Published October 2, 2018
President Trump’s focus on reducing immigration and controlling our borders is central to his agenda and appeal. That’s why Trump backers should read conservative writer Reihan Salam’s new book, Melting Pot or Civil War? As the son of immigrants from Bangladesh, Salam’s endorsement of an immigration policy very similar to that of Trump’s is both telling and instructive.
The book’s title summarizes Salam’s major theme. Either we craft an immigration policy that is conducive to migrants entering into the mainstream of American life, he contends, or we risk dramatically increasing national division and conflict. According to Salam, an open borders approach that both turns a blind eye to illegal immigration while encouraging large scale legal migration is precisely the policy that is most likely to sharpen and intensify divisions on racial and ethnic grounds.
Salam comes to this conclusion by looking at how the world looks to a migrant and his family. The immigrant comes to a country whose culture, and often its language, is foreign to him. Accordingly, like migrants everywhere and forever, he and his family congregate together with other people who speak the same tongues and share the same backgrounds. These immigrant neighborhoods and ghettos are reassuring to the migrant and provide a safe space while he learns to adapt to America. But, without more, they also retard his ability to encounter and assimilate to America.
The unschooled and unskilled migrant faces a particularly daunting challenge, as he is likeliest to find employment on the fringes and the margins of the economy. While for many even the low-paid, benefitless jobs they work at are better than any they possibly could obtain back home, he remains in an American context at the bottom of the economic ladder. Combined with residential segregation, moving up into the middle class will be even harder for him than for immigrants from the same country with a bit more schooling and skills.
This might be fine for the individual immigrant personally, as he is still better off than he would have been back home. Working in America and living in a migrant neighborhood combines the best of both worlds for the first-generation migrant. But Salam argues the open borders policy that allowed the migrant to come freely will entrap the migrant’s children in these ethnically-segregated, low-wage ghettoes. Looking at immigration from a multi-generation perspective is what creates the problem, for the immigrants and for America.
That’s because each generation of new migrants effectively competes most directly with the generation that came right before it, and the children of that earlier generation are unlikely to acquire enough skills and education to make the leap out of the migrant experience in one generation. Not skilled enough to leap forward, they will find their income and opportunities limited by the newcomers. But having been born and raised in America, they are both American citizens able to access social welfare programs and whose expectations are formed by comparing themselves to other Americans, not to the old country. Mixing continual open borders with a large, second and third generation immigrant population who simply can’t move up creates a toxic brew of stagnation and resentment.
This brew, Salam argues, is exacerbated by the growing inequality between people who have skills—who are largely white—and those who don’t. In one generation’s time, the wealthy whites will need higher taxes from the poorer non-whites to fund Social Security and Medicare, while at the same time economically frustrated non-whites will increasingly demand higher taxes on the whites to fund more social services and investment in education. As non-whites become a larger and larger share of the voter pool, this economic and political warfare, combined with existing social differences, will be the match that sets America aflame.
Salam’s argument therefore leads to a Trumpian policy from distinctly non-Trumpian grounds. Cracking down on illegal immigration cuts down the flow of unskilled immigrants whose economic competition holds back existing migrants’ economic assimilation. Changing our immigration policy from one that prioritizes family reunification to one that prioritizes education and skills further reduces this counter-productive economic competition. The result is that the children of immigrants, those who are Americans by birth, have more time and ability to move upward, escape the language ghettos, and, like millions of immigrant children before them, move into the American mainstream.
The fact that Trump’s policies would help immigrants and their children is one that often goes unremarked by both himself and his supporters. That is a grave political error. Even if immigration were cut off entirely tomorrow, demographics dictate that in one generation non-whites will be a much larger share of the citizen pool—and hence of the electorate—than they are today. An immigration policy that is crafted and justified solely to help current native-born Americans is not likely to be supported by the next generation of native-born Americans, and hence is less likely to be adopted or maintained. Trump’s policies can only be enacted and sustained if they are part of a compact with all American citizens that the nation as a whole will look out for all of its members.
Trump backers will likely balk at one of Salam’s proposals, an amnesty for existing illegal immigrants. He notes that they have been down this road before, with the 1986 immigration reform that also promised tougher measures against future illegal immigration in exchange for an amnesty. He’s right to note that, and any move in this direction must first reassure Trump loyalists that this time the bargain is real. But Salam is also right that there is no public support for the type of mass deportation that Trump talked about on the campaign trail. Exit polls of the 2016 Republican primaries showed that even majorities of Republican voters, including millions of Trump’s own backers prefer a path to legalization to deportation. Expanded to the electorate as a whole, well over seventy percent of Americans prefer legalized status to mass deportation. Unless and until that changes, mass deportation of law-abiding, employed illegal immigrants is unlikely to become the law of the land.
Trump supporters who are willing to enter into this bargain with Salam can also influence other aspects of his agenda. Salam embraces outsourcing low-skilled jobs to foreign countries, arguing that is the only way to increase American productivity and hence American wages. Trump supporters could help show him the native-born perspective, that doing this without restriction simply transfers which set of foreigners are competing with native-born Americans for jobs. Salam also takes for granted a uniform American culture that sees each person as an individual. Many Trump backers would contest this, arguing that increasingly many native-born Americans are themselves seen by progressives and their allies as less-than-American because of their religious or political beliefs. The alliance Salam foresees between the children of immigrants like himself and those whose families have been in America for three or more generations will take much more thought and effort to forge than simply agreeing on immigration policy.
That task, the conservation and reformation of American first principles and culture in light of modern challenges, is ultimately what the 2016 election was about. Immigration was a touchstone in that race because it was a symbol both of the challenges and of the potential changes, but also because current policies showed a callous disregard for tens of millions of current Americans. A new path forward means crafting something that works for all Americans, the newcomer and the long-termer. While Trump backers rightly contend that the long-time Americans’ views are too frequently being discarded, Salam’s book is good reminder that newcomers must also be incorporated into a Trumpist future if we are to avoid civil war.
Ann Coulter might disagree, saying “In Trump We Trust,” but the she should recall that our coinage does not simply state “In God We Trust.” They also include the motto “E Pluribus Unum;” out of many, one. America cannot be made great again if the future half of Americans who, like Salam, are the children of the current generation of immigrants, are excluded.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).