Immigration as the new abortion

Why I'm still pessimistic that the Age of Immigration can be restored soon

There are a lot of things I’m optimistic about with regards to the United States of America right now. I’m optimistic about the pandemic, about the recovery, about technological innovation, about Biden’s chances of transforming our economy. I’m even starting to be optimistic about us beginning the long, slow process of knitting our society back together after the ructions of the past 7 years.

But, I am not yet optimistic about immigration.

Back in April 2020, I wrote a Bloomberg post explaining why I was pessimistic. I hypothesized that a combination of COVID, Trump’s anti-immigration measures, a general rise in xenophobia, a weak economy, lower fertility rates in Mexico, tensions with China, and low-key genteel protectionism among liberal elites would conspire to keep immigration well below its pre-Trump levels for quite some time. Of course, lots of people wrote a lot of very pessimistic things in April 2020, and both the pandemic situation and the economic situation are looking much better than when I wrote that. But the other factors are still in place.

And I think there’s a new reason to be pessimistic about immigration — it seems to be turning into a cultural wedge issue, like abortion. We tend to make very little progress on those.

Is the immigration situation really that bad?

Trump did a lot to stop immigration. He turned Citizenship and Immigration Services into a kludge-ocracy whose main job seemed to be slowing down and complicating applications for visas and green cards. He implemented a raft of policies to quell the surge of Central American asylum-seekers. And his unwelcoming rhetoric had a chilling effect on perceptions of America as a land of opportunity for immigrants.

My Bloomberg colleague Justin Fox, however, argues that Trump didn’t manage to put much of a dent in immigration. He correctly notes that illegal immigration went into reverse in 2007, and Trump’s much-publicized tough DHS policies failed to change that trend. He also points out that green card issuance mostly held up under Trump, until COVID came along and shut it down in 2020:

But he also shows that even before the pandemic, Trump was succeeding in reducing visa issuance:

The slowdown in visas, coupled with the lesser slowdown in green cards, suggests that an increasing number of green cards were going to people who were already living in the country. That is not a long-term sustainable process (eventually all the visa holders get green cards or leave), and it also carries ominous overtones — visa holders might have been rushing to get green cards because they thought their chances of staying in the country otherwise had gone down.

In addition, Trump reduced the number of refugees almost to zero, and foreign student enrollment was also falling before the pandemic.

Furthermore, Trump was far from the only force pushing against immigration. The great Mexican Wave ended in 2007:

Furthermore, economic opportunities in China have improved enormously, even as tensions rise dramatically between China and the U.S. And the wave of anti-Asian attacks certainly seems like it would tend to make folks from Asia think twice about moving here, though whether that has a macro impact remains to be seen.

There’s also COVID. Even though the pandemic is on the way out, it will end up putting a big dent in immigration for at least one year. Since immigrants tend to follow other immigrants (a finding so robust that economists use it to isolate causality in immigration studies!), even a brief interruption might have a long-term chilling effect.

Biden may be able to fix much of this. He can make Citizenship and Immigration Services do its job again, switch anti-immigrant rhetoric for pro, and settle more refugees in the U.S. But I persist in my glum prediction that Biden will be far less aggressive in restoring the Age of Immigration than many hope. And nothing illustrates that better than the “crisis” at the southern border.

Can Biden fix the border?

Note that the question here isn’t “will”, but “can”. Because it’s not clear what “fixing the border” actually means. The issue of what to do with the waves of Central American asylum seekers trying to get across the border and into America defies pragmatic technocratic solutions; instead, the question has increasingly become a moral one, with two sides pushing implacably opposed visions of what the border should do.

The right essentially believes that the people flocking to the border (mostly Central Americans) are illegitimate — that they’re coming for economic reasons, that they don’t contribute substantially to the country, that they’re line-jumpers trying to skirt American laws, and that in general they should be kept out. Liberals, meanwhile, decries “kids in cages” and views immigrant detention as concentration camps.

These are mutually irreconcilable positions. If people cross the border and turn themselves in to the Border Patrol requesting asylum, what shall we do with them?

For the right, the answer is that we should either detain them or force them to remain in Mexico until their hearing, at which point they will probably be denied. This is morally unacceptable to the left, because detention equals concentration camps, and because forcing people to wait in Mexico is unacceptably cruel.

The alternative the left would prefer is to release asylum seekers into the U.S. until it’s time for their asylum hearing. This crosses a red line for the right, because obviously people have the option of not showing up to their hearing and becoming undocumented immigrants. Even if many people do show up for their hearings, many others do not, so this system becomes a back door to illegal immigration — something the right views as anathema.

Every possible technocratic middle path between these two implacably opposed moral positions is rapidly shot down by immigration advocates. When ICE decided to try using ankle monitors to make sure people showed up for hearings without having to detain them, liberals decried it as inhumane government surveillance. The “Remain in Mexico” policy is also anathema. Conservatives, meanwhile, seem unable to simply shrug their shoulders and accept that a few tens of thousands of line-jumpers sneaking into America wouldn’t collapse the nation. Their reverence for law-and-order, combined with the creeping Tucker Carlson-driven belief that maybe immigration really is a plot to demographically replace them after all, make asylum policy a red line for them.

Biden and his people, not wanting to activate the conservative culture warriors any more than he has to, and probably themselves concerned with law and order, have attempted to walk a middle path on the border issue. I predicted back in November that Biden and his DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas would reverse Trump’s flashy cruel policies, while keeping the substance of border enforcement in place.

I was completely right. Even before he took office, Biden began slow-walking the reform of the Trump border system. Recently, Biden told asylum seekers explicitly: “Don’t come.” The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor writes:

The same unsuitable facilities that housed thousands of asylum-seeking minors under Trump are packed once again under Biden. Thousands of migrants are being turned away at the border or expelled every day. Local officials, aid workers and immigrant advocates have long-standing complaints over backlogs in asylum applications and border authorities ill-equipped to be custodians of frightened, desperate children.

Even on refugees, where he holds complete discretionary power, Biden has been more cautious than be promised.

As a result, Biden’s approval rating on immigration is much lower than his approval on other issues, with about a third of Democrats disapproving, in addition to the usual ~90% of Republicans.

This is a stark contrast with the rest of Biden’s presidency so far. On economic issues, Biden has moved strongly to the left, with the support of most of the country. He’s doing fine on foreign policy as well, and the culture wars have calmed down ever so slightly. But on immigration, he hasn’t been able to pull off either the “victorious social democrat” trick or the “sensible centrist” trick.

And that bodes ill for his big immigration bill.

How about skilled immigration?

Americans don’t generally realize this, but legal immigration is mostly skilled immigration, despite the fact that our system privileges family-based admissions over employment-based admissions. A large and increasing percent of documented immigrants have college degrees, and even those that don’t tend to be highly upwardly mobile. So when we talk about “legal” and “skilled” immigration, we’re talking about the same thing.

Biden has a big bill that would expand legal immigration substantially, focusing more (but not exclusively) on expanding the most skilled categories, and simplifying and easing the immigration process. It would be a big bold advertisement that America is once again a land of opportunity for talented, hard-working people from all over the world who want to make it their home.

I also think it has almost no chance of passing. And the reason is that it also contains another good, important, long-overdue policy — a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Even it’s a very popular policy, Republicans view a path to citizenship as an absolute red line — a breach of the symbolic, imaginary border that exists in their minds. Even if Joe Manchin allows the Dems to reinstate the old “phone book filibuster”, I can’t see Republicans leaving the podium until any bill with a path to citizenship is killed.

Furthermore, I suspect — though I can’t yet prove — that even legal, skilled immigration is now a wedge issue for Republicans. The rhetoric of “demographic replacement” has become too widespread, too institutionalized by Trump. As David Shor pointed out during our interview, and again in an interview with Eric Levitz, immigration in general has become an incredibly polarizing partisan culture-war issue.

And to the expect that there’s bipartisan agreement, I expect that it’s more immigration-skeptical than people expect. Check out this Pew poll about limiting Chinese students at U.S. universities:

I suspect that this isn’t just about IP theft or tensions with China; I think it’s about competition. Americans have realized that Chinese students will tend to outcompete their kids scholastically, and are protectionist about that. My guess is that despite high support for international students overall, the antipathy toward Chinese students — by far the most numerous group of people studying here from overseas — is indicative of a more general anxiousness about competition.

In fact, I think this protectionism extends to the job market as well. Almost all of the bitter antipathy toward the H-1B program I encounter comes from upper-middle-class white liberals — the exact kind of people who are in line for competition (or whose kids are in line for competition) with hard-charging, hard-working, talented foreigners. I put it rather bluntly in a thread last June:

So although Biden’s immigration bill does all the right things on legal and skilled immigration (which are really the same thing), I don’t see well-to-do white liberals going to bat for it when the Republicans go all-out to bring it down.

Hopefully I’m wrong about this; we’ll see.

The time of consolidation

Polls would have us believe that support for immigration is at an all-time high. For example, here’s Gallup:

But polls like this can conceal a lot of important things. First of all, it remains to be seen how much of this is thermostatic politics — people saying they like immigration because Trump was in power.

Second, polls like this capture general attitudes, not positions on specific policies. As Shor notes in his interview with Levitz, explicitly laying out the Republican and Democratic positions on things like border-crossing decriminalization and path to citizenship causes even Hispanic voters to move toward the GOP.

And finally, overall attitudes don’t capture differences in enthusiasm. If most Democrats and independents support immigration in a general, abstract, mild fashion, but half of Republicans are willing to carve out their own spleens with a spork to make sure that not one single undocumented immigrant goes unpunished…well, the fired-up minority has a good chance of beating the distracted majority.

So it’s possible that favorable polls won’t matter much when the rubber hits the road.

In the past three years, I read about thirty books on immigration. Many of them staked out moral positions on immigration, but only two offered coherent and plausible general theories of why America sometimes lets in immigrants and sometimes keeps them out. The first was John Higham’s Strangers in the Land, which asserted that America lets in immigrants when it feels confident both culturally and economically; that clearly does not describe the America of 2021. The second was Aristide Zolberg’s A Nation By Design, which basically said that America chooses the kind of immigrants that reflect the population it wants to build; with a large fraction of Republicans terrified of demographic replacement, America currently has no cohesive idea of who it wants to be. I think we’re now in a Time of Consolidation, where we have to pause and figure out how we define our nationhood.

So until we become a more confident nation like we were in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, I just don’t see a return to the Age of Immigration. I will be happy to be proven wrong, but I’m sticking to my guns for now.

As a coda, though, I don’t want to catastrophize too much. Although the border won’t be fixed (maybe can’t be fixed), and although I doubt we’ll actually get a rational comprehensive immigration reform, I do think our legal immigration system will putter along at a decent clip. There’s still plenty of demand for a life in America, despite all the hate and culture wars and violence and Trumpian rhetoric. People will still keep coming, and Biden’s administration will keep stamping their visas and green cards. We might have a substantial slowdown in immigration inflows, but it won’t be the kind collapse that followed the advent of racist immigration restriction in the 1920s.

The long-term danger is if immigration remains a cultural wedge issue for many decades, as abortion has done. If opposition to immigration becomes woven into the conservative canon the way opposition to abortion is, then we might not return to the openness of the 1990s in my lifetime.