Toward a Conservative Immigration Policy

Published February 6, 2017

The University Bookman

This piece is part of the University Bookman‘s Symposium: Citizen, Community, and Welcoming the Stranger.

Thinking seriously about immigration has become much harder than it needs to be for both conservatives and liberals in America. Our political debates about the subject since this century began have been designed intentionally not to take different views seriously and seek some middle ground but to roll over anyone who has expressed any concern over any form or level of increased immigration, and to blur essential distinctions.

Again and again, assorted advocates of significantly increased immigration levels have tried to band together into a coalition broad enough, from the chamber of commerce to La Raza with libertarian and progressive activists filling the gaps, to enable them to ignore objections rather than accommodate them. By blurring all distinctions between different forms of immigration—legal and illegal, labor-based and family-based, high skill and low skill, refugees and migrants—they have worked to also blur all distinctions among immigration critics and just treat all dissenters as ignorant bigots.

These advocates describe the reforms they propose as “comprehensive,” but they are only a comprehensive package of immigration expansions: a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, more immigration by both highand low-skilled workers, and a much larger guest-worker program. In return, they have offered little more than the promise of finally enforcing laws that have long been on the books regarding border security, visa controls, and employment-status verification. No meaningful policy concessions have been on the table.

This combination of policies is a good way to unite the various interests that favor far more open borders, but it is not a good way to formulate immigration policies responsive to America’s needs, or to the public’s complicated mix of priorities. And the immigration coalition’s stubborn insistence on pursuing this path has left many voters persuaded that their leaders don’t take them seriously and won’t prioritize America’s interests.

This has left us with an all-or-nothing politics of immigration in which “nothing” has generally been the only responsible position to take. But nothing is not enough. Our immigration system is clearly broken in key respects, and is inadequate to contemporary circumstances.

The 2016 election, for all its faults, almost certainly broke the back of the “comprehensive” immigration reform movement. Some congressional leaders may still harbor the dream of reviving it, but the new president is clearly an opponent, as are (as they have long been) most Republican voters. That should finally liberate conservatives to think clearly about immigration policy by considering the practical circumstances to which such policy ought to respond and applying to those circumstances our enduring principles—including a recognition of the value of immigration but also a commitment to American sovereignty, to civic education and assimilation, to a robust solidarity, and to the truths expressed by the Declaration of Independence and the system of government framed in light of them by the Constitution.

What circumstances in particular ought to be taken into account? We now have in our country a large population of unauthorized immigrants who are in many cases deeply rooted in American life and undoubtedly contributing to our national flourishing but who are also living in a legal limbo that undermines both their own prospects and the rule of law. For decades, our country has invited illegal immigrants with one hand and rejected them with the other, and we are still doing so now.

We also confront an increasingly automated and long-since globalized economy that advantages higher-skill workers and constrains the opportunities available to many working-class Americans. And yet we have for many years pursued an immigration policy that has swelled the ranks of people living in our country who are not well equipped for higher-skill jobs, which has counteracted our efforts to fight poverty and promote mobility.

This policy, which has never been consciously thought through, has also given rise to concentrated ethnic poverty in parts of the country, which has tended to undermine the cultural and civic assimilation of many immigrants and the economic prospects of native-born Americans and immigrants alike.

Our immigration policies have failed to address any of these problems, and generally have not even tried to account for any but the first. We should root any effort to change that in a few key premises: No one has a right to immigrate to America, but our country does generally benefit from people coming to our shores. The biggest beneficiaries of our immigration policy, however, are and likely always will be immigrants themselves. And this means, among other things, that we can alter those policies without ceasing to be a source of immense opportunity and promise for potential Americans around the world—especially if our immigration policy always treats immigrants as potential Americans, not as economic cogs and not as permanent outsiders.

This suggests we ought to be more selective about immigration in ways that protect vulnerable Americans and that benefit our country most—while also offering refuge, responsibly and at a manageable scale, to those who are genuinely at risk where they are. We can certainly do all of that, and the notion that attempting it would be a break from America’s tradition of welcoming immigrants is simply untrue.

America’s immigration policies until the latter part of the twentieth century were generally well adapted to its economic needs and circumstances, and they changed with the times. Our failure to adapt—the failure of our immigration politics brought on by the blind and stubborn pursuit of a comprehensive immigration expansion—is the only way our immigration debates have really betrayed America’s traditional approach to the subject.

But as we think about what mix of policies might serve our needs and interests now, we must remember one further challenge: When America has rethought its immigration policies in the past, our country has generally been far more committed to assimilation than it is today, both explicitly and implicitly. No serious conservative approach to immigration could dismiss the importance of helping immigrants become Americans. And we must be willing to consider the implications of the need for assimilation when we consider the appropriate scope and intensity of future immigration to America.

All of this points toward an immigration policy that sharply curtails illegal immigration while pursuing some accommodation over the status of those already here, significantly reduces the levels of future legal immigration and alters its balance some in favor of more highly skilled immigrants, insists that immigrants become new Americans and not temporary workers, and puts assimilation and civic education front and center.

The politics of immigration can never be simple, but it does not need to be quite as intractable as it has been in this century. And as conservatives survey the damage done by the era of “comprehensive” reform, we should reject the all-or-nothing trap that has so badly backfired on the country and recognize the need for practical compromises. We should think patriotically and prudentially. We should, in other words, think like conservatives.  

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.

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