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A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders

In a new book, National Review Executive Editor Reihan Salam says limiting immigration would help the native-born poor.

You might expect conservative writer Reihan Salam, 38, to support easy immigration. First, he’s the son of immigrants. His family came from Bangladesh, and he grew up speaking Bengali at home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Second, he’s executive editor of the conservative magazine National Review. Free-market conservatives—as opposed to Trumpian nationalist conservatives—tend to believe that the ability of people to cross international borders is good for economic growth and human liberty.

In reality, Salam has serious reservations about open borders. He has sympathy for immigrants, but not always for how they arrived. His new book, Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders, points the way toward compromise on an issue that’s likely to become even more hotly contentious in the years to come.

Salam’s book is more nuanced than its heated title suggests. He doesn’t side with President Donald Trump, who Salam says “built his political career on demonizing immigrants.” But neither does he agree with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, whom he accuses of obscuring real problems with lofty rhetoric, such as in his 2014 executive order for deportation relief: “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger.”

The risk, Salam says, is that admitting lots more people into the U.S., without special care, will create a permanent underclass of people who are isolated from society’s mainstream, stuck in low-wage occupations, and in some cases dependent on welfare for survival. The immigrants themselves may accept all that because they’re still better off than they would have been back home. But their children may resent being treated as second-class citizens. What’s more, Salam says, open borders tend to stir resentment from taxpayers and from the segment of native-born Americans who compete with them for work. That’s the “civil war” in his title.

The better outcome, he says, is a 21st version of the melting pot. He quotes from a 1908 play, The Melting Pot: “Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame!” Less poetically, Salam makes the same point about fusing many peoples into one: “We should admit immigrants only if we are fully committed to their integration and assimilation.”

Open borders are incompatible with a generous social safety net, Salam says. Qatar has wide-open borders; 94 percent of its workforce is foreign-born. But those workers are “guest workers who can be deported as soon as they become burdensome.” At the other extreme, countries that do offer generous benefits tend to patrol their borders carefully, or face upheaval. (Though Salam doesn’t mention it, Sweden is suffering upheaval at the moment, judging from the swelling support for the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats.)

Salam advocates a more selective, skill-based immigration system and—breaking from Republican orthodoxy—“large-scale amnesty followed by resolute enforcement.” What’s more interesting is what he would couple those with: measures to help needy would-be immigrants thrive without entering the U.S. Helping Mexico and Central America succeed economically would be a step in the right direction: “One of the ironies of Donald Trump’s embrace of protectionism is that if our goal is to reduce migration from Mexico, we ought to welcome the offshoring of industries that depend heavily on low-skill immigrant labor,” he writes. He’d also make it easier for Americans to retire in Mexico and make use of their Medicare there. That would give jobs to local caretakers while saving the Medicare system money.

Further out of the box: To stop massive inflows from the chaotic megacities in the global South, Salam recommends building new, better-run cities, a la Shenzhen, the Chinese manufacturing hub that was a fishing village in 1980.

Some of Salam’s ideas, such as large-scale amnesty, won’t go over well with a lot of conservatives. But Salam says the National Review Institute has been a “big and welcoming tent,” while the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Rich Lowry, “has been pressing me to make my writing ‘more Reihan.’ ” This book seems pretty “Reihan,” whatever that means. He concludes with a plea for compromise: “Favoring a more selective, skills-based immigration system does not make you a sinister xenophobe, and not every proponent of a large-scale amnesty is an open-borders zealot. There are deals to be struck, provided we are willing to give one another an inch.”

    Bloomberg Businessweek Writer
    Peter Coy
    Bloomberg Businessweek Writer
    Peter Coy is the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and covers a wide range of economic issues. He also holds the position of senior writer. Coy joined the magazine in December 1989 as telecommunications editor, then became technology editor in October 1992 and held that position until joining the economics staff. He came to BusinessWeek from the Associated Press in New York, where he had served as a business news writer since 1985.
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