Politics & Policy

Finding the Way Back on Immigration Isn’t Going to Be Easy for Democrats

(Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
Peter Beinart has an interesting but incomplete argument.

Can the Democrats find a sane stance on immigration? I’m not so sure. In an article at The Atlantic, Peter Beinart eloquently shows how Democrats have drifted farther from a mainstream point of view on this issue. In the middle of the last decade, left-wing pundits could talk about the unfairness to natives and legal immigrants alike of America’s lax enforcement regime; they could speak about the deleterious effect of low-skilled immigration on the wages of Americans, and so on. 

Beinart considers only two factors in the Democratic drift. First, that Democrats came to believe that there was much more political upside in being pro-immigration as Latino voters went more and more for their party. And second, that they decided to buy into the unproven argument that the supply of immigrant labor has no effect or even a positive effect on native wages. 

The victory of Donald Trump is enough to make Beinart urge Democrats to reconsider. He argues that Democrats need to show some respect toward the law, and toward the desire of many Americans (including Democrats) for some sense of social cohesion in America. He recommends that Democrats put an emphasis on assimilation, both to make Americans more comfortable with a high level of immigration and to make them comfortable with redistributing the gains that mass immigration brings to the wealthy back to the natives who lose out.

It’s an interesting but incomplete argument. I’ve argued that the way for conservatives and Republicans to reach out to Hispanic communities is to become the party of assimilation and integration. Assimilation and integration aren’t just a matter of giving Americans a sense of cohesion, they’re about improving the prospects of recent immigrants themselves, and giving them a greater stake in our society.

But ultimately, I don’t think Beinart is truly reckoning with the ideological shift that is taking place on the left. Giving America a normal immigration policy, and getting buy-in from Democrats for a consistent pattern of enforcement for immigration laws will require overcoming more than a mere distaste for “assimilation.” Enforcement of immigration laws — not to mention the laws themselves, which define who can come in and for what purpose — is bound to be “problematic” for the left in one way or another.

In Newsweek, Matthew Feeney looked at recent data showing that Latinos have become less likely to report crimes since Trump became president. He cites a 2012 poll finding that 28 percent of U.S.-born Latinos agree with the statement, “I am less likely to contact police officers if I have been a victim of a crime for fear they will ask me or other people I know about our immigration status.”

Feeney’s heavy implication is that enforcing immigration laws isn’t worth it if makes people more vulnerable to crime. In fact, the argument amounts to saying that all internal enforcement of immigration law should be held hostage by existing circumstances, in particular a large population of illegal immigrants.

One could as easily look at it the other way. What the data actually show is that negligent enforcement patterns in the past open up new fields for criminality in the future. The problem isn’t immigration-law enforcement in itself, it’s that a lack of enforcement has created a situation where many Latinos in America are socially embedded with and dependent on people with no legal right to be in America. For some reason, however, the way to be a good ally on the left is to advocate more immigration, not to support making a more lawful and just society for legal immigrants.

Beinart also leaves untouched some of the exotic arguments that have gained currency on the left when debating immigration. Beinart says Democrats should be pro-immigration because it is such a boon to the immigrants. He picks up an argument Ezra Klein posed to Bernie Sanders last year: that to fight global poverty, policymakers should consider “sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.”

There are so many odd assumptions in this argument. First, if immigration is about fighting global poverty, then we’ve been aiming this relief at people who do not need it. If the humanitarian benefit to the immigrant is the overriding concern, then having immigration from India, other parts of Southeast Asia, and Mexico amounts to aiming your poverty-relief program at the upper-middle class or the wealthy. The vast majority of people on earth, some 5.5 billion, live in countries with lower living standards than Mexico. 

In fact, just considering this should warn people away from thinking about immigration policy in terms of global poverty reduction. America cannot make a statistically meaningful reduction in global poverty through this policy mechanism. Trying to do so is much more likely to make America more like Qatar, a place of startling inequality with a rigid, racialized economic caste system.

More fundamentally, many liberal and leftist opinion leaders have adopted an expansive definition of white supremacy from academia, one that is novel and confusing to people that associate the term with Ku Klux Klanners and neo-Nazis, people who think that whites are innately superior or ought to be. California state senate leader Kevin de Leon invoked this language while criticizing Trump’s immigration policies: “It has become abundantly clear that Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions and the Trump administration are basing their law enforcement policies on principles of white supremacy — not American values,” he said.

Any immigration policy necessarily must discriminate.

This more expansive idea of white supremacy obliges its opponents to decry what would be normal policies of enforcement or immigration selection anywhere else. In this ideological framework, discriminating based on job skills, on fluency in English, or on compatibility with American society amounts to a concession to or a defense of white supremacy in America. At the extreme end, it could be held that stopping any non-white immigrant from entering America delays the moment at which the power of white supremacy is finally ended. And so it is morally impermissible to do so.

And that is why I think it is, for now, impossible for Democrats to come to a normal, even if still liberal, position on immigration. Over time the Left has backed itself into a position where nearly all immigration laws are impossible to endorse. Enforcement has a disparate impact, by its very nature. And because any immigration policy necessarily must discriminate when it comes to choosing who comes in and who doesn’t, the Left now feels obliged to object to any standards that promote “cohesion,” such as requiring language and work skills. These constitute an illegitimate defense of white supremacy or expression of racial animus.

Ultimately, the Left’s commitments to such an exacting form of egalitarianism oblige them to oppose concessions to reality, to a world that is contingent, conditioned by history. To admit a legitimate need for “cohesion” is to concede to a flaw of human nature that should be eliminated.


Bret Stephens’s New York Times Immigration Satire is Misguided

Trump Rolls Back Obama’s Immigration Amnesty

America’s Immigration is What Makes it Special

— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer for National Review Online.

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