What Would A “Responsive” Immigration Policy Look Like?

Reihan Salam has an interesting post bemoaning the fact that the DC debate on immigration seems largely unresponsive to public opinion.

For example, on the current population of unauthorized migrants 44 percent want a path to citizenship, 25 percent want them kicked out, and 25 percent want them to become permanent residents. So the median voter wants permanent resident status only. And on future flow, 25 percent want more legal immigration, 31 percent want the same amount of legal immigration, and 36 percent want less legal immigration. So the median voter wants a steady level of legal immigration. Salam’s view is that a more responsive congress would deliver something like this outcome, rather than something like the Gang of 8 bill.

And maybe so. But up top on the Pew survey he’s relying on for data also says that an overwhelming 74 percent of the population think the immigration system either needs to be “completely rebuilt” or else needs “major changes”. So a responsive polity would delivery major changes to the immigration system. Yet the changes that Pew suggests people support—legal tolerance for current residents plus a flat level of new legal immigrants—wouldn’t be major at all. So what’s a responsive politician to do? Deliver the major change people want, or deliver the small-bore tinkering that they also want?

Public opinion often has this kind of structure, which is one of the reasons I think responsiveness is overrated as a goal for a political system. People have views that operate at all different levels of generality. Most generally, people would like their own lives and those of their fellow citizens to go better. Within the bounds of plausibility, politicians should try to write laws that do that.