David Brooks’s Simplistic Immigration Argument

Naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles, Calif., in 2013. (Reuters photo: Mario Anzuoni)
There’s a case for restriction that doesn’t demonize immigrants — or the native-born.

In a New York Times column earlier this week, David Brooks claims that, no matter how much he thinks about it, “the case for restricting immigration is pathetically weak.” Brooks’s argument basically boils down to this: Almost all economic growth in the United States has been concentrated in areas that have attracted immigrants, and areas filled with native-born Americans are economically depressed. Immigrants bring economic dynamism, have better family values, and commit fewer crimes. According to Brooks, native-born Americans are the heart of degeneracy, and immigrants are the “antidote.”

He ends with the claim that “restrictionists” are motivated by envy, seeing in immigrants people who are better than them in almost every way:

It’s more accurate to say restrictionists are stuck in a mono-cultural system that undermines their own values: industry, faithfulness and self-discipline. Of course they react with defensive animosity to the immigrants who out-hustle and out-build them. You’d react negatively, too, if confronted with people who are better versions of what you wish you were yourself.

I’m not sure whether Brooks is arguing in favor of open borders or merely against cutting current rates of legal immigration. After all, the current immigration system places numerical restrictions on who can immigrate. In either case, there are significant empirical and normative issues with this argument.

Saying that immigrants make an area economically dynamic might be confusing the chicken with the egg. One could just as easily say that immigrants are attracted to areas of the United States that are already economically dynamic. Skyscrapers are found in many economically dynamic areas, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that erecting a 50-story building in the middle of a small Appalachian town will lead to an economic boom.

Moreover, there are plenty of areas with a small foreign-born population that have low rates of poverty, and areas with a high percentage of foreign-born individuals that have high rates of poverty. So it remains unclear that a high concentration of native-born Americans is a guarantee of widespread misery. Indeed, as the Center for Immigration Studies has revealed, immigrant households use government assistance at a much higher rate than native-born households. This finding should not be used to demonize immigrants, but it does suggest that some immigrant families struggle to climb the ladder of opportunity.

And this brings up another empirical problem with comparing immigrants and the native-born: Many native-born Americans are themselves the children of immigrants, so conditions that affect immigrant families can be registered in both natives and the foreign-born. If we want to look at the overall effects of immigration, we need to look at immigrants themselves as well as their children and grandchildren. Evidence gleaned from a multigenerational perspective could suggest the need for reforming immigration flows.

For instance, a landmark 2008 study by sociologists Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz found that many Mexican immigrant families struggle to integrate into American society. The first generation and second generation make advances, but later generations experience stagnation and even some backsliding. Telles and Ortiz blame a variety of forces for this change, some of which can be attributed to current immigration patterns. They claim that underfunded schools hold back the children of Mexican immigrants, so the clustering of immigrants in high-poverty areas could have long-term effects. They also blame “reliance on cheap Mexican labor in the southwestern states” for driving down opportunity for Mexican immigrants and their children. Mexican Americans are the U.S.’s largest immigrant group, so the struggles they face have significant implications for the nation as a whole. Nor are these challenges confined to a single immigrant group.

All of this is not a silver-bullet argument on behalf of reducing rates of immigration or rebalancing these rates to put less economic pressure on workers without a college degree. But this does suggest that immigration policy — like most other policies — involves certain kinds of trade-offs, and the American people have a right to deliberate over which kind of trade-offs they prefer.

Immigration policy — like most other policies — involves certain kinds of trade-offs, and the American people have a right to deliberate over which kind of trade-offs they prefer.

Beyond empirical claims, there’s a deeper normative problem with portraying immigration as a remedy to the supposed degeneracy of native-born Americans. Exacerbating social tensions, it suggests that current citizens of a country are somehow less than foreign nationals. Ironically, it also ends up disparaging the native-born children of immigrants themselves. This anti-native message inverts the traditional American dream for immigrants, saying to them, You are good, but your children will be worse.

Brooks has written compellingly about the need to reknit the civic textures of American society (catch his recent interview with Jamie Weinstein here). It seems to me that a key part of such a reknitting is to advance a narrative of immigration that does not rely on dismissing American citizens. Immigrants have contributed — and continue to contribute — so much to the United States. But the same is true of the native-born. Viewing native-born Americans as a problem to be solved by immigration sells our fellow Americans short and severely underestimates the responsibilities of the powerful, which include crafting policies that address the needs of those who make this republic a home.

It’s chic in the neoliberal age to celebrate the not inconsiderable virtues of movement. But we should also not forget the virtues of sustaining. Many of the small towns and intricate local conventions of American life were nurtured by that multigenerational process of sustaining. And, of course, these local traditions become open to new residents; American life is not a closed circle, and radical stasis should not be the aim. While our culture has long been infatuated with the plucky individual who goes far in search of the lights of a distant city, there is also considerable virtue and dignity in those who keep the home fires burning for that brave wanderer.


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