Photo by Tom Woodward

In the wake of David Brat’s defeat of Virginia Congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, chiefly because of the Republican primary candidates’ different views on immigration, it’s important for Republicans and conservatives to remember that opposing amnesty for illegal aliens, or resisting the legal immigration of low-skilled and ill-educated distant relatives of citizens, is not the same thing as being anti-immigration or anti-immigrant. It’s worth reemphasizing an argument City Journal writers Victor Davis Hanson, Heather Mac Donald, and Steven Malanga made eloquently in their book, The Immigration Solution, some years ago: Since the United States can’t take in every person in the world who would like to live here, it should admit immigrants based on whether they can enhance the wealth and well-being of the nation. A reasonable pro-immigration position would enthusiastically celebrate the immense contribution that immigrants have made to this country since its settlement by immigrants four centuries ago, and it would go on to urge a liberal admission policy for those likely to make similar positive contributions. Not every immigrant has to be a Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, or Andrew Grove, but he and his children should make the country richer than they found it, if only by a sliver, and certainly should not become a burden to its already burdened taxpayers.

Three important changes that make a selective immigration policy essential have occurred in American society since the last great immigration wave just before World War I. First, the U.S. economy demands higher skills than it did when 24 million immigrants from eastern and southern Europe arrived on these shores around the turn of the twentieth century. In an America that was still largely agricultural, the new immigrants, whom nativists found so unsophisticated and uneducated, nevertheless possessed slightly higher skills, on average, than the native-born population. Entrepreneurial Jewish tailors and seamstresses created the American ready-to-wear clothing industry; Italian stonemasons crafted our amazing early-twentieth-century buildings; German shopkeepers, to whom the rhythms of urban life were already second nature, supercharged the retail trade. Of these immigrants, 27 percent were skilled, as compared with 17 percent of the native-born population.

For the 73 percent who were unskilled, an economy that needed laborers on unmechanized farms, diggers of subway and water tunnels, and legions of domestic servants provided ample employment opportunities. And immigrants had the choice of taking those jobs, starving, or going home. For—and this is the second great change in American society—no public welfare system existed then. Only ethnic self-help societies or churches or private charities could help the needy or unsuccessful—and only in limited numbers and for short periods of time. Still, not every immigrant could make it on the terms the America of that time set. When the Great Depression shrank the supply of jobs in the 1930s, 60 percent of those already here went home.

Third, American culture has changed beyond recognition in the century and more since the last great immigration. In those days, the larger society pressured immigrants to assimilate to a well-defined set of American norms and values, a demand immigrants strove to meet. Churches, settlement houses, and other private charities offered classes in English, American customs, and marketable skills. Now translated and collected into a book, the wonderful advice column headed “A Bintel Brief” in the Yiddish-language daily newspaper Der Forverts is moving testimony to the earnestness that generation of immigrants brought to the task of becoming Americans. In addition, the English-only urban public schools used to teach American history, with a heavy emphasis on American exceptionalism and a pride in the free republic the Founders gave us, along with what was called “citizenship,” which was merely mainstream civility, self-control, and good manners. The teachers were in the business of making Americans, and they had a clear idea of what they meant by that, even—or especially—if they were immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants.

No more. Americans who still believe in American exceptionalism, by now possibly a minority of the total population, are hard to find in the teaching ranks, where multiculturalism, a belief in American original sin and oppressiveness, and relativism of every kind, hold sway—as they do in the immigrant-activist groups (now pushing for government- rather than self-help) and in every medium of popular culture, from movies to comic books to music. What is easiest for many recent Hispanic immigrants to assimilate into is gang culture, a simple, if self-destructive, way of belonging, which retarded the assimilation of some past Irish and Italian immigrant boys and, coupled with our welfare system (whose 1990s’ reforms our current national and local governments have been undoing), may retard the assimilation of some Hispanic immigrants for generations still to come. One of the saddest signs of our times is the number of children of hard-working Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, who end up in gangs or on welfare, with illegitimate children whom the girls raise alone.

The upshot of all this: the cultural revolution and the come-and-get-it welfare system that remade America in the 1960s have thrown sand in the gears of America’s upward-mobility machine. America used to give immigrants the opportunity to succeed and assimilate or to fail and either accept marginalization or go home. Plenty of immigrants still gladly accept that offer, and here in New York, our selective high schools are bursting with immigrant kids from poor families—many of them Indian and Chinese—who are well on their way to becoming doctors, inventors, entrepreneurs, and tycoons. A reasonable pro-immigration policy would say, bring us more of these kids and their families, as many as want to come. But it would also notice that some groups have children who disproportionally end up in jail or on welfare. Everyone can see how hard the immigrant parents work, providing cheap labor to agribusiness, construction, hotels, and restaurants, and cheap maids, nannies, and gardeners to the rich. But, learning from more than two decades’ experience of how their children are burdening our economy and society, a reasonable immigration policy would be slower to welcome such immigrants.

To believe in free trade requires belief in the free movement of goods and of capital—but not of labor. To economists, one unit of labor is much the same as another; one pair of hands is the same as another. But that’s not true. The hands are attached to a mind and a heart, which are in turn attached to a culture—and that makes pairs of hands, and the workers they belong to, not interchangeable. The cultural component makes all the difference, just as it did when George W. Bush believed that, once the United States removed the crushing weight of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny from the Iraqi people, the universal human love of liberty, stunted in them hitherto, would naturally blossom forth and allow them to become free democratic republicans, just like Americans. But how much cultural development went into the making of our democratic republic! You can’t take a culture of tribal and religious loyalties—the loyalties that make individuals feel that they and their lives are worthy—and make them instantly vanish, to be replaced with such elaborately developed ideals as the rule of law, individual liberty, self-reliance, and dispassionate justice. So a pair of hands attached to a passion for education, a commitment to family, and a dream of the future is very different from a pair of hands attached to a soul that lives from day to day, for that day’s wages—especially in an American culture that no longer inculcates those values so powerfully.

To a hugely greater extent than in the past, the immigrant population consists of illegal as well as legal entrants—upward of 12 million of them. Instead of securing the nation’s borders against such lawbreakers, as all realistic immigration-reform proposals begin by urging, President Obama has done the opposite, lawlessly opening the floodgates to young Hispanics, trying to change the facts on the ground, making the illegal population too winsome and innocent to deport, and apparently hoping that instead of letting the people choose new leaders, the leaders can choose a new people, who will vote for Democrats until the end of time. The likelihood, however, is that utterly justified calls to send these young people home will spark a wider resistance to amnesty for illegals (of which Professor Brat’s primary victory is a likely harbinger) and perhaps even expand into a demand for even further deportations.

Brat’s victory is a gift to Republicans, and they should not squander it. It allows them to put immigration at the center of the upcoming congressional election, to emphasize how illegally and cynically the president and his attorney general have handled the problem, and to frame an immigration policy that their constituents can embrace. Its elements would be these:

Secure the border with troops and fences. Instantly deport any new illegal entrants.

Follow the Fourteenth Amendment’s definition of citizenship, which reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” That means that the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens, who are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, are not citizens, just as the U.S.-born children of foreign diplomats to this country are not citizens. Therefore, their mothers cannot collect child-only welfare benefits for them.

Immediately deport any immigrant convicted of a felony, including legal ones who have not yet attained citizenship.

Forbid states and localities from providing in-state tuition at state colleges, and driver’s licenses or other identity cards to illegal aliens, on pain of losing federal funds—especially because motor-voter registration invites vote fraud. The Tenth Amendment gives states the authority to determine their own voting rules and so prohibits federal authorities from interfering with their requirements of proof of citizenship from prospective voters.

Limit the family-reunification immigration policy to include only the spouses and minor children of legal immigrants. Beyond that, immigrants should be admitted only on the basis of skills and education.

The government should grant refugee status only after strict scrutiny.

Total numbers of immigrants should be limited for the next decade, while we see who will leave because of criminal convictions or ineligibility for welfare. Only then can we form a coolly rational policy concerning the remaining illegal immigrants, who will by then have a long enough history in this country to allow the Congress to see what they have accomplished, where they are headed, and whether they deserve some permanent legal status, and perhaps even a path to citizenship. That’s why I don’t believe that public schools should bar illegal-immigrant children.

After all, some of the parents of those bright Chinese kids in the New York exam-entrance high schools are illegal immigrants, who virtually sold themselves into slavery to get smuggled into this country, where their kids could have a chance to realize their talents. No one would ever want kids like that to leave—and Republicans need to assure legal Chinese voters, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama and the Democrats, of that sympathy. They are a natural GOP constituency.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next