Posted on June 16, 2019

Every Immigration Argument Under the Sun

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, June 2008

Carol Swain (ed.), Debating Immigration, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 316 pp.

Many collections of essays on immigration make a pretense of presenting a variety of views, but the editor has an ax to grind and clearly held his nose when he included the “opposing view.” Debating Immigration, edited by a black professor of law at Vanderbilt, is different. Carol Swain, who did a remarkable job of actually trying to understand white racial consciousness in her book The New White Nationalism in America, is not mesmerized by the usual sloganeering, and is alive to the dangers of mass immigration. She would probably characterize herself as a moderate restrictionist, and is annoyed that black “leaders” have ignored the influx of unskilled workers who have pushed blacks out of jobs. This has not stopped her from giving voice to a host of open-borders enthusiasts, along with sensible people such as Peter Brimelow of and Steven Camarota of the Center of Immigration Studies.

The result is a volume packed with arguments—some excellent, some miserable—and out of 17 articles there are only a few duds that waste space. The bad arguments are particularly edifying. It is always good to examine the thinking of one’s opponents and often astonishing to see how self-righteous and threadbare it is.

Debating Immigration Carol M. Swain

Let us start with the worst chapter, written by Amitai Etzioni, an Israeli-American spokesman for “communitarianism” who teaches at George Washington University. His title, “Hispanic and Asian Immigrants: America’s Last Hope,” says it all. Yet more non-whites will save whites from themselves because of their “rehabilitating effect on the American core of shared values and the institutions embodying them” [emphasis in the original]. They are “fostering a stronger commitment to family, community, and nation, as well as respect for authority and moderate religious values.” Any apparent problems are “temporary and limited,” and the US is “light-years ahead of most other societies, which have yet to learn how to incorporate large numbers of immigrants . . .” What he calls “diversity within unity” will bless us with a “growing range of cuisine, music, and holidays.”

Prof. Etzioni sees no problem with diverging cultures, languages, religions, or even loyalties: “[I]f there is no one, unified American society and none is desired, then increased cultural and societal differences matter not.”

Prof. Etzioni is all for miscegenation, since it will “mute fears of tribalism.” He says high rates of outmarriage by Asians and Hispanics “provide strong evidence that these two groups are accepting the core American value of openness and living up to its tenets.” Mixed marriage is now apparently a core American value.

Hispanics and Asians inspire us by their “sense of responsibility for children, family, ethnic group, and nation,” and Hispanics, in particular, have low levels of single-parent families and illegitimacy, “especially when compared with African Americans.” Forty-five percent illegitimacy is certainly lower than 70 percent.

Finally, the newcomers will “help to reorient American society’s traditional focus on Europe toward a more mindful and informed focus on Asia and, to some extent, on Latin America.” They will also improve our boring, Northern European national character by “modifying extreme elements of self-restraint and in providing for greater psychological openness, easier forms of empathy, and maybe a dash of fatalism.”

It would be hard to find a more lofty, high-toned contempt for the founding stock, and we can thank Amitai Etzioni for making so clear. He is part of a theme common to several contributors: He knows better than Americans what is good for us.

Peter Schuck, professor of law at Yale, is another. He writes about the “political disconnect” between citizens who want less immigration and elites and government that keep giving them more. He, himself, is unashamedly among the elite: “In over two decades of immigration scholarship, I have not encountered a single academic specialist on immigration law who favors reducing the number of legal immigrants admitted each year.” He and his pals know better, of course, because “the public in a democracy is not always wise.” If he has anything to do with it, Americans will keep getting more of what they don’t want.

Marc Morjé Howard of Georgetown University notes that Europeans are just as perverse as Americans; when they have a say in the matter they turf foreigners out. However, when “elites manage to pass reforms without significant public involvement—as occurred in Finland, Luxembourg, and Sweden—then liberalization will most likely be the outcome.” The lesson Prof. Howard draws is that “on issues that are prone to populism, xenophobia, and racism,” “proponents of liberal, inclusive policies should give more thought to the role of democracy.” By that he means they should subvert the popular will.

Douglas Massey of Princeton has a confused idea of economics. He repeatedly tells us it makes no sense to have free trade in goods, information, and capital without having a free exchange of people. He says our trade with Mexico increased eight-fold from 1986 to 2002, so it is natural that America be full of Mexicans. Prof. Massey seems not to have noticed that our trade with China increased by even more during the same period, but did not require an influx of Chinese. Japan and Korea have done very well through international trade, and do not have to put up with Princeton professors telling them to import Brazilian peasants along with iron ore and coking coal.

Prof. Massey does have one clever argument, however. He notes that between 1986 and 2002, the INS budget increased 13-fold, and that in 2002 it was devoting eight times as many hours to patrolling the border as in 1986. This has made it much tougher to come across but, according to his figures, the number of people sneaking in has not decreased. He makes the familiar argument that, because it is so much harder to get in, Mexicans now stay in America rather than come across casually to earn pocket money and then go home. Prof. Massey argues, therefore, that the entire effort is a waste, and has had “no detectable effect” on stopping illegal entry.

This doesn’t follow at all. Prof. Massey concedes that it now costs thousands of dollars to hire a coyote, and that the crossing has become so tricky that dozens die in the desert. This has no deterrent effect? It may be that the number of border-crossers has not declined, but clearly it would have risen sharply without increased enforcement.

In the end, Prof. Massey as much as concedes that his arguments about deterrence are for show anyway. He just wants Mexicans here: “The time is thus ripe for the United States to abandon its illusions and accept the reality, indeed the necessity, of North American integration.”

Rogers Smith, who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that most Americans want fewer immigrants, but says they get more because employers are better organized. Part of the problem is incompetence at the INS, which he says “was probably the most underfunded, understaffed, demoralized, inefficient, and sometimes corrupt agency in the whole federal bureaucracy.” (Prof. Smith is silent on whether the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaucracy is any better.) He says that ever since the Sept. 11 attacks the government has passed laws that make it easier to clamp down on immigrants who appear to pose a terrorist threat, but that the feds are no better at controlling the border or checking visa applications. He fears that new anti-terrorist powers could be used against citizens.

Prof. Smith is coy about whether he wants more or less immigration, but says we should treat illegals better. He notes that when President Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996, he made it harder for illegals to get federal benefits, and “ill health, inadequate nutrition, and poverty are on the rise in many immigrant populations as a result.”

Elites fret about that sort of thing because they think it is wrong to distinguish between citizens and anyone else. They often have no real attachment to America and think patriotism is narrow-minded. Illegals therefore deserve the same rights as old-stock Americans.

In one of the most interesting chapters, Stephen Macedo of Princeton approaches this very question with considerable nuance and earnestness. His point of departure—simply taken for granted—is that “distributive justice” requires that government take from those who have and give to those who have not. It is a pity he does not explain why state coercion is better than private charity, but many people share his view. Prof. Macedo clearly understands that letting in poor immigrants is an enormous benefit to them. His problem is to decide whether we have a special obligation to our own poor or whether the even poorer foreign poor get priority and should therefore be let in.

He finds that letting in the foreign poor drags down wages for the native poor, which is tough on them. He also worries that if the country fills up with aliens, citizens will be less likely to vote for generous welfare, and this, too, will hurt the native poor. He approvingly—and subversively—quotes someone named David Miller: “Social justice will always be easier to achieve in states with strong national identities and without internal communal divisions.”

But why do we owe more to the native poor than to the foreign poor? Because “the comparative standing of citizens matters in some ways that the comparative standing of citizens and non-citizens does not,” and because “we have special obligations to our fellow members” of society.

Prof. Macedo agonizes over the possibility that whether someone is born in Mexico or New Mexico is an accident that should not make us more charitable toward one rather than the other, but finally concludes that “there is a moral justification for confining obligations of distributive justice to co-participants in particular political communities.” Why?

Here, Prof. Macedo almost sounds like a nationalist:

Co-participation in governance is an important moral relation. As members of a political community, we are joined in a collective enterprise across generations through which we construct and sustain a comprehensive system of laws and institutions that regulate and shape all other associations.

He continues: “A self-governing political society is a hugely significant joint venture, and we understand it as such. We have strong common obligations as fellow citizens because we collectively govern one another: we collectively make hugely consequential decisions.”

He adds that if there were a world government we might be responsible for poor people everywhere, but says it is “hard to understand the reasonableness of making people responsible for the welfare of others without also making them responsible for their governance.” This is sensible. Since we cannot tell the Haitians how to live, we are not responsible if they do stupid things and starve. (It is a pity Prof. Macedo does not follow this logic further. Do we really “govern” the shiftless ghetto-dwellers we support with our taxes?)

From his mushy, “distributive” point of departure Prof. Macedo arrives at a mushy conclusion that is nevertheless far sounder than many: “An immigration policy cannot be considered morally acceptable in justice unless its distributive impact is defensible from the standpoint of disadvantaged Americans.” In other words it is wrong to let in people who will push down the wages of the unskilled, who will go on welfare and give it a bad name, and who will be a burden to American society. This would certainly be better policy than the one we have.

Another writer who approaches immigration from an unusual perspective—and reaches sound conclusions—is James R. Edwards of the Hudson Institute. Although he concedes that “deriving policy prescriptions from the Bible and other Christian sources is difficult business,” that is exactly what he tries to do. He quotes the Bible to show that “God determined the places on the earth where the different peoples that constitute humanity were to live.” He also argues that “God provided for distinguishing between citizens of Israel and noncitizens,” because the Hebrews were commanded to forgive each other’s debts after seven years but not those of gentiles. Nations may therefore discriminate against foreigners.

Mr. Edwards writes that in the Bible, “we are all seen as members of different tribes and nations living in different geographic locales, and our immediate obligations must clearly be to those concrete persons and groups nearest to us . . .” He adds that our obligations go out in concentric circles, first to our families, and then to our local communities even before we consider fellow citizens who live far away. Finally, “we as Americans have a greater and more immediate moral obligation to be concerned with the welfare and quality of life in the United States than in other countries . . .”

Mr. Edwards agrees that the New Testament is emphatic that race, ethnicity, and class make no difference in the eyes of God, but asks, “Does this spiritual universalism translate into a biblical requirement for an open-borders policy of immigration as certain liberal Christians believe?” No. Unskilled, illiterate immigrants are a burden on us all, especially the poor. He adds that “the huge influx of illegal immigrants” is lowering “the quality of American public life.” That they are poor is no excuse, for it is still “morally wrong for a poor person to steal from a wealthier one.”

Christianity should not stand in the way of common sense: “American Christians and their political leaders, from earliest colonial times, felt perfectly within their rights to exclude or deport public charges, prostitutes, disease carriers, anarchists, and the like.”

Finally, Mr. Edwards warns that aliens are directly threatening “our ability to preserve a sense of common culture and community.” Newcomers should learn our ways, because in ancient Israel “God required resident aliens to adopt the laws and customs of the natives, not the other way around.”

One of the most carefully analytical chapters is by Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. Virtually everything Mr. Camarota writes is worth reading, and this analysis of how immigration puts Americans out of work is no exception. He notes that it is common to claim that immigrants take only those jobs Americans don’t want, but the table below suggests otherwise.

Debating Immigration Table One

In the first row, for example, we find that immigrants account for 24 percent of all construction and mine workers, and that the native unemployment rate in those fields is a very high 12.7 percent. Native workers in the other professions with high concentrations of immigrants—building maintenance and farming—also suffer from high rates of unemployment. Mr. Camarota makes the further point that even in a immigrant-heavy job such as construction, 76 percent of all workers are still natives, not immigrants, which also gives the lie to the idea Americans won’t do these jobs. Mr. Camarota shows elsewhere that at the national level, native unemployment has risen in almost perfect parallel with the number of immigrant workers.

The impact of immigration differs from region to region. As the next second table shows, the larger the increase in the number of immigrant workers, the more likely it is that natives will lose jobs. In North Carolina, Georgia, and New Jersey, for example, the number of working natives decreased by almost exactly the same amount as the increase in the number of working immigrants. The lesson is clear: as immigrant employment goes up, native employment goes down. Mr. Camarota notes that things could be even worse, since it is only people who are looking for work who are counted as unemployed. Many natives are probably so discouraged by the labor excess in their profession that they have stopped trying to find work. Mr. Camarota concludes that during the downturn of 2000 to 2004, job losses were absorbed almost exclusively by natives while immigrants made gains.

Debating Immigration Table Two

Do immigrants displace natives because they are more productive? Mr. Camarota reminds us that immigrants are ineligible for many welfare programs and that many are willing to undercut the prevailing wage, so it is not surprising they would get the jobs that are left when the economy weakens.

Peter Brimelow, editor of, has contributed a chapter on the macro-economics of immigration. He explains that about the only thing we can say with certainly about immigration is that it will increase national output by some amount. Will it increase output per capita? Will it improve or worsen the lives of natives, and if it does, which natives? These are murky questions.

First, Mr. Brimelow points out that labor per se is an unimportant part of economic advance, and that it is doubtful whether even the huge immigration of skilled workers in the 19th century actually raised per capita output. He argues that over the last 100 years, only 10 percent of the tremendous increase in wealth in the West was due to increases in labor and capital combined. The crucial factors were new ideas and technical innovation, and surpluses of low-skilled labor slow down innovation. Japan invents robots; we hire Mexicans.

Finally, Mr. Brimelow describes one of the favorite deceptions of immigration boosters. They insist foreign workers are not lowering wages for natives. At the same time, they argue that immigrants enrich everyone. Mr. Brimelow explains that these positions are contradictory. Unskilled immigrants cannot enrich us unless they pull down wages for ditch diggers and garbage men. The benefits of cheap labor are enjoyed mainly by a small employing class; the rest of us just pay higher taxes for social services.

Professor Swain herself concentrates on the effect of immigration on blacks, but she makes a number of other good points. For example, she asks, “What accounts for the tendency to frame the immigration debate in the dichotomous terms of legal versus illegal and citizen versus noncitizen when our most pressing problems result from immigration itself and not from its legality or lack thereof?” She would answer that it is because too many Americans “have allowed themselves to be silenced by the threat of name-calling,” and have latched onto law-breakers as safe villains when the real problem is a massive influx of aliens.

She says racial preferences should be abolished, and that affirmative action “makes little sense in a nation as diverse as the United States.” She even notes that non-white immigrants “benefit from lingering tensions between blacks and whites, and this enhances their status as a more favored group in the minds of mainstream, white America.”

Prof. Swain describes the wage reductions and job losses for blacks that result from competition with Hispanics, and is frustrated by the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) unwillingness to help its constituents. She notes that in December 2005, when the House passed a strongly restrictive bill (that never made it to the Senate) only one CBC member voted for it. She fears amnesty for illegals will mean a rush of Hispanics onto welfare that will cut into benefits for the native poor, especially blacks. She says blacks traditionally opposed bringing in more low-wage workers, as did Cesar Chavez, who saw immigrants as scabs.

Why don’t black “leaders” defend black interests? Prof. Swain points out that some CBC members now have many Hispanic constituents, but she really does not have a good answer. She mentions the 1960s idea of a “people of color” alliance against the white man, but would argue that that did nothing for blacks. Instead, she hopes for a “multiracial, multiethnic coalition” to restrict immigration, which hurts people at all skill and income levels.

Jonathan Tilove of the Newhouse News Service has a novel view on race and immigration. He thinks some people want more non-white immigration because it “will help relieve the United States of its special obligation to black Americans by reducing their relative importance, by drowning out their complaints,” and increasing the number of Americans who had nothing to do with slavery. He says people who are tired of black demands like to point to successful Hispanics and even West Indians as proof that blacks deserve no more special treatment. If all the new immigrants were white, he argues, there would be intense analysis of whether immigration is good for blacks but because they are non-white the “sentries of justice have been, for the most part, seduced, or at any rate diverted, from their laser-like attention to the plight of blacks . . .” Black “leaders,” who should be fighting low-wage immigration, have been “neutralized” by their liberalism and traditional alliances and, in any case, can’t help being sympathetic to other non-whites “who are struggling.”

These theories are interesting but do not hold up. There is no evidence anyone in America has promoted Third-World immigration in order to shut up blacks, and any white person who wanted to do that would probably not want to contribute to the dispossession of whites. It is true that if today’s immigrants were white, they would be subjected to a hard-headed cost-benefit analysis that is almost completely lacking today. As for black sympathy with other struggling non-whites, Korean grocers and Hispanic prison inmates haven’t seen much evidence of it.

There are other contributors to this volume who write about the sharp population growth due to immigration, different European models of assimilation, and whether we owe immigrants anything more than admission to the country. Their arguments run from brilliant to bogus, and the result is a genuinely useful collection. By limiting each chapter to 15 pages or so, Prof. Swain has forced her contributors to distill their ideas into lean essays without much fluff. Debating Immigration does not include a race-realist perspective, but it is a wide-ranging summary that includes much of the elite opinion that underlies the chaos of our current policies.