The Corner


Massachussets to Maine Is Not Nigeria to Nebraska

The Statue of Liberty (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo briefly makes the case for “opening up America’s borders to everyone who wants to move here.” There is, Manjoo contends, “room for a brave politician to oppose President Trump’s racist immigration rhetoric not just by fighting his wall and calling for the abolishment of I.C.E. but also by making a proactive and affirmative case for the vast expansion of immigration.” How “vast”? In theory, at least, unlimited.

I have many objections to this approach, the first of which is philosophical. Manjoo seems to view immigration controls as intrinsically “feudal,” whereas I think that such a system ensures that the existing polity enjoys the power to decide who joins it and by what criteria — a power that, in my view, is the hallmark of the nation state. Because the United States has in times past boasted a more liberal system of immigration than it currently does (and, at other times, a much stricter one), it is often assumed that state-imposed controls are a modern innovation of which the Founders would have disapproved. This, though, is incorrect, as anyone who has read Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton on the subject will know. As my friend Jay Cost has observed, immigration was treated as a political question right from the beginning of the republic, which is one reason that Jefferson and Hamilton so seamlessly shifted their positions whenever it suited them. That the United States reserved the right to decide who came in was not controversial in the eighteenth century, and that at various points the borders were effectively open should not be taken to indicate otherwise. Governments may choose not to exercise powers they enjoy without being assumed to have relinquished those powers. The Chinese Exclusion Act and the facility at Ellis Island co-existed for decades.

Anyhow, while I imagine that I shan’t convince Manjoo that I am correct in my outlook, I do want to raise a couple of practical objections to the vision he outlines. Manjoo writes:

Imagine that if you passed a minimal background check, you’d be free to live, work, pay taxes and die in the United States. Imagine moving from Nigeria to Nebraska as freely as one might move from Massachusetts to Maine.

This is a pipe dream. For a start, if one has to “pass a minimal background check” then one cannot move from elsewhere “as freely as one might move from Massachusetts to Maine.” If I so wished, I could pick up my stuff now and move from Florida to California without telling anybody in a position of authority, without undergoing any form of background check, and without so much as owning a passport of any kind. That is not true — and even under Manjoo’s system would not be true — of a Nigerian hoping to move to Nebraska.

More important, though, is that the challenges facing Manjoo’s hypothetical Nigerian and the challenges facing his hypothetical Massachusetts resident are not even remotely comparable — and that in a country with a welfare state, a broadly nationalized political culture, and an ascendant insistence that “we’re all in this together,” that matters enormously. A dissatisfied resident of Massachusetts can up and move to Maine, and, ceteris paribus, do pretty well almost immediately. A dissatisfied resident of another country cannot, especially if he is poor and badly educated. It is difficult to emigrate. For most people, there is a language barrier. And, even when there is not, one has to deal with the trouble associated with shifting to a different currency, with adapting to a different culture, and with learning a new set of laws. When I moved to the U.S. at the age of 26, I was shocked to learn that my credit rating wasn’t transferrable, and that as a result my score was . . . 0. This made it extremely difficult to get an apartment, impossible to get a cell phone, and so hard to get a credit card — a card which I needed most at that moment — that I had to enter into a bizarre scheme with my new bank by which I deposited a dollar into escrow for every dollar I borrowed on my card. Naturally, I am glad I did this. Indeed, I want others to be able to do so, too; as an immigrant myself, I am in no way opposed to immigration. But the idea that moving from abroad could ever be like moving internally is so much romantic fluff.

There are some fair responses to these objections. Surely, if people want to go to all that trouble, as I did, that’s their problem, right? And, anyway, doesn’t that mean they’re really keen to be here? Moreover, first generation immigrants often work in jobs in which it is not imperative to understand English — and, besides, their children learn English pretty well, no? Also, immigrants do the “jobs Americans won’t” and, all in all, they raise GDP.

At least in the abstract, I have some sympathy for at least some of these arguments. The trouble is, they’re not especially effective when connected to a call for “open borders.” When the United States is adding a million new immigrants per year (plus some illegal immigration) — and when it is testing a good number of those immigrants for suitability — it make sense to argue that the unskilled will find manual or unpopular jobs, that the language barrier isn’t a big problem, and so forth. But if the United States were, in Manjoo’s words, experiencing a “vast expansion of immigration,” things would look rather different. Gallup estimates that, were America to open its borders, around 147 million people would move here. That’s half the current population. Even if we cut that in half, we’d be looking at 75 million new arrivals within a few years. Yes, yes, yes, economies grow. But they don’t grow that quickly — and nor do the schools, roads, and public services than undergird them. How many “jobs that Americans won’t do” do we think would be available? And, given recent trends, how likely do we think our political system would be to tell the people who didn’t do well, “okay then, go home, we bear no responsibility for your plight?” (Related: How likely do we think it would be that one of the two parties would pass up on the opportunity to use government to help those for whom the move hadn’t worked, and thereby to win enough new voters to destroy the other one forever?)

Which is to say that an influx of the sort Manjoo covets (and he’s not agnostic on the numbers) would breed an extraordinary increase in resentment — a resentment that would make the sentiments that put Trump into office seem insignificant. An America in which huge numbers of people do not speak English is not going to breed tolerance and love; it’s going to breed disdain and irritation. An America in which the regnant culture is suddenly and dramatically shifted is not going to usher in a new age; it’s going to cause a desperate, visceral reaction. If you like, you can respond to this by saying that Americans are “racist” or “selfish” or “immoral,” or that they are complicit in keeping people from other countries poor. But none of that is going to matter in reality. Polling shows that a majority of Americans want immigration levels to stay about where they are. Responding to that fact by saying, “so let 150 million people move here?” would be the height of arrogance and irresponsibility. It would also have almost the exact opposite effect of the one Manjoo hopes for. President Donald J. Trump? Open the borders and you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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