To the Editor:
I was delighted to see Yuval Levin engage the issue of immigration, particularly its most basic element—the shape of our policy for legal immigration—rather than the conceptually simpler matter of enforcement [“Fixing Immigration,” May]. I also welcome some of Mr. Levin’s specific recommendations, especially that family-based immigration should extend only to the nuclear family and that assimilation into American society should be given a higher priority.
But I am afraid that Mr. Levin does not dig down deep enough to the source of our current immigration difficulties. The problem with immigration is not simply that we have (as he writes) “a badly broken system of selecting, directing, managing, and assimilating” immigrants, true as that is. The fundamental problem is that mass immigration as such—regardless of how it is managed—is incompatible with the needs of a modern society. Mr. Levin himself suggests such a critique when he writes that our current policy arose “in response to a very different world,” but he does not follow the thread to the end.
Almost every aspect of our lives is qualitatively different from what came before, and the high levels of immigration that we successfully accommodated in the past are deeply problematic today. To begin with, our modern, high-tech economy offers less opportunity for advancement to low-skilled workers than the manufacturing economy of the past. Immigrants obviously make the overall economy larger, and they certainly see their own wages rise, but as the gap between their education and that of the native-born grows, their long-term prospects for advancement fade. Each successive group of immigrants is in fact advancing less and less quickly. More than 60 percent of our largest immigrant group—Mexicans—live at or near the poverty line.
One reason this matters is that today we have a welfare state, as well as extensive government spending on schools, roads, health care, etc. A century ago, government spending accounted for a minuscule portion of our economy; today it accounts for about one-third of GDP, a reality that is never fundamentally going to change. In such an environment, it cannot make sense to promote the large-scale importation of low-skilled workers—people who, through no fault of their own, earn low wages, pay little in taxes, and consume a disproportionate amount of government spending. To look again at our largest immigrant group: more than 40 percent of Mexican immigrant families use at least one welfare program, and more than 50 percent lack health insurance.
Assimilation is also not what it used to be. Modern communications and transportation technology have made it so that immigrant ties to the old country are less likely to be severed. When this is combined with the deeply rooted modern ideology of multiculturalism, simple exhortations for more assimilation are inadequate. The number of newcomers to be assimilated must be reduced.
Finally, the security threats that a modern society faces are directly affected by mass immigration. Because of modern advances in communications, transportation, and weaponry, the “home front” is no longer a metaphor, and mass immigration both overwhelms our ability to screen out subversives and creates large host communities for our enemies to use as cover. This is not a transitory phenomenon related only to radical Islam; all potential future enemies (North Korea, China, Colombia’s FARC, et al.) will consider how to use the consequences of mass immigration to attack our homeland.
The solution, then, does not lie in the “few simple reforms” that Mr. Levin offers. Instead, as I suggest in an upcoming book, we need the equivalent of zero-based budgeting in immigration—not zero immigration, but starting from zero and then selecting only those narrowly defined groups of people whose admission is so compelling that it outweighs the problems created by immigration. This would include husbands, wives, and young children of American citizens; a handful of genuine geniuses; and our share of the world’s most desperate refugees.
Large-scale immigration is a 19th-century policy that we have outgrown. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can truly “fix” our nation’s immigration policy.
Center for Immigration Studies
To the Editor:
Yuval Levin’s core argument is spot-on: “Americanization is what America wants” from immigration policy. He presents thoughtful ideas to strengthen patriotic assimilation, including requiring a course in American history and civics for naturalization and “enforcement of the prohibition on dual citizenship.” In addition, his proposals to end chain migration (i.e., immigrants sponsoring adult siblings) and the visa lottery make sense.
But I respectfully disagree with Mr. Levin’s call for visas to be made available for 420,000 more low-skilled workers. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has pointed out that low-skilled workers (including legal immigrants) cost the U.S. about $19,000 more per year in services than they contribute in taxes. In our high-tech economy, it makes no sense to import hundreds of thousands of high-school dropouts; this is simply corporate welfare, subsidizing cheap labor. I tend to agree with the economist Thomas Sowell: let the market work through both mechanization of some jobs and higher pay for Americans (including many Latinos and African-Americans) at the lower end of the wage scale.
Equally important, I suggest that before we consider greatly increasing legal immigration we should eliminate de-facto anti-assimilation forces like “bilingual” education, foreign-language voting ballots, and the Clinton-era executive order that requires federally funded institutions to provide documents in foreign languages upon request.
In June, an aroused electorate pressured a tone-deaf U.S. Senate into defeating the Kennedy-Kyl immigration bill. With 15 Democrats joining 38 Republicans, the 53-46 margin was an impressive bipartisan victory for common sense. Among other things, the bill would have been a disaster for national security. Incredibly, for example, terrorist and criminal background checks for probationary legal status were required to be completed by the “end of the next business day.”
What Mr. Levin does quite well is to raise the most important question: “what is our immigration policy for?” I would suggest that its purpose is to serve the national interest of the United States. During a global war with Islamic terrorism, this means border and interior enforcement first, the Americanization of immigrants second, and the particular business concerns of specific sectors of the economy third. We are a “nation of citizens,” not simply a “market of consumers,” as the big-business Right seems to believe.
Moreover, in fashioning a post-9/11 immigration policy we should begin to ask questions previously unasked. During the cold war we did not permit known Communists or even Communist sympathizers to immigrate to the United States. Today, why should we permit those who would seek to replace our constitutional regime with shari’a, whether violently or otherwise, to become citizens of our liberal democracy? We have seen the fruits of Western European immigration policies—terrorist attacks, fifth columns, anti-Americanism, and increasing hostility not simply to Israel but to the Jewish citizens of European states as well. With the European example before us, we should at least begin to discuss the advisability of restricting immigration from countries and communities where militant Islam is strong.
To the Editor:
Yuval Levin’s “Fixing Immigration” is a welcome change from what Commentary has previously published on the subject, but there is room to question some of his conclusions.
Although Mr. Levin believes (and he may be right) that fixing our legal immigration system is more important in the long run than dealing with illegal immigration, that view is not shared by the majority of the American people. There is some room to interpret national attitudes toward adjustments in the rate of legal immigration, but poll after poll confirms that the overwhelming number of respondents want illegal immigration stopped at once.
Mr. Levin cites the government’s estimate that there are “around 12 million” illegal immigrants in this country. This is, at best, an educated guess. A few years ago, the brokerage firm Bear Stearns, using highly reliable data from household surveys, estimated the number to be closer to 18 million. Illegal aliens have placed enormous financial burdens on local taxpayers, and those increasing costs are a major factor even in attitudes toward legal immigration.
Mr. Levin is being naïve when he writes that most temporary workers “are required to leave when their term ends—though of course not all do.” He should know that the number of violators who are deported is a minuscule percentage of those who remain unlawfully. The word is out in the third world: once you are here, you can stay and calmly wait for another amnesty—this time presented as “comprehensive immigration reform.”
Mr. Levin is more sensible in raising the question that many immigration advocates studiously avoid: what is our immigration policy for? Indeed, how serious can any nation be about citizenship if it allows 50,000 people to enter through a visa lottery? Instead of endless “family unification,” why not institute a point system, such as exists in Canada, selecting immigrants according to their potential to contribute to the nation? Under the rubric of “family unification,” the aged parents of newly arrived immigrants are eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) even though they have paid nary a penny into the program. Family unification has made the U.S. public-health system, in the words of the late Madeline Cosman, “hospital to the world.”
Finally, Mr. Levin does not mention a core issue raised by the pervasiveness of illegal immigration: should citizenship be extended to children born to parents who are in the country illegally? “Birth-right citizenship” is now considered automatic for these children, but the explosive growth of such “anchor babies” should force a reevaluation of our current system of conferring citizenship.
American Council for Immigration Reform
Yuval Levin writes:
I am grateful for the kind words of Mark Krikorian, one of the country’s most knowledgeable commentators on immigration. But here, as on previous occasions, I find myself disagreeing with many of his arguments. He writes that “mass immigration as such” is “incompatible with the needs of a modern society,” particularly because our high-tech economy offers little income mobility for low-skilled workers. But the economic mobility of immigrants has always been a generational process, and cross-generational mobility is in key respects actually greater now than it was in the days of the industrial economy to which he harks back.
More profound is the problem that Mr. Krikorian raises about the welfare state. Without question, the generosity of our welfare programs, combined with the relative poverty (now as always) of new immigrants, has generated unprecedented social and economic costs. There is a strong case for excluding from welfare programs immigrants who are not on track for citizenship. This would reduce costs as well as establish a proper relationship between the responsibilities and privileges of being a part of American society.
But immigration also brings benefits—economic, social, and cultural—that should not be blithely dismissed. “Mass immigration as such” is still quite compatible with America’s interests—and our national character—provided that it complies with our laws and demands that new immigrants assimilate into American life.
On the issue of assimilation, there is no one more expert than John Fonte, and I agree entirely with his call for an end to hindrances like foreign-language voting ballots and bilingual education, and for stronger formal barriers to the immigration of radical Islamists. But I do not agree that the legal immigration of low-skilled workers should be seen through the same lens as mass illegal immigration. Mr. Fonte argues that both serve as a kind of corporate welfare, supplying low-wage workers for jobs that Americans would fill if the pay were better. But like Mr. Krikorian, he underestimates the extent to which our economy, which is not only high-tech, needs low-skilled workers. Both overlook the role of immigrants in avoiding a labor shortage that could severely undercut the galloping economic growth of recent years.
Messrs. Fonte and Krikorian ascribe exclusively economic motives to advocates of (legal) low-skilled immigration. But there is a cultural case, too, for admitting a class of immigrants for whom America is truly a saving grace, and who could therefore turn out to be far more open to the appeal of “patriotic assimilation” than foreign engineers and technicians with cosmopolitan worldviews.
As my article made plain, I am actually in agreement with Messrs. Fonte and Kri-korian that the overall level of immigration to America should be reduced—but I think this should be done by ending the illegal variety, not immigration as such. I also noted, pace Vincent Chiarello, that a great many workers do not leave when their visas expire, and argued against an expanded temporary-worker program, the visa lottery, and extended family unification. I also agree with Mr. Chiarello that birthright citizenship—like other privileges—should not extend to children of illegal immigrants, although I do not think it should be taken away from those who are here legally.
Like other immigration restrictionists, Mr. Chiarello places too much emphasis on welfare. The issue is at least as much cultural as economic. The great promise of immigration is the revitalization that immigrants have always brought to our country and our national character. The great danger is failing at the task of assimilation, a task that should be at the heart of any effort at reform.