Ross Douthat, a writer I have come to read voraciously and respect greatly, has finally run crossways with me on the immigration bill. He is a full–blown skeptic of the current bill, and has convinced me that it’s probably nothing better than an alliance between Democrats and business Republicans. But he has not convinced me that its main aims: amnesty and increasing low-skilled immigration are not worth pursuing. Of course, as usual, he has good reasons to think what he thinks. Increasing low-skilled immigration will be hard on the working classes by increasing competition at a time when joblessness is still a problem, assimilation is stagnant, or at least it appears to be, the increase in low-skilled immigration is a little too good for Republican businessmen who want low-wage labor, and amnesty, the part of the bill that has drawn most of the liberal moralistic fervor, is an incentive for continued illegal immigration.
What I cannot get past is Douthat’s (like Romney’s) insistence on increasing only high-skilled immigration. It makes sense I suppose. An information-oriented skillset will help immigrants attain the sort of work that is more available in our digital age. But these practical considerations fail to include any of the moral spirit of uplift and charity that has always hovered around the dream of coming to America. It seems to me that when the populist phrase is invoked that “this country was built by immigrants” it should be remembered that it was built by poor immigrants who displayed some remarkable ingenuity in overcoming the many obstacles that stood in the way of their achieving a place among the middle class. Furthermore, the insistence on “high-skilled immigration” opens Republicans up to the same charges of elitism that they so effectively deploy against New York liberals and the media. It might be better to try for a more consistent approach to class considerations. The moral aims of immigration policy have always been with us and they are as persuasive as ever, certainly more moving than fear of a stagnant economy. The “rags to respectability” story is still a relevant mythology amongst Americans and would-be Americans, and it may do more harm than good to any party who favors shutting out the ragged in favor of “high skilled” immigrants.
Personally speaking for a moment, it is not clear from my own present experience that assimilation has stalled. Ross argues from data, which he graciously does not use to whap ordinary folk over the head with superior knowledge, but it does not always line up with my own experience, which is admittedly limited, but it’s all I have beyond the graphs. The immigrants and children of immigrants that I know are quite well assimilated, in that they are thoughtful, articulate, socially involved, and I and they are on a common pathway to gainful employment. The only difference is that their fortunes are not quite as vouchsafed to financial security as my own since I have a well-connected and established family network of wealth, but this of course is just what they are building.
As for amnesty, I do not think the idea is unassailable by reason or prudence, but I do think it is important to remember that our immigration caps have been seriously disproportionate since the elimination of country-specific quotas (which were admittedly racist). What are backlogged hopefuls to do when they have decades to wait and there is a tempting, lightly defended border just over the river? A sweeping one-time-only amnesty proclamation doesn’t have to be some gesture for humanism but an attempt to redress some bad math. Going forward, offering Mexicans a larger share of the pie and a cleaner path to citizenship might actually do more to lock down the border than building a wall.
The broader point is that immigration has always carried a moral purpose, to help as far as can be done, the suffering peoples of other nations and the strengthening of the American dream by bonding ethnicities and cultures together under the ideal of self-rule. I hope that Ross and the other skeptics can offer some moral reflection to their case rather than just practical considerations. The case they have is sympathy for the existing working class, but the reality is that much of that class remembers its friends and fellows, to say nothing of family, across the river and are probably looking for another alternative than just saying “no.”