If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will
David Frum, 03/13/2019
PART FOUR - What’s the Right Level of Immigration?
Immigration offers americans access to a wider range of human talent. It offers immigrants a chance at a better life. It is grounded in American history and relied upon by the American economy. The birth rate among native-born Americans has generally been below the replacement level since the early 1970s—meaning that some amount of immigration is indispensable to simply keeping the population stable.
The gratuitous brutalities of the Trump administration shock the conscience, and fail even on their own terms. Intended as deterrents, they are not deterring. They are succeeding only in counterradicalizing liberal opinion to stigmatize almost all immigration enforcement against nonfelons as cruel, racist, and unacceptable.
Trump talks about a wall because he thinks about immigration in terms of symbols. Keep out, he wants to say, and what symbolizes that truculent message better than slabs of concrete arrayed like incisors in a line running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean?
But immigration needs to be thought of as a system, not a symbol. And the system is not working. No intentional policy has led the U.S. to accept more low-wage, low-skill laborers and fewer cancer researchers. Yet that is what the United States is doing. Virtually all the Central American families and unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in the summer of 2014 still remain in the United States. Meanwhile, the number of people coming to study in the United States on F-1 visas has sharply declined since 2015.
President Trump seethes against illegal border crossings. Yet at least five of his golf resorts employed undocumented laborers for the first two years of his presidency.
This happened because the first group is labeled “asylum seekers,” subject to one set of rules, and the second group is categorized as student-visa applicants, subject to another. The distinction derives from laws and treaties adopted in the aftermath of World War II, when the plight of refugees from Nazism and communism were at the forefront of consciousness. But these categorizations apply poorly to a world in which tens of millions of people are on the move in search of better lives. The young woman from Pakistan who finds refuge from a male-dominated society in an American cancer-research lab is an asylum seeker as well as an economic migrant; the Guatemalan who witnessed an uncle’s murder and so decided to seek safer streets and better wages in the United States is an economic migrant as well as an asylum seeker. The supposedly watertight legal categories blur, leaving a question: Who should be invited to join with the natives of the United States to build, together, a better life for the Americans of today and tomorrow?
The family-reunification bias of present U.S. immigration policy effectively delegates that decision to immigrant diasporas in the United States. On average, a settled immigrant will sponsor 3.5 relatives to follow him or her into the United States.
Family ties also help explain the dynamics of unauthorized immigration. Central American asylum seekers say they are fleeing crime in their home countries. Yet asylum-seeking has surged even as crime in Central America has subsided. El Salvador’s homicide rate has dropped by half since 2015; Honduras’s has plunged by 75 percent since 2013. As these asylum seekers have settled in the United States, they have beckoned their families to follow. U.S. adjudicators have rejected the vast majority of Central American asylum applications. But that has not diminished the flow from Central America. The process is slow, and a rejected application can be appealed. As the proceedings grind on, asylum seekers can vanish into diaspora communities where they can find housing, work, and welcome.
The asylum seekers are advancing their interests and those of their families as best they can. Americans have the same responsibility to do what is best for Americans. A smaller immigration intake would dramatically slow the growth in the foreign-born share of the population, better shielding democratic political systems from extremist authoritarian reactions. Cutting the legal annual intake in half—back to the 540,000 a year that prevailed before the Immigration Act of 1990—would still keep the U.S. population growing strongly even if native birth rates never recover from their present deeply depressed levels.
And shifting that intake sharply away from family reunification (by, for example, ending preferences for adult siblings) would enable the U.S. to emphasize acceptance of highly skilled, high-earning immigrants—more doctors from Nigeria, say, or software engineers from India. Fewer, but higher-earning, immigrants would contribute more to Medicare and Social Security, while requiring less assistance from state social-welfare programs for themselves and their children.
Even at lower immigration levels, America will continue to move rapidly toward greater ethnic diversity. Under today’s policies, the U.S. will become majority-minority in about 2044. Even cutting immigration by nearly half would postpone that historical juncture by only one to five years, according to computations by The Washington Post. The higher birth rates of the immigrants already living in this country have determined what the American future will look like demographically. The challenge for today’s Americans is to allow that new demography to develop in an environment of social equality and cultural cohesion.
Immigration cannot be reduced overnight. The 4-million-person backlog of approved admissions will have to be cleared. But as authorities process fewer legal immigrants, they will be able to concentrate resources more effectively to combat unlawful immigration.
The phrase border security seriously distorts our understanding of illegal immigration. By some tallies, more than half of the most recent immigrants in the country illegally arrived legally—typically as a student or tourist—then overstayed their visa. They obeyed the law when they entered. They broke it by failing to leave. They get away with this because the U.S. concentrates its immigration enforcement on the frontier—while slighting the workplace. President Trump seethes against illegal border crossings. Yet at least five of his golf resorts employed undocumented laborers for the first two years of his presidency. At one of his resorts, fully half the winter-season employees worked illegally.
The Trump Organization will almost certainly face no consequences for its lawbreaking. Scofflaw employers rarely do. To its credit, the Trump administration has stepped up workplace enforcement somewhat since 2017. But while immigration investigations and audits are increasing, they remain rare.
The massive deportation of people who have lived in the country for a long time would serve no one well. But employers of unauthorized labor should face and fear fines sufficient to deter lawbreaking. If employers stop hiring undocumented workers, those workers will not be induced to cross the border in the first place.
Even more urgently, employers who take advantage of immigration status—to cheat workers of their pay, or harass or abuse them sexually, or force them to work in unsafe conditions—should be prime targets for criminal prosecution. As states raise their minimum wages, the temptation to hire people of precarious immigration status will intensify. It is the workplace that most needs additional enforcement resources.
Americans also need to rethink asylum policy. If unemployment, poverty, or disorder in your home country qualifies you for asylum, then hundreds of millions of people qualify—even though virtually none of them has been targeted by the kind of state-sponsored persecution that asylum laws were originally written to redress.
If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.
The U.S. immigration system offers an even less practical response to the problems of displaced persons and refugees. In a mass population exodus like that from the Syrian civil war, plucking only a lucky handful to jet to a new land is a mostly empty palliative, since that leaves virtually every other victim of the war no better off. The immigration-skeptical Center for Immigration Studies estimates that it costs 12 times more to resettle a refugee in the United States than to house, feed, and provide work for that refugee in his or her safest neighboring country.
“How to help those displaced by conflict?” and “How should we select our future fellow Americans?” need to be seen as different questions requiring different sets of answers.
With immigration pressures bound to increase, it becomes more imperative than ever to restore the high value of national citizenship, not to denigrate or disparage others but because for many of your fellow citizens—perhaps less affluent, educated, and successful than you—the claim “I am a U.S. citizen” is the only claim they have to any resources or protection. Without immigration restrictions, there are no national borders. Without national borders, there are no nation-states. Without nation-states, there are no electorates. Without electorates, there is no democracy. If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.
Yes, borders are arbitrary. And, yes, more people are arguing that we should care as much about people in faraway lands as we do about our fellow Americans. But the practical effect of making this argument is to enable the powerful to care as little for their fellow Americans as they do for people in faraway lands.
A quarter of the 45 million foreign-born people currently living in the U.S. arrived here illegally. As of 2016, two-thirds of them had resided in the United States for 10 years or more. They cannot reasonably be expected to leave. Those who arrived as children know no other home. In a decade or two, millions of people without legal status will reach the age of 65. What happens to them? Under present law, they will receive no Social Security from the United States; they will not qualify for Medicare. Will we allow them to sink into illness and destitution in their old age? Many of the Democratic candidates for president want to expand Medicare to citizens under age 65. Will millions of people in the United States be left without care? Health care for all is not consistent with an immigration policy that does not police the boundaries of that “all.” If undocumented immigrants are to be included in the American “us” (as sooner or later many will have to be), then the country has to be assured that large-scale illegal immigration will never again be tacitly tolerated as it was over the past generation.
It will not be easy to make a success of the low-skill and often illegal immigration to the United States over the past three decades, to extend equal opportunity to all, to assimilate into a common nationality those who arrived speaking Mixtec or Bengali or Fula. It was hard enough to do this in the 19th century, when home was a three-week sea voyage away. Today, when immigrants can remain easily connected to their place of origin—and when the native majority has lost confidence in a unitary American identity—the task of assimilation is even harder.
Where once the nation’s cultural leaders condemned “hyphenated Americanism,” today the hyphen has become a tool of cultural power. Those white Americans who might not have a hyphen obviously at hand now scramble to invent one. They have become “hardworking Americans” or “everyday Americans” or “real Americans”—separating themselves from a shared destiny with other Americans.
No American more eloquently deplored hyphenation than Theodore Roosevelt. Read his words in full, and you see that Roosevelt’s insistence on a singular national identity was founded not on any sense of hereditary supremacy, but on his passionately patriotic egalitarianism.
The children and children’s children of all of us have to live here in this land together. Our children’s children will intermarry, one with another, your children’s children, friends, and mine. They will be the citizens of one country.
One country. How many Americans feel that way about their country now? Yet that is how it must be, how it can be.
More than any other area of government, U.S. immigration policy is driven by nostalgia—by ancestral memories of a world long gone. Give me your tired, your poor …
This is no way to think about the problems of today. These are new times, calling for new thinking. The wealth of 21st-century America is not found in farms and mines, but in the skill and productivity of its people. It has never been more important to invest in those people. When somebody seeks to join the American national community, that person is asking the United States to honor a multigenerational commitment to him or her and to each of his or her descendants.
Americans are entitled to consider carefully whom they will number among themselves. They would be irresponsible not to consider this carefully—because all of these expensive commitments must be built on a deep agreement that all who live inside the borders of the United States count as “ourselves.” The years of slow immigration, 1915 to 1975, were also years in which the United States became a more cohesive nation: the years of the civil-rights revolution, the building of a mass middle class, the construction of a national social-insurance system, the projection of U.S. power in two world wars. As immigration has accelerated, the country seems to have splintered apart.
Many Americans feel that the country is falling short of its promises of equal opportunity and equal respect. Levels of immigration that are too high only enhance the difficulty of living up to those promises. Reducing immigration, and selecting immigrants more carefully, will enable the country to more quickly and successfully absorb the people who come here, and to ensure equality of opportunity to both the newly arrived and the long-settled—to restore to Americans the feeling of belonging to one united nation, responsible for the care and flourishing of all its people.