“My opinion with respect to immigration is that, except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions, there is no need of encouragement . . . ”

—George Washington

“It’s not you, it’s me” has become a popular phrase with which to terminate a romantic relationship.  It is considered a more polite and, above all, more sensitive way of saying good riddance to an unwanted suitor than rehearsing whatever grievances actually prompted the breakup.  But the phrase carries an air of insincerity that prevents it from really lessening the blow.  Urban Dictionary, which is to pop-culture trash as the Oxford English Dictionary is to the English language, translates it as follows: “I no longer find you attractive, but I can’t say that because then I’ll feel guilty.”

Mark Krikorian begins The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal with a sentiment that sounds suspiciously similar.  “What’s different about immigration today as opposed to a century ago,” he writes, “is not the characteristics of the newcomers but the characteristics of our society.”  A paragraph later, Krikorian explains, “We’ve all heard the laments: ‘My grandpa from Sicily learned English, and my grandma from Minsk got by without welfare—what’s the problem with immigrants today?’”  His answer to this question is instructive: “The problem is that the America your grandparents immigrated to a century ago no longer exists.”

Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, one of the most prominent think tanks advocating a more realistic immigration policy.  He has been a vocal proponent of the attrition-through-enforcement strategy of reducing illegal immigration, which is already showing limited signs of success.  His new book is a masterful, comprehensive presentation of the technical arguments against continuous mass immigration in the tradition of Roy Beck’s The Case Against Immigration and Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation.  So let us assume that Krikorian’s opening line is sincere.  Is his argument correct?  In other words, is the problem with millions of legal and illegal immigrants pouring into the United States not them, but us?

In fact, as is often the case in a failed relationship, there is plenty of blame to go around.  Not only do Americans today lack the cultural self-confidence and political will to demand that immigrants enter the country legally, much less assimilate, but we lack the strong common culture and national identity that allowed us, with greater difficulty, to “Americanize” newcomers to our shores during the last period of mass immigration.  American schoolchildren are fed a dog’s breakfast of multiculturalism and political correctness, in which they learn that the people who settled and founded our country were genocidal and irredeemably racist.  This is as damaging as any bilingual-education program for the children of immigrants.

It is frankly more normal and natural for Mexican immigrants to want to cling to their own languages and family ties than for our own country to permit a sustained assault on its national myths, heroes, and customs.  Even apart from mass immigration, Americans are divided about who we are as a people, about moral values, about our national sense of self.  We no longer require immigrants to assimilate and no longer provide much for them to assimilate to.

Krikorian does not state things so baldly as this, but he recognizes the problem of assimilation and “the cracked melting pot.”  He correctly observes that modern technology makes it easier for immigrants to keep in touch with their homelands and even live in both countries.  This, as a practical matter, makes rooted­ness more problematic.  But he also acknowledges the erosion of our common culture, especially among the political class:

Elites in all modern societies, including ours, come to devalue their own nation and culture and thus recoil from the idea that newcomers should even be required to adopt “our language, manners and customs,” let alone “be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations”—assuming we can even agree, in this contentious age, what those ideals and aspirations are.

Krikorian argues (correctly) that this combination of transnationalism and multiculturalism—“post-Americanism”—means that “mass immigration today is much less likely to result in the kind of deep assimilation of the vast majority of immigrants and their children that is necessary for immigration to be successful,” even if the immigrants are skilled and legal.  But it is less clear that this “problem is inherent to modern society and the way that modernity limits our ability to replicate the successes of the past.”  If true, that seems as likely to doom a politics of restrictionism as to help it succeed.

The “brutal bargain” of assimilation is not the only familiar problem Krikorian wraps in the new package of mass immigration’s incompatibility with modern society.  “Modern America faces a unique security challenge,” he writes.  “Advances in communications, transportation, and weapons technology make it relatively easy for enemies to get access to our home territory and stage spectacular and deadly attacks.”  Uncontrolled mass immigration overwhelms the federal government’s already limited administrative capacity to screen out or remove those who would commit terrorist attacks.

The visa applications of at least 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers should have been rejected at first glance.  The other four were destroyed by the State Department before they could be subjected to outside scrutiny.  By contrast, when the law is actually enforced, it can have salutary national-security effects.  Ramzi Bainalshibh, “one of the candidates for the label of twentieth hijacker,” was rejected four times because immigration bureaucrats thought he was likely to overstay his visa and become an illegal immigrant.

“But the problem cannot be satisfactorily addressed by such administrative measures,” writes Krikorian.  Proper vetting is impossible at the current high level of admissions.  The problem would only be exacerbated by an unwieldy conditional amnesty for illegal aliens along the lines of the McCain-Kennedy bill.  All the window dressing intended to reassure gullible voters that lawbreakers don’t get to cut in line ahead of legal immigrants and that criminal aliens are screened out only makes such plans unworkable.  After the 1986 amnesty, some 90 percent of the applicants were approved, and the numbers were twice what had been projected.  By some estimates, the fraud rate was higher than 70 percent.

Unskilled immigration is also newly presented as a conflict between open borders and modern America.  Krikorian rightly rebuts two familiar claims on both sides of the immigration debate.  The first is that immigrants tend to be lazy and come to America to collect welfare rather than work.  While there are exceptions, the labor-force participation rate of the major immigrant groups proves this stereotype false.  But that fact doesn’t validate the Wall Street Journal’s view of mass immigration as an economic boon to the United States.  Even though the immigrants are hard-working, they are dependent on social services and means-tested government benefits anyway because they have low skills.

Half of all families headed by a Mexican immigrant use at least one major welfare program, Krikorian points out.  As early as 1990, 9.1 percent of immigrant households were consuming welfare benefits, compared with 7.4 percent of native-born households.  The numbers are likely worse today.  Krikorian frames the issue this way:

[W]hile immigration certainly increases the overall size of our economy, it subverts the widely shared economic goals of a modern society: a large middle class open to all, working in high-wage, knowledge-intensive, and capital-intensive jobs exhibiting growing labor productivity and avoiding too skewed a distribution of income.

Krikorian cites the increasingly well-documented statistics showing that mass unskilled immigration worsens income inequality, strains social-services budgets, depresses the wages of working-class Americans, and harms both the living standards and employment opportunities of black American workers.  Drawing on the work of Harvard economist George Borjas, he reports that “immigration reduced the average American high-school dropout’s income in 2000 by about $1,800, while the American college graduate saw his salary reduced by $2,600.”  It is now the consensus among labor economists that the post-1965 immigration influx has produced a minuscule economic benefit to Americans as a whole.

The skill levels of immigrants relative to the U.S. labor force have continued to decline since the 1990’s, worsening all of the above trends and retarding Hispanic economic assimilation.  As Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson has written, “Only an act of willful denial can separate immigration and poverty.”  Yet the political class has been unmoved by this mountain of data and can easily dispatch its own court economists to rattle off rosier-sounding statistics.

In contrast with our Ellis Island past, Krikorian argues, the U.S. economy does not need as much unskilled immigration, although its supply will always create demand from employers in need of cheap labor.  We also have a much more highly developed welfare state, from which it is difficult to exclude immigrants and their families, passing on the bill for these labor savings to the taxpayer.  Krikorian quotes the famous line from Milton Friedman: “It’s just obvious that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.”  Years later, this conclusion remains anything but obvious to scores of free-market economists on the right and inveterate welfare statists on the left.

Multiculturalism, transnational progressivism, affirmative action, the welfare state—Krikorian has provided many good reasons to fault our own society, rather than the immigrants themselves, for the failures of mass immigration.  In addition, it is less toxic politically than discussing the characteristics of the Third World countries that are the source for most of our current immigration.  And morally, a humane movement to restrict immigration must be based on love of our own culture and customs, not hatred of those of others.  But it is a bit disingenuous to pretend that the post-1965 immigration inflows do not differ in any meaningful way from past waves—or to romanticize those past waves at the expense of today’s.  “In a sense,” Krikorian writes, “third-world immigration has been happening from very early on, if we interpret ‘third world’ broadly to mean ‘the kind of unsavory places that people want to leave.’”

Decent, as well as political, instincts undergird that argument.  But I suspect Patrick Buchanan’s nuanced statement about Third World immigration is closer to the mark.  “Any man or any woman, of any color or creed, can be a good American,” Buchanan wrote in State of Emergency.  “We know that from our history.  But when it comes to the ability to assimilate into a nation like the United States, all nationalities, creeds, and cultures are not equal.”  It is an important argument, and Krikorian will receive no credit from the other side for failing to make it.  A better restrictionist response to the inevitable charge of racism is that the open-borders proponents are the ones who want to import a predominantly nonwhite servant class to benefit an overwhelmingly white elite at the expense of poor Americans who are themselves disproportionately black and Hispanic.

Krikorian’s approach allows libertarian and neoconservative critics to make a counterproposal: Keep high levels of immigration and get rid of multiculturalism, the welfare state, affirmative action, and the mind-sets that make all of the above possible.  Krikorian anticipates all of these objections and offers some good rejoinders of his own, in particular showing that attempts to block immigrants from using welfare have failed.  Anyone who has taken an introductory political-science class knows that a government program becomes harder to end as the number of beneficiaries rise.

But if our welfarism and multiculturalism are the only culprits, why scapegoat immigrants fleeing unpleasant countries?  And if the American attitudes that permit mass immigration are so entrenched, how can any restrictionism possibly succeed?  If we are truly committed to the idea that no one can be poor and none of our policies can have a disparate impact on Hispanics or any other group, immigration reduction is off the table.

Finally, the biggest problem associated with mass immigration is the presence of large numbers of people who do not see themselves as Americans, would prefer not to be here if the economy at home permitted, and have both real and imagined historical grievances against the United States.  A restrictionist tract that does not deal with this reality—or directly challenge the notion that American obligations to the world’s poor are essentially limitless—can move the debate only so far.      


[The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal, by Mark Krikorian (New York: Sentinel) 304 pp., $25.95]