Strangers and Citizens

Immigration will only benefit our country if we’re committed to assimilating new arrivals.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is adapted from Reihan Salam’s new book, Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case against Open Borders. It appears here with permission.

‘Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger,” said President Barack Obama, “for we know the heart of a stranger — for we were strangers once too. . . . And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal — that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”

One of Obama’s great talents was his unsurpassed ability to stack the rhetorical deck. Here he was announcing his executive order for deportation relief in 2014. To disagree with him was not just to reject his take on the costs and benefits of a particular policy, it was to oppress a stranger, which no less an authority than Scripture tells us is a very bad thing to do. Yet there was a small wrinkle in the former president’s remarks. While calling on his fellow citizens to welcome the millions of strangers who make their way to our country to better their lives, he also insisted that his executive action would shield only those who’d been in the country unlawfully for five years or more. Moreover, it did not extend to those who might settle in the United States unlawfully in the future.

But surely those who’ve been in the country for, say, four years are strangers who deserve our compassion, too. Having praised unauthorized immigrants who work hard in low-paying jobs and who worship in our churches, the president must understand that there are tens of millions of people around the world who would gladly do the same, even if it meant risking their lives. According to one survey, there are roughly 700 million people around the world who would like to move permanently to another country, and 165 million of them say that their first choice would be to move to the United States. My guess is that the vast majority of these aspiring immigrants are decent people who mean us no harm. If the Biblical injunction against oppressing a stranger is to serve as the lodestar of our immigration policy, why on Earth would we set any limits at all?

Obama’s expansive language gave succor to open-borders romantics— and to the most demagogic voices on the other side of the debate, up to and including the man who succeeded him in the White House. Together, these forces are making it all but impossible to craft a durable immigration compromise. The irony is that Obama had a different and more potent argument at his disposal, namely, that the young people to whom he was offering deportation relief weren’t strangers at all. Because of our decades-long failure to enforce our immigration laws, an arrangement that suited unscrupulous low-wage employers just fine, they had become part of our communities. There was a perfectly good case for doing right by them while also embracing resolute enforcement, a case Obama gestured toward early in his presidency, yet which open-borders activists came to angrily reject in its waning days. The result is that immigration polices championed by liberals and centrists as recently as the 2000s are now routinely denounced as unacceptably extreme.

Immigration policy is not about whether to be welcoming or hard-headed. Short of absolutely open borders, which most advocates of more-open borders at least claim to reject, it is about compromise. Like it or not, we need to weigh competing interests and moral goods, and to adjust our approach over time. An immigration policy that might have made sense in years past, when the labor-market prospects of low-skill workers were much brighter, and when the number of working-class immigrants struggling to get by was much smaller, has entirely different implications today.

In the chapters that follow, I will offer a series of choices that go beyond open or closed. I’ll begin by explaining the danger America faces if we don’t find a way to return to the melting pot. I will then argue that we need to see immigration through a multi-generational lens. Policies that might make sense if we were indifferent to the fact of children of immigrants won’t make sense when we recognize that our future hinges on those later generations’ well-being.

The prescriptions I lay out are, frankly, pretty demanding, not just of government, but of all of us as citizens. We should admit immigrants only if we are fully committed to their integration and assimilation. Our number-one priority should be ensuring that new arrivals and their loved ones can flourish as part of the American mainstream, not turning a blind eye as millions languish in poverty-stricken ghettos. That means fostering economic opportunity and a more inclusive American cultural identity. It means resisting class stratification and ethnic balkanization. The overall rate of immigration, the cultural and social capital immigrants bring with them, and the skills composition of the immigrant influx as a whole all contribute to our chances of achieving this ambitious goal.

Ultimately, I want a country that does right by all of its citizens. America has been through challenging periods before, when it seemed as though the discontent of masses of urban immigrants might overturn the established order, and when older natives and younger newcomers were locked in cultural combat. Yet in earlier generations, at least some of our leaders had the wisdom to make the sacrifices necessary to knit a divided country back together. Just as the New Dealers found a way to unite the children of immigrants in smokestack cities with the descendants of settlers and the enslaved, we need to connect the fortunes of immigrant-rich communities, like the ones where I was raised, and the heartland, where coastal diversity is often looked on with suspicion.

From Melting Pot or Civil War by Reihan Salam, published by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 RMS Media Consulting Inc.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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