America, please be reasonable on immigration
In order to preserve our nation of immigrants, we need to compromise.
Back in 2017-2019, I was planning to write a book about U.S. immigration. The basic idea was that immigration is crucial for America, not just for our economy, but for the dynamism of our society and for our self-concept as a nation of immigrants. There was going to be one chapter praising high-skilled immigration, and another explaining the value of mass (i.e. “low-skilled”) immigration. There was going to be a chapter about the history of U.S. attitudes and policies, arguing that the U.S. has usually been very pro-immigrant, despite the occasional spasm of restrictionism. Another chapter or two would be about how successfully the U.S. assimilates — or, if you prefer, “integrates” — new Americans’ cultures into our own. In preparation for this undertaking, I read around 40 books about immigration and cultural assimilation, many of which I reviewed on Twitter (and which I might review on this blog, if people are interested).
At the end of the book, I was going to recommend a return to the Senate’s proposed immigration compromise of 2013, which balanced strong border enforcement with a robust expansion of legal immigration. It would have expanded skilled immigration, increased border security, created an e-verify system to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants, and given amnesty to people who were in the country illegally before December 2011.
I still might write this book, someday. But in 2020 I changed my mind and decided to hold off, for one simple reason: I didn’t think Americans were in the mood to listen to reasonable arguments on the topic of immigration. The issue seemed to have become a culture war wedge-issue, where actually improving the system had become less important than using the system’s problems as a club with which to bludgeon the opposing political tribe. Extreme positions had become valued as purity tests, while calls for compromise drew as much fire from one’s own side as from the opponents’. In that sort of climate, the book I wanted to write would be either denounced or ignored by many progressives for supporting border security and trumpeting assimilation, while drawing wild condemnations from the right wing for supporting “population replacement”.
Right now, the nation is once again up in arms over immigration. Texas is embroiled in a standoff with the Border Patrol over installing razor wire along the border. Even the Supreme Court got involved, narrowly ruling in favor of the Border Patrol. On social media, the usual right-wing voices are screaming about an “invasion” and threatening civil war between red states and blue states.
On one hand, I agree with my friend Wally Nowinski that there is more than a little opportunism at work here:
The general realization that the U.S. economy is firing on all cylinders has naturally sent the GOP in search of something else to attack Biden about. And immigration was the natural thing to pivot to, especially because the idea that foreigners are flooding our country and replacing our population and bringing terrorism and drugs and crime etc. etc. has pretty much been Trump’s most consistent campaign theme since 2015.
But to be fair to the Republicans here, immigration, unlike the economy, actually is a big problem right now. Since 2021, there has been an absolute flood of people crossing the southwestern border illegally. It swamps anything we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s:
This is a massive problem. It’s a short-term logistical problem in terms of how to house and feed the millions pouring into the country — a task that is now straining the resources of many heavily Democratic cities. It’s a long-term fiscal problem, because these people will require heavy government support for their health care, housing, and education; this will end up coming from city and state governments, since they’re barred from federal welfare programs. And it also presents a psychological problem for Americans, because it violates their sense of sovereignty; there’s a general sense that these millions are forcing their way in, instead of being invited by the democratic will of the American people.
And the American people are very upset. During the Trump era, attitudes shifted strongly in a pro-immigration direction. Now polls have bounced back in a restrictionist direction, to where they were before Trump. Pretty much all Americans agree that the situation at the border is bad, with most calling it either a “crisis” or “very serious”:
And an increasingly large majority want policy to get tougher:
And support for mass deportations, though still a minority, appears to be rising:
Support for a border wall is rising as well. Biden’s approval rating on the immigration issue, meanwhile, has fallen to an all-time low. If any issue threatens Biden’s reelection chances, it’s this one.
Biden has apparently (belatedly) realized this vulnerability. He had been inching toward tougher border policies for a while, but now he’s agreeing to a bipartisan Senate deal that would get very tough on migrants who cross the border illegally seeking asylum. But Republicans in the House, who are more closely allied with Trump than their colleagues in the Senate, are blocking the deal. Since Trump himself has been crusading against the deal, many suspect that the House Republicans’ goal is to force the border crisis to continue, in the hopes of getting Trump elected in November.
Whether or not that political gambit will succeed, it means that, like in 2013, nothing is getting solved. And the longer the border festers, the more danger there is that America will go into one of its occasional anti-immigrant spasms.
What Americans really need on the immigration issue is to be reasonable. Our country needs lots of immigrants for our economy, and because taking in immigrants is a core part of how we define ourselves as a nation. But a chaotic border that encourages mass illegal entry does not help advance that goal. Compromise positions on immigration, like the one we failed to embrace in 2013, are easy to imagine; what we need is to care more about solving the problems than about pinning them on our opponents.
The two things we need to compromise on are 1) how people get into the country, and 2) who gets to come in.