The Immigration Debate and the Racism Charge

by Reihan Salam

One of the more remarkable, and dismaying, findings of the 2013 Hispanic Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute is that native-born Hispanics have less faith in U.S. institutions than Hispanic immigrants:

Strong majorities of Hispanics believe that the U.S. economic system unfairly favors the wealthy (72%) and that hard work and determination do not guarantee success for most people today (60%).

At the same time, a majority (56%)of Hispanics believe that children from all backgrounds have adequate opportunities to be successful in America today. Hispanics who are non- citizens (65%) and Hispanics who are naturalized citizens (63%), however, are significantly more likely than native-born Hispanics (51%) to believe that in the United States children from all income groups have adequate opportunities to be successful.

I would argue that this gap between the foreign-born and the native-born is entirely understandable, as foreign-born Hispanics generally experience a great deal of upward mobility simply by moving from their generally quite poor native countries to the more affluent U.S. Yet the children of less-skilled immigrants have a different frame of reference. They do not have the same subjective experience of upward mobility as their parents. Rather, their frame of reference is North American, and second-generation Americans who are raised in straitened circumstances, and particularly those raised in fragile, unstable families, often find that they do not have access to the social networks, and the cultural capital, that can ease their way into the middle class. The optimism of the first generation gives way in all too many cases to the pessimism of the second generation. 

This gulf separating the subjective experience of the sojourners who find their way into the margins of our highly-productive, urbanized economy and that of their native-born American children, raised in a society in which it is vitally important to have parents who are literate, numerate, and able to navigate mainstream economic life, is in my view the most important challenge that we as a society face, which is why I write about it often.

Several weeks ago, I observed that while Mexican immigrants appear to commit crime at relatively low levels, there is a substantial increase in criminal behavior from the first to the second generation, to levels that roughly match the native-born population as a whole. There are many potential explanations for this phenomenon, and perhaps we should see it as inevitable than second-generation Americans will “assimilate” to the high-crime norms of U.S. society. But I suggested that part of the problem is that in chaotic neighborhoods, where law enforcement fails to protect people from violence, there can be a deepening cynicism about the efficacy of the criminal justice system, which is in itself criminogenic. 

So it was interesting to see one blogger claim that I am seeking to “harness the racist fears of and disgust” of immigrants from Mexico when I have been explicitly arguing for some time that we ought to limit less-skilled immigration not because immigrants are bad people, but rather because the U.S. is a society where it takes time and resources to successfully integrate immigrants and their children

The notion that supporting immigration reform that moves us away from our current policies towards those embraced by, say, Canada and Australia is racist is simply bizarre, for a number of reasons. One reason is that the foreign-born and second-generation U.S. population is disproportionately non-white, and this is the population that would benefit from a reduction in less-skilled immigration. Recently, Daniel Costa of the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute observed the following: 

The only workers whose wages are depressed in a sustained way by lesser-skilled immigration are other immigrant workers with less than a high school degree. That’s evidence we shouldn’t fear immigration, but it’s not an argument for increasing the flow of lesser-skilled, low-wage workers to the United States. The McKinsey Global Institute has projected that in 2020, relative to the number of available jobs, there may be a surplus of about six million workers with a high school degree and of almost one million workers without a high school degree. If these projections are even remotely in the ballpark, then it is highly unlikely that the United States will face labor shortages requiring less-educated, lesser-skilled immigrant workers.

Assuming that Costa is roughly right, the economic challenges facing less-skilled workers will grow more rather than less severe in the years to come. I appreciate that a larger less-skilled workforce depresses wages in the food preparation and other sectors, and this in turn will allow affluent professionals to outsource more in the way of household task. But I’d submit that protecting the interests of existing immigrants with less than a high school degree and their children should take precedence, at least in the medium term. The other reason the racism charge defies logic is that an immigration policy biased towards skilled immigrants would yield a racially diverse pool of immigrants. Indeed, Mexico has a large and growing number of educated adults, many of whom would presumably welcome the opportunity to live and work in the U.S.  

Even if immigration ended tomorrow, the U.S. would likely become a majority-minority society by the end of this century, and under-18s are expected to be majority-minority by 2020. It has become a commonplace on the left that it is extremely difficult for people raised in the bottom quintile to climb out of it. There is a great deal of truth to this, particularly if we limit our analysis to children raised outside of stable two-parent families.  Why is that? Because though our public institutions (our schools, our juvenile courts, our social workers, and much else) can help mitigate some of the deficits experienced by children raised in unstable family arrangements, they can’t come close to closing the gap outright, even in a best-case scenario. There is no silver bullet for equalizing the early childhood experiences of those raised by parents who can provide their children with an expansive vocabulary early in life and those who are less fortunate in this regard. I happen to believe that we ought to experiment with strategies for closing this gap, including the universal child benefit proposed by David FrumBut the notion that it is trivially easy to close this gap is flatly absurd, which is a central part of the case for limiting less-skilled immigration. 

The most coherent argument for large-scale less-skilled immigration that I can think of is that the U.S. has an obligation to redistribute wealth to the global poor by opening access to the U.S. labor market. The trouble with this argument, however, is that a “globalist” immigration policy would more likely resemble the immigration policies of Qatar or Saudi Arabia than that of the U.S., and I’m not sure any of us would want such a thing. I certainly would not. 

I recognize that my views on immigration policy are idiosyncratic, in part because they are so focused on the fate of second-generation Americans, and particularly the poorest second-generation Americans. But they are my views, and I’d prefer not to have them egregiously misrepresented.


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