In a July 2015 interview with Vox, Bernie Sanders — America’s most prominent democratic socialist — famously dismissed the idea of open borders as a “Koch brothers proposal.” Pressed by host Ezra Klein, who suggested that sharply increasing immigration to the United States would “make a lot of the global poor richer,” Sanders elaborated:
That’s a right-wing proposal that says essentially that there is no United States… If you believe in a nation-state, in a country called the United States… you have an obligation, in my view, to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour. That would be great for them. I don’t believe in that.
As a matter of practical politics, Sanders was only half-right. It’s true that full-blown open-border advocates tend to be free-market libertarians. But under Trump, immigration restriction has become signature right-wing policy, while support among Democrats for more open immigration has skyrocketed. Thanks to the efforts of activist Sean McElwee, “Abolish ICE” has even become a rallying cry on the socialist left — one that Sanders embraced earlier this year, perhaps unaware of McElwee’s own view that socialism should strive for a “radical flattening of the global income distribution.”
Yet a new book by the conservative commentator and Atlantic columnist Reihan Salam says, in essence, that Bernie got it right the first time. In Melting Pot or Civil War?, Salam argues that although the United States’ embrace of large-scale, low-skill immigration over the past decades hasn’t been a plot by libertarian billionaires to hoodwink liberals into helping them create a highly unequal society — one in which pampered urban professionals benefit from the cheap labor of an impoverished and politically quiescent immigrant workforce — it might as well have been, since that’s where we’re headed. A labor-friendly reformicon, Salam argues that America desperately needs to shift toward a more skills-based immigration system while investing far more in helping immigrants and their children climb their way out of social marginalization and poverty. Without a new “middle-class melting pot,” he warns, we may soon find ourselves in a country where class politics fuse fully with color politics, looking back “wistfully on the halcyon politics of the Trump years.”
One obvious objection to a book subtitled A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders (Salam is a second-generation Bangladeshi-American) is that no one is really making the case for open borders. Or at least, no one who matters. Reviewing the book in Foreign Affairs (where I work), Noah Smith argues that although open borders are “a darling of intellectual libertarian circles,” these “libertarian intellectuals are a nonfactor in national politics.” All that one does by decrying “open borders” is to rebut these libertarians — an exercise with little relevance to the wider political debate.
But the unpopularity of the libertarians is precisely Salam’s point. He divides advocates for increased immigration into two camps. On the one hand are the “standard-issue immigration activists” of the left. Domestically, these people support egalitarian policies, and while they don’t necessarily advocate for the total abolition of national borders, they believe that the United States should be far more welcoming to foreigners, many more of whom deserve the opportunities that come with living in a rich, developed nation. On the other hand are the “bullet-biters”: the wonkier, more rigorous advocates of increased immigration — many of them the libertarians mentioned by Smith — who “forthrightly acknowledge that open borders and domestic equality simply can’t coexist.” Salam’s argument is not really with the bullet-biters, who know perfectly well that mass low-skilled immigration comes with serious tradeoffs. It’s with the liberal and leftist advocates of increased immigration who, seemingly having failed to think through the implications of their own position, are making common cause with the libertarians, who gleefully suggest that open borders could turn America into Elysium.
But why, exactly, is low-skill immigration a threat to domestic equality? Unlike most immigration skeptics, Salam more or less dismisses the idea that low-skill immigration drives down wages for native workers. It helps some natives and may hurt others, but the effect is small either way, and the biggest impact of immigration is on the earnings of immigrants themselves. That’s not to say there’s no impact on the economy. Low-skill immigration changes how the structure of the economy develops over time. Given a plentiful supply of cheap labor, businesses will be relatively less inclined to invest in technology, skewing investment toward low-wage, low-productivity work. (Conversely, high-tech economies like Sweden’s struggle mightily to employ low-skill immigrants, which is why the bullet-biters tend to favor abolishing labor regulations and minimum-wage laws.) Why invest billions in self-driving cars if you have Uber drivers from Malawi happy to work for $3 an hour? For the bullet-biters, there’s no reason to object: The drivers are happy to get out of Malawi, and we Americans get cheaper services. But do we really want to be waited on by a foreign service caste making sub-poverty wages?
Salam’s main concern is with these potential impacts on our social structure. He fears a future in which “wealthy whites and Asians wall themselves off from the rest of society, and low-wage immigrants and their offspring constitute a new underclass.” Immigration advocates often dismiss such concerns by pointing to America’s success in assimilating past waves of immigrants, as well as to contemporary success stories, like the immigrant co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin. Sure, it may be tough for the first-generation Uber drivers, but their kids will grow up speaking English, work their way into the middle class, and become part of the American mainstream. So why worry? Aren’t immigrants doing fine?
It depends what you mean by “immigrant.” As Salam argues, the immigrants who are doing well tend to be those who were already doing well before they got here. Indian immigrants, for instance, have little trouble entering the American middle class. But most Indians have been “triple selected” by the time they arrive — they enter via high-skill worker visas, which means they’ve passed through India’s competitive higher education system, which in turn means they’re probably from a wealthier and more educated family. Low-skill immigrants, on the other hand, can easily get stuck on the bottom rungs of an American class system with punishingly few opportunities for the non-college educated. Somewhere between a third and half of noncitizens “have incomes low enough to qualify either them or their dependents for means-tested programs,” and this poverty can be transmitted intergenerationally: “For immigrants who enter the country with 12 years of schooling or fewer, employment rates decrease from the first to the second generation and from the second generation to the third.” A 2013 study from the National Academy of Sciences estimated the average immigrant without a high-school diploma could cost $115,000 in benefits paid out over a 75-year period. The bullet-biters propose to solve the cost problem by limiting immigrants’ access to welfare programs, or simply paring back the welfare state altogether. But for Salam, condemning these people to even more desperate poverty is not an attractive option.
Similarly, nearly all immigrants are “assimilating” in one way or another, but what they are assimilating to depends a lot on the skills and social capital they bring with them. Many point to rising white–Hispanic intermarriage rates and the related phenomenon of “ethnic attrition” — the tendency of mixed white–Hispanic kids to identify as white-only in later generations — as evidence that immigrant–native ethnic boundaries will eventually disappear. But according to Salam, current patterns of intermarriage could actually make ethnic distinctions between whites and Hispanics worsen over time. This is because there are major differences within the “Hispanic” ethnic group. Among native-born Hispanic women, the college educated are three times more likely to marry whites than are the non-college educated. As wealthier, more educated Hispanics marry outside their group and abandon their Hispanic identity, those who remain will tend to be poorer and more socially segregated from the American mainstream (a process Salam refers to as “racialization”), and “Hispanic ethnicity will become more closely associated with disadvantage than it is today.”
Salam’s point is that we can’t simply assume that things will be fine. Assimilating the wave of European immigrants that peaked around 1900 didn’t just happen by magic — those immigrants entered a rapidly expanding economy with a huge demand for low-skilled labor; immigration restriction in the 1920s broke up ethnic enclaves; and the post-WWII boom vaulted vast numbers of Irish, Italians, Jews, and Eastern Europeans into the newly minted “white” middle class. It’s true that we can help poor immigrants and their kids enter the middle class, but we have to make a conscious decision to do so, or else we’re going to end up with more inequality, more racial and ethnic tension, and a more divided society.
Salam has a few suggestions for how to get out of this mess. As an immediate policy fix, he calls for a one-time amnesty for the undocumented population in order to bring them and their children more fully into American society. Second, he advocates for a more selective, skills-based immigration system similar to the Canadian one, which in addition to its fiscal benefits (high-skill immigrants pay more into the system than they take out), would help ensure that new arrivals are not entering the poorest reaches of American society and getting stuck there. And third, he wants to invest more into fighting the intergenerational transmission of poverty among poor immigrants and their U.S.-born children. His proposal here — a universal child credit of between $1,000 and $3,000 — is somewhat wonky, and feels a little slight given the seemingly existential stakes laid out in the rest of the book. But the idea that America should be willing to spend a little to fight the formation of a racialized underclass seems fundamentally sound.
Something did occur to me while reading this book, however. Salam fears that more of the same on immigration could lead to a sort of dual radicalization: On the left, growing numbers of poor millenials of color will come to resent and reject a “white” power structure from which they feel fundamentally alienated, while on the right, whites — as well as the middle-class Asians and Hispanics with whom they intermarry — will come to fear members of the underclass who wish to confiscate and redistribute their wealth. By contrast, if more of our immigrants were highly skilled, they would comfortably blend into the post-white cultural mainstream and racial tensions would dissipate. But if you spend much time on the internet, you’re likely to notice that the most inflammatory left-wing rhetoric on race isn’t coming from the damnés de la terre but from well-off whites and the well-off children of immigrants who have already joined the cultural mainstream. As Salam himself pointed out in the case of Sarah Jeong, a Harvard-educated, Asian-American journalist briefly pilloried for her anti-white tweets, performative white-bashing isn’t a mark of alienation from the power structure at all — it’s a display of insider status.
Salam may well be right that in the future, that sort of rhetoric could trickle down from the top and fuel a future wave of left-wing populism. And he’s right to insist that we shouldn’t blithely assume that immigration will turn out fine without our having to do anything about it. But there’s reason to be skeptical that simply shifting the skills mix of immigrants will turn down the temperature of the cultural battles raging around immigration, race, and American identity. For that to happen, we’ll need what Salam calls for in his conclusion: “a critical mass of people, young and old, who are willing to meet others halfway, even if that means risking embarrassment, or alienating some of the members of your own cultural tribe.” A new melting pot may help avert a civil war, but it will be a lost cause if enough of us don’t first decide to chill the fuck out.