[A featured guest submission to an online debate at the Economist magazine's site.]
Immigration is a challenge for both less-developed and advanced societies. The settlement of Nigerians in South Africa, for instance, or Bolivians in Argentina creates many problems familiar to anyone who has explored the history of American immigration a century ago.
But immigration to advanced nations creates special problems. Modern societies have been transformed so thoroughly from the past as to represent a difference in kind, not just in degree. The changes over the past century—in the economy, society, technology, government—are so profound as to render our previous experience with immigration irrelevant.
And these changes mean that immigration is not compatible with the goals and characteristics of a modern society. For the United States, at least, mass immigration was an important factor shaping our national adolescence, but is no longer appropriate for a mature nation. It was a phase we went through, like pioneers crossing the prairie in covered wagons, that is simply out of place in the 21st century.
Start with economics. A century ago, the largest portion of our workforce was still in the primary sector of the economy—farming, mining, and so on. In today's post-industrial, knowledge-based economy, the vast majority of workers are in the tertiary (service) sector. Most immigrants work in the service sector, too, but due to the vast changes in the economy, their low levels of skill and education ill-suit them to success in modern America. This creates three problems: First, it undermines the life chances of the immigrants themselves, and their children, leading to generations of poverty, with all the social and political problems that follow. Secondly, the life chances of our own low-skilled workers are undermined; however advanced a society becomes, there will always be millions of people who will never have the wherewithal to succeed, whether because of limited cognitive ability or because of the burdens of past mistakes. And third, flooding a modern economy's low-skilled labour market with foreign workers stifles technological innovation and the resulting productivity improvements in those industries where the foreign workers are concentrated; we've seen this quite strikingly in agriculture, specifically in the harvest of fruits and vegetables, where advances slowed dramatically once illegal immigration picked up speed.
This conflict between mass immigration and a modern society is also clear in the area of taxpayer-funded government services. As Milton Friedman said, "You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state"—and the problem isn't just welfare, but also schooling and other services the modern state provides. A century ago, all levels of government in the United States, combined, spent some 5% of GDP. Today the figure is well over a third and is even higher in many other developed nations. The research on this has been overwhelming; while there is indeed a small net economic benefit created by immigration (by lowering the wages of the poor and distributing the gain thinly across the rest of the populace), the benefit is swamped by the social costs. In the United States, each family of four headed by a high-school dropout (immigrant or native-born) costs taxpayers nearly $20,000 a year more in services than they are able to pay in taxes. This is not a moral indictment; no one is at fault. But it is an ineradicable feature of modern society, which is precisely why we spend so much money, often in vain, to raise the skills and education attainment of our population. But to add to this burden by importing even more low-skilled people from abroad is irrational, to say the least.
Next, consider assimilation. Two aspects of modernity complicate immigrant assimilation, or Americanisation, as we'd say in the United States. First, modern communications and transportation technology—cheap flights and phone calls—permit transnationalism on a scale and depth never before possible. A century ago you couldn't just hop on a plane and attend your cousin's wedding in Palermo or call your mother in Vilna every Sunday, but today you can. And while this may be attractive to the people involved, it interferes with the necessary process of refocusing the immigrant's emotional and psychological attachments from the old country to the new. Again, there is no fault here—it's normal for people to want to maintain ties to the land of their birth. But modern conditions enable those attachments to continue longer and more deeply than was ever possible before.
The second modern characteristic that impedes assimilation is the fact that in all modern societies the elites lose much of the cultural self-confidence needed to persuade newcomers to become more like you, rather than the reverse. This takes the form of multiculturalism, bilingualism, and related phenomena. A century ago, immigrant workers at Ford plants were offered English classes, where the first sentence they learned was "I want to be a good American," while schools taught the children of immigrant families to revere President Washington and memorize the Gettysburg Address. The difference with the present could hardly be starker. And here, again, the immigrants are not the problem; rather, it is we who have changed.
This same pattern is repeated in other policy areas: security, sovereignty, population growth. The various concerns may seem unconnected, as though critics of immigration were selecting from a menu of options to cater to the concerns of varying constituencies. But in fact, the many challenges posed by immigration are simply different facets of the same problem: the incompatibility of mass immigration (legal or illegal) with modern society.
In the words of 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."