Nonfiction: Thinking Clearly About Immigration


MELTING POT OR CIVIL WAR?
A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders
By Reihan Salam
213 pp. Sentinel. $27.

Global migration is triggering the sort of existential questions advanced nations haven’t had to bother with very much. Aside from lines on a map and a shared language, what makes Denmark Denmark, or Canada Canada? When does citizen-feeling for national culture and identity — not to mention budget concerns — veer into xenophobia? How much should a modern, secular nation tolerate the illiberal customs of newcomers from traditional cultures? As a “nation of immigrants,” one with a relatively modest welfare state, the United States should be safe from these prickly questions. After all, we have long been a hyphenated citizenry; our children are tutored — or are supposed to be — in E pluribus unum.

Yet here we are in the throes of a bitter war over immigration. Everyone knows who the enemy is, or thinks he does: One side points at ethnonationalist racists who cheer budget-busting walls, Muslim bans, caged children and deportations of hard-working parents whose only crime is wanting a better life. The other side sees self-deluded elitist hypocrites who condone criminal border-crossing and extravagant social spending as a way of supplying cheap labor to look after their children and clean their homes — while telling an ailing, law-abiding white working class that its time is up.

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In “Melting Pot or Civil War?” Reihan Salam brushes past the familiar hashtag denunciations into less well trod territory to ponder the forgotten question that underlies this standoff: What immigration policies would best inch us toward the elusive goal of a fair and just society? The American-born son of Bangladeshi immigrants, an editor at National Review and The Atlantic, Salam has written a book that is simultaneously a personal reflection, an accessible summary of current research and a nuanced policy discussion. It is also an implicit reprimand, suggesting that when it comes to debating immigration, we’ve been doing it very, very wrong.

In a nutshell, Salam contends that while the United States should welcome more high-skilled immigrants, mass low-skilled immigration is swelling the number of poor people in a country that is struggling — with modest success at best — to fulfill the aspirations of the less privileged citizens already living here. In the past, poor immigrants entered a labor-hungry industrial economy; jobs, land and opportunities were plentiful. A range of midskilled jobs gave the children and grandchildren of those immigrants the chance to leave urban tenements and drought-ridden farms to assimilate into a thriving American middle class with a car in the garage and a summer vacation at an upstate lake. That trajectory was largely denied to the descendants of former slaves; now it is out of reach as well for a growing number of today’s newcomers.

Ignoring the broad public good for immediate compassion, “immigration optimists” fail to fully reckon with the transformed economic landscape greeting this generation of arrivals. Wages are in the doldrums for all lower-skilled workers; stable work hours and savings accounts will remain a luxury for many of them. Salvadorans fleeing subsistence poverty and gangs may be grateful for the measly paycheck they get for chopping onions in steaming restaurant kitchens, but, Salam predicts, “the citizen children of these workers won’t be nearly as quiescent.” Given the hollowing out of the midskilled labor market and our mediocre record in educating poor children for a postindustrial economy, the rich, he says, are likely to remain “overwhelmingly white” for decades to come. He sees a future with a racialized proletariat embittered by a country that seems to work only for white Americans. This explains the alarmism of the “Civil War” of the book’s title.

For Salam, then, it’s not diversity or majority-minority demographics that challenge the United States; it’s “extreme between-group inequality.” Uplifting stories about the billionaire entrepreneur children of Russian refugees and DACA valedictorians prettify the reality of recent immigration just as much as dark visions of border-crossing rapists and welfare cheats do the opposite. There is a vast gap in the likely fortunes of the child of a Central American farmer with an eighth-grade education and that of the child of a professor from Mumbai. One of many studies quoted here concludes that only 6.2 percent of children of immigrants with less than a high school degree will graduate from college.

The frequent claim that immigrants “grow the economy” is also what fact-checkers would call only “partly true.” Immigrants with a college degree or more do supplement the tax rolls; their less-educated counterparts, however, are a net drain. A little over 30 percent of native households with children get federal food assistance, but over 45 percent of immigrant-headed households do. Meanwhile, the costs for education, social services and a considerable portion of Medicaid fall heavily on states and localities.

Salam sees no way out of intergenerational disadvantage and growing racial polarization if low-skilled immigration continues at high levels. In past immigrant waves, America contained civil strife among its diverse groups through the storied melting pot, the “voluntary blending of previously distinct groups into a new community,” in the words of the writer Michael Lind. These days, high-skilled immigrants are more likely to intermingle and intermarry — to blend into the melting pot — than the lower-skilled, who tend to become segregated into race-conscious social networks.

Salam suggests a number of policies that could head off the bleak picture he paints. First is a points system like that used in Canada, which would rate applicants on education, language skills, work experience and family ties. In the United States, two-thirds of green cards issued every year go to family members of citizens and residents; a large number of them are aging parents who add to the worrisome graying of our population. Salam’s Bangladeshi ancestry makes him acutely conscious that merit-based policies like Canada’s would deny a better future to countless hard-working poor just as worthy as those already here, and he devotes a chapter to ideas for improving opportunity in impoverished areas of the globe. And recognizing the impossibility of deporting the country’s estimated 11 million unauthorized residents, he recommends amnesty — though only in exchange for “resolute enforcement” of immigration laws, backed up by mandatory “E-verify,” a web system giving employers a way to confirm employees’ legal status.

No doubt, “Melting Pot or Civil War?” will leave many immigration restrictionists unconvinced that enforcement would ever be adequately “resolute.” Some progressives will accuse Salam of underplaying the racial animus driving poverty among immigrants. Others will note that low-skilled immigration is already on the wane. Still, this bracing book could be a conversation-changer — if only the outraged on both sides would let it.



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