What Conservative Reformers Don’t Like About Immigration Reform

As a kind of companion piece to my post earlier this week on mass immigration and liberalism’s dilemmas, I thought I’d say something about a Matt Yglesias piece from a few weeks ago, in which he expressed a certain amount of bafflement at both liberals and conservatives who worry about immigration’s impact on the fortunes of low-wage-earning Americans:

Liberals care not just about the size of the economic pie, but also its distribution. And it’s perfectly appropriate to put greater weight on the economic needs of poor people than rich people. But in the low-skilled immigration calculus the poorest people—the immigrants—are the ones who receive the largest benefit. To the extent that you have more immigrants you have both a stronger moral case for redistribution to low-income natives (greater objective needs) and a stronger practical case for redistribution to low-income natives (greater fiscal capacity) but the idea of avoiding a small harm to poor people by inflicting a much-larger harm on substantially poorer people makes very little sense to me.

… The conservative view of this manages to be even more puzzling, since in all other contexts conservatives strongly favor policy measures that increase the marginal return to capital and vehemently reject consideration of the distributional implications of such measures. Class war is a great evil to be avoided at all cost except in a case where the interests of the American working class can be putatively advanced by punishing the third world poor.

Reihan Salam had a lengthy response to this at the time; let me attempt a (slightly) shorter one. What Yglesias calls “the conservative view” here is not, as he well knows, the view of everyone on the right, and it isn’t a coincidence that it’s least likely to be shared by those conservatives who most fit his “up with marginal returns, don’t worry about distributional implications” description: The Wall Street Journal editorial page, much of the Republican Party’s donor class, many libertarian wonks, etc.

The current immigration bill’s various right-of-center skeptics, on the other hand, are often pundits who do write and worry, not necessarily about inequality per se, but about issues like wage stagnation, declining labor force participation rates, and weakening upward mobility from the bottom. (It’s not a coincidence that their ranks include several of the liberal commentariat’s favorite “reasonable conservatives.”) It’s just that, being conservatives, they — we — also worry about the growth of government and the permanent clientalization of the poor, and therefore we don’t particularly like the logic of Yglesias’s first paragraph, in which any problems created by mass immigration are to be solved through the simple expedient of higher taxes and increased government spending. (From a purely practical perspective, we also tend to doubt that it can be easily executed absent the kind of social solidarity that mass immigration often tends to undercut.)

What immigration reform’s conservative skeptics would prefer, rather than a society that welcomes as many immigrants as want to come and also expands the welfare state apace, is a society that maintains America’s historical balance between (at least relatively) limited government and (at least relatively) egalitarian arrangements of wealth, property and opportunity. If you don’t care about the first issue, then it makes sense to be an open-borders liberal; if you don’t care about the second, then it makes sense to be an open-borders conservative. But if you think that both matter, and that America’s historical balance between liberty and opportunity is a precious and fragile historical achievement, then it isn’t really much of a puzzle why you might favor admitting new Americans — especially those whose existing skill sets are a poor fit with the economy that we seem to be moving toward — at a somewhat slower pace (and in a somewhat different mix) than the Senate legislation contemplates.

And note that “somewhat slower pace.” Nobody with any kind of significant megaphone or clout is arguing for policies that would return the United States to the immigrant-native balance that we had in the 1950s, and 1960s. If we do nothing but continue on our current course, the proportion of first-generation immigrants in the U.S. population will soon reach its highest point in nearly a century and then keep going up from there, and the proportion of first and second-generation immigrants will reach a historic high within a generation. What’s up for debate right now is not whether the United States should welcome millions of immigrants and their children; it’s just whether, given the state of the American experiment at the moment, it makes sense to welcome and try to assimilate low-skilled immigrants at an even faster rate. And I don’t think it should be surprising that those of us seeking the (yes, perhaps chimerical) goal of a limited-government egalitarianism would be skeptical of the wisdom of that course.


Leave a Comment