competitiveness is because, according to MPI, foreign-workers tend to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), which fewer and fewer Americans tend to study. This again fits the idea that immigrants are complements to the labor market. Another important change to the immigration system, then, is to (in the short-run) fill the gaps of the education system by attracting more international students and allowing them to then work in the U.S. In the book Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy, Darrell West of Brookings argues that “many of America’s greatest artists, scientists, inventors, educators, and entrepreneurs have come from abroad” and that “the United States has benefitted greatly over the years from the ‘brain gain’ of immigration.”

What about immigrants who are already in the U.S?

All three think tanks agree that immigrant integration is critical both for immigrants themselves and for the U.S., but that the country lacks a comprehensive program to achieve proper integration. For MPI, “it is essential to succeed at this integration because this is our future labor force”––an “us is them kind of situation.” Similarly, CFR finds that “U.S. interests are best served when immigrants are integrated into American society, and particularly when they acquire the English-language skills that are a prerequisite to success in most occupations and to full participation in civil life.” This focus on English language acquisition is echoed by both MPI and Brookings.

There are many other propositions by CFR, Brookings, and MPI regarding immigration, such as support for the DREAM Act, support for a path to citizenship for currently undocumented immigrants, support for measures to prevent illegal entry, and support for federal assistance to states who have recently dealt with large influxes of immigrants. While many of these measures are ones that would benefit migrants, a human-rights perspective on migration is alarmingly absent. This results in dehumanizing rhetoric which views immigrants as political and economic tools to serve the interests of the United States.  While immigrant’s contributions to society should absolutely be highlighted, they should not be looked at as mere tools to propel commercial interests. By bringing human-rights issues to the forefront, actors in the immigration debate will ensure that we create a more fair and humane system.

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