Politics & Policy

What the Conservative Grassroots Get Right on Immigration — and What the GOP Establishment Gets Wrong

Handing out flags to new immigrants in New York City, May 2013. (John Moore/Getty)

David Brooks has just written a stinging denunciation of the Republican party. Though he reserves his harshest criticism for self-described Republican radicals, his larger argument is that the party as a whole has “abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism.” To give Brooks his due, many aspects of his critique ring true. His frustrations are my frustrations. In one passage, for example, Brooks observes that even as Republicans denounce government in the most strident terms, they make ever more outlandish promises about what they can accomplish once elected. When the accomplishments themselves inevitably fail to materialize, members of the outrage caucus find some shadowy villain to blame. This cycle of overpromising and recrimination engenders a great deal of cynicism among rank-and-file conservatives, which in turn further strengthens the hand of the radicals who want to burn the GOP establishment to the ground.

Unlike Brooks, however, I have some sympathy for the Republican radicals. That is because in at least one respect, it is the GOP establishment that has embraced radicalism while the Republican Right stands against it. House Republicans are divided on many policy questions, but the most important of them by far is the question of immigration reform. Though Brooks never mentions this divide over immigration, I would argue that it is playing a central role in the ongoing Republican civil war.

Broadly speaking, establishment Republicans favor an approach to immigration reform that would, among other things, grant legal status to unauthorized immigrants and increase legal immigration, including that of less-skilled workers. Anti-establishment Republicans oppose this approach. If the rise of Donald Trump proves anything, it is that immigration matters a great deal to Republican voters. Indeed, one recent survey found that a large (67 percent) majority of Republicans favors decreasing immigration levels. Almost half (49 percent) of independents feel the same way, as does a significant (33 percent) minority of Democrats. Is it surprising that many conservatives object to a House GOP leadership dominated by proponents of increased immigration levels when only 7 percent of Republicans favor such an increase?

RELATED: Half a Century of Barely Controlled Immigration

There are many thoughtful and intelligent people who support comprehensive immigration reform, and who believe that welcoming more low-skilled workers at a time when the American economy subjects such workers to intense wage pressure is a wise course of action. David Brooks is one of them. He has consistently made a humane, decent, optimistic case for a more inclusive immigration policy, and our public conversation has been greatly enriched as a result. Nevertheless, I’ve come to see the immigration question quite differently.

#share#For a variety of reasons, the United States has a large population of people who are not just poor, but who are the children and grandchildren of poor people, and who are isolated from our society’s economic and cultural mainstream. One of the great dangers we face is that while less-skilled immigrants are upwardly mobile, in that they generally lead better lives in the U.S. than in their native countries, their children and grandchildren are in many cases experiencing “downward assimilation.” That is, they find themselves stuck on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, suffering from many of the same problems that plague other very poor Americans — they are being raised in unstable families, they are victimized by criminals at high rates, and they have far less faith in American institutions than their immigrant forebears did. This is not because these men and women are any less admirable than more affluent, more established Americans. It just so happens that there is only so much that government can do to ensure that the children of parents with low levels of literacy and numeracy will flourish in a society that prizes skills and social capital. Congress can increase transfers, certainly. But it can’t repair frayed social bonds. 

RELATED: Readin’, Ritin’, ‘Rithmetic — After Waves of Immigration, Millions of Americans Lack Basic Skills

I’m of the view that government can and should do more to help the poorest Americans. I also recognize, however, that providing labor-intensive services to the very poor is expensive, and that greatly increasing the number of very poor people in our country is not in fact a free lunch when we factor in the challenges faced by their descendants. If conservatism stands for incremental change and for prudence, balance, and order, as David Brooks and I both believe it should, it seems clear that conservatives must advocate a more humble immigration policy.

#related#What might such a policy entail? Over the course of the last 50 years, we have found that the immigrants who do best in the United States are those who can read and write in English at a high level, and who are capable of doing the kind of knowledge-intensive work that is increasingly prized in an economy like ours. Again, these immigrants are not somehow better than those who do more physically demanding jobs. They are, however, far less likely to rely on safety-net programs and wage subsidies to lead dignified lives. A more humble immigration policy would mean giving up on the romantic illusion that America hasn’t changed in the slightest since the early 1900s, when back-breaking physical labor was a viable path to middle-class prosperity. It would recognize that our country has an entrenched poverty problem, and that helping the large number of less-skilled immigrants who already live here to climb the economic ladder will take a lot of money and a lot of hard work.

We need immigrants who are in the best possible position to help our country finance its aging population, and the education of the tens of millions of children who are growing up in chaotic American households, more than immigrants who will themselves need very expensive assistance. In this one respect, it is the Republican radicals who have a sense of limits and proportion that the GOP establishment does not. And it just so happens that this is the most important issue we face as a country.

— Reihan Salam is the executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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