The last time Gallup asked Americans if they thought immigration to the United States should increase or decrease, 35 percent chose a decrease, 24 percent an increase and 38 percent preferred the present rate. Support for increasing immigration has been rising for a decade, but it remains relatively low. To the extent that there is a middle-ground position, it is for something like the status quo.
From polling like this you would imagine that recent immigration reform efforts would have worked in that middle space, trying to tweak the mix of new arrivals without increasing the immigration rate. But instead, most recent attempts at a “comprehensive” bill have sought not only amnesty for illegal immigrants, but an increase in low-skilled immigration, above the already brisk post-1960s pace.
Bipartisan bills at odds with the shape of public opinion are generally bad for both parties. And sure enough, the attempts at immigration reform under George W. Bush and Barack Obama helped give us both a much-reduced Democratic Party and a GOP helmed by Donald Trump.
They also helped give us the new reform proposal authored by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia and endorsed by the president. The Cotton-Perdue bill is written for the 35 percent of Americans who want less immigration, which it achieves by creating a points-based system for applications (with points for English proficiency, education, a good job offer, and so on), limiting family-based migration, and cutting the number of legal immigrants we take by roughly half.
The case for such cuts runs as follows. We are nearing our historical peak for the foreign-born share of the population, assimilation looks slower than for prior cohorts and may be stalling, growing diversity may be increasing social distrust, and our partisan landscape is increasingly shaped by ethnic patronage and white-identity politics. An immigration slowdown would make assimilation somewhat easier and give American politics time to adjust to the country’s transformation. It would also modestly curb the growth of inequality, reduce some strain on social programs, and offer a slight wage boost to less-educated natives, who are presently in dire socioeconomic straits.
But of course there are counterarguments. Immigration may hurt the wages of high school dropouts, but it offers modest economic benefits to most natives, and obvious benefits to the immigrants themselves. And some of the trends that worry immigration skeptics have improved over the last decade. Illegal immigration from Mexico and points south has slowed substantially since the mid-2000s. The future of immigration looks more Asian than Latin American. Conservative fears of a disappearing southern border or an ever-expanding Spanish-speaking underclass should be tempered somewhat by these shifts.
Moreover, as writers like Robert VerBruggen of National Review and Lyman Stone at The Federalist have pointed out, you can address many of the costs of mass immigration by embracing the new bill’s points system without also making its steep cuts.
That’s because a system that focused more on skills and education and job prospects would automatically put less pressure on wages at the bottom. It would increase immigration’s economic benefits, and reduce its fiscal costs. And it would presumably bring in a more diverse pool of migrants, making balkanization and self-segregation less likely.
So that’s probably the immigration compromise we’re waiting for: a version of the Cotton-Perdue points system, the shift to high-skilled recruitment, that keeps the overall immigration rate close to where it is today.
But there are two obvious impediments.
The first problem is that the Cotton-Perdue proposal is associated with a president whose ascent was darkened by race-baiting, and whose ability to broker any deal is seriously in doubt. By making immigration central to his campaign, Trump helped make this bill possible. But his campaign rhetoric also makes it more polarizing than its substance deserves, and his incompetence makes its legislative prospects dim.
The second problem is that mainstream liberalism has gone a little bit insane on immigration, digging into a position that any restrictions are ipso facto racist, and any policy that doesn’t take us closer to open borders is illegitimate and un-American.
That’s how we got the strange spectacle of CNN’s Jim Acosta, ostensibly a nonpartisan reporter, hectoring the White House’s Stephen Miller recently with the claim that Emma Lazarus’ poem about the “huddled masses” means that the U.S. cannot be self-interested in screening new arrivals.
It was a telling moment, as was Acosta’s self-righteousness afterward. Liberalism used to recognize the complexities of immigration; now it sees only a borderless utopia waiting, and miscreants and racists standing in the way.
As long as these problems persist — a right marred by bigotry, a liberalism maddened by utopianism — it is hard to imagine a reasonable deal.
But as long as a deal eludes us, the chaotic system we have is well designed to make both derangements that much more powerful, both problems that much worse.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.