The radical idea that could actually fix America's broken immigration system

This is how to select the people who have the greatest drive to join America

Tapping into the "good immigrant" debate.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Eric Thayer)

If one thing was crucial to the election of President Trump, it was the support of anti-immigration hardliners. Indeed, the country has become more draconian on the issue of immigration, and one reason is certainly the cack-handed way the country has been going on about it. And I do mean "the country," and not just the United States government. While Washington has been unable to produce actual immigration policy, a significant and influential minority of the country are dedicated to the view that increasing the number of persons on American soil is a profound humanitarian endeavor that requires disrespect for American laws or the view of a majority of the people. The result has been the worst of both worlds.

The actual immigration policy of the United States has been one of negligence and neglect. Millions of illegal immigrants have been allowed to live here in various stages of limbo, leaving many law-abiding citizens, whatever their views on an ideal immigration policy, with the impression that their leaders either can't or won't enforce one of the basic duties of any functioning government, which is border control and legal policing of who comes and who goes.

The whole debate is fundamentally broken. I support vastly increased immigration levels to the United States. But I certainly don't support doing it through a policy of semi-official neglect that lets millions of people in just because they happen to have been born in countries located in geographical proximity to the United States. America is an experiment, a grand national project to build a functioning liberal republic of the special kind envisioned by its Founders — it is a kind of team effort. You recruit people who will do well on that team and bring something special to it.

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In this spirit, I'd like to introduce an idea for an immigration reform plan that would increase immigration levels while being economically and culturally productive and, probably, politically sustainable.

The idea revolves around "charter cities," promoted by the development economist Paul Romer. Romer wants to make the poor world richer by creating, essentially, mini-Hong Kongs in the developing world. These would be small enclaves whose governments would be run with first-class institutions by a first-world country — say, Norway or New Zealand. The idea here is that corrupt governments are what is holding back the world's poorest countries, and just as Hong Kong's success while under British rule prompted China to modernize and liberalize to imitate it, creating small Hong Kongs in Africa, South Asia, or Latin America would have a similar effect on those regions.

As a firm believer in the virtue of city states and political experimentation more generally, I've long supported the charter cities concept. I don't know if they would have the ripple effect Romer believes they would, but it's worth trying, and even if they don't, they would certainly be valuable experiments in their own right.

What does that have to do with the U.S. immigration debate, you ask?

The U.S. should seek to create U.S.-administered, low-tax, low-regulation charter cities on every continent — surely the world's lone superpower can wield any combination of carrots and sticks to get that done — and then make it a law that anyone who moves to these sorts of charter cities gets a green card if, after three years, they speak English and have "made good" in some specific way that is both broad and demanding. Perhaps they've earned a selective degree, started a business, founded a church, or written a book.

Here's why the idea is great. There is a debate about what makes a "good" immigrant: perhaps it is IQ, or a degree, or a Judeo-Christian background. But what the previous great waves of immigrants had in common wasn't a particularly high degree of intelligence or culture or skills, or any common culture. It was, for lack of a better term, a "can-do" spirit. Voluntary immigrants are by definition a self-selective group of people who dare and try things, and certainly that "can-do" spirit is the thread running throughout the diverse and strange thing that we call American history and culture. It's certainly obvious to a foreigner like me. Immigration sophisticates call for bringing in foreign math PhDs, and while I'm not opposed to that in principle, it seems to me that what makes America special is not its IQ level but rather a certain kind of spirit. Most of the people who built California through the Gold Rush were not Harvard graduates, but they certainly were the kind of people who would try anything and do anything to accomplish their dream. That's America.

If you can make it there, you can make it into America. This is how to select the people who have the greatest drive to join and contribute to America. You wouldn't take this bargain — move to a foreign, strange city for three years for just a green card — if you didn't have a strong belief in the American experiment, and you wouldn't succeed in it if you didn't have something to contribute.

This would also be politically sustainable, since by definition anyone who would come to the country would be someone who had demonstrated the qualities for what makes a successful immigrant: belief in American ideals and a capacity to contribute economically and/or culturally to the life of the country.

It's a strange idea, I freely admit. But if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that the ideas that have been batting around Washington haven't succeeded. I think it's time to consider something far-out . Something that could break us out of our immigration stalemate.

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