Our Immigration Debate Needs to Get With the Times

Although many pundits are eagerly awaiting the upcoming presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, there was another debate last week that sheds some light on the issues facing voters in November. It was hosted at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas by The Free Press and tackled the question of whether or now the U.S. should shut down the border. On the pro-immigration side were the founder of “The Young Turks” YouTube channel, Cenk Uygur, and the editor-at-large of Reason magazine, Nick Gillespie; on the anti-immigration side were popular conservative writers Ann Coulter and Sohrab Ahmari. Moderating the debate was The Free Press founder and former New York Times editor Bari Weiss.

Despite the big names and the hot-button issue, what was most surprising about the debate was that it was underwhelming. Both sides, but especially Uygur and Gillespie, trotted out the tired arguments of yesteryear, many of which have long since been proven false or no longer apply. Everyone seemed stuck in the 1990s and treated the ongoing tsunami of migrants during the Biden presidency as a mere academic matter that a few policy tweaks could fix or mitigate.

On the pro-immigration side, Uygur and Gillespie asserted that immigrants were a net benefit for the economy and, if anything, are more law-abiding than native-born Americans. Both were oblivious to the vast welfare programs needed to serve so many incoming poor migrants and rampant crime that has accompanied their arrival—phenomena that are even more apparent if we look abroad to the parallel crisis in Western Europe. Their prescriptions for fixing the crisis at the border were either superficial (invest more money in processing immigrants) or unfeasible (wholesale reform of the welfare system at all levels and instituting a Marshall Plan in Latin America!).

On the anti-immigration side, oddly, Coulter and Ahmari made claims that were nearly diametrically opposed but nevertheless converged in concluding that shutting down the border is necessary. Ever the provocateur, Coulter condemned all immigration from 1970 onward, longing for the days when immigrants were smarter, more virtuous, better looking, less dependent on welfare—and largely white. For the most part, she attempted to frame this argument as one centered on preserving American/Western culture, but rhetorically she lost the younger, more diverse generation present in the audience. Overt racialism has no purchase with them.

Fortunately, Ahmari was better prepared and discussed the deleterious economic impact made by taking in so many millions of unskilled workers. Taking the claims from policy scholar Michael Lind’s excellent book Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wage Is Destroying America, he explained how employers benefit from mass migration because of the abundance of cheap labor as well as the inherent exploitability of non-American workers. This, in turn, forces American workers (many of whom are legal immigrants) to compete with uninvited newcomers, either settling for lower wages or being pushed out of the economy altogether.

That said, Ahmari should have broadened his case to consider other people who benefit from an open border. Yes, the Kochs and their ilk lobby hard for an open border, but so do Democratic politicians and a vast panoply of American NGOs. In the case of the Democrats, it’s not just that immigrants would vote for them (even those who are here illegally) but that their mere presence adds to the voting power of the states in which they reside. Thus, even if California loses its citizens to other states, it can make up for those losses with illegal residents and maintain its 54 votes in the Electoral College.

The rise of pro-immigration NGOs, however, is particularly deserving of more attention. As Madeline Rowley reported in The Free Press, several supposedly nonprofit companies are raking in billions in government contracts and using this money for bogus programs like “pet therapy” for migrant children as well as funding hefty salaries for their CEOs. As one might expect, there is little oversight for many of these organizations, leading to this unchecked extravagance as well as widespread neglect and abuse.

Ignoring all this, Uygur and Gillespie called for more funding and structural reforms to accommodate increased immigration rather than calling for ways to reduce it. As it stands, a small number of elite organizations inside and outside the government are profiting from the hardships and vulnerabilities of Americans and immigrants alike. There’s little reason for them to stop this gravy train.

It was at that point in the debate that Uygur’s phony leftist populism was exposed for what it is. He had no response to Ahmari, who quoted several renowned progressives all making the same point: Mass immigration is bad for the working class and primarily serves the elite. Uygur could only sputter that corporations are bad, Trump is the worst, his Turkish immigrant father was a good guy, and that multiculturalism is what defines America. Gillespie lamely tried to support the floundering Uyhur by adding that Mexican cuisine has replaced Italian as the most popular food in America—which was supposed to prove that the immigration system works.

Besides inducing groans and eyerolls, these arguments reveal how stuck the left really is regarding immigration. Keeping the border open is effectively dissolving the political, economic, and cultural systems of the country; the left is in utter denial because their voters cannot imagine another way forward. The future is necessarily bleak, so they resort to tedious stories about breakfast tacos and their hardworking grandparents who came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Fortunately for these open-borders advocates, their opponents did not seize the opportunity to call out the absurdities in their arguments. It was breakfast tacos vs. pre-’60s nostalgia. As this debate demonstrated, so many of the right’s leading voices have also failed to catch up to today’s realities. Despite cultivating and winning over a devoted niche audience, Coulter seemed oddly unprepared for an appearance where she would have a chance to handle objections from regular Americans and broaden her appeal to a more general audience. Ahmari, a populist millennial conservative, does better, but was still too deferential to both his debate partner as well as his opponents.

It’s not just that people like Uygur and Gillespie are wrong; they are advocating policies that are doing irreparable harm to the country. In this case, Coulter’s instinctive contrarianism and her defiant edgy tone undermined the case for securing the border and regulating immigration while Ahmari’s half-hearted, polite responses barely touched the surface of the argument. Meanwhile Uygur and Gillespie’s tone-deaf, uninformed, anti-American rants continue to justify the chaos of an open border.

In truth, Americans are well past the point of debating the merits and drawbacks of mass immigration. After four years of letting in the world’s poor en masse, it’s clear that this lawlessness only enriches and empowers elites while burdening everyone else. Entertaining though it might be for some, we don’t want another pointless debate about whether it is good or bad to have an open border. We want an end to the ongoing lawlessness and solutions for effectively dealing with it.

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