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A Subnation of Immigrants

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Social cohesion matters

For some people, the debate over the immigration bill before the Senate ended on June 18. That day, the Congressional Budget Office released two reports, one suggesting that the bill would increase economic growth in the U.S. and the other suggesting it would reduce the deficit over the next two decades.

Jonathan Tobin, writing for the website of the conservative magazine Commentary, argued that the reports showed that economic issues did not really supply a motive for opponents of the bill. Many of them really believe that a new large wave of legal immigration would be bad for the country, a sentiment Tobin found “neither defensible nor logical.”

He continued: “Let’s be honest, if you are scared by the idea of a large number of immigrants coming to this country in the future, even if the vast majority of them are arriving legally, then it’s time to admit that this dispute isn’t about the rule of law or amnesty, but something else [that] isn’t nearly as attractive.”

The liberal writer Ezra Klein took a more restrained version of this view at the Washington Post’s website: “Ultimately, the CBO report rips a layer of artifice from the immigration debate. Few critics of immigration reform really base their opposition on concerns about the deficit or the economy. Their real concern with immigration is cultural and sociological. But that’s dangerous political ground.”

Both of these men are right, I think, to say that much of the opposition to the legislation is cultural rather than economic. It is correct as well that some objections to increasing legal immigration are indefensible, such as objections based on the race of newcomers. But the suggestion — explicit in Tobin, implicit in Klein — that cultural concerns about immigration are necessarily disreputable or suspect is mistaken. It is entirely rational to hold them.

Which doesn’t mean that the economic and rule-of-law concerns about the immigration bill can be dismissed. The CBO does not tell us what we would want to know to do a full evaluation of the bill’s economics. It says that in 20 years, per capita gross national product would be 0.2 percent higher if the bill passed than it would be otherwise (a number in line with earlier studies).

It says that downward pressure on wages would be concentrated at the top and bottom of the wage scale. But it does not break down the numbers so that we can see the impact on people who are already living here, rather than on aggregates that include newcomers. What would the bill mean for native-born Americans working low-wage jobs? What would it mean for legal immigrants already here in 2013 in the same position? The CBO does not answer those questions.

The deficit estimates are constructed in a way that largely leaves out the biggest federal programs. The CBO is surely right that granting legal status to illegal immigrants here, and admitting new legal immigrants, would generate added revenue in payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. It is also true that many of these people would start drawing benefits from these programs after the 20-year period the CBO considered. These are redistributive programs, and the CBO estimates that most of the newcomers would be on the low end of the income distribution. It stands to reason that their lifetime impact on the federal budget would be negative.

Further, the bill restricts some government benefits for the illegal immigrants it grants legal status. The CBO assumes — as it must, given the directions under which it is operating — that these restrictions will hold. One might reasonably think, however, that they will prove unsustainable politically and that the projections even for the next 20 years are therefore too rosy.

But there is more to a nation than its GNP, or its federal budget. The CBO seems to be assuming that roughly 20 million immigrants would come to this country over the next decade if the bill passed, while 10 million would come if it did not. So during the next decade we would see about twice the level of immigration (legal and illegal) that we have had over the last decade. That very high level of immigration would have effects on our culture and our politics as well as on our economy and budget, and we should neither rule these out of the discussion nor, what amounts to the same thing, assume that they will all be good.

My own chief concern about this legislation is its effect on assimilation. Will the bill make it more or less likely that newcomers to this country will be able to be full participants in American life? That is, will they not only succeed economically but become part of our common culture even as their contributions change it? Will natives and newcomers alike, whatever their ethnic background or income, see themselves as having common interests and a common identity as citizens of the United States?

It is entirely reasonable to worry that doubling the inflow of immigrants will make it harder for them to assimilate, especially if a large proportion of them come from the same place. The question this legislation raises is one of national character, and no CBO report can answer it. We should want that character to be welcoming, as proponents of the legislation say. But we should not want it to be indiscriminately welcoming. And while we should want it to be pluralistic, as they also say, we should want our pluralism to be compatible with social cohesion.

Nothing illustrates the way the legislation corrodes these ideals more than the guest-worker programs it includes. The bill would create a large class of people who are in our society but not of it: who provide their labor but are not expected to participate in our politics or culture. Some of these “temporary” workers would renew their terms of residency so that they stayed here for years. Others would overstay their visas and become illegal immigrants, and thus hard to assimilate. Some would apply for permanent legal status and thus add to the number of low-skilled legal immigrants the bill lets in. None of these outcomes would do a great deal to advance our country’s interest in assimilation.

The view that legal-immigration levels might be too high has generally been treated as illegitimate in our political debates. When Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) offered an amendment capping that level at 33 million over the next decade, it was defeated 17–1 in committee. This concern is not, however, confined to the margins of society. The question is rarely polled — itself an indicator of the state of the debate — but Fox News found in April that 55 percent of the public wanted to reduce the number of legal immigrants we admit while only 28 percent wanted to increase it. The same month, a CBS/New York Times poll had 35 percent favoring the status quo, 31 percent wanting less immigration, and 25 percent preferring more. In each of these polls, more immigration was the least popular choice. On this question, at least, it’s the supporters of the bill who appear to be out of step with a large majority of the public.

I cannot prove it, the survey data being so scant, but I suspect that behind the public’s lack of enthusiasm for increased legal immigration are the sort of cultural considerations that I’ve raised here but are rarely articulated in the public debate. One reason the public debate is so far removed from public opinion must be the tendency to cast these perfectly sensible considerations out of polite discussion. That tendency, it seems to me, is both unhealthy and, well, unattractive.

The bill provides some real benefits. Legalizing illegal immigrants would give them and their families a shot at a better life. The additional immigrants the bill would bring to our country would also experience gains: Participation in the U.S. labor market is one of the world’s great treasures. Over the next few decades, they should also reduce the deficit somewhat. Native-born Americans will probably, in aggregate, see their wages go up by a small amount.

The additional immigration, however, seems likely to have bad effects on the wages and assimilation of the immigrants who are already here and the ones we would let in without the bill. Our country would probably be less cohesive and more divided. The continuation of illegal immigration — the CBO estimates that if the bill passes, it will be higher in the next decade than it was in the last one, though 25 percent lower than it would be without passage — would mean that the main problem the immigration bill was meant to address would not look any better. Demands for a new amnesty, and reduced respect for the rule of law, would be highly likely in this scenario.

My fears may be overstated. Perhaps people will not come to the country in anything like the numbers that the CBO assumes. Or perhaps the country’s assimilative power will prove greater than I assume. The view that the risks are larger than the likely benefits, though, seems to be logical and defensible — and right.

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