Rethinking the American Immigration Debate

A man hands out U.S. flags at a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles, Calif., December 17, 2013. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Reihan Salam’s new book charts a fresh path through the most divisive minefield in our politics.

We live in a divided time, so it’s not too surprising that the current populist disruption has generated somewhat polarized responses. Some rub their hands together with glee at the hope of burning it all down, imagining a new alt-right or “woke” left utopia built on the ashes of the old order. Others, especially those in the citadels of power, clench their fists in outrage at the fact that voters have dared to question the imperatives of the post-1989 paradigm. For this latter group, public dissent from the status quo becomes almost more a moral failing than a mere policy mistake: Who we are demands absolute loyalty to high neoliberalism.

There is, however, a third way to respond to this political disruption: a path of reform, which attempts to shift the trajectory of current policies in order to secure past gains and confront the challenges of the present more effectively. On the right, the project of “reform conservatism” has taken on the task of changing some of the elements of the post-Reagan consensus in order to address contemporary developments. The current populist disruption in American (and global) politics might be an even bigger incentive for more wide-ranging reform, both in and outside the tent of conservatism.

Reihan Salam’s new book Melting Pot or Civil War? can be seen in the context of this project of reform. Salam, National Review’s executive editor, does not want to pretend that the current great wave of immigration has not happened, and he is deeply sympathetic to contemporary immigrants themselves. But he raises concerns that our current immigration system does not serve the national interest — or the interests of the children of recent immigrants — as well as it should. His book recognizes that immigration policy is not just about economics, because immigration policy is also social policy. And he worries that the immigration status quo risks widening divisions in American society.

Many analysts take for granted that, in part because of immigration, American society will continue to fragment. According to this line of thought, such fragmentation has led to considerable disruption in the short term (one study Salam cites is titled “White Backlash”) and could potentially do so in the long term, too. The concern with escalating fragmentation in part motivates Melting Pot or Civil War? as its title indicates. But this volume also reminds us that fragmentation is not the guaranteed fate of American politics.

As Salam puts it, the real choice is not between open or closed borders but “whether we see the immigrants we welcome to our shores as permanent strangers to whom we have no real obligations other than to deliver them from the relative poverty of their homelands, or as free and equal citizens to whom we are pledging our loyalty in this generation and in those to come.” This conflict between estrangement and fellowship is central to the book. The hope of the “melting pot” is the creation of “new hybrid ethnicities and cultures.” Intermarriage, economic dynamism, and social integration would help immigrants and native-born come together in the project of renewing and sustaining American life. But Salam draws attention to numerous ways that current immigration policy may undercut this project of integration. For instance, he cites a number of statistics that suggest that immigrant families (including their native-born children) sometimes struggle to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Salam outlines a three-part proposal for improving immigration politics: “offering amnesty to the long-resident unauthorized population, adopting a skills-based immigration system, and fighting the intergenerational transmission of poverty.” All three remedies would be intended to increase the integration of immigrants into American society. An amnesty would bring long-term illegal immigrants out of the shadows, and a new enforcement regime could help prevent it from repeating the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty. A skills-based immigration system would limit the supply of low-skilled labor, raising wages for native-born and immigrant workers without a college degree and thereby helping their ascent to the middle class. It could also help ensure that new immigrants have an easier time finding economic success. To fight the “intergenerational transmission of poverty,” Salam suggests increased support for families, especially poor ones. For instance, he suggests that a universal child benefit to help parents raise children could counter some of the risks of child poverty.

This policy agenda could find traction on the center-right, where many are open to some legal status for illegal immigrants but also want a more forward-looking reform of the legal-immigration system. Of course, the details of how to apply the policies Salam advocates are open to debate. For instance, a case could be made for making some changes to enforcement (such as increased fencing at the border) prior to the passage of an amnesty. The legal-immigration system is in some ways distinct from the population of long-term illegal aliens, so reforms to that could also precede a potential amnesty. Indeed, switching to a points system for immigration — one possibility suggested by Salam — could also open a door to a partial amnesty. Individuals who received DACA status could be given a certain number of points to “immigrate” as legal immigrants; as current U.S. residents, they wouldn’t really be immigrating, but they would be gaining legal status and could potentially apply for citizenship through the proper channels thereafter. (A visa-offsets mechanism could be another vehicle for trading current family-preference visas for amnesty visas for long-term illegal immigrants.)

Policy aside, in some ways what is most compelling about Melting Pot or Civil War? might be the normative reorientation it seeks to achieve on immigration. For a long time, the American debate on the issue has been paralyzed by a fixation on illegal immigration, sentimental invocations of the early 1900s, the toxic repetition of “jobs Americans won’t do,” and the escalation of cultural panics, either about who we are or who we will be. Salam instead seeks to ground immigration discussions in the nitty-gritty — but profoundly important — question of how we can best ensure that immigrants and their children feel like equal participants in American society. Salam takes seriously the humanitarian questions of immigration but also notes that immigration is far from a comprehensive solution to addressing global poverty. He devotes a whole chapter to thinking about how the U.S. can promote economic growth abroad, which could lift tens of millions more people out of poverty than immigration policy could.

If there’s one thing that this time of economic and political disruption has made clear, it’s that social textures matter. A society with a strong middle class and a sense of common ground can weather economic disruption. An increasingly fractured society, especially one with a sense of economic anxiety, will have perverse incentives and be more susceptible to demagoguery and institutional paralysis. Though not the only factor, immigration has been a major cause of the populist upsurge seen across much of the West in recent years. That many establishment policymakers have proven so resistant to reforming the status quo has given outsiders — Donald Trump, the Five Star movement in Italy, and others — the leverage to seize power.

Many defenders of the post–Cold War consensus have been repulsed by these populist energies. But an adept policy response to this disruption could address some of the concerns it has raised while also securing some of the real benefits of the post-1989 paradigm. The immigrants who have entered the United States since the 1965 revision of immigration laws have, by and large, been a great boon to this country, and their American-born children have as good a claim to our republic as those whose ancestors came centuries ago. A responsible politics would consider how to shape immigration and other policies in order to ensure that these newcomers have the greatest chance of integrating into American society.


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