The New Case Against Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on July 18, 2008
FrontpageMag Q&A


Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He is a longtime contributor to National Review and National Review Online and is the nation’s most frequently quoted immigration expert. He is the author of the new book The New Case Against Immigration.

FP: Mark Krikorian, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Krikorian: Glad to be here.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Krikorian: I've long been concerned that the various critiques of immigration were disjointed, without an overarching structure. There was a grab-bag approach, with conservatives examining, say, the security problems stemming from mass immigration, but not the effects on American blue-collar workers. Likewise liberals were often concerned about the strains on the social safety net, but might reject any concern about assimilation. This book offers a "unified field theory" of immigration limits.

What's more, too much of the debate over immigration has focused on the issue of legal status. It's an important issue, obviously, and has to be the starting point of any effort fix immigration policy. But if legality were the only problem, then just amnestying everyone and admitting an unlimited number of "willing workers," in the president's words, would solve the problem. But, of course, most of the strains created by immigration -- on schools, hospitals, assimilation, national security, what have you -- are unrelated to legal status. Thus getting away from the simplistic "illegal-bad/legal-good" dichotomy is essential.

FP: Are today's immigrants much different from those of a century ago? Are “we” different? The rise of the welfare state, political correctness and identity politics has thrown a twist into things, yes?

Krikorian: The punch line of my book is that what's different about immigration today as opposed to a century ago is not the immigrants but us. Today's immigrants obviously come from different countries, but they're very similar is most relevant respects. It's America has changed dramatically, in good ways and bad ways, but in any case in ways that make us a mature society and render our past experience with immigration irrelevant. We have a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy, a welfare state, advanced communications and transportation technology that complicate the issues of security and sovereignty, etc.

We have, in other words, outgrown mass immigration. It was an important phase of our national development, and played an important part in shaping who we are as a nation. But, like other phases we've passed through as a people -- pioneers settling the frontier, for instance -- it's something we need to put behind us.

FP: Tell us some of the ways that mass immigration conflicts with the goals and characteristics of a modern society.

Krikorian: I can't address every facet (for that, buy the book), but let's start with assimilation. This is more than just learning English and getting a job -- true assimilation, what John Fonte calls "patriotic assimilation," means you have shifted your allegiances from your old country to your new country. There are two attributes of modernity that make this kind of assimilation less likely. The first is modern communications and transportation technology, cheap phone calls, rapid travel across oceans. These are good things, but they also mean that an immigrant never really has to leave behind the old country in the way he was forced to by circumstances in the past. As a result, he doesn't necessarily refocus his emotional attachments on his new country, because he's always able to call home or send e-mail or hop on a bus or plane to go back for a wedding. The second problem is that in all modern societies, the elites lose the cultural self-confidence necessary to induce newcomers to become more like you rather than the reverse. The result is bilingual education, multiculturalism, press 1 for English, and all the rest. In neither case is this something the immigrants dreamed up or imposed on us, but is does mean we have to change our immigration policies to better reflect this new reality.

The same conflict exists in economic matters. In a modern economy, higher education is necessary for upward mobility, and most immigrants are inevitably going to be relatively low-skilled, undermining the life-chances of low-skilled Americans and even earlier immigrants, in whose success we now have a large stake. Poor immigrants also inevitably strain government budgets -- no matter how hard they work, low-skilled people in a modern economy just can't earn enough to support themselves and their families at the level we think appropriate without subsidies from the taxpayer. It's not their fault. It's not our fault. There is no "fault." It's a mismatch that we need to end.

FP: Why do we continue to invite mass immigration?

Krikorian: A combination of reasons. Inertia, to begin with -- people think we've always done things this way, so why change now? Sentimentality -- I love my bubbe from Vilna, so immigration today is good too. Politically, the problem is what scholars call "client politics," where organized interest groups benefit at the expense of the public. So, some employers like immigration because it keeps labor costs down, while racial-identity groups like La Raza want more warm bodies to pretend to represent, which helps them get bigger grants from the government and foundations and corporations. When you have highly organized interests like this, all on the same side of an issue, with only the broader public interest in the other side, you can see how it's hard to change things. In addition, much of our elite has become what I call post-American -- they don't hate America, they've just moved beyond a narrow concern for their compatriots. When you see the world that way, then why would you be concerned about parochial things like sovereignty, and why would you favor the interests of a black American teenager in Miami looking for a job over a newly arrived Nicaraguan illegal alien?

FP: What are the consequences to us if we do not cut down on immigration?

Krikorian: Greater income inequality, more bilingualism and cultural balkanization and ethnic unrest, more Mexican and other foreign government involvement in our internal affairs, more vulnerability to terrorist threats, more poor people leading to progressively bigger government financed by progressively higher taxes causing progressively slower growth in productivity and per capita income. These things aren't all just going to happen tomorrow, but it's clearly where we're headed if we keep pursuing an outdated immigration policy.

FP: What are some of the best arguments to be made against amnesty?

Krikorian: Don't reward lawbreakers -- despite all the baloney about "going to the end of the line," any form of legalization by definition lets illegals continue living and working here, thus giving them what they came for. Don't encourage more illegal immigration in the future by telegraphing to the world's six billion non-Americans that they can sneak in or overstay their visa, and if they keep their heads down long enough, they'll get a green card. It's not appropriate to even consider amnesty until after we've re-asserted control over the system, after we've reduced the illegal population through attrition, after we've restricted future admissions. Even then, I might be against it, but at least it would be a legitimate topic for debate. But until then, there's nothing to talk about.

FP: How large an issue will immigration be in the upcoming election?

Krikorian: I used to think it wouldn't be important, because Obama and McCain have identical views on the issue, so what's to talk about? But McCain's responses to Obama's hilariously baseless charge that McCain "walked away" from his own amnesty bill make me think immigration might come up more. McCain is an honor politician, and he considers such an accusation an insult to his honor, so he stands up before the cameras and says "No, I'm a bigger champion of amnesty than you are, Sen. Obama!" Obama can't lose with this approach -- it helps him express his solidarity with skeptical Hispanic Democrats who'd initially favored Hillary, and continually reminds McCain's prospective supporters (not just Republican voters, but also the very independents and Reagan Democrats he's targeting) that he's "Amnesty John."

FP: What are some of your policy recommendations for legal immigration and illegal immigration?

Krikorian: I go into some detail in the final chapter of my book about what reform would look like. With regard to illegal immigration, we need to pursue a policy of "attrition through enforcement," steadily and comprehensively applying the law to promote increased self-deportation by illegals so the total illegal population starts shrinking each year instead of continually growing. This isn't a pipe dream -- even the stepped-up enforcement we've seen over the past year seems to have caused a non-trivial drop in the illegal population. Maybe the two most important things to do in this regard are to require electronic verification of Social Security and related information for all new hires (something that's now voluntary) and to fully implement the check-in/check-out system for foreign travelers at our airports and border crossings (it's not even close to done).

As for legal immigration, the goal should not be zero immigration, but zero-based budgeting -- start at zero, and then admit only those narrowly defined categories of people whose admission is so compelling that we want to let them in despite the problems immigration can cause in a modern society. That would include husbands, wives, and unmarried minor children of American citizens, a handful (maybe 10,000-15,000) of the most extraordinary talents from abroad, and 50,000 of the most desperate refugees in the world, for whom coming here is the absolute last resort. That's a total of maybe 300,000 or 350,000 people a year -- quite a few, actually, but some 75 percent less than we take now.

FP: Mark Krikorian, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Krikorian: Thanks for the opportunity to do this.