The immigrant’s vote of confidence in America
The left is excited about letting more immigrants into the United States. Biden’s government has proposed granting citizenship to around 10 million people who have come here illegally. Given the allowable immigration policy related to family reunification, where the family is generously defined, the result would be a new wave of immigration as the 10 million newly legalized individuals would be allowed to take in family members.
But the fact of massive immigration, even illegal immigration to the United States, also undermines the left’s complaints about American society. Why should 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 preferred destination in the world
Hundreds of people voted with their feet every day while immigrating to the United States. Thousands more would add their thumbs to this nation if allowed to. We have positive net immigration from almost every country in the world, including industrialized 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 needs in their own nations, many still choose us over other developed nations when they can. Many others leave a relatively comfortable life in which they enjoy a high place in their own society. And this includes people who are in the racial majority in their own nation, but here become a racial minority. Middle-class Nigerians and Blacks from the Caribbean Islands are just some of the groups that make up important communities in our nation today.
And these immigrants thrive here. Almost all hyphenated Americans have higher incomes than the nation they come from. This applies not only to immigrants from poor, but also to immigrants from rich countries. For example, Scandinavian Americans have higher incomes than those who have stayed behind in their home countries. But also people from the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Africa. Such a universal bloom undermines the claim that the United States is unfriendly to social mobility.
That better performance depends not only on the selection effect – on the common characteristics of those who choose to migrate – but also on the good institutions of the United States. For example, a recent study found that most talented migrants to the United States are up to six times more productive than migrants to other countries.
The United States is certainly in stark contrast to a nation like France, which has difficulties integrating immigrants from Africa. The so-called banlieues – suburbs with a high proportion of immigrants – have consistently high unemployment and a high crime rate. The United States’ ability 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 likely to face in the United States is their fear of relying on our legal institutions, including basic ones, out of concern that such trust could lead to deportation. This fear is not always well founded, but it is not surprising that some come from countries where they rightly have little trust in the legal institutions of their home country to deal with them fairly. However, that concern suggests how much confidence they have in American social norms. The less you can rely on government institutions to protect you, the higher your assessment of the values of those around you must be if you are to expect fair treatment. Regardless of what Americans think of the government’s failure to enforce our immigration law, they don’t often act as vigilantes or informants.
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 think there is a lot to be said as long as these policies focus on taking in people who would contribute the most to the nation.
Immigration and Political Reform
However, the zeal of people around the world to come to the United States is having an even greater impact on how we should think about social problems and reform policies here. People’s choice to vote with their feet in such large 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 bad-willed people (like all nations), but is systematically racist? Why should poor immigrants want to come to a society in which there is little social mobility and a firmly anchored hierarchy? Immigrant choices to come here provide a truer barometer of our social health than academic critical racial theories and the often unrepresentative anecdotes of the news media.
The widespread desire to immigrate to the United States should remind us why the country should be proud of its heritage and the great men and women who made it a beacon for others.
However, the fact that so many people of all races and nationalities want to live in America does not mean that reforms are not necessary. Big nations can get better too. (This is why my campaign slogan is: Make the great United States bigger!) But it points to the real dangers of radical reform. Drastic legislative changes have secondary, unpredictable consequences that can jeopardize the very qualities that make the United States a shining hilltop city for millions of people around the world. The legal and cultural ecosystem that makes migrants and locals more productive here than almost anywhere else has been built over decades and even centuries. It takes careful maintenance.
The Left’s Paradox on Immigration
It is a paradox on the left that both seek to allow more immigration and yet pursue policies that allow most immigrants to live less prosperous lives. The politics of the left in general would lead us to more regulated social democracies like Europe’s, but these nations are much less able to assimilate immigrants than the United States.
For example, one of the problems France has in integrating immigrants is the lack of economic dynamism that stems from a highly regulated business and labor market. It’s much more difficult to start a small business there, one of the traditional avenues for immigrant success in the United States. A high minimum wage and restrictions on laying off workers make employers unwilling to take risks for workers who are more likely not to work. In general, a highly regulated society benefits insiders at the expense of outsiders, and most immigrants are by definition outsiders.
In addition, the left’s new focus on identity rather than achievement jeopardizes what has made the United States attractive to many immigrants from around the world. In their own nations, immigrants were often defined by their identity – their tribe in Africa, their caste in India, and sometimes even their accent in the United Kingdom. But the United States defines people at their best by their contribution to the market and to civil and religious associations. Today’s focus on the left on defining people by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation creates a new set of mind-forged fetters.
Indeed, a focus on identity will almost certainly make it more difficult to assimilate immigrants in the future, as social pressures from the elites will emphasize separation rather than integration. A curriculum that challenges America will not only fail to reflect the lived experience of immigrant children, but it can lead to questionable complaints from the children of parents who took pride in becoming citizens.
Immigration and gratitude
The widespread desire to immigrate to the United States should also remind us why the country should be proud of its heritage and the great men and women who made it such a beacon for others. Without statesmen like Washington and Lincoln and generals like Grant, no one can be sure that the United States is the welcoming country that exists today. However, there are movements to remove the names of all these men from schools and to take away monuments from them. For example, all of the memorials to these men in Chicago are on a move list. This attack on monuments is not limited to pruning secondary figures that need to be reevaluated. It includes the men who have made America attractive to migrants over the centuries.
Adequate 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 want to join us here.