The left is enthusiastic about allowing more immigrants into the United States. The Biden administration has proposed giving citizenship to approximately 10 million people who came here illegally. Given the permissive immigration policies related to family reunification, where family is generously defined, the result would then be a new wave of immigration as the 10 million newly legalized would be empowered to bring in family members.
But the fact of massive immigration, even illegal immigration, into the United States also undermines the left’s complaints about American society. Why would millions of people, including millions of minorities, be so eager to come to a nation where there is supposedly systematic racism, a structure of white privilege, and little social mobility?
The World’s Preferred Destination
Every day, hundreds of people cast a vote with their feet by immigrating to the United States. Thousands more would add their thumbs up to this nation if they were permitted to do so. We have net positive immigration from almost all nations in the world, including developed nations. People of all income classes want to come here, from the very poor to the very rich. Immigrants of all races and ethnicities want to live here permanently.
And while it is true that some people immigrate to the United States because of desperate straits in their own nations, many still choose us over other developed nations if they can. Many others leave relatively comfortable lives, where they enjoy high status in their own societies. And these include people who are in the racial majority in their own nation but will become a racial minority here. Middle-class Nigerians and Blacks from the Caribbean Islands are examples are just a few of the groups who now form important communities in our nation.
And these immigrants flourish here. The income of almost all groups of “hyphenated” Americans is higher than in the nation from which they came. That is true not only of immigrants from poor nations but also those from wealthy ones. For instance, Americans of Scandinavian descent have higher incomes than those who stayed behind in their native countries. But so do people from the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Such universal flourishing undermines the claim that the United States is unfriendly to social mobility.
This better performance does not depend only on the selection effect—on the shared characteristics of those who decide to migrate—but also on the fine institutions of the United States. For instance, a recent study suggested that most talented migrants to the United States are up to six times more productive than migrants to other nations.
The United States certainly provides a stark contrast with a nation like France, which has struggled to integrate immigrants from Africa. The so-called banlieues—suburbs with high proportions of immigrants—have permanently high unemployment and high crime rates. The ability of the United States to assimilate immigrants is another reflection of its healthier society.
Illegal immigration also shows the power of social norms and the respect most Americans have for individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. One of the problems illegal immigrants are thought to face in the United States is their fear of relying on our legal institutions, even basic ones, out of concern that such reliance may lead to deportation. That fear is not always well founded, but it is not surprising, given that some come from nations where they rightly have low trust in their home nation’s legal institutions to deal with them fairly. But that concern conversely suggests how much faith they have in American social norms. The less you can rely on the institutions of government to protect you, the higher estimation you must have of the values of citizens around you if you expect to be fairly treated. Regardless of what Americans think about the failure of the government to enforce our immigration law, they do not often act as vigilantes or informers.
The success of immigrants in the United States is often used by those (generally on the liberal side of the political spectrum) to argue that the United States should have a more generous immigration policy. And I believe there is much to be said for the proposition so long as that policy is focused on admitting people who would contribute most to the nation.
Immigration and Policy Reform
But the eagerness of people all over the world to come to the United States has even stronger implications for how we should think about social problems and reform policies here. The decision of people to vote with their feet in such huge numbers refutes the claim that our society is fundamentally unjust. Why would middle-class Nigerians want to come to a nation that not only has some racists and people of ill will (like all nations), but is systematically racist? Why would poor immigrants want to come to a society where there is little social mobility and an entrenched hierarchy? The decisions of immigrants to come here provide a truer barometer of our social health than critical race theories of academics and the often unrepresentative anecdotes of the news media.
To be sure, the fact that so many people of all races and nationalities desire to live in America does not mean that there is no need for reforms. Even great nations can become better. (That’s why my campaign slogan will be Make the Great United States Even Greater!) But it does suggest the real dangers of radical reforms. Drastic changes in law have secondary, unpredictable consequences that may endanger the very qualities that still make the United States a shining city on a hill for millions of people around the world. The legal and cultural ecosystem that makes migrants and natives alike more productive here than almost everywhere else has been built up over decades and even centuries. It needs careful nurturing.
The Left’s Paradox on Immigration
It is a paradox of the left that they are both eager to permit more immigration and yet pursue policies that will make for less flourishing lives for most immigrants. The left’s policies in general would move us toward more highly regulated social democracies like those of Europe, but these nations are much worse at assimilating immigrants than the United States.
For instance, one of the problems that France has in integrating immigrants is the lack of economic dynamism that comes from a highly regulated business and labor market. It is much harder to start a small business there, one of the traditional routes for immigrant success in the United States. A high minimum wage and restrictions on firing workers make employers unwilling to take chances on employees who have a higher probability of not working out. More generally, a highly regulated society benefits insiders at the expense of outsiders, and most immigrants are by definition outsiders.
Moreover, the new focus of the left on identity rather than achievement puts at risk what has made the United States attractive to many immigrants from around the world. In their own nations, immigrants have often been defined by their identity—by their tribe in Africa, by their caste in India, and even still at times by their accent in the United Kingdom. But the United States at its best defines people by their contribution to the market and to civic and religious associations. The left’s focus today on defining people by race, by ethnicity, and by sexual orientation, creates a new set of mind-forged manacles.
Indeed, a focus on identity will almost surely make it harder to assimilate immigrants in the future, because the social pressures from elites will emphasize separation rather than integration. A school curriculum that impugns America will not only fail to reflect the lived experience of the children of immigrants, it may turn to querulous grievance the children of parents who were proud to become citizens.
Immigration and Gratitude
The widespread desire to migrate to the United States should also remind us of why the country ought to be proud of its heritage and the great men and women who made it such a beacon to others. Without statesmen like Washington and Lincoln and generals like Grant, no one can be confident that the United States would be the inviting country that is today. Yet there are movements to remove the names of all these men from schools and to take down memorials to them. For instance, all of the memorials to these men in Chicago are on a list for possible relocation. This assault on monuments is not confined to pruning secondary figures who need reevaluation. It encompasses the men who made America attractive to migrants throughout the centuries.
The appropriate level of immigration has been a controversial issue for over a century. But what should unite Americans is pride and gratitude for living in a nation so attractive that hundreds of millions would like to join us here.