The Merits of U.S. Immigration Policy

Immigration, especially the massive influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico in the U.S., is going to be a big issue in upcoming U.S. elections.

But legal immigration in the United States creates few problems.  This fact has not been lost on European policymakers, who are obviously struggling to create a workable immigration policy themselves.  Germans tried to copy some aspects of the U.S. system in the 1990s.  Fareed Zakaria explains why it didn’t work by contrasting German and U.S. immigration policy:

Seven years ago, when I was visiting Germany, I met with an official who explained to me that the country had a foolproof solution to its economic woes. Watching the U.S. economy soar during the 1990s, the Germans had decided that they, too, needed to go the high-technology route. But how? In the late ’90s, the answer seemed obvious: Indians. After all, Indian entrepreneurs accounted for one of every three Silicon Valley start-ups. So the German government decided that it would lure Indians to Germany just as America does: by offering green cards. Officials created something called the German Green Card and announced that they would issue 20,000 in the first year….  [but the program didn’t attract many takers, and was abolished]. 

I told the German official at the time that I was sure the initiative would fail….  The German Green Card was misnamed, I argued, because it never, under any circumstances, translated into German citizenship. The U.S. green card, by contrast, is an almost automatic path to becoming American (after five years and a clean record).

The official dismissed my objection, saying that there was no way Germany was going to offer these people citizenship. "We need young tech workers," he said. "That’s what this program is all about." So Germany was asking bright young professionals to leave their country, culture and families; move thousands of miles away; learn a new language; and work in a strange land — but without any prospect of ever being part of their new home. Germany was sending a signal, one that was accurately received in India and other countries, and also by Germany’s own immigrant community….  Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?

Aside from a bit of triumphalism, I think Zakaria has a point here.  The easiest way for Europe to fix its demographic problems is an influx of productive, capable immigrants; clever, motivated people who will found businesses, pay taxes, and otherwise spur economic growth.  These people want to move to a country in which they will can realize their ambitions with as little bureacracy and harassment as possible.  Although they may not have extensive formal educations, they are intelligent, and don’t like being condescended to. 

Lots of countries want these immigrants, including the United States.  In the U.S. they are offered a bureaucratic path to citizenship, if you are admitted legally.  It’s not simple, and you have to work and pay taxes and avoid trouble with the law, but if you do, you will get your citizenship.  At the end of that path, the test for citizenship consists of 10 questions (picked from a list of 100 potential questions).  All of the questions are generic questions about U.S. history; there’s nothing about whether you like baseball, whether you know who Mark Twain is.  You only have to get 6 of the questions right.

In parts of Germany, by contrast, some government bureacrat will ask them a bunch of questions (G), such as to name three mountain ranges in Germany, or describe which event occurred on 20 July 1944.  They might also have to explain what methods of influencing their son or daughter’s choice of marital partner are permitted and which are forbidden, and to explain you have to send your child to school in Germany.  The kind of enterprising, business-starting, tax-paying immigrants that would be extremely useful to Germany will find these questions condescending and intrusive.

Instead of asking the questions perhaps German bureaucrats and politicians should be answering the following question: If you were the kind of immigrant Germany could really use right now, which nation would you choose (ceteris paribus)?

6 thoughts on “The Merits of U.S. Immigration Policy

  1. I am afraid that, 500 years after Columbus “discovered” America (ok, that´s a pretty eurocentric statement, but that´s what I was thaught in the elementary school) Europeans.. somehow… still have problems with mixing up their cultures, families and society with non-european peers.

    Giving a temporary “German Green Card” is like running the “Gastarbeiter” program from the 60´s and 70´s again. And Germans know that the “guest” are not going to leave the premises as early as they expect to. They will bring their families up to Germany, raise kids and so on. The deal with the “Deutsche Grünekarte” is potential immigrants may not feel “completety invited” to the big party germans promise to offer them.

    Shifting back to the “New world”, we still are much more appealling countries for immigrants, who do not stop to come in since the 16th century. I believe that in whole America, from Alaska to Patagonia immigrants feel much more confortable to start a new life and free to choose if they will integrate to the local society, or keep their traditions. And this is true for countries with very bureaucratic immigration procedures, like US or places that you could easily live and work illegal for years, like Brazil. The bureaucracy does not avoid us (specially in latinamerica) to host foreign drug dealers, smugglers, mafiosi, enslaved sweatshopworkers, but aliens give a lot of brazilians a new job, make the economy more lively, the people more beautiful, the eating habits more tasteful and enhance our cultural and academic life.

    I tell people that, instead of blaming on coreans that speaks poor or no portuguese for selling fake Nike shoes, they should think foward and see, for example what the jewish and lebanese brought for São Paulo after some generations: the top-quality Hospital Sírio-Libanês and Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein. Let foreigners come in and stay that they will show you their best!


  2. I absolutely agree with you. The key problem in Germany is that the politicians, especially the Conservatives, didn’t want to admit that Germany is an immigration country. The foreign workers here were seen as guest workers (Gastarbeiter) who were expected to leave after some years. But almost all of them stayed and got children here who are often not well integrated. I think that most of the integration problems base on that conservative citizenship idea, the question catalogues from Hessen and Baden-Wuerttemberg show that again. I can recommend a good article from today’s online-spiegel answering stupid statements published in “Bild” from Prof. Arnulf Baring:,1518,409905,00.html


  3. “Everyone” knew the German Green Card would not work. Everyone, except lobby groups like the BITKOM and obedient politicians eager to please them.

    However, what the article didn’t take into account is that Germany still struggles with the aftermath of the failed imigration policy of the 60th with the “Gastarbeiter”. Since so many things went wrong politicians are wary to do it right now. That, and the propaganda printed by the popular tabloids.


  4. I work as German teacher and I visit very often websites from german publishing houses. Since the german government has been discussing a lot about the immigration policy they have been editing and launching a bunch of books for a specific market: Potential immigrants and Volkshochschule teachers. A book called “Zur Orientierung” from Hueber Verlag, contains the following sample test for foreigners:


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