The American Conservative, August 16, 2023
As migrants overwhelm shelter capacity in border communities and destination cities throughout the U.S., the disruptions caused by our porous southern border seem obvious. Beneath the surface, however, is a deeper problem. Congress sets limits on immigration to avoid the cultural and political transformations that can accompany mass movements of people. By violating those limits—by inviting millions of inadmissible migrants to enter our country—the current administration is furthering a long-term change in our national character. It’s a change that will be especially damaging to the conservative movement.
The root cause of the crisis is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under President Joe Biden. DHS is not merely failing to catch inadmissible migrants who sneak across the border; rather, it is facilitating their entry. The process started with Biden’s promise to remove key deterrents, such as the Trump rule that asylum seekers must remain in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated. DHS responded to the resulting border surge not by tightening the rules, but by attempting to coordinate the flow into the U.S.
This coordination involves the abuse of statutes intended for exceptional circumstances, such as the “parole” power, which DHS now invokes to welcome any number of inadmissible migrants it wants, for whatever reason it wants, at any time it wants. DHS even encourages migrants to download a special app on their phones to schedule their visa-less entry. Meanwhile, a purported crackdown on migrants attempting to cross between ports of entry has not materialized. Would-be border-crossers blocked by the Texas National Guard are instead seeking out U.S. Border Patrol officers who may release them into the interior.
The number of inadmissible migrants who entered the U.S. in just the first half of Biden’s term is about 2 million—and they will keep coming as long as DHS maintains the invitation. While these migrants do not have permanent-resident status, they are unlikely to be removed before they can put down roots. DHS has virtually halted interior enforcement, and any efforts by a future administration to cancel grants of temporary status will face resistance in the bureaucracy and the courts. In fact, progressive activists intend today’s illegal immigrants to be tomorrow’s recipients of “path to citizenship” legislation. Even without it, the migrants’ U.S.-born children will be automatic citizens.
Although the level of immigration permitted by law—about 1 million new permanent residents per year—is already high enough to alter the character of the U.S. in the long run, the current administration’s efforts are accelerating the process. Politicians often speak of immigrants purely in economic terms—as workers in the labor market, or contributors to entitlement programs—but a country’s people define its culture. The U.S. has been relatively free and prosperous not because of random luck, but because it was settled by people whose culture is conducive to prosperity. “Would America be the America it is today,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington once asked, “if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.”
Research across a variety of disciplines shows that key cultural traits brought by migrants do not disappear into a melting pot. In fact, the historian David Hackett Fischer has shown that certain regional differences in the U.S. today can be traced all the way back to varying attitudes toward education, civics, trust, crime, and government structure among different groups of British settlers. Later immigrants brought their own distinctive values and beliefs that persist to the present day. For example, the high-trust cultures of the Scandinavian countries have been replicated in the parts of the U.S. where Scandinavian immigrants settled, particularly Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Cultural persistence is more than just an historical curiosity. In his recent book The Culture Transplant, economist Garett Jones explains how migrants bring cultural values that shape the economies of their new countries. “If you’re trying to guess how rich a country is today, you’ll make a far more accurate guess if you know the history of the people rather than the history of the place,” he writes. The millions of inadmissible migrants welcomed by the Biden administration will therefore have a notable long-term impact on the U.S., making our country more like theirs.
This immigration-induced cultural transformation is by itself inimical to conservatism, which reveres the history and traditions that shaped the American nation. The transformation is also problematic because it reduces the viability of conservatism as a political movement. The evidence is straightforward: If one believes the exit polls, naturalized citizens gave about two-thirds of their votes to the Democratic Party in 2016. Although citizenship was apparently not collected in 2020, Hispanic and Asian voters—a rough proxy for post-1965 immigrants and their children—voted for Democrats by around the same two-thirds rate in both 2016 and 2020.
Perhaps the GOP just needs to do more outreach through pro-immigration policies? Republican presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan through John McCain attempted that strategy, but the results were disappointing. As the political scientist George Hawley has shown, the parsimonious reason that immigrants tend to favor the Democratic Party is that they are to the left of the average American voter. Messaging and tone can go only so far in the presence of ideological differences.
President Trump’s improvement in 2020 in south Texas and Miami has led to speculation that Hispanics will eventually migrate to the center, but even temporary boosts to the left can bring permanent changes. The New Deal, for example, was enabled in part by the addition of Great Wave immigrants and their children to the Democratic coalition. Even after support for Democrats weakened among those voters, the New Deal remained firmly entrenched. As immigration moves the political center leftward, Republicans will have to shift their party’s platform in that direction as well, leaving today’s conservatives at a long-term disadvantage.
Whether the acceleration of the cultural and political changes described above are deliberate goals of the Biden administration’s immigration policy is unknown. For some DHS officials, the purpose of facilitating illegal immigration could be simply that they believe restriction is unjust. But whatever the motivation, the consequences are the same. Inviting millions of inadmissible migrants to enter our country will have long-term impacts that will be especially damaging to the administration’s political opponents. Although phrases such as “violating norms” and “undermining our democracy” are overused these days, this situation is a real example of both.
Much of the anger that Americans feel about the border crisis is born of its undemocratic nature. Border towns grapple with wave after wave of migrants whom they did not invite. Even destination cities that pronounced themselves “sanctuaries” complain that the numbers are far higher than they had contemplated. Meanwhile, traditional-minded Americans experience a sense of helplessness as their country changes around them. Prominent among them are conservative Republicans who sense the opposition is flooding the zone—setting up future election victories not by changing the voters’ minds, but by changing the voters themselves.
For the health of our democracy, it is imperative that the Biden administration reverse course on its border policy. Stop facilitating the entry of inadmissible migrants. Send a clear message—not merely in words, but in deeds—that the border is closed to everyone without a visa. At that point, if 1 million legal immigrants per year still isn’t enough for this administration, it should do what the Constitution prescribes for exactly such a situation: Ask Congress to change the law.