Politics & Policy

The Right Can Stop Losing on Immigration: Here’s What It Will Take

New citizens at a naturalization ceremony in Seattle, Wash., July 2, 2016. (Reuters photo: David Ryder)
As America grows more ethnically diverse, restrictionists will have to embrace a new strategy.

To understand how the immigration debate has unfolded over the past 30 years, it is helpful to consider the language we use when discussing it. One often hears of “nativists” who oppose immigration and who, by implication, loathe immigrants. Yet it is rare that we hear of “immigrationists” who are ideologically committed to higher immigration levels and who are quick to dismiss legitimate concerns about the skill levels and earning potential of new immigrants as nothing more than veiled racism. Those who advocate increased immigration levels and the granting of legal status to unauthorized immigrants are the partisans of “comprehensive immigration reform.” But what of those who call for a different comprehensive immigration agenda? If your goal is to encourage unauthorized immigrants to return to their native countries and to reduce legal-immigration levels, or at least to limit the influx of less skilled immigrants, you are not in favor of comprehensive reform. Instead, you are a “restrictionist” — a term that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “reformer.”

Why is language so important? The words we use to describe the immigration debate shape how the debate unfolds. If you casually follow the politics of immigration, and you’ve been told time and again that everyone sensible and humane favors reform and that only nativist restrictionist xenophobes oppose it, chances are you’ll just leave it there.

It is not hard to imagine language that’s more objective. It so happens that throughout U.S. history, many of those who have supported restrictionist legislation have been immigrant adults with native-born children and have felt that the economic prospects of their American daughters and sons would improve if the federal government reduced immigration levels. We can call these immigrants “nativists,” because they are after all seeking to better the lives of natives (such as their children), but it’s a bit of a stretch. While “restrictionist” isn’t exactly the most felicitous term, we should at the very least contrast “restrictionists” with “expansionists” and acknowledge that all those who seek to change our immigration laws, whether in a restrictionist or an expansionist direction, are reformers.

We’d be better off still if we adopted a richer vocabulary. Daniel Tichenor, currently a political scientist at the University of Oregon, offers a more nuanced typology in Dividing Lines (2001), a history of the decades-long conflicts over U.S. immigration policy. Recognizing that the motivations of participants in that debate are varied, Tichenor identifies four distinct groups, each driven by its own political interests and ideological commitments.

Cosmopolitans call for expansive admissions and for extending all the benefits of full membership in society, including citizenship rights and access to safety-net benefits, to newcomers. Nationalist egalitarians believe that porous borders undermine the interests of disadvantaged natives and established immigrants and so want to reduce admissions of new immigrants. Yet they’re also deeply suspicious of denying those already in the country the right to vote and to organize, partly because they believe that creating a class of guest workers would empower unscrupulous employers at the expense of ordinary workers, whether native- or foreign-born. Free-market expansionists favor expansive admissions, like cosmopolitans, but they’re quite comfortable with limiting the rights of immigrants by barring them from citizenship and the welfare state. Classic exclusionists, finally, are like nationalist egalitarians in wanting to reduce admissions but unlike them in having no objection to limiting the rights of immigrants.

While cosmopolitans and free-market expansionists both seek to increase immigration levels, they do so for different reasons. For example, cosmopolitans generally embrace multiculturalism. They celebrate immigrants who preserve their native language and culture, and they see the insistence that immigrants assimilate to American norms as little more than ethnic chauvinism. Free-market expansionists split the difference: Some see the United States as the world’s “first universal nation”; others don’t really care about how immigrants identify culturally as long as they don’t go on strike for higher wages. Nevertheless, cosmopolitans and free-market expansionists often work hand in glove.

Restrictionists also hold clashing beliefs. Nationalist egalitarians tend to hold a melting-pot conception of American national identity, in which people of different ethnic origins blend together into a common culture over time. Some classic exclusionists feel roughly the same way. Others, however, believe that some immigrants are simply unassimilable, particularly those from non-Western cultures. So while a classic exclusionist might maintain that Latin American and Asian immigrants are intrinsically inferior to old-stock Americans, a nationalist egalitarian might find that notion offensive.

By overlooking these distinctions, we tar all restrictionists with the same brush. And as an added bonus, we make reformers seem either more noble or more naïve than they really are.

Restrictionists have been losing to expansionists for a long time. Roughly speaking, the story of the immigration debate in recent decades has involved the growing power and influence of cosmopolitans and free-market expansionists, the reemergence of classic exclusionists, and the almost complete marginalization of nationalist egalitarians. The rise of Donald Trump, as we shall see below, is not a sign of the health of the restrictionist movement. Rather, it is a sign of the dire shape it is in. As nationalist egalitarians have faded from the political scene, classic exclusionists have become the face of opposition to mass immigration. And like it or not, the language of classic exclusionism has proven repellent to a large number of Americans, particularly the naturalized immigrants and younger Americans who are so essential to achieving a durable political victory.

The fundamental reason the expansionist coalition has gained the upper hand is that restrictionists are not operating on a level playing field. Although for decades voters who want to see immigration decreased have outnumbered, often by very wide margins, those who want to see it increased, permissive immigration policies create their own constituency.

Students of U.S. immigration policy tend to focus on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (INA) as the watershed event in modern American immigration history, and for good reason. The INA brought decades of immigration restriction to an end. Yet there’s a strong case that the real watershed came in 1986 with the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The IRCA was ostensibly designed to make immigration enforcement more stringent. But it also provided for the legalization of almost 3 million unauthorized immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982, a number far higher than lawmakers had anticipated. The legislation gained the support of free-market expansionists and cosmopolitans, but, because it contained enforcement provisions that expansionists feared, that support was not always enthusiastic. Crucially, the IRCA also gained the support of some nationalist egalitarians, who saw amnesty as a way to press “Reset” on U.S. immigration policy: Let’s grant legal status to those who’ve entered the country in recent years so we can help them assimilate and achieve upward mobility, and then let’s crack down on employers seeking an exploitable labor force.

The high immigration levels of the 1980s whetted the appetite of employers and ethnic communities for still higher levels.

Not all of those legalized under the IRCA followed the strict letter of the law. Lack of rigorous enforcement turned the IRCA into a bonanza for shady employers, who made fortunes “laundering” late-arriving unauthorized immigrants by corroborating their false claims to have worked in the U.S. prior to 1982. One might have expected this to be simply a one-off occurrence or a lesson that coupling stronger border enforcement with amnesty doesn’t really work. But something very different happened. The high immigration levels of the 1980s whetted the appetite of employers and ethnic communities for still higher levels, which led to the Immigration Act of 1990, legislation that dramatically increased the number of family-based immigration visas while also establishing a number of new employer-friendly visa programs such as the H-1B visa for highly skilled guest workers.

Over the next several years, the restrictionist coalition regrouped, and it came closer than it had in decades to achieving a major political victory. During his first term, President Bill Clinton appointed the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by African-American representative Barbara Jordan (D., Texas), a leading civil-rights advocate. In its final report, the commission recommended that the federal government tighten workplace enforcement of immigration laws and that it reduce legal immigration levels by 30 percent, a decidedly modest change that would essentially restore the levels seen before the Immigration Act of 1990. With an eye toward appealing to working-class whites, President Clinton endorsed the commission’s recommendations. And in his 1995 State of the Union address, he used language about the importance of immigration enforcement that would be almost unthinkable for a Democratic candidate in 2016.

The key reason that restrictionist legislation failed was that the Republicans who won both houses in Congress in 1994 were divided between classic exclusionists and free-market expansionists. Rallying under the slogan “Immigration yes, welfare no,” a bipartisan coalition defeated efforts to reduce immigration levels while limiting welfare benefits for non-citizen foreigners. Suffice it to say, many pro-immigration liberals strenuously objected to these limits on the grounds that they were inhumane. But over time, a growing number of less skilled immigrants restored their eligibility for benefits by becoming naturalized citizens. Furthermore, many of these limits were either actively undermined by state and local officials or left entirely unenforced.

Normally, classic exclusionists might have counted on nationalist egalitarians to support them in the fight for restriction. But during the 1990s, many left-of-center constituencies that had previously opposed high immigration levels — organized labor, civil-rights groups, and environmentalists — flipped on the issue, for reasons that continue to be hotly contested. One widely held view among restrictionists is that while many African Americans opposed high immigration levels in this era, the influence of powerful liberal foundations muffled their dissent. Labor unions, meanwhile, were in the midst of a transition from being a movement dominated by older working-class whites who belonged to unions in the private sector to being a younger, more college-educated, and more diverse movement dominated by social liberals who belonged to public-sector unions and who saw less skilled immigrants as sympathetic victims and as a potential political constituency. And according to Philip Cafaro, the environmentalist author of How Many Is Too Many?, environmentalist groups abandoned the cause of immigration restriction mostly out of fear of being accused of racism. Regardless of why these constituencies flipped, flip they did, and nationalist egalitarians identified with the political Left are now all but extinct.


Never again has there been as promising a political moment for restrictionists, in part because of the immigration-fueled transformation of the electorate. How is it that higher levels of immigration beget still higher levels? As a general rule, naturalized citizens favor high immigration levels more than native-born citizens do, and recent immigrants are more favorably disposed to new immigration than are those who’ve lived in the country for a longer period of time. The most obvious reason this is true is that recent immigrants are less assimilated than those who’ve lived in the U.S. for decades (as I noted in “Two Kinds of Patriotism,” National Review, August 29, 2016). Over time, cross-border connections to loved ones back home tend to attenuate. But this effect can be dulled or even reversed when ethnic communities are replenished by new arrivals. Moreover, the more immigrants arriving in the U.S. from a given country of origin, the longer it will take previous immigrants from that same country to assimilate into the wider community.

We see a similar dynamic in the labor market. Vernon Briggs, a labor economist at Cornell and a prominent nationalist-egalitarian voice in the immigration debates of the 1980s and 1990s, once observed that the availability of low-wage immigrant workers “exerts a narcotic effect on employers in low-wage industries.” Whereas a shortage of less skilled workers might lead employers to either raise wages or deploy labor-saving technology, their availability allows them instead to keep aging business models intact. In contrast, service-sector employers in countries with relatively low immigration levels, such as Japan, South Korea, and Denmark, have no choice but to rely on high-wage business models that are more capital-intensive. If they don’t, they go out of business.

When U.S. employers in aging, labor-intensive industries insist that paying higher wages or relying more heavily on machines is an existential threat to their firms, they have a point. In the course of free-market competition, they will either have to upgrade their business models or lose out to competitors who do just that. Of course, this is also true of employers facing minimum-wage hikes that make labor-intensive business models ruinously expensive or technological advances that render their business models obsolete. The difference is that when low-wage employers demand that the federal government design its immigration policies to prop up their aging business models, they’re able to claim the moral high ground — to use Tichenor’s typology, free-market expansionists who care primarily about maintaining a steady supply of low-wage labor can use cosmopolitan language to make their case.

Though the immigration-expansion coalition consists of more than just naturalized immigrants and employers, these two constituencies are vitally important. The employers bring lobbying muscle and campaign donations to the table, and the naturalized immigrants bring passion and moral legitimacy. Just as defenders of gun rights tend to be more committed and more engaged than advocates of gun control, expansionists have done a good job of translating their inferior numbers into durable political successes.

All of which leads us to the present. Is Donald Trump the best thing that could have happened to the cause of restricting immigration, or the worst? To the relief of many in the restrictionist camp, Trump has at long last outlined a mostly coherent immigration agenda. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that, regardless of what happens in November, Trump’s rise has already proven a disaster for those who favor a more selective immigration policy and that restrictionists badly need a new playbook.

Since the start of his presidential campaign, Trump has offended vast swathes of the electorate with his immigrant-bashing rhetoric. Over the past few weeks, he’s tried to make amends, occasionally noting that a more selective approach to immigration would benefit lawful immigrants as well as natives. He’s claimed that his policies would revitalize America’s inner cities and promote upward mobility for working-class Hispanic and black Americans as well as the working-class whites who’ve powered his political success. Not surprisingly, many of Trump’s critics question his sincerity.

According to a recent Suffolk University poll, 44 percent of likely voters believe that the Republican nominee is racist while 47 percent believe otherwise. The good news, if you can call it that, is that only 37 percent of whites believe that Trump is a racist, a number that would be alarmingly high under almost any other circumstances. Among Hispanics, 61 percent believe that Trump is a racist, and the same is true of 83 percent of blacks. The same incendiary remarks that raised Trump’s visibility and helped convince a critical mass of GOP primary voters that he intended to defend their interests — that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “criminals,” and much else — have badly damaged his ability to broaden his support. Trump’s efforts to rehabilitate his image have yet to bear fruit, and the hour is late.

As America grows more ethnically diverse, restrictionists will have to embrace a new strategy. To build a durable coalition, they must convince a larger number of native-born Hispanic Americans that immigration-enforcement efforts are motivated not by racial animus but by a desire to protect the economic interests of all Americans, regardless of race. What they need, in short, is a revival of nationalist egalitarianism: a belief that immigration restriction should be part of a larger strategy to better the lives of disadvantaged Americans. Rather than attack unauthorized immigrants, restrictionists ought to train all their rhetorical fire on the employers who draw unauthorized immigrants into the country by hiring them illegally. Unscrupulous employers who fail to comply with immigration laws tend to violate other laws as well, including minimum-wage laws and overtime and health-and-safety regulations. Cracking down on rampant wage theft would inevitably mean cracking down on those who use unauthorized-immigrant labor. If restrictionists make their case in these terms, and if conservative Republicans echo them in doing so, they will have a fighting chance at changing the course of the immigration debate.

#related#There is at least some reason to believe that this message could resonate. Recently, Gallup found that while Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump 87 percent to 13 percent among foreign-born Hispanics, she leads Trump by a less imposing margin of 43 to 29 percent among U.S.-born Hispanics. The Pew Research Center has found that while Hispanics who primarily speak English are split 48–41 in favor of Clinton, those who are bilingual or who primarily speak Spanish favor Clinton 80–11. Considering that support for Trump is literally a worst-case scenario for gauging restrictionist sentiment among Hispanics, these numbers are a decent start. In effect, restrictionists need to give naturalized immigrants and their families “permission” to favor policies that emphasize the interests of those who already reside in the U.S. over the interests of low-wage employers.

Pulling this off will take subtlety, intelligence, and compassion, qualities that Trump has utterly failed to demonstrate throughout his campaign. The time has come for other conservatives to step up. In an ideal world, the face of the restrictionist movement would be someone who had strong ties to Hispanic-immigrant communities and couldn’t be caricatured as a bigot or a sellout. Better still, it would be ideal to find someone who was once a cosmopolitan or a free-market expansionist but who has since embraced something like nationalist egalitarianism. One prominent Republican lawmaker who could potentially fit this bill is Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida and second-generation Cuban American who outraged restrictionists by serving as one of the architects of the Gang of Eight bill. But whether Rubio has the strength and the foresight to reverse course and to lead a new restrictionist charge is very much an open question.

— Reihan Salam is the executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. This article originally appeared in the September 26, 2016, issue of National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally mistakenly identified Daniel Tichenor as an intellectual historian. In fact, he is a professor of political science.

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