Positive-Sum Immigration

Scott Hickle
3 min readMay 18, 2022


America’s tangled knot of an immigration policy comes up short in many ways that harm the economy and hinder our technological competitiveness. Two of the more prominent shortcomings are that we do not allow enough immigrants to begin with, and that the mix of immigrants we do allow is heavily skewed in ways that may feel good but are uncritical and counterproductive.

Legal immigration can be categorized into either economic migration or family migration. Depending on the year, 90 to 95 percent of legal immigrants fall into one of these two categories, with refugees and asylum seekers comprising the remainder. American immigration policy today heavily favors family migration over economic migration, allowing 4 family migrants for every 1 economic migrant.

On the surface it feels morally satisfying to place emphasis on keeping families intact, but this is zeroth-order thinking. Considering second- and third-order consequences muddies the waters considerably; it is not clear to me that family-based migration policy is more ethical.

American family-based immigration rates are entirely consistent to comparable developed nations with healthy immigration systems. Australia and Canada make 2.6 and 2.0 family-based admissions per 1,000 residents, respectively. The United States takes in family migrants at a rate of 2.1 admissions per 1,000 residents. We’re about par for the course there; where we stick out like a sore thumb is in the ratio of family-based admissions relative to economic-based admissions. In the UK and Canada family migration rates are 57 and 66 percent of their total immigration flows, respectively. Family migration is 81 percent of all American permanent residence grants. The sad reality is that America admits far fewer economic migrants relative to our overall population: only 0.5 admissions per 1,000 residents as compared to Australia’s 5.5 and Canada’s 4.5 economic admissions per 1,000 residents. Normalized for population, Australia and Canada welcome economic migrants at rates 11 and 9 times higher than the United States! The world’s best, brightest, most talented and ambitious individuals want to make a career in America, and we’re leaving all of that on the table.

In addition to the obvious opportunity cost to America, I contend that given a fixed budget for total immigration rates — say, 1 million/year — we should more heavily favor economic migration as a humanitarian consideration. In fiscal year 2017, U.S. foreign aid to Honduras across all agencies was $181 million USD. In that same year, Honduran Americans sent $4.3 billion USD to Honduras in remittances. This trend holds across all immigrant groups; in 2016, Pew reported that $138 billion in remittances were sent abroad, as compared to a foreign aid budget of $38 billion. Viewed through this lense, economic migration may be the most effective avenue to combat global poverty, and at no additional cost to the American taxpayer.

Is it preferable that three talented, hardworking individuals are denied their opportunity so that one American might bring in his or her spouse and two children? Does that not seem onerous to the three individuals? To the three American employers who no longer have the option of hiring them? This is the system we have now. Taking it a step further, restricting economic migration restricts the (after-tax!) dollars sent home in remittances. In benefiting one family, we have invisibly harmed three willing immigrants and three families abroad. It’s hard to say where the moral balance falls in this scenario.

The answer to this quandary is not a rebalancing of the current immigration budget; it is an expansion of the total budget. Immigration to America is currently budgeted at a rate of 0.3% of our population (~1 million migrants per year), 70 percent of which are family migrants. Compared to historical immigration rates we are lagging; from 1820 to 1910 the American immigration rate was consistently above 0.4% and as high as 1%.

We should increase our rate of immigration back to historical norms and allocate the new capacity toward welcoming and recruiting economic migrants, not at the expense of the current allocation for family migration, but in addition to it.