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Commentary By Chris Pope

What’s the Matter with Open Borders?

Economics Immigration

The issue of immigration has the power to rouse both the left and the right to outrage and indignation like few other topics. But why is this so? Is it because of economic or political considerations? Is it because of the effect immigration will have on our civic culture, or a result of our intuitions about human dignity? A fascinating new book suggests that the reason immigration is so contentious lies in the way it causes these concerns to interact.  

In “Melting Pot or Civil War?, Reihan Salam, the executive editor of National Review, draws on academic research and his own experience as the son of Bangladeshi immigrants to New York City, to examine how immigrant communities are shaped by American society and how they in turn shape and will shape American culture in the generation to come.  

With activist groups seeking to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Salam steps back to ask why the United States should seek to restrict immigration at all. He writes as the product of a family that has thrived in America, who understands the value that newcomers can bring to the country, but who is also acutely aware of the challenges they pose to the nation that welcomes them.

As an illustration of this, the book opens with a discussion of the horrific case of Akayed Ullah, a Bangladeshi immigrant who tried to explode a bomb in New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal in 2017 with the intent of indiscriminately murdering commuters. Salam recalls: “When I saw Ullah’s face, I saw someone who could have been a cousin, or who might have helped my mother carry an armful of groceries.” Discussing the anxieties of someone from a similar background, Salam notes the propensity of humans for tribalism and violence, and warns of the capacity of mass migration to induce social turmoil.

In this, Salam’s book recalls the concerns expressed by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in his books on cultural conflict (The Clash of Civilizations) and immigration (Who Are We?) from two decades ago. Huntington noted how the continued replenishment of Hispanic immigrant communities had kept them from assimilating into American civic culture by insulating them from integrative social forces. Huntington highlighted how the rights desired by immigrants are unlikely to be granted unless they have support from the broader community, and public opinion in particular.

Yet, the work by Salam, who went to the same high school as Huntington and was his student at Harvard, is most interesting because it differs so fundamentally from his mentor’s. Whereas Huntington, an old school WASP born in 1927, wrote about immigrant communities as an outsider describing their cultures, Salam’s account is one written from the perspective of an insider attune to the details and nuances of individual motivation.

This places economics in the foreground—a set of considerations all but ignored in Huntington’s treatises. Many immigrants come to the United States seeking economic opportunities not present in their home countries. But Salam notes the danger associated with the immigration of millions of unskilled laborers who are destined to reside in the bottom ranks of the income distribution, and cautions against the optimistic assumption that “immigrants and their offspring,” he writes, “have poverty-defying superpowers.” He argues convincingly that the future prospects of low-skilled immigrants will likely resemble the low-rates of social mobility of native low-skilled workers, rather than the oft-cited extraordinary social mobility of past Asian immigrants who had been drawn disproportionately from their countries’ educated elites.

Salam declares that “diversity is not the problem. What is uniquely pernicious is extreme between-group inequality.” The uncontrolled immigration of millions of low-skilled workers can be expected to generate pressure for economic redistribution, where “class politics will become color politics,” Salam writes, “and extremists on the left and right will find millions of poor angry youth to heed their calls to battle.”

While the prospect of class conflict supercharged by ethnic antagonisms is a depressing one, a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the dangers involved with an open borders policy may allow America to more fully enjoy the benefits that immigrants can bring. To this end, Salam suggests that eligibility for immigration be reoriented from family ties to economic skills, that international trade be expanded to allow low-skill workers to participate in the modern economic world without leaving home, and that the United States intervene to undergird political stability abroad. These proposals obviously involve difficulties of their own. But a foreign policy of isolationism, he argues convincingly, is actually at odds with the Trump administration’s immigration policy objectives. 

Huntington argued that the American dream would not be possible without an “Anglo-Protestant society,” and that if America hadn’t initially been settled predominantly by British Protestants, “it would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.” His implication was that cultural and religious norms were responsible for economic and political outcomes.

But the political culture of Latin America is the product of class conflict as much as its cause. And the experience of Argentina, in particular, suggests that Salam is closer to the truth by paying attention to political economy.

A century ago, Argentina’s GDP per capita wasn’t far behind that of the United States. But while the United States in 1924 moved to restrict entry, Argentina kept the doors open. In 1914, foreign-born residents accounted for almost a third of Argentina’s population and 72 percent of the adult population of Buenos Aires. All but a few of these were working class immigrants who owned little property, leaving roughly 80 percent of the capital’s male residents without the vote as an “unenfranchised proletariat.” 

The resulting political and economic inequality fostered a volatile politics of class conflict. By the 1950s, those immigrants who had come to the United States from the same mix of countries as had come to Argentina during the great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th Century were joining the middle class. But Argentina during this time was stuck in a cycle of socialism, dictatorship, civil war, and impoverishment from which it has still not truly escaped.

In an era when discussions of immigration are dominated by blind optimists and fatalists, the prudent path sketched by Salam is well worth considering. Immigration will bring the greatest benefit to America if it is accompanied by a clear-eyed appreciation of its perils.

Chris Pope is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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