Politics & Policy

Turning Down the Heat on Immigration

The Statue of Liberty (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
In his new book, Reihan Salam looks for a way to preserve America’s egalitarian ideas.

The populist wave across Europe and America has many causes, almost all of them related to the disappointments of globalization. The post–Cold War politics of the Western world worked for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and much of the European center-left in the 1990s and early 2000s. Opening trade and a liberal immigration policy coincided with massive gains in living standards. In the worldview of the center-left, the world was getting better, and people were getting better off for it. Consequently, many center-left politicians welcomed the chance to shed some of their labor-movement base while making big inroads among upwardly mobile voters.

At first the response from the parties of the center-right, through figures such as George W. Bush, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel, was broadly a compromise, a qualified embrace of the post–Cold War orthodoxies. All of these figures praised high levels of immigration. In effect, the resulting consensus simply absconded the issue of immigration from democratic checks, at a time when the financial and social costs of emigration from the Third World were collapsing.

The failures of anti-immigration candidates became proverbial lessons. The somewhat moderate Pete Wilson in California leaned into growing Republican anger over illegal immigration and lost. In France, the radical right-wing Jean Marie Le Pen took his National Front into the final round of French presidential elections shortly after the turn of the millennium and was utterly crushed. And in this flattened debate, any political discussion of immigration tended to be divorced from all policy consideration. You were either For It, in which case you were civilized, confident, and good. Or you were Against It, announcing yourself as a barbarian, a loser, and wicked. Donald Trump won the Republican primary and the election by being the candidate of people who were Against It.

But the stubborn fact remains that immigration restrictions will exist so long as nation-states and the concept of citizenship exist. And that policy will always boil down to questions such as “Who?” and “How many?” And it will be informed further by questions such as “What kind of country do we want to have?”

And that is why everyone should be grateful for my friend and colleague Reihan Salam’s book, Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case against Open Borders. Salam is primarily concerned with that last question: What kind of country do we want to have? Should it be one where our doctrine of political equality is in some way reflected in a society where opportunity is broadly distributed? Should it be one where the descendants of new immigrants still feel alienated from the mainstream of American life?

Salam’s book is informed by his own experience as a son of strapped immigrants who nonetheless integrated into American life and went on to its elite institutions: Harvard, Real Time with Bill Maher, and, most impressively, National Review. The second thing that informs Salam’s book is the accumulating social-science literature suggesting that continued mass low-skilled immigration to the United States is likelier to make stories like his rarer, rather than more common.

Salam wants liberals to navigate past their dilemmas on the issue:

On the one hand, it is clear to most liberal scholars and journalists that mass immigration has contributed to racism and polarization. On the other, they view slowing the pace of immigration as a callow surrender to bigotry, so the only option is to double down on the status quo and hope that the storm passes — even if this approach risks triggering an “extinction-level event” for open societies. It is almost as though these thinkers believe things have to get worse before they can get better — that traditionalists who worry about the pace of cultural change need to be crushed rather than accommodated, especially when it comes to immigration policy.

What this line of thinking misses, however, is that there is nothing intrinsically racist about adopting an immigration policy that would be less likely to spark a nativist backlash. And until we recognize that, our politics will only get uglier.

On this he is surely right. And Salam is better positioned than most to tell liberals that their commitment to creating an egalitarian society at home is not advanced at all by simply declaring that potential migrants have as much claim to the blessings of American liberty as natives, then walking away from the consequences.

As soon as you get past the tautological stats about immigration increasing GDP, Salam shows, mass immigration makes us a poorer society: “The United States is home to eighteen million people under the age of eighteen who are either the children of immigrants or are immigrants themselves. According to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the median income for these families is 20 percent lower than for established families,” he writes. And studies looking at social mobility show that, contrary to popular belief, immigrants and their offspring do not “have poverty-defying superpowers that natives do not.” Salam’s argument is that mass low-skilled immigration is adding to America’s baleful history of radicalized inequality, and amounts to serious political trouble.

The heart of Salam’s book is a plea to slow down the rate of immigration-caused change in society and to select future immigrants who are likely to assimilate into and replenish the great middle-class society that gives the American dream plausibility and grants the American way of democracy some legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.

It would not be a Reihan Salam book without a few off-beat proposals. Some are somewhat modest, such as allowing U.S. retirees to use their Medicare benefits in Mexico, encouraging retirees to think of somewhere a little south of Florida and a little cheaper too. Also Salam sees the trend toward urbanization and “super cities” and recommends charter cities at home and economic-opportunity zones in places where refugees are being displaced. In both cases, the idea is to find a policy solution that is more cost-effective and keeps people closer to home. He writes:

In the decades to come, billions of people around the world will do everything in their power to climb out of poverty. Realistically, only a small fraction of them will be in a position to settle in the world’s rich countries — this is especially true of America, which is separated from Asia and Africa by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. We need to do more than pat ourselves on the back for welcoming workers who have the wherewithal to travel enormous distances to better their lot. Ultimately, we must spread the know-how and the institutions that make robust economic growth possible to ensure that there are dozens of Shenzhens on every continent, within reach of all those seeking opportunity.

Ultimately, Salam is looking for a way to preserve America’s egalitarian ideas, and its democratic and welcoming spirit, in an age bringing new challenges of automation, lowered migration costs, and declining birth rates in advanced economies. In that way it’s a deeply conservative book. But unlike so many of the populist politicians who are simply Against Immigration, Salam’s vision is informed by a humanitarian and universalist spirit. It’s a strong effort to reconcile the American interest with Americans ideals, and liberals should engage with it.


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