On December 11, 2017, Akayed Ullah, a 27-year-old man born in Bangladesh, detonated a crudely designed explosive device in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, which sees more than 230,000 commuters every day. Thankfully, Ullah injured no one but himself. His intention, however, had evidently been to take as many of those commuters with him to the afterlife as he could. In the days and weeks that followed, dogged reporters, in the United States and in Ullah’s native Bangladesh, pieced together a troubling story: Though not notably radical before settling in Brooklyn in 2011, the young man had come to loathe the U.S., the country that had welcomed him, and to see his true home as being with the Islamic State, a gang of zealots best known for its homicidal brutality. Ullah apparently concluded that innocent U.S. commuters, including any number of recent immigrants much like him, deserved to be put to death to avenge America’s war against the Islamic State.
News of the botched attack sent my mind reeling. For one, Ullah lived in Kensington, the neighborhood where I grew up, and he was born in the same country as my parents. Ullah and I had shared the same stretches of sidewalk, and probably frequented the same corner stores. He settled in the country legally via a green card sponsored by a family member, not an uncommon story among Bangladeshi immigrants. When I saw Ullah’s face, I saw someone who could have been a cousin, or who might have helped my mother carry an armful of groceries.
After I heard the news, I girded myself for what would come next. In the age of Trump, all conversations about immigration descend into dueling spasms of culture-war outrage. As a poor Muslim immigrant turned lone-wolf terrorist, Ullah was emblematic of some of the most polarizing aspects of the president’s immigration agenda. Trump had famously campaigned on banning Muslim immigration to the United States outright, a stance that enjoyed overwhelming support among GOP primary voters. As president, he had called for curbing family-based admissions on the grounds that they meant admitting millions of immigrants lacking in “merit.” Immigration advocates pushed back. Some argued that it was obscene to suggest that a man such as Ullah was representative of immigrants at large. Others said that it was racist to question our current approach to family-based admissions.
And where was I? In an uncomfortable place. Donald Trump had built his political career in no small part on demonizing immigrants, and I sympathized with immigration advocates who resented him for it. I am not just the son of immigrants. I am the brother, neighbor, and friend of immigrants, many of whom found Trump’s rhetoric frightening. To the extent I harbor stereotypes about immigrants, they are positive. Some immigrants are violent and cruel, and others are feckless and lazy, just as there are many millions of natives who suffer from similar failings. But few are, like Akayed Ullah, intent on mass slaughter. Consider that he was married to a woman still living in Bangladesh, and his wife had recently given birth to a son. She was applying for visas to join him in America. What could possibly have led him to bring such shame to his family members, and to destroy their prospects of a better life? Surely something so personal and strange as to defy generalization or some specific public-policy response.
So you’d think my sympathies would be with America’s growing army of open-borders activists, who call for ending all deportations and adopting ever-more-permissive immigration policies. Many of them are Americans like me, with recent immigration in their families, and I understand where they’re coming from. But I noticed a contradiction in the arguments I was hearing for more-open borders, which led me to part ways with the pro-immigration activists. There is a yawning chasm separating standard-issue immigration enthusiasts, who insist with a straight face that more-open immigration policies will have absolutely no negative consequences, and an emerging class of intellectuals I call the bullet-biters: serious, rigorous, thoughtful immigration advocates who recognize that if the United States is going to welcome a far larger number of low-skill immigrants, we Americans will have to transform our welfare state, and we might even have to countenance the creation of a new class of guest workers who would be permanently barred from citizenship.
The bullet-biters recognize that the world of the 2020s and 2030s will be drastically different from the world of the 1890s and 1900s, not least because the number of potential migrants to America will have greatly increased, and forthrightly acknowledge that open borders and domestic equality simply can’t coexist. Their position, in essence, is that by welcoming millions of low-skill workers who’d never be in a position to enter the U.S. middle class, we would greatly reduce global inequality while enriching native-born citizens, who’d be in a position to employ vast numbers of low-wage helpers, who could do menial jobs more cheaply and reliably than machines, at least until the machines got just a bit more sophisticated. Yes, this would mean the creation of an even more inegalitarian society at home. But as far as the bullet-biters are concerned, that would be a small price to pay. If the bullet-biters are right, standard-issue immigration activists — the ones who want more-open immigration policies and a more equal society or, in other words, who want to have their cake and eat it, too — are crushingly naïve. They haven’t really thought through where their convictions are taking them.
Which leads me back to Akayed Ullah. Though he was entirely unlike most immigrants in his hatefulness, there were other aspects of his story, or at least of what I could suss out, that were more familiar, and that reflect exactly the problems that have made me question the wisdom of our immigration system. Though Ullah had lived in the United States since 2011, he had never quite established himself. He reportedly drove livery cabs and did occasional work as an electrician. Having known many immigrants who have made a living in backbreaking service jobs, I can attest that not everyone is cut out for dealing with customers and bosses. For prideful men who are accustomed to ruling the roost, service work is an endless series of humiliations. Despite his living in one of the world’s most diverse cities, Ullah’s social world appears to have been limited to its Bengali-speaking enclaves. Described as “always angry” by a neighbor, Ullah didn’t make much of an effort to befriend anyone outside his enclave. Understandably, he was in near-constant contact by phone with his wife back home. Ullah’s hatefulness and lurch toward violence were unusual. His struggles as an immigrant in a country that placed little value on his skills and abilities, and that felt very far from home, were not.
These are familiar struggles for immigrants, most of them as nonviolent as you or I. The worst-off of these struggling millions live in illegal basement apartments, where they sleep in shifts, or in studios and one-bedroom apartments divvied up to accommodate five or six people, in conditions that resemble the tenements of yesteryear or the teeming cities of the developing world. The very things that can make such a life easier to endure — being surrounded by co-ethnics who speak your native language, clinging tightly to loved ones back home — are often what keeps you on the margins. As far as the bullet-biters are concerned, this is perfectly fine. Immigrant poverty might be aesthetically displeasing, but these people are better off in absolute terms than they would be back home, and that is all that matters. That they are stuck on the bottom rungs of American society is — in a grand, global utilitarian calculus — immaterial.
To the rest of us, though, this is simply not tenable. We don’t want to live in an America with an underclass that is forever locked out of middle-class prosperity. We are glad that immigrants are better off than they were in their native countries, yes, but we also worry about the children they raise on American soil, and what will happen to our society if impoverished immigrants give rise to an impoverished second generation that has no memory of life in the old country and who won’t tolerate being relegated to second-class status.
And that is why I have come to believe that the United States badly needs a more thoughtful and balanced approach to immigration, including a greater emphasis on skills and a lesser one on extended family ties. I haven’t come to this position lightly. Though my reasons might be different from Trump’s, there is no getting around the fact that on the big-picture question of whether we ought to make our immigration system more selective, I am closer to his position than to those of most of my friends and family members.
Immigration advocates tell us we have two choices: to be an open society that welcomes immigrants or to be a closed one that barricades itself off from the rest of the world. If you disagree with any aspect of the pro-immigration agenda for any reason, you must be heartless or racist. Rhetorically and politically, forcing this choice is shrewd, but it is a false choice all the same. The real choice is not between being open or closed. Rather, it is between hubris and humility. The belief that we can continue on our current path, in which most immigrants are admitted to the U.S. without regard to their skills, as if the economic prospects of those with little in the way of schooling were just as bright today as they were a generation ago, is, to my mind, the height of hubris. Consider a few of the challenges we as a country face, and whether our immigration policy will ease or exacerbate them.
The first and most obvious is that America’s immigration system is expanding our low-skill work force just as automation and offshoring are exposing low-skill workers to ever-intensifying competition. We aren’t welcoming nearly as many foreign-born workers as low-wage employers would like, and I readily acknowledge that if our low-skill work force were to dramatically expand, low-wage employers would find a use for it, especially if we were to repeal the federal minimum wage and relax labor standards. For one, a surge of low-skill immigration might lead technologists to abandon the quest for (say) self-driving cars as the ready availability of low-wage immigrant drivers rendered them unnecessary. Yet the susceptibility of many low-wage jobs to automation would likely have the effect of holding down wage growth. Given concerns about stagnant working-class wages and high inequality, this doesn’t seem like a recipe for social harmony.
In a similar vein, advances in communications will soon make it much easier for U.S. firms to make use of remote labor. As the economist Richard Baldwin has explained, “‘virtual immigration,’ or international telecommuting, would radically expand the range of jobs that are directly subject to international competition. Many menial and professional tasks in rich nations could be performed (remotely) by workers and professionals sitting in poor nations.” In other words, at some point in the not-too-distant future, U.S. employers will be able to capture almost all of the benefits of low-skill immigration by embracing virtual immigration, thereby vitiating the narrowly economic case for the former. Are we prepared for the impact of virtual immigration? And will having a larger number of workers with low levels of schooling and English proficiency make it easier or harder to reckon with it?
Then there is the challenge of uneven mobility. In recent years, scholars from across the political spectrum have argued that the already wide opportunity gap between children raised by affluent, college-educated parents and those who are not is at risk of widening. This opportunity gap is often described as a grave crisis, and numerous policy thinkers have cited it as a reason to greatly increase federal spending on early-childhood education and transfers to low-income households with children.
What often goes unacknowledged in these debates is that our current immigration policies are steadily increasing the number of low-income households with children, as Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute recently observed. In an analysis of recent arrivals to the U.S., the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that favors more-permissive immigration policy, finds that 2.3 million of the 4 million legally present non-citizens who’ve arrived in the U.S. in the past five years are in families with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Most of these immigrants are, I’m sure, exceptionally hard-working. It just so happens that they command low wages, and they are often in need of public assistance, whether or not they’re in a position to apply for it.
It must be said that America is home to many poor native-born individuals — 40 percent of U.S. natives also live in families that fall below the 250 percent threshold. But remember that immigration policy is discretionary. In effect, we are saying that households with incomes below the 250 percent threshold are so poor that we need to provide them with more in the way of safety-net benefits and refundable tax credits to help them lead decent lives and, at the same time, that it is wise to admit non-humanitarian immigrants with incomes this low in large numbers. The cumulative result is that in a decade or so, the number of American children growing up on the wrong side of the opportunity gap will almost surely have increased, even as we have raised social spending to unprecedentedly high levels.
And we have good reason to concern ourselves with the fate of the children of low-skill immigrants. The most important is simply that these children are our compatriots, and the difficulties they face in their early years will bear on whether they grow to become flourishing adults. If they do, there is a good chance that they’ll see the value in preserving a dynamic market economy. But if they do not, if they instead spend their adult lives struggling to make ends meet in an economy that can be hard on workers without specialized skills and social connections, it would be foolish not to expect that some will come to embrace the new politics of democratic socialism, which are taking root in immigrant-rich neighborhoods around the country.
Already, many second-generation youth are being incorporated into an anxious working-class electorate that sees a larger welfare state as its only protection against chronic poverty. It is an oversimplification to suggest that all voters who experience economic distress will back policies that expand the size and scope of government. But according to the work of the political scientists Robert Griffin and John Sides, voters who experience a great deal of economic hardship are far more likely than their well-off counterparts to believe that government ought to go further in its efforts to “reduce income differences between rich and poor,” to support higher taxes on upper-income households, and to back universal health coverage. I suspect this is not a coincidence.
Perhaps you believe that American society can deal with the accelerating pace of automation and offshoring with ease, and that tomorrow’s working-class voters will be no more radical than today’s, despite the changing ideological climate. It is at this point that we must consider the fraught question of ethnic identity.
A growing number of intellectual and political entrepreneurs insist that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between non-Hispanic whites, the beneficiaries of an amorphous “white supremacy,” and nonwhites, who can be understood as white supremacy’s victims. One can see why this framework might make sense in the context of the descendants of enslaved African Americans. Yet it has come to encompass recent immigrants and their descendants, including the most privileged among them. It is therefore tempting to dismiss our increasingly racialized discourse as a kind of posturing in which coastal intellectuals compete with one another to profess their righteousness.
But that would be a mistake. There is no denying that a large number of immigrants and second-generation Americans are finding themselves incorporated into marginalized minorities — groups that see themselves as outside the mainstream and labor under negative stereotypes. There is nothing inevitable about this outcome. A more humble and measured immigration policy might instead involve immigrants’ and second-generation Americans’ coming to see themselves as part of a broader melting-pot majority in which ethnic distinctions matter little. That, however, is not the world in which we live.
Imagine an America in which wealthy whites and Asians wall themselves off from the rest of society, and low-wage immigrants and their offspring constitute a new underclass. Working-class Americans of color will look upon their more privileged fellow citizens with envy, if not resentment, and better-off whites will look upon their poorer brown and black counterparts with fear and suspicion. Whites will embrace a more hard-edged white-identity politics, and they will see efforts to redistribute their wealth as acts of racial aggression. Class politics will be color politics, and extremists on the left and the right will find millions of poor, angry youth willing to heed their calls to battle. No, I do not believe that this future is inevitable. But I fear that our heedless approach to immigration is making it more likely.
There is, thankfully, a better way forward. We have it in our power to remake the United States as a middle-class melting pot in which the descendants of today’s immigrants are fully incorporated into a multiracial mainstream. Though Americans will be of many different hues, as they are now, race will no longer determine their fate. Most Americans will have friends and family members from a wide array of backgrounds, and the ethnic distinctions that dominate our political and cultural life will fade. Rather than neglect the multigenerational poor on the implicit grounds that they are dispensable, we will break the cycle of poverty by building more-integrated communities in which all young people have a realistic prospect of leading happy and productive lives.
Whereas today’s U.S. economy is divided between a privileged group of college-educated professionals and an insecure working class with little or no bargaining power and in constant fear of offshoring and automation, a middle-class melting pot would invest in the human capital of all Americans, especially the multigenerational poor. We would raise our average skill level, and instead of fearing the global economy and labor-saving technologies, we would embrace them.
To get there, though, we’d have to recognize an uncomfortable truth. High levels of low-skill immigration will make a middle-class melting pot impossible. For years, low-skill immigration has boosted the number of low-skill workers, and by extension the number of low-income households. Low-skill immigrants can increase their incomes dramatically by moving to the United States, but even then they are likely to be poor by U.S. standards, for the simple reason that demand for low-skill labor in the United States is in long-term decline. While low-skill immigration has greatly enriched immigrant workers themselves and the affluent professionals who rely on them most, this change in the composition of the work force has pushed up the poverty rate and kept large swathes of our economy stuck in a low-wage, low-productivity rut.
By limiting low-skill immigration, at least for a time, while welcoming high-skill immigration, we can change the dynamic. At the margin, doing so would ease wage pressures on established low-skill workers and make high-skill labor more abundant. Affluent professionals would face more competition, and they would surely resent it. Low-skill workers might face challenges, too, as rising wages would send employers scrambling to boost productivity. In time, though, a more selective, skills-based immigration system would yield a more egalitarian economy in which machines did the dirty work and workers enjoyed middle-class stability. And a more egalitarian economy would help heal our country’s ethnic divides.
The alternative, I fear, will be a kind of civil war — one pitting an increasingly radical socialist Left, one that sees America’s prosperity as a product of imperialism and open-borders immigration policies as a means toward a radical flattening of the global income distribution, against a reactionary Right that chooses tribalism over unifying nationalism. For our posterity’s sake, we must do everything we can to avoid that outcome.
— This article is adapted from Reihan Salam’s new book, Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case against Open Borders, which has just been published.