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Immigration without Tears

by John O'Sullivan

Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, by Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick (Threshold, 304 pp., $27)

There must always be some unresolved tensions in a book by two authors, but those tensions are magnified when one is an ambitious politician and the other is a policy wonk. Jeb Bush is plainly considering a run for the presidency; for him this book must help, and certainly not hinder, a possible presidential campaign. It is his attempt to craft an immigration policy that will win support from both Republican donors and the GOP’s base. Clint Bolick is a leading pro-immigration policy expert on the Republican side. He knows the standard arguments for his case, but he must also have accumulated many interesting, paradoxical stories and unorthodox insights about the issue. Most of them, however, might not fit comfortably into an electoral campaign in which a single sound bite can sink a candidate. The result is a quasi-campaign book that can never be too fresh or too daring because such qualities might put Jeb’s potential candidacy at risk.

That said, the book has its virtues. It is written in a briskly readable fashion. Many of its subsidiary points, notably giving more authority over immigration to the states, are sensible and well taken. In particular, its chapter on education — where Jeb’s co-authorship is probably most felt — outlines several reforms that look pretty desirable irrespective of their marginal impact on immigration. It sensibly treats many of the anxieties of its audience as reasonable (rather than dismissing them as nativist bigotries). It is manifestly more honest than the ever-changing proposals of the “Gang of Eight,” which should mainly remind us of Elliott Abrams’s First Law: “Never play cards with a man whose first name is a city.” And its central argument, with which I shall quarrel, is nonetheless quite cleverly crafted.

It begins by posing the current “immigration war” as a choice between (1) an existing immigration system that is dysfunctional or broken down and (2) reforms that essentially liberalize that system and increase immigrant numbers. Such a choice does not exhaust the range of policies, however, and it is easily exposed as, well, shifty. All one need do is agree that the existing system is broken but propose different reforms that tighten the system and reduce immigrant numbers.

Reforms doing both things were proposed by the bipartisan Jordan Commission in 1997 and initially endorsed by the Clinton administration. According to recent polls, a large plurality of the American people would still like to see immigration reduced. (For about 40 years, polls, though shifting on some aspects of immigration, have consistently shown that Americans favor less immigration over more immigration — usually by large margins, often by outright majorities.) But the Jordan Commission is not mentioned in the chapter briefly recounting the history of immigration reform, which, in addition, eccentrically but shrewdly roots the current “broken” system in the restrictionist 1952 legislation rather than in Ted Kennedy’s liberalizing 1965 act. Nor do the authors seriously discuss reforms along Jordan Commission lines. In short, Bush and Bolick are playing with loaded dice.

Their justification for doing so is an argument that crops up throughout the book, namely, that immigration is essentially unstoppable. They maintain that the inadequacy of the present legal system is sufficiently demonstrated by the fact that people enter and remain in America illegally. More people want to come to America, and if we don’t allow them to do so legally, they will do so illegally. We should get used to it and legalize the inflow. Or: If they come, you will build it.

For more than 30 years, legal immigration has been running at around 1 million entrants annually, with illegal immigration about 50 percent of that. On the Bush-Bolick argument, therefore, the “right” level of legal immigration must be at least 1.5 million annually and maybe more. The authors do qualify that conclusion slightly by proposing legal reforms that would alter the types of immigrants America should admit: fewer family members, more skilled workers. That is the main departure from immigration orthodoxy in their book, and it is a welcome one. But the logic of their overall position is that if we reduce the number of slots available for family members, then disappointed sisters, cousins, and aunts will just cross the border or overstay their legal welcome anyway. They simply can’t be stopped.

That fatalistic assumption undercuts the spirit of can-do American optimism that otherwise pervades Immigration Wars. But it is also at odds with two other elements in the book. The first is its praiseworthy emphasis on the need to respect the rule of law. Thus, the authors insist that illegal immigrants should be eligible for green cards but not for citizenship. If they want to be U.S. citizens, they should return home and “get in line” for regular immigrant visas. Bush and Bolick think that this converts what would otherwise be amnesty into a punishment. In fact, most illegal immigrants want to live and work in America without becoming citizens. For them, this will be an amnesty. Those who want citizenship and return home will be getting into a very short line for much higher levels of legal immigration. And if large numbers of illegals should remain in the U.S., as seems likely, the established alliance of Democrats, labor unions, ethnic lobbies, and GOP consultants will agitate, almost certainly successfully, for them to be brought out of the shadows into full citizenship with full voting rights. Almost all illegals will get what they want, and some will get more than they want. So the law will be made an ass; the only question is how large an ass.

Second, the assumption of the inevitability of immigration undermines the very reform proposals that Bush and Bolick are making. They try to keep some kind of overall limit on numbers — but how can such limits be sustained if they are lower than the numbers irresistibly flooding over the borders? As so often with reformers, the authors operate on a subconscious assumption that the irresistible forces of history or economics will suddenly become quite tractable when their policies are implemented. This is a sort of magical thinking. In reality, if such forces are irresistible, they will overwhelm the Bush-Bolick limits; if they are not irresistible, then they can be confined within the lower limits proposed by the Jordan Commission. And Americans, not others, can decide the outcome.

Inevitably, quite a lot is missing from this book, principally about social issues. Diversity crops up mainly in references to the “diversity lottery” for green cards — despite Robert Putnam’s reluctant warnings that diversity as a social fact tends to increase distrust both within and between groups (which would seem to indicate that the issue needs to be addressed in the immigration debate). Threats to public order get a throwaway mention about “anarchist” bombings in the 1920s. But since the book was sent to the printers, the Boston bombings have reminded us that importing people can also mean importing their grievances. Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood, describes the America that is being splintered into mutually hostile tribes by these social impacts.

Above all, like most books advocating more and/or looser immigration, it rarely addresses in depth the immigration-skeptic case advanced by such opponents as Mark Krikorian, Peter Brimelow, and Roy Beck. The exception in this case is the book’s response to Milton Friedman’s observation that “it’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.”

The authors’ reply — and I have to admit it is an admirably bold one — is as follows: “Actually, the converse is true: We cannot sustain a generous social-welfare program . . . if we do not increase the numbers of productive, contributing participants in our workforce. And . . . the only way we can do that is through immigration.” This is the argument that mass immigration is a Ponzi scheme that works. If it were accurate, President Obama would be the visionary leader who saved an expanding welfare state.

But it isn’t accurate. Most immigrants lower the average age of the population, but not enough to make a major difference in the actuarial health of Social Security. The younger they are, moreover, the more likely they are to have children who swell the demand for social and educational services. When they retire, they increase the financial pressure on the welfare services they were imported to save. More immigrants then have to be brought in to pay for their pensions, until eventually the world runs out of people altogether and the U.S. presumably has to bring in workers who are illegal aliens even according to the most politically correct definition, i.e., being from outer space. And that calculation ignores the fiscal impact of those who arrive here as older immigrants. Outsourcing overseas — which, economically speaking, is immigration without social costs — would make better sense economically and fiscally.

These are not isolated errors. In general this book shares the misplaced confidence of most comprehensive immigration reformers that free-market economic arguments are on their side. These arguments can be summed up in the single point that immigration increases gross domestic product. But it also increases the population; and since almost all of the additional wealth goes to the immigrants, the net effect on the native-born is zero or near zero. Reviewing the academic literature in a joint article, Bob Rowthorn, an economics professor at Cambridge, and David Coleman, a demography professor at Oxford, concluded that it contained no support for the view that immigration increased per capita GDP. In other words, Americans get no economic benefit in return for the social costs and upheavals that mass immigration entails.

Whenever opportunity beckons, however, Bush and Bolick vault over such statistics to recount heartwarming human stories of potential immigrants pursuing the American dream and doing good. Immigration skeptics usually ask why we never hear harsh stories of criminals admitted by a lax immigration system or sad stories of its invisible victims, such as low-paid Americans undercut by immigrant competition. That rejoinder, though, merely makes the skeptics look grouchy. A better response is to ask the authors how they justify keeping American dreamers out of the U.S. No, you read that right. For, however lax the immigration system, however large the number of incomers, there will always be some legal limit to immigration. Indeed, Bush and Bolick propose limits of their own. They would keep some good people out, maybe many good people. The test of a policy is not the good feelings of either its proposers or its beneficiaries but whether and how it benefits the American people.

This book is a decent statement of a flawed case. It is also a missed opportunity. In Who Are We? the late Samuel Huntington gave a powerful argument in defense of the Tocquevillian America he saw vanishing under mass immigration and multiculturalism. What we need from those who advocate those changes is an equally powerful argument — one that describes the new America emerging from this flux and that explains why it is superior to the America in which most Americans grew up. Instead of doing that, Immigration Wars tells us that because immigration is the essence of America, then the more immigration we have, the more American we will become. That’s verbal juggling. It’s not what people experience every day, and it won’t wash.

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