Iowa Congressman Steve King Is Wrong On Immigration

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) thinks U.S. immigration policy should be like picking dogs. “You want a good bird dog, and you want one that’s gonna be aggressive?” Rep. King said last Tuesday. “Pick the one that’s the friskiest, the one that’s in games the most–not the one that’s over there sleeping in the corner. So you got the pick of the litter and you’ve got yourself a pretty good bird dog. Well, we got the pick of every darn civilization on the planet because it’s hard to get here.”

Not only is his analogy offensive and absurd, King actually rejects his own logic in other areas. On one hand, he argues that immigration restrictions will allow only the best to contribute to the economy; yet he explicitly rejects this view when it comes to union wage standards under the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act. “I think the free market should set wages. The value of [labor] needs to be determined by competition, supply and demand,” he said last year. “They did it to protect unions,” he continued. “Labor from Alabama was going to New York in 1931 to construct a federal building, and they wanted to lock black construction workers out.”

Yet now it’s King who wants to lock Hispanic workers out. “Employing millions of uneducated foreign workers will hurt our country and hinder our economic recovery,” King said in 2009. But his contradictory positions lead him to argue against himself. “As an owner-operator of a construction company,” he told the House in 2011. “I can tell you that the federal government interfering with a contractual relationship between an employer and employee is the wrong thing to do”–except apparently when the employee hails from outside the U.S.

Cognitive dissonance aside, King’s claim that immigrant workers have hurt the economic recovery is just false. In fact, immigrants are doing more than any other group to grow America’s economy. According to the Kauffman Foundation, immigrants started 28 percent of all new businesses last year and as a whole, were twice as likely as native-born Americans to become entrepreneurs. Hispanics in particular are starting businesses at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.

It isn’t just highly-educated immigrants who contribute either. In New York City, for example, immigrants make up 70 to 90 percent of the city’s taxi and limousine, beauty salon, laundry, grocery, and day care small businesses. The effects of these businesses extend beyond the services they provide since they free up high-skilled workers to be even more productive. Low-skilled immigrants are also more mobile, allowing them to move to areas that desperately need labor. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said, “I don’t know where we would have been… if it hadn’t been for the Spanish speakers that came to help rebuild.”

America doesn’t need more bureaucrats trying to find the “pick of the litter” from around the world. U.S. immigration law doesn’t bring the best in, as King suggests–it drives many of the best away. The Technology Policy Institute, for example, found that between 2004 and 2007, visa restrictions forced out more than 480,000 H-1B highly-skilled workers and student visa holders in science, technology, engineering, and math lowering GDP by almost $36.6 billion.

Steve King is right about one thing–but not in the way what he thinks. U.S. immigration policy is in fact modeled on an ideology that sought to apply dog breeding techniques to people. America’s immigration quota system was invented in 1924 by the Eugenics Research Association’s honorary president, Rep. Albert Johnson (D-WA). Johnson, like other eugenicists, believed that the U.S. should protect its genetic stock by keeping out what they considered to be–as he put in his committee report supporting the bill–“unassimilable, filthy, and dangerous” foreigners.

While the ideas of Johnson and his fellow eugenicists were discarded long ago into the dustbin of history, their immigration restrictions remain. Rather than continue to defend such a system, it’s time we dumped it too. If America wants to attract the world’s best and brightest, it should base its immigration policies not on picking dogs, but on America’s traditional openness, holding itself out as the land of opportunity once again.