Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

Immigration and Our National Crisis of Confidence

Emigration to America, by Charles Volkmar (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
We still have what the world wants

The manifold attacks on America’s way of life in our time have resulted in a crisis of confidence that distorts our politics. Both the Left and the Right, in different ways, have been casting the American experience in terms of victimhood and weakness, too often leaving us blind to the country’s great strengths and to the resources at our disposal to address public problems. This vacuum of self-confidence invites failures of self-government. The immigration debate offers perhaps the clearest instance of the deformation that results from this dynamic. But for that very reason, it might also offer a way back toward a more functional politics. 

Immigration is a prominent subject of our politics because millions of men and women around the world want to come to this country and share in what it offers. That should mean that we approach immigration from a position of confidence and strength. We have something the world wants, and we need to think about how we want to offer it so as to benefit us Americans, too. 

Americans have often taken pride in the capacity of our society to attract ambitious foreigners, and have made it a priority to sustain that appeal. When the Declaration of Independence listed King George III’s abuses of power, it described in general his obstruction of colonial self-government and then proceeded to specific examples, among which was that he “has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.” 

Yet even as we have valued immigration ever since, Americans have also always been aware of the challenges of integration. Over our history, the balance of these two related concerns has shifted with the volume of immigration, and the politics of immigration policy has never been a simple matter. But in our polarized era, we have lost sight of what the desire of foreigners to come here should mean for both immigration and integration. 

That desire speaks well of our country. It shows that, however depressed we might become about the state of our society, America is a place that striving and determined people want to call home. And they’re not wrong to think their prospects would be vastly improved here: The immigrant experience in America very much remains a tale of opportunity and upward mobility. That this is what prospective immigrants want, and that it is what they generally get, are facts too rarely acknowledged in our intense immigration debates. 

Those debates have devolved instead into competing narratives of victimhood. The Left too often implies that immigrants are victims of America — whether of its past colonial or imperial ambitions, its callousness, its racism, or its market economy. The Democratic Party’s rhetoric on immigration overflows with the language of oppression. The Right, meanwhile, too often suggests that America is the victim of immigrants — whether they are violent criminals, cultural invaders, economic bandits, or political crooks. President Trump’s rhetoric on the subject is full of the imagery of barbarian hordes. 

Neither of these narratives is at all adequate to the reality of American immigration. Immigrants themselves are the greatest beneficiaries of American immigration policy. America isn’t oppressing them; it is where they badly want to be. Immigrants also generally benefit our society — and most are very willing to be guided by the norms we establish for their integration. Immigration in America simply isn’t a story of victimization, one way or another, which may be why the issue is so hard for our crybaby political culture to handle just now. It is more like a story of mutually reinforcing ambition and dynamism. 

But to make the most of that fact, America’s approach to immigration will have to be founded in national self-confidence. That means seeing not only the potential value of new immigrants but also the necessity to impose some rules and structure so that immigration can maximally benefit our society. Such rules and structure would need to account for the complicated circumstances of American immigration in our time — taking seriously both the dangers and the benefits involved. 

Three sets of circumstances in particular ought to be taken into account. First, we have in our country a large population of unauthorized immigrants who are in many cases deeply rooted in American life and undoubtedly contributing to our national flourishing, but who are also living in a legal limbo that undermines both their own prospects and the rule of law. For decades, our country has invited illegal immigrants with one hand and rejected them with the other.

Second, we also confront economic conditions that favor higher-skilled workers and constrain the opportunities available to many working-class Americans. And yet we have for many years pursued an immigration policy that has swelled the ranks of those in our country who are not well equipped for higher-skill jobs. This has counteracted our efforts to fight poverty and promote opportunity both for immigrants and for native-born Americans.

Third, this approach to immigration policy, which has never been explicitly debated, has also given rise to concentrated ethnic poverty in parts of the country, and this has tended to undermine the cultural and civic assimilation of many immigrants and therefore the very future of our society.

Our immigration policies have failed to address any of these problems. They generally have not even tried to account for any but the first. We should root any effort to change that in a few key premises: No one has a right to immigrate to America, but our country does generally benefit from people coming to our shores. The biggest beneficiaries of our immigration policies are and always will be immigrants themselves, which means that we can alter those policies without ceasing to be a source of immense opportunity and promise for potential Americans around the world — especially if we always treat immigrants as potential Americans, not as economic cogs, and not as permanent outsiders.

This suggests we ought to be more selective about who can immigrate to America, in ways that protect vulnerable Americans and benefit our country the most. Such an approach would involve sharply curtailing illegal immigration while pursuing some accommodation over the status of those already here, altering the balance of future legal immigration in favor of more highly skilled immigrants, admitting people as future citizens and not temporary workers, and putting assimilation and civic education front and center when we think about all of these matters. 

Getting there would require breaking the current partisan logjam over immigration. And that, in turn, would require displacing the vocabulary of victimhood and oppression that has overwhelmed our politics and undermined America’s self-confidence. Although the immigration debate may feel like the most broken and intractable of our policy disputes, it is just a particularly stark example of how our loss of self-confidence undermines our capacity for self-government. 

For that very reason, the immigration debate might actually offer unusually fertile ground for reasserting our capacity for self-government. Knowing that millions of the world’s most ambitious and motivated people want to come here should help us see that we are enormously fortunate to be Americans. Knowing that those who do come here thrive should help us see America’s strengths. And knowing those strengths should help us welcome new immigrants with a sense of what we have to offer them, and what we should be asking in return. 

We also find ourselves in an unusually opportune moment to alter the tenor of our immigration debates. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought both global migration flows and immigration to America almost to a halt. Even if we defeat the virus fairly soon, it will take time for these flows to resume. We have perhaps a year ahead of us in which immigration will be slower than any of us have seen in our lifetime. Why not use it to establish some policies suited to America’s circumstances and needs?

Such a prospect is hard to imagine not because a constructive compromise on immigration is impossible, but because our political class would rather beat up on the country, and the combatants in the culture war would rather compete for the status of victim. Conceiving of our national life in terms of victimization keeps us from building a better future. The defense of America is a defense of reality — and it offers us a path back toward a healthier and more functional life together. 

This article appears as “E Pluribus Unum” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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