The local public library recently spit into my hands Reihan Salam’s slender volume about US immigration policy, “Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.” The “son of immigrants” in question is Salam himself, who is so thoroughly integrated into American life he manages to hold down a gig writing for the fringe conservative website National Review.
Reading the work of conservative “intellectuals,” whether it’s Reihan Salam, Ben Sasse or Jeffrey Goldberg, is obviously a curious exercise given how fundamentally our politics and values differ, but I never fail to learn something from these books about the conservative mind, and Salam’s latest book proved to be no exception.
What’s the problem with immigration?
I always try to give the most generous interpretation possible of these conservative ideologues so no one can claim I’m taking them out of context or setting up straw man versions of their arguments just because I disagree. Salam’s argument against immigration (or against “open borders” as he puts it), hinges on the following observations:
- the foreign-born share of the population is historically high and rising;
- the foreign-born share of the working-age population is historically high and rising;
- a community of immigrants that is replenished with new arrivals is less likely to encourage integration into established American institutions, and may even “draw established Americans into its cultural orbit” (horrors!);
- low-skilled immigrants are likely to have low-skilled children, who will both use means-tested programs and agitate for social justice.
Rarely has anyone interpreted the “melting pot” so literally
It’s true that humans don’t actually melt, even at very high temperatures, with the Indiana Jones canon notwithstanding. But they do the next best thing: they marry. And Reihan Salam is obsessed with marriage. In particular, intermarriage:
- “Marrying outside one’s own ethnic community was often frowned upon”
- “The children and grandchildren of European immigrants became much more likely to marry outside their ethnic tribes”
- “It would be one thing if the likelihood of intermarriage were identical for more- and less-educated Hispanics, but that’s far from the case”
- “Today, rising rates of intermarriage and residential integration suggest that a growing minority of blacks are finding a place in the mainstream”
- “When Italians stopped arriving in America, Italian Americans had little choice but to marry non-Italian Americans”
- “Assuming these college-educated, native-born Hispanic women are marrying college-educated non-Hispanics, it’s quite likely both that their children will be college-educated themselves, and that they’d find themselves in social networks that are more Anglo than Hispanic”
Now, I have to confess, I’m the marrying type. I myself got married in August. Two of my brothers are married. My late father loved marrying so much he did it 4 times!
But even as a marital fellow, I found Salam’s obsession with marriage and breeding creepy as hell. The reason for it, however, soon becomes clear: Salam uses marriage, and particularly intermarriage, as one of many substitutes for a vigorous state.
Reihan Salam’s vision is of America’s weaknesses and limitations
The key to understanding Salam’s vision of the United States, I realized, is that buried somewhere deep inside the United States, perhaps somewhere under Kansas or Nebraska, is a powerful enchanted object that grants the United States certain powers:
- the United States, alone amongst the nations of the world, can integrate immigrants into its multiethnic, participatory democracy.
- the United States, also uniquely, has the power to improve the economic well-being of its residents by training them to take its good-paying, middle-class jobs.
Unfortunately, while the “opportunity crystal” (as I’ve dubbed it) is powerful indeed, its powers are limited, and thus those responsible for this magical object must carefully allocate that limited power between these two admittedly worthy goals.
As Salam writes: “I find it useful to distinguish between amalgamation, in which intermarriage and other forms of cultural intermingling cause the ethnic boundaries separating different groups of Americans to blur to the point of insignificance, and racialization, in which a minority group finds itself ghettoized in segregated social networks [emphasis his].”
Amalgamation is one of the enchanted gemstone’s powers, but it must be carefully rationed in order to make sure the middle class is accessible to as many natives as possible, and if there are too many immigrants and not enough leftover power, we face the dire threat of racialization instead.
But all this is false. The limits on the ability of the United States to assimilate immigrants come from the willingness of the United States to assimilate immigrants. The limits on the ability of the United States to afford decent pay and working conditions to the working class come from the unwillingness of the United States to guarantee decent pay and working conditions to the working class. There’s no enchanted object whose power we need to carefully ration. It’s just us.
Salam’s immigrant hellscape is social democracy
What’s wrong, you might ask, with a continent-straddling country that happens to have some pockets of people who are, by comparison with the rest of the population, relatively homogenous, relatively recent arrivals, and relatively low-skilled?
Salam has an answer, and it goes back directly to the passage I quoted above about “racialization.” You see, “racialized” immigrants, or those who “find themselves ghettoized in segregated social networks,” might not like it very much. Specifically, the children of low-skilled immigrants (whether documented or undocumented), will use their influence as US citizens who can’t be simply deported if they become inconvenient, to try to ameliorate some of the poor conditions they find themselves in.
Which brings us to the core of the question: what don’t low-skilled, low-income second-generation citizens like about the United States? Salam provides 3 basic answers:
- they don’t like their wages, which are too low;
- they don’t like their working conditions, which are too inhumane;
- and they don’t like their living conditions, which are too primitive.
In other words, they’re right. Wages in the United States are too low. Working conditions in the United States are too inhumane. Living conditions in the United States are too primitive. And it turns out the children of relatively recent immigrants aren’t thrilled about it and might do something to change it!
Salam is so concerned about this possibility that he wants to preemptively keep them out. I’m so thrilled about this possibility that I want to preemptively admit them.
If you aren’t willing to pay taxes nothing is possible
Americans today have inherited an incredible array of institutions, from public universities to building inspectors, from public water and power utilities to post offices, from subways to regional rail. Most of them are still staggering along well enough, despite every attempt to bankrupt and dismantle them in the last 30 years. You can still get a drivers license replaced, you can still register to vote, you can even still get a building permit approved, eventually (here in DC we have a special bribes-only channel for approving building permits).
But if the plan, from now until the heat death of the universe, is to reduce the government’s financing stream by 20% every 8 years while dismantling all the institutions of accountability, then we’re simply doomed. Without vigorous wage and hour enforcement, wage theft will continue regardless of the number of immigrants. Without fair scheduling and paid family leave laws, working conditions will deteriorate regardless of the number of immigrants. Without new construction and vigorous enforcement of tenants rights, living conditions will deteriorate regardless of the number of immigrants.
Immigration, in this sense, is Reihan Salam’s canard. He hates immigrants as much as everyone else in his party, he just hates them in a kinder, gentler way: it’s not because they’re foreign, it’s because of the strain they’ll put on the system. But the only reason the system is under strain at all is because of, you guessed it, Reihan Salam.