Commentary, September, 2007
I was delighted to see Yuval Levin engage the issue of immigration, particularly its most basic element -- the shape of our policy for legal immigration -- rather than the conceptually simpler matter of enforcement. I also welcome some of Mr. Levin's specific recommendations, especially that family-based immigration should extend only to the nuclear family and that assimilation into American society should be given a higher priority.
But I am afraid that Mr. Levin does not dig down deep enough to the source of our current immigration difficulties. The problem with immigration is not simply that we have (as he writes) "a badly broken system of selecting, directing, managing, and assimilating" immigrants, true as that is. The fundamental problem is that mass immigration as such – regardless of how it is managed – is incompatible with the needs of a modern society. Mr. Levin himself suggests such a critique when he writes that our current policy arose "in response to a very different world," but does not follow the thread to the end.
Almost every aspect of our lives is qualitatively different from what came before, and the high levels of immigration that we successfully accommodated in the past are deeply problematic today. To begin with, our modern, high-tech economy offers less opportunity for advancement to low-skilled workers than the manufacturing economy of the past. Immigrants obviously make the overall economy larger, and they certainly see their own wages rise, but as the gap between their education and that of the native-born grows, their long-term prospects for advancement fade. Each successive group of immigrants is in fact advancing less and less quickly. More than 60 percent of our largest immigrant group – Mexicans – live at or near the poverty line.
One reason this matters is that today we have a welfare state, as well as extensive government spending on schools, roads, health care, etc. A century ago, government spending accounted for a miniscule portion of our economy; today it accounts for about one-third of GDP, a reality that is never fundamentally going to change. In such an environment, it cannot make sense to promote the large-scale importation of low-skilled workers – people who, through no fault of their own, earn low wages, pay little in taxes, and consume a disproportionate amount of government spending. To look again at our largest immigrant group: more than 40 percent of Mexican immigrant families use at least one welfare program, and more than 50 percent lack health insurance.
Assimilation is also not what it used to be. Modern communications and transportation technology have made it so that immigrant ties with the old country are less likely to be severed. When this is combined with the deeply rooted modern ideology of multiculturalism, simple exhortations for more assimilation are inadequate. The number of newcomers to be assimilated must be reduced.
Finally, the security threats that a modern society faces are directly affected by mass immigration. Because of modern advances in communications, transportation, and weaponry, the "home front" is no longer a metaphor, and mass immigration both overwhelms our ability to screen out subversives and creates large host communities for our enemies to use as cover. This is not a transitory phenomenon related only to radical Islam; all potential future enemies (North Korea, China, Colombia's FARC, et al.) will consider how to use the consequences of mass immigration to attack our homeland.
The solution, then, does not lie in the "few simple reforms" that Mr. Levin offers. Instead, as I suggest in an upcoming book, we need the equivalent of zero-based budgeting in immigration – not zero immigration, but starting from zero and then selecting only those narrowly defined groups of people whose admission is so compelling that it outweighs the problems created by immigration. This would include husbands, wives, and young children of American citizens; a handful of genuine geniuses; and our share of the world's most desperate refugees.
Large-scale immigration is a 19th century policy that we have outgrown. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can truly "fix" our nation's immigration policy.
Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.