Fence Me In: Tackling immigration.

By Mark Krikorian on July 3, 2008


Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, is a longtime National Review and National Review Online contributor. He is this weekend the proud author of a new, important book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal. He talks with NRO editor Kathryn Lopez first about the book, the election-year ahead, and more.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: The world — or at least all of the NBC-watching public – will have their eyes set on the Statue of Liberty this weekend. And you do this?


Mark Krikorian: It’s an arresting image designed to get people to click through the web ad or pick up the book at Borders. But it does also visually convey the point of the book — that the mass-immigration phase of our national life is over. FDR made just that point in 1936 in his speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Statute of Liberty: “Within this generation that stream from abroad has largely stopped. We have within our shores today the materials out of which we shall continue to build an even better home for liberty.”

Lopez: How can you possibly be against LEGAL immigration?

Krikorian: It’s a mistake to think of legal and illegal immigration as distinct phenomena. They come from the same places through the same means, often in the same families and even the same people (shifting back and forth between being legal and illegal), and have the same impact on society. Obviously, any effort to reform immigration policy has to start with enforcing the rules, because without that, it doesn’t really matter what the rules are. But in addition, you have to consider whether the rules themselves should be changed. And apart from the, admittedly grave, question of legal status, all the other problems caused by illegal immigration are also caused by legal immigration.

Lopez: Not to be stuck on the cover here, but your flap reads “the America that our grandparents came to no longer exists.” Doesn’t your dire outlook have the danger of drifting into Michelle Obama grievance-speak?

Krikorian: No. If it could drift into anything, it would be a sterile nostalgia for a lost world, something we conservatives sometimes fall for. But I’m not a nostalgic, nor a declinist, hopeless about the loss of a better America. Rather, my point is that over the century since the great wave of immigration, our country has changed fundamentally, in good ways and bad ways, but in any case in ways that mark an advanced, mature society. We now have a knowledge-based post-industrial economy, a large tax-supported government sector (welfare, of course, but also schools, roads, health care, etc.), an elite loss of the cultural self-confidence needed to enforce assimilation and sovereignty, and modern technology that completely changes the conditions for assimilation and security. And in all these cases, all these conflicts between mass immigration and modern society, it is we who have changed, not the immigrants. That doesn’t mean we’re broken or dysfunctional, just grown up.

Lopez: Given that current immigration policy ensures that immigrants will be a fiscal burden, is there a way out?

Krikorian: Once you let 19th century-style workers into a 21st century advanced society, taxpayers are guaranteed to bear the cost. And this is not because the immigrants are coming to rip us off, but because of the mismatch between them and us. If you have a sixth-grade education in an advanced society like ours, it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how many jobs you have — you will not be able to earn enough to support your family without welfare. This is why poverty and lack of health insurance and thus welfare use are so high among immigrants, especially among those from Latin America. That we could admit huge numbers of peasants without creating social costs was one of the animating ideas behind the 1996 welfare-reform bill, and it’s been proved wrong — about a third of immigrant-headed households overall still use at least one major welfare program, half-again higher than among the native-born. And among households headed by immigrants from Mexico, the largest group, fully half are on welfare. This isn’t their fault. It isn’t our fault. But it is an inescapable reality of modern life, and we need to adjust our immigration policy to reflect it.

Lopez: You’re even not that into highly educated immigration, are you?

Krikorian: It depends what the meaning of “highly educated” is. Americans have this idea that our skilled immigration categories are for “Einstein immigration,” when most of them really aren’t. It’s not that they’re uneducated, but they’re nothing special, and skilled immigration should be reserved for a small number of the top people on the planet, maybe 10,000 or 15,000 a year.

Trying to do large-scale skilled immigration would have a number of problems: first, there just aren’t that many Einsteins around. Secondly, almost all of today’s skilled immigrants went to college here — in other words, American taxpayers have massively subsidized their education (as with subway fares and the like, tuition doesn’t come close to covering the cost of education). This subsidy, as Borjas says, is “sufficiently large to outweigh any of the productivity benefits that foreign students presumably impart on the nation.”

Maybe most important, skilled immigration creates its own problems — different from the problems created by unskilled immigration, but conflicts nonetheless with a modern society. Chief among these is assimilation; this sounds odd, since skilled immigrants are obviously more likely to successfully undergo the preliminary kinds of assimilation — learning English, getting a job, and driving on the right side of the road. But “patriotic assimilation” — the growth of a deep emotional attachment to America — is less likely to occur among educated immigrants. This is both because they have the resources to live a trans-national life, flitting back and forth across borders, and because they are likely to have already developed a fully formed national identity before they get here, precisely because they went to elementary and secondary school in the old country. As a report on new green card recipients found, “Those with high earnings and U.S. property ownership are actually less likely to intend ever naturalizing; and those with high levels of education are least likely to express satisfaction with the United States, and for this reason both are groups of people less likely to plan becoming U.S. citizens or settling permanently.”

Lopez: How is mass immigration social engineering? Isn’t it about yearning to be free?

Krikorian: The immigrants may well be yearning to breathe free, or at least increase their earnings, but the federal immigration program, established by Congress, is indeed a social engineering project.

Lopez: When you write things like, “the American people have opted, through millions of individual decisions, for a birthrate that would result in slower population growth and eventual stabilization. Who are politicians to second-guess this clear and consistent decision of the American people….?” do you worry Sanger types find a lot of common cause with you?

Krikorian: On the contrary. The eugenicists of the past were merely the flip side of today’s immigration boosters — both are dissatisfied with the childbearing decisions of ordinary Americans. This is what I mean by social engineering — today’s supporters of mass immigration are saying, often quite openly, that their countrymen are deficient because they’re not having enough babies. And that being the case, Congress has to go out and populate the country by recruiting foreigners to move here. I, on the other hand, think today’s American moms and dads should be the ones to decide how many Americans there will be tomorrow.

Lopez: Are green cards a terrorist’s dream come true?

Krikorian: Green cards, political asylum, refugee resettlement, the Visa Lottery, Border-Crossing Cards, student visas, work visas, the Visa-Waiver Program . . .

Lopez: Has the Internet killed assimilation?

Krikorian: Not the Internet alone, but all the modern advances in communications and transportation technology. In prior waves of immigration, when technology was more primitive, it was very hard to keep in touch with the folks back home, and that helped force people to shift their attachments and their focus to the new country. Today, because of the Internet, but also cheap phone calls and airfare, the ties to the homeland just don’t atrophy as quickly or thoroughly. It’s not that your grandpa from Odessa was any more interested in becoming an American — he just didn’t have much choice. I’m not a luddite — I like technological advances. But you can’t successfully assimilate a mass immigration flow under such modern conditions.

Lopez: Is the Wall Street editorial board a threat to national security?

Krikorian: Objectively, as the Marxists say.

Lopez: How is Congress to blame for excessive legal immigration?

Krikorian: Congress creates legal immigration — it’s a federal government program, like farm subsidies or national parks. They could abolish it tomorrow, or double, it, or change it — whatever they want. There’s nothing inevitable about it.

Lopez: Give the Bush administration some credit where credit is due …

Krikorian: You’re killing me here! But seriously, two things: First, I have always argued for a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration — one that admits fewer people than today, but does a better job of welcoming those few whom we do legally admit. And while the president has the “low immigration” part of that all wrong, to his credit he does get the “pro-immigrant” part, welcoming and embracing newcomers. This is an important point that restrictionists sometimes forget.

The second is something the administration would rather have avoided — stepped up enforcement of the immigration laws. With the collapse of the amnesty bill in the Senate last summer, the White House seems to have decided to permit the immigration authorities to start doing their job, and we’ve seen some genuine steps in the right direction. Worksite enforcement and deportations have increased; the E-Verify system has been expanded to the point where it now checks the legal status of more than 10 percent of all new hires, and all federal contractors will soon have to use it as well. While there’s a lot more to do, even these modest steps are already yielding results — new illegal border crossings have declined and some illegals already here appear to be going home.

Lopez: What are we going to do with McCain?

Krikorian: What do you mean “we,” Kemosabe?

Lopez: What is it important to remember about Obama?

Krikorian: It’s hard to compare Obama and McCain on immigration, since their positions are identical. But I think there would be differences in how their respective administrations addressed immigration. On the one hand, my sense is that McCain is much more emotionally committed to amnesty and would expend more political capital to try to push Congress to pass an immigration bill. He wants revenge on the Republican Party for having defied him last year; for McCain, amnesty’s not business any more — it’s personal. Obama, on the other hand, supports all the same policies, but just isn’t as invested in it. He’ll make a show of supporting amnesty, to placate Hispanic elites, but his heart isn’t in it in the same way and he has other, higher-priority goals.

On the other hand, Obama’s immigration-related appointments to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice would be unbelievably bad, worse than anyone McCain could come up with. So for the purposes of immigration control, the election is already over, and we lost. The only hope will be to repeat last year’s success in stopping Congress from making things worse.

Lopez: Your opening and much in your book is in striking contrast to the cover: “It’s not the immigrants – it’s us.” You’re not blaming, you’re taking responsibility. Does the immigration restrictionist position need a makeover? A softening?

Krikorian: I don’t know that it’s so much a “softening” that’s needed as a systematic approach. Up til now there’s been a grab-bag sense to criticizing immigration — if you’re conservative, you might be worried about security but dismiss immigration’s impact on the working poor; if you’re liberal, you might bemoan the strains on the safety net, but reject any discussion of assimilation. And it can be true that focusing only on one of the impacts, absent a larger context, may sometimes look like you’re picking on foreigners. Which is why my point is that all the problems related to immigration all just different facets of the same problem — the incompatibility of mass immigration with modern society.

But, yes, this approach does take the onus off the immigrants, which is sometimes where conservatives put it (though illegal aliens, obviously, remain morally culpable for their misdeeds). But I also don’t place the onus on us, which is where liberals want to put it. Rather, we’ve just outgrown mass immigration. To use an image that my editor made me take out of the book as too pedestrian: When you’re eight, you eat all the doughnuts your parents will let you eat; heck, they’re probably good for you. But when you’re 47, you can’t eat doughnuts like that any more. There’s nothing wrong with you, and there’s nothing different about the doughnuts, but your metabolism has changed and you need to change your behavior accordingly.

Or, to use a more elevated image, St. Paul writes that “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Mass immigration is a “childish thing,” in the context of our development as a people, and we must put it away.

Lopez: Tell me why your arguments are much more compassionate than, say, Roger Cardinal Mahoney gives them (or you) credit for.

Krikorian: Compassionate toward whom? The goal of a nation’s public policy is to promote the interests of the nation’s citizens, and only secondarily consider the interests and concerns of outsiders. The objects of my compassion are, first, my family, then my wider community or associations, then my countrymen, and only then foreigners. The undifferentiated compassion of too many of the open-borders crowd — in which I regretfully include Cardinal Mahoney — effectively rejects patriotic solidarity among Americans, which is a prerequisite for democracy itself.

Lopez: How does one get to be “the nation’s most frequently quoted immigration expert”?

Krikorian: By writing for National Review Online.

Lopez: Good answer!

What’s newest about your book and how can it advance the debate?

Krikorian: What’s “New” about The New Case Against Immigration is the insight that today’s mass immigration differs from the past not because the immigrants have changed but because we have changed, and that all the problems we see with immigration stem from this fact. As far as advancing the debate, my first hope is that the book doesn’t head straight to the remainder bin. But since I have it on good authority that my book “will head any list of the outstanding public policy books of 2008,” I hope it can help the debate mature beyond a narrow focus on illegal immigration and the unconnected complaints about various consequences, to a more — what’s the word? — comprehensive debate about the impact of immigration on our country.

To quote our greatest president: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”