Immigration system credibility needs to be restored

For more than 20 years, I have held one position constant when it comes to immigration policy: We should have one.

I am less concerned about the number of immigrants we take in every year than I am about the fact that we — voters, policymakers, politicians, what have you — don’t pick a number.

I’d be fine with 1 million or 2 million immigrants a year. I’d also be fine with a temporary freeze on most immigration. I think preferences for skilled immigrants are entirely defensible. I also think a generous asylum policy is morally preferable to a narrow one.

But for me, the priority isn’t the number or kind of immigrants we take in; it’s making a decision about the number and kind and sticking to it.

If the number is too high or low, policymakers can change it. If they don’t change it, voters can elect a politician or party who will. But if Congress says the number is 1 million per year, that should be the actual number.

The late Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, who chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in the 1990s, put it succinctly: “The credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: People who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave.”

Credibility is important for any government endeavor, but it’s especially so for immigration because few issues share its capacity to sow public discontent.

The sense that immigration is “out of control” breeds distrust, incites nativism and fuels panic and conspiracy theories.

It was ever thus. In colonial America, Benjamin Franklin repeatedly warned of the danger posed by unchecked German immigration, worrying that “they will soon so outnumber us, that … we … will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which are remembered for their assault on free speech but were driven by the fear that French and other immigrants (i.e., Aliens) were an enemy within. The Naturalization Act — part of the Alien and Sedition Acts — made it harder for immigrants to become citizens and vote.

Later chapters in this old story include the Know-Nothings, all manner of panic over the Irish, the Yellow Peril and of course “replacement theory.” The same sentiments are now driving the surging prospects of far-right parties in Europe and the domestic success of Donald Trump.

That’s why President Biden’s mishandling of the border crisis is arguably his greatest liability after his age.

As Europe’s travails demonstrate, this is not just an American problem. Large-scale immigration roils politics and society everywhere it occurs.

Moreover, despite America’s struggles with immigration past and present, this country is not anti-immigrant. As of 2022, the United States had roughly 46 million foreign-born residents, more than half of them citizens, accounting for about 14% of the population. (China’s immigrants, by contrast, amount to about 0.04% of its population.) There is no country in the world better at absorbing and assimilating people, and we should take deep patriotic pride in that.

That’s important to bear in mind because the rhetoric on both sides of the debate makes restoring credibility to our immigration system harder. Contrary to Pat Buchanan’s dire prophecies, Mexican Americans have not shown much interest in a “Reconquista” of the American Southwest. And notwithstanding the constant shrieks about America’s nativism and xenophobia, the melting pot continues to burble along.

As a rule, normal Americans are far more sensible and decent on this issue than our leaders. Increasing numbers of Latinos want stronger enforcement of the border and immigration laws, which is a sign that the loudest voices on both sides are detached from reality. Indeed, if Trump wins this year’s election, it will be partly because working-class Latinos have assimilated into the culture and politics of the rest of the American working class.

The editorial stance of the National Review, where I worked for two decades, was always that if responsible politicians don’t deal with immigration responsibly, irresponsible ones will exploit the issue to get elected. If the 2016 election wasn’t enough to prove that, 2024 might be.


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