The problem with framing pro-migrant arguments in economic terms

The investigative journalist whose work inspired the new movie Spare Parts published an op-ed in the New York Times last week urging for immigration reform. In “The Cruel Waste of America’s Tech Talent”, Joshua Davis writes that the real teen boys who won the robotics competition were undocumented immigrants whose legal status sharply restricted their daily lives and future prospects. He criticizes a new bill introduced in the House of Representatives that would roll back President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, arguing that it would lead to the deportation of “successful, talented young people.”

While it is laudable that he is taking the opportunity to insert himself into the national conversation on immigration reform, the underlying logic of the piece troubles me. He argues that the four teens he followed are deserving of immigration reprieve because they are “successful, talented young people.” The skilled technical labor of people like them contribute to the country’s “science and technology prowess” (note the subtle combat metaphor), which in turn drives economic growth. If the government denies people like them the opportunity for legalization, then it will fail to get a “return on that investment” that they made in these students’ legally-mandated public education.

This economistic thinking is discomfiting because of its implications for the majority of undocumented people in the United States today. For example, if migrants like Oscar, Cristian, Lorenzo, and Luis are desirable and deserving because of the economic value of their skills for “us,” what does that mean for migrants who didn’t have the educational opportunities that they had? Are farmhands and domestic workers unwanted and undeserving because their labor isn’t directly related to “science and technology prowess”?

Davis’ argument echoes other nationally-oriented economistic pro-migrant arguments that have been made in the postwar era. In the US, the same reasoning is used to promote expanded skilled migrant admissions and “stapling green cards” to international students’ diplomas. Canada and Australia have built their entire immigration programs along this line of thought and primarily admit migrants based on their perceived potential to contribute to the skilled end of the labor market. The prevalence of this logic in recent decades is undoubtedly linked to the increased agenda-setting power of economics as a discipline and the ideas that developed in the 1970s about technological innovation being the key to rich countries’ continued economic domination.

It is important that more (and more diverse) voices advocate for changes in immigration policy in wealthy countries like the US. More open and more humane immigration policy can make real improvements in the lives of migrants and would-be migrants. But we should all think carefully about how we frame pro-migrant arguments. What is the flip side? Who is excluded? And how might one set of pro-migrant arguments come into conflict with others?

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