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Breaking the Immigration Impasse

books and culture

Breaking the Immigration Impasse

Reihan Salam offers a roadmap for the future, but one that will require compromise on both sides. October 3, 2018
The Social Order
Economy, finance, and budgets

Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders, by Reihan Salam (Penguin, 224 pp., $27)

In 2007, Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy introduced an immigration reform bill that I described—naively—as promising, because both sides had made significant concessions. Kennedy, who backed the 1965 reform act that scrapped our old quotas and inaugurated the modern era of immigration, had signed his name to a new bill that would transform our legal system into one based on merit, not family ties; McCain, in turn, had called for a path to citizenship for some longtime illegal aliens, accompanied by tougher penalties for businesses that hired unauthorized workers. Though the bill wasn’t perfect, its spirit of compromise prompted me to see it as a chance for real reform.

Almost immediately, though, both sides started disparaging the deal. Presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed that most Americans’ ancestors would never have been allowed into the country under the new proposed merit system—ignoring how previous waves of immigrants, such as those during the so-called Great Migration of a century ago, had come to America with skills in demand at that time. Immigration restrictionists, meantime, argued that their concerns had been shortchanged in previous compromises, so they couldn’t trust this one. Since then, positions on both sides have hardened further.

National Review executive editor Reihan Salam makes a new appeal for compromise in Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders, a short but thoroughly argued book that cuts through much of the misunderstanding and misinformation about the immigration debate, and offers a new path to a solution. What distinguishes the book is Salam’s perspective as not only a child of immigrants but also “the brother, neighbor and friend of immigrants,” many of whom find President Donald Trump’s rhetoric “frightening.” Salam can see both sides: on the one hand, he’s sympathetic to immigrants’ challenges; on the other, he’s distressed by open-borders advocates, who refuse to acknowledge the problems that masses of low-skilled immigrants present to government budgets and social cohesion. I suspect that Salam places himself in a category that he describes as the “bullet biters,” whom he describes as “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.”  Anyone engaging in the immigration debate who genuinely wants reform must be prepared to make compromises, Salam argues—but how to get there?

When the current immigration debate was reignited back in 2006 and 2007, many popular judgments about the value of immigrants were based on research about the newcomers from the immigration wave of 1880 through 1924, and their children. Though Emma Lazarus’s poem describes “your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” research by the so-called Jordan Commission—headed by African-American congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, and empaneled by President Clinton in the 1990s—demonstrated that many of those newcomers had education and skill levels closely aligned with those of the American population at the time. That so many succeeded quickly—earning salaries commensurate with American laborers after just a few years here—wasn’t unusual.

But the American economy is far different today, and research on the current generation of immigrants shows an incompatibility between their skills and labor-market demands. Not all immigrants, Salam explains, are low-skilled workers; some 45 percent of immigrants from India, for instance, come from the country’s most educated classes. It’s no surprise, then, that so many Indian immigrants flourish here. But the notion that many newcomers have similar “poverty-defying powers” doesn’t comport with reality. For every Sergey Brin, a son of educated Russians who immigrated to America and cofounded Google, there are many low-skilled immigrants. Some 30 percent of the children of immigrants in America live with someone without a high school diploma. Their struggles in the U.S. educational system, a key step toward economic integration, are enormous. Just 5 percent of eighth-grade children of immigrants are proficient in math; most are likely to do no better than a high school education. “The average male Mexican immigrant arrives in the United States with 9.4 years of schooling. That rises in the second generation, but to only 12.6 years,” Salam writes.

So how do we deal compassionately with a world in which many more poor, unskilled people want to come here than we can afford to take in, especially with a welfare state far larger, costlier, and more entrenched than the one that existed during the early twentieth century? Salam starts with a chapter on finding ways to lift people out of poverty where they already live, so that they’re less likely to feel the need to leave. Economic empowerment doesn’t always figure in the immigration debate, but almost every year, 35 million people worldwide escape poverty, on a net basis. Still, an enormous number remain impoverished. Perhaps we should focus more intently on countries closest to us. As Salam notes, gains in the Mexican economy have helped slow the immigration flow from our southern neighbor. Problems in Central America, though, are motivating more people to find their way here. It’s a tough battle, trying to transform other countries, especially when the job usually requires more than just U.S. economic aid—reforming corrupt or inefficient political institutions is far more complicated.

In the end, it’s what we do here that will most influence how immigration shapes the American future. Salam’s grand compromise involves offering amnesty to longtime illegal residents, moving to a merit-based legal system that favors immigrants likely to contribute to our economy, and investing in social programs aimed at helping end what’s turning into an intergenerational poverty problem among low-skilled immigrants and their offspring. His detailed proposals—including tougher enforcement of the border on one hand and subsidies for poor immigrant children on the other—will find objections across the ideological spectrum. Still, Salam’s personal experiences ground his optimism. He grew up in New York City during a time of racial and ethnic conflict and high crime. He watched crime go down and saw immigrants play a key role in revitalizing neighborhoods. Few were betting on those results back then, as I recall. An outcome equally as improbable on immigration will require compromises of just the sort that Salam lays out. He offers a roadmap out of our current immigration traffic jam.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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