“Melting Pot Or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders” An Interview with Reihan Salam
In November 2018, JWI’s Deputy Director Garrett Snedeker and Intern Scott Kim shared a discussion with Reihan Salam, author of the book Melting Pot Or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders (Penguin Group, 2018). Salam is executive editor of National Review and contributing editor at The Atlantic. Salam has argued against many different implementations of open border policies, arguing that, while it may improve lives, it would destabilize social relationships and almost inevitably contribute to class stratification and the formation of a permanent underclass. To listen, click on the link above.
Below you may find:
A transcribed version of the interview, edited for clarify and length:
Garrett S.: Hello, and welcome to the James Wilson Podcast. My name is Garrett Snedeker, and I am the Deputy Director of the James Wilson Institute.
Today, we’re speaking with Reihan Salam. Reihan is the author of a new book, “Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Boarders,” from sentinel.
Reihan is the executive director of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow. He is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and National Affairs. With Ross Douthat, Salam is the co-author of “Grand New Party: How Conservatives can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”
So we’re pleased to have you with us, Reihan. And I also wanted to note that, today, we’ll be joined on this interview with Scott Kim. Scott is an intern at the James Wilson Institute, for this semester. Scott and you, Reihan, have something in common. And Scott, why don’t you tell our listeners what that is.
Scott Kim: We’re both alumnus of Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan.
Garrett S.: And Reihan, I hope you don’t hold this against us, both of us were born and raised in Queens. And as a native of Brooklyn, we hope you don’t get into too many baseball rivalries or discussions of how bad the traffic is on the Belt Parkway, which the fault always lies with those Brooklyners, and not the Queens drivers.
Reihan Salam: I’ve gotta say, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you both. And I imagine you have your own unique perspectives on having grown up in immigrant rich communities. So I’m really eager to talk to you both.
Garrett S.: Excellent, excellent. Well, we’re just so pleased to have you with us. Broadly, can you tell us why you wrote the book?
Reihan Salam: Sure. Well, I guess the big picture is that I did not see people with my perspective reflected in the public debate. There’s a reason for that, I guess, which is that like a lot of people, my thoughts about immigration are conflicted. I believe that immigration is an enormously beneficial, enriching force at American life. This is something that you especially see in places like where we grew up.
When my parents came to New York City in 1976, the city was really in pretty rough shape. This was the era of the blackout, the era of the Financial Control Board. A time when the city was in really powerless physical shape, but also just really rough social shape. The entire time I was growing up, New York City was experiencing an intense crime boom and also very serious ethnic tension.
But as it happened, the arrival of large numbers of immigrant families really contributed to the city’s revitalization. And I think that there’s really no denying that it was a very, very positive force.
At the same time, I guess I grew up with a somewhat less romantic perspective on immigration than a lot of other folks, because I was keenly aware of the fact that an immigrant is not a natural kind, like a … You have immigrants who have a lot of advantages that they bring with them when they come to the United States, and you have a lot of other immigrants who do not. And those differences, between those who have the kind of cultural capital, the social capital, the educational backgrounds, that kind of strong social network to strong families, and those who don’t, is very, very significant. So I just felt it. So what I was hearing in the immigration debate was not reflecting reality as I understood it.
Scott Kim: Yeah. I read one of your articles before this. And then you were talking about a lot of people who said that their parents came here with nothing but a PhD from Seoul National.
Reihan Salam: Right.
Scott Kim: And my mother went to Yonsei University. So I had a very deep connection to that, because I had a very similar experience growing up, where my parents came here as grad students and had me there. So I initially didn’t grow up with much financial or other means. And I used to … I try to use that to claim disadvantage, but it’s not really accurate.
Reihan Salam: Well, that’s very, very honest of you, and very frank of you to acknowledge that.
But it really is true. One of the funny things about contemporary American life is that actually being able to tell a compelling story of victim hood, often times seems like a way that people get ahead. And when you look at these stories of immigrants, particularly immigrants towards who are drawn from the upper strata of their home societies, then come to the United States, what they’re able to do is draw on those class specific advantages.
The fact that if you are able to climb to the top of a hierarchy, if you’re able to gain admission to Yonsei University, you had a lot of specific knowledge about the cultural and institution of your native country. But a lot of those skills ferreting out, what is it that I do to climb the ladder are skills that are transferable. Those are skills that parents bring with them and share with their children who are then raised in the United States. And to not notice that, to not acknowledge that, to not appreciate the tremendous importance of those class specific resources, I think it’s pretty short sided.
Scott Kim: I think that that debate ties in to a lot of several local tensions that you and I are both falling pretty closely about the debate over Stuyvesant High School. But bracketing that discussion, it leads me to a question directly related to your book, in that, do you think the political salience of immigration is a symptom or a cause of the growing cultural, social, and economic divides in America? And do you think those levels are more reflected at a national level or a local level?
Reihan Salam: This is a really astute question. So basically, I think that the local dynamic and the national dynamic are very, very different, and people tend to oversimplify the differences between them. One classic story you’ll hear is that, hey, voters in immigrant rich areas, they don’t seem to mind immigration. They seem to love it and embrace it, whereas, people in areas with very few immigrants seem to be more resistant to immigration.
One of the subtleties there though is that when you’re looking at jurisdictions like New York City that has very large foreign-born population, one thing to keep in mind is that about a fourth of all foreign-born folks in those states are unauthorized. So that’s the big picture, right? Those are folks who are not participating in our civic life. They are not eligible for naturalization.
Then you have those who are legal immigrants. And then, how many of those legal immigrants actually do wind up naturalizing? You see a very differentiated pattern in which more affluent immigrants are more likely to naturalize. In some cases, it all depends on the ethnic community, it depends on their ties they retained to their native country, etc. But that’s broadly true, partly because for working class immigrants, for low income immigrants, actually the fees for naturalization are a very big barrier, and it’s also just the sense that those immigrants are somewhat more likely to be an enclave communities, somewhat less likely to feel connected to the political life of the country which they settled.
So in a way, we don’t actually have a very good sense of what these immigrants communities themselves, what their political impact is likely to be, what the political impact of their offspring is likely to be. That could be very, very different. So what you’re looking at is a population of folks, native and naturalized citizens, many of whom are also choosing to reside in a certain metropolitan area, precisely because of the benefits that immigration can bring.
So, for example, let’s say I’m a working class or lower middle class person who grew up in Southern California. I find that the cost of housing is incredibly high. I find perhaps that … I don’t welcome some of the strain on social services that I associate with a very large immigrant influx, or what have you. Then, perhaps I’ll move to Inland California, perhaps I’ll move to Colorado, or Idaho, or some kind of other jurisdiction entirely. So you actually have this kind of selection effect as well.
And then there’s the fact that if you’re a middle income or upper middle income native person, then you are often benefiting from the surface of lower cost labor that is provided to you by having a big influx of immigrants with modest skill. So there are a lot of different subtleties to this. Whereas, when you’re in other parts of the country, there’s another set of concerns that arise.
Absolutely, there are cultural concerns about the way the country is changing. But there’s also, just the fact that, look, if you’re in Southeastern Michigan, and you had lots of factory closings, and what have you, over a 20 plus year period, chances are you’re not going to move to Silicon Valley, or the outer boroughs of New York, despite the fact that, hey, you might be able to find some solid service job in that place, because, actually, recent immigrants are much more likely to live in insalubrious conditions. They are much more likely to live in illegal basement apartments, or to kind of crowd all of their relatives together in a small home, than native born Americans, who might already have all sorts of other obligation.
It’s this kind of cultural difference because if you’re an immigrant, you are affirmatively choosing to uproot yourself to better your life, your subjective experience is somewhat is the author of your own life, right? And because of that, you’re selecting a somewhat unusual group of people, number one. And number two, you’re selecting people who do not see themselves as part of the American class hierarchy. They’re thinking about how they better their lives relative to their original circumstances.
So because of that, they might be willing to say, “Okay, fine. I’ll be pretty poor for a few years. I’ll get to live not so well for right now, because I’m still better off than I was my native country. What I’m really thinking about is my child.” If you’re a native-born person, you’re thinking, “Wait a second, I’m a full participant in American society. I don’t necessarily want to see myself as someone who is scrounging at the bottom.” So I think that, that’s another subtlety that people tend to miss.
Garrett S.: Yeah. I think we’ll get a little bit more into the question of ethnic enclaves a little bit later since you deal with it extensively in your book. But we wanted to establish some 50,000-foot view assessment of the question of immigration and its connection to citizenship before we proceed. And as we are the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding, so many of the questions that we deal with concern fundamentals of our polity. And so, one of the first questions that comes to mind whenever you talk about immigration and citizenship is, what does it mean to be a good citizen? What are the necessary conditions for being able to be fully integrated into the American polity as an immigrant? Is it even necessary to be fully integrated and be a good citizen?
Reihan Salam: Well, this is frankly a pretty profound, and serious debate among people who’ve been thinking about the immigration question. There is a classic American view of immigration, which is the idea that intending immigrants … that immigrants are ultimately citizens in training. The idea is that we fully expect them to become members of the polity in a comprehensive thoroughgoing way, and that this is in fact a very meaningful commitment. This is a commitment to helping to sustain political experiments that is one that rests on the full, active, vigorous participation of citizens in self government.
But it’s actually a pretty different set of ideas from another set of ideas about immigration, which is that we’ll know what we want to do with it in chiefly in economic terms. We see this as something that is designed to be a source of uplift for people from around the world. Some of them might not want to be full participants in American life. Some of them might simply want a somewhat higher income, people who want to exploit the kind of labor market arbitrage, in which doing the same exact job in United States, in New York city, or Washington, DC, will yield a higher market income than if you were to do that job in Bangladesh, or Guatemala, or elsewhere. And the idea that we should not deny people the opportunity to do that. And the idea that civic membership is ultimately a secondary question.
If you take that latter view, which by the way many intelligent thoughtful people do and they take, what you would want to say is that, well, what we want is variegated membership in the society.
Garrett S.: Variegated.
Reihan Salam: Exactly, exactly. Citizenship might see an especially, kind of, demanding form of membership, and it might be a former membership that promises particularly rich rewards, say participation in our safety nets, participation in elections, and what have you. But also that would demand more sacrifices, let’s say, military service, or what have you. But then you would have other members of the society, call them guest workers, people who would expect to be temporary soldiers, who are in a society for a period of time, or maybe even permanently, but who are not part of the citizenry.
This is what you see in a number of gulf Arab monarchies. You see this in Singapore. You see this in a variety of other societies, where they have a separate class of noncitizens guest workers.
Now, my sense is that this is an idea. This idea of variegated membership that is very much against the American dream. But what you see are very sophisticated people who believe in modernizing our systems, who don’t necessarily believe in that American idea of citizenship, who see it as outdated, outmoded, and a globalizing world. And I think that, that’s the kind of debate that we tend to have in scholarly circles, and academic circles, but we don’t really have it in policy circles in a very open way. You’ve seen various proposals for expanded guest worker migration, and what have you, but people don’t tend to acknowledge the civic implications of going in that direction. And that’s one thing that I tried to draw out in the book.
Garrett S.: It’s interesting, Scott and I made preparations for this interview, we were talking the book over with Professor Hadley Arkes, our founder and director. And we had a spirited discussion about, in a scenario where you had only one more spot left open for immigration quota, and you had Jacques Derrida, who would probably have the means to support himself in this country, to have the educational levels, to thrive in academia, you wouldn’t have any strain on the social system, but many of his belief would run counter to the very notions of the American regime. And then on the other hand, you’d have somebody who might come from a poor background, let’s say, Andy Grove, before he was the founder of Intel, a panelist Hungarian immigrant, who had just experienced the horrors of communism. But he arrived in this country eager to abide by the terms under which the country was founded.
The question you might rightfully have is, what is our immigration system trying to cultivate in terms of citizens? Should it be so divorced from this idea of cultivating citizens only in the name of producing … Sorry. Only in the name of admitting people that would be the lowest strain on our system economically, or might it have a higher bar, and be seeking out those people that would appreciate the terms under which the polity exists? It’s an intriguing question because I think you might not get the kind of neat political divide that you’d expect.
Reihan Salam: Well, I have to say, I mean, it’s a really interesting way to frame things, and I think it’s a very emotionally appealing way to frame things. But you’ll forgive me for digging in a tiny bit more. It happens that Andy Grove himself is someone who arrives in the country. He’s someone who came from a somewhat affluent family in Budapest, Hungary. He’s someone who is absolutely literate. He was someone who was very well prepared to flourish in higher education after coming to the United States.
The fact that he came from that kind of background did not make him a better person from someone else who, let’s say, did not know how to read or write. But it’s something that was an enormous advantage as he tried to navigate American life.
Now, I’d like you to imagine, an Andy Grove who came to the United States, who did not know how to read and write, as someone who was already, let’s say an adult, someone who is in his 20s. He fled Hungary, as I understand it, during the Hungarian revolution. He came to United States when he was already 20. So already he had a lot of, kind of, pretty significant life experiences. He was already someone who had demonstrated significant academic ability, and what have you. Again, it does not make him a better person. But the fact that one chooses Andy Grove as your example, it’s not a coincidence, right?
So when you’re thinking about those family resources, when you’re thinking about that wave of refugees who are kind of quite interesting because we’re looking at a wave of refugees from Europe, from the Second World War, from the early years of communism, these were often people who were from very urban background. These were people who were from society that in some ways we’re actually more advanced than the United States. This is not a coincidence in terms of how they were able to flourish in American life.
Now, I certainly take Professor Arkes’ point, you have people who have ideas that are very controversial, and what have you. And perhaps you could have immigration officials who look deep into the heart and soul of every single immigrant, who are rigorously questioning their political ideals. But I frankly don’t know if that would be an especially attractive approach either. What I’m saying here is, we might need some kind of rebalancing in light of some larger changes that the world has gone through.
So, for example, I absolutely think that there’s a place for humanitarian immigration. I absolutely think there’s a place for admitting refugees and asylees, folks like Andy Grove who fled Hungary. But one thing to keep in mind is that, when you look at green cards in United States, two thirds of them are issued to people on the basis of family ties.
Garrett S.: Family ties, right.
Reihan Salam: 15% are issued on the basis of skills, 15% percent to refugees and asylees.
When you look at recent immigrants to the United States who are in need of assistance, a large majority of them are not people who enter the country as refugees and asylees, rather, they are people who enter the country where their chief qualification is that they are related to someone who was already in the United States. Andy Grove did not enter the United States on the basis of family ties. He entered the United States because he was someone who was fleeing communism.
So, I mean, again, I think that those stories are very kind of compelling and interesting. But I think that when you actually dig into them, and try to think about them a bit more rigorously, then the fact that we admit large numbers of folks on the basis of family ties, who then really struggle to support themselves, who are in need of safety net benefits, one thing that that does is it arguably reduces America’s appetite for admitting to humanitarian migrants who are need of that kind of assistance, right?
Scott Kim: Yeah.
Garrett S.: Yeah.
Reihan Salam: So, that’s a subtlety here that I think people tend to miss. And I think that it’s something that we ought to keep in mind.
Scott Kim: Because President Trump dominates so much of our political and journalistic discourse, a lot of the focus has been on the litmus test of whether we should admit immigrants or not, is whether frankly, they’ll punch you, right, about how much violence they’ll bring to the country.
But I feel like that doesn’t really capture the more meaningful idea of what does it actually mean for immigrants to fully participate in society? Does it … What are your thoughts on that? Is it purely just not punching people or is it something deeper?
Reihan Salam: I mean, Scott, I think that you’ve really hit upon something that is part of, for example, libertarian discourse about migration. And this goes back to this question of very good in membership. If the question is whether or not intending immigrants are decent law abiding people who are seeking chiefly to benefit their lives and those of their families, yeah, I mean, that should absolutely go without saying. The number of intending immigrants who intend to do us harm is vanishingly small in my opinion. And certainly the evidence that seems to bear that out.
The real issue is that if your chief criterion is, well, is this person someone who wants to better their life, and who could indeed better their life by living at United State, then that’s not really all that much of a limiting principle.
And the discourse around this, in my opinion, is really evasive because that is not how our immigration system work. Our immigration system is not a binary system that says, “Okay, are you literally going to stab someone immediately after getting off the plane? Or are you someone who really just wants to work?” Look, I mean, there are literally tens of millions of people who would happily move to United States tomorrow, who are utterly harmless. The question is, what does that do to the workforce? What does that do to our capacity to foster civic solidarity? What does that mean-
Garrett S.: No, no, no. It’s not gonna end it.
Reihan Salam: … in a world in which you have automation and offshoring, that are evolving and changing, that are subjecting working-class folks, whether they’re native or foreign-born, to pretty intense competitive pressure?
Those are the issues that we need to think about when we’re thinking about building a polity than can be stable and decent, and that can ensure that even the most vulnerable members of our society can live dignified lives. And when you’re thinking about the real scale of people who want better lives, you’re talking about literally billions of people around the world. You can’t just respond to that need through openness. You also have to respond to it through strategy, sort of public investment in places the world outside of United States, and actually kind of thinking about global economic integration in a more hardheaded way.
So, that’s kind of my answer. I think that we love these thought experiments, about, well, what about the fact that many people who crossed the border, or many people who want to fly to United States are lovable huggable people. I guarantee you, I promise you that they are lovable huggable people.
But there are a lot of other issues too. One of them, I mentioned flying on a plane. If you are coming to the United States overland, it’s a very different thing than if you’re flying to the United States. Because you’re flying to the United States, you need to secure a visa. So already we’re barring huge numbers of people simply because not everyone can actually get on a plane, right?
So, I think that these conversations in the abstract, they really lose some of the facts on the ground that really ought to inform our analysis.
Garrett S.: And I think that’s right to just be mindful of just how our immigration debate tends to be shaped by … or at least our discourse unfortunately gets shaped by some of the more colorful examples. And you go into part of it in the book, in which you can contrast the dreamers in the election in 2016 with the Angel Moms.
But I can’t help but come back to that central question of citizenship. And it made me and Professor Arkes recall a famous essay by Father Richard Neuhaus, when he wrote the essay in First Things magazine called, “Can An Atheist Be A Good Citizen?” And this is just to paraphrase the argument for our listeners. Father Neuhaus took atheists to be people whose insistent denial went hand in hand with the denial of any ground for moral truths.
Yes, an atheist can be a good citizen if it means simply respecting the laws, but not if citizen means someone committed to the moral principles that form the character of the regime, for the question then is, whether we can give a moral defense of the regime? And then might this person be willing to risk his life in defense of the regime?
And so, the question as it relates to our discussion is, is membership in the polity simply like taking up residence in a hotel? Is the polity more than a hotel? Might we consider being a citizen like staying at the Waldorf Astoria for a temporary period?
But before we dive into that with you, it might become incumbent on us to ask what do we do about citizens of our country who were born here, and they’ve become ignorant in a wholly new key about our own institutions, right? And they might be willing to even sell out our country. We’ve had home born traitors since the founding. It might be that we need to have a more elevated notion of citizenship for even our native-born citizens. And it might help us understand why we cherish this thing, citizenship, and why immigrants have been seeking it.
Reihan Salam: I see this a bit differently. So, again, I place very heavy emphasis on this idea that I don’t want to … I try to avoid thinking in undifferentiated terms. When you think about immigrants in the United States, there are certainly those who are very invested in American civic ideals, and want to be fully incorporated into this country’s political life. But typically, that’s something that happens only over time, over a very long period of time, because people more chiefly seeking to better their economic station. And then other things unfold in their lives. Oftentimes as they have children, as they kind of form deeper ties, as the ties to their native countries attenuate overtime. That’s certainly a big part of the story.
When it comes to this question of loyalty to our civic ideals among the native-born citizen rate, I guess, these are very fraught questions because we’re at a moment in our public life where there isn’t necessarily a lot of agreement around what those civic ideals are, what they consist of. And one reason that’s the case is that we have very different, and I would argue, clashing conceptions of national identity. There are those who have a conception of national identity that is rooted in those small parts on really the idea of shared cultural tradition, or a shared cultural inheritance, in which people are expected to incorporate into that, to embrace the language, to embrace some of the folk ways that have been part of American culture for a very long period of time.
And there are others who think that, no, those things are actually utterly trivial, as long as you celebrate the constitution, and what have you. That’s really what matters, regardless of whether or not you become part of … what we think of as mainstream American culture, and what have you. And those are ideas that … Then with that civic conception of American identity, you also have more modern, more politically left or center or flavors of that, in which American ideals are understood through the lens of the overcoming of injustice, thinking about American life through the lens of white supremacy, and white privilege, etc. This is the discourse, that is a very real, very present discourse, particularly for a lot of younger people.
I guess my belief is that actually the cultural component is really, really important, but it’s not really something we can legislate.
Garrett S.: Got it, got it.
Reihan Salam: It’s something that we can perhaps influence.
Garrett S.: That’s helpful.
Reihan Salam: Yeah, exactly. We can influence in kind of subtle ways through policy, but it’s not really something that we can dictate from Washington.
Garrett S.: Just before I turn it over to Scott, because Scott’s got a thread there that changes direction a little bit. I do think that the proposal that you lay down on the variegated membership, it would be helpful to think of perhaps ways that native-born citizens may be able to consider themselves more as resident aliens, and not presuming the right to vote if it’s something … if it’s a trade that they’re willing to make in terms of the common currency that we share because … I mean, the most recent midterm election had one of the highest turnouts in the vote. And yet we still had vast swaths of the population that just didn’t take a very, very minimal amount of civic engagement to be worth their time. And so, there’s a … Go ahead.
Reihan Salam: Your instincts on these issues are very different from mine I’m guessing. I guess I’m particularly concerned about these issues from the other end of things. I get the sense that you’re very concerned about whether or not, citizens, including native-born citizens, are living up to the obligations of civic membership, whether they’re taking their responsibilities sufficiently seriously? I certainly respect those concerns.
But I’ve got to say, my concerns are the other way around. I’m pretty concerned about whether or not, we as a country are living up to our obligations to some of our fellow citizens who find themselves in straightened circumstances, people who are not able to be full participants in American life. That was a really big motivator behind this book, because my concern is that when you’re looking at the second generation population of this country, you have some who really do feel like full participants in the American life, and you have many others who do not. And I guess from my framework, I do not see that as a failing on their part. Rather, I see this as a larger collective failure. There could be ways in which individuals are of course flawed.
But I think that a society that is a flourishing society, a society that has a modicum of civic solidarity, that is a society that commands loyalty from citizens. And I just don’t think we have that kind of a society. I think there are many quarters of our country where people really do not feel that the American regime is commanding their allegiance.
Scott Kim: Have you ever heard of the app VoteWithMe?
Reihan Salam: I have heard of it, yeah.
Scott Kim: Yeah. I looked up my father on it, and it was very odd. And I did not realize he was so politically engaged. He has voted in every single primary, every single election since he became a citizen, I think in the 80s, right?
So I was just very shocked by that. And I asked him why, because he actually has very little interest in politics. And he said, “Well, I heard from the news that if I vote, my community would get more money.” I was like, “That makes sense.” And then he actually votes pretty randomly. He said, “Sometimes I vote republican because I feel like I’ve been voting democrat too often. Sometimes I’ve been voting … or vice versa.”
But in that sense, I definitely feel some parts, even in my, I would say pretty well-off immigrant enclave feel left out of the sort of political discussion. I think, especially, in New York City, a lot of Asians feel like no one talks to them about any political issue just because, number one, a lot of them don’t vote. Number two, they’re still not a big part of New York.
And in that sense, I wonder, tangentially, if you would support open borders with countries that don’t have a threat, that sort of othering with the United States, so with Britain, Australia, or Canada, or even places like Singapore, which has one of the sort of best English as a foreign language proficiencies in the world. Would you support open borders for those countries, and a more sort of selective differentiated models with other countries?
Reihan Salam: I would not. This is certainly something that I’ve thought about a fair bit. This is an idea that is often floated. And I guess my chief concern is that such a system would not unreasonably be seen by critics as racist. And you might think, well, that’s rather arbitrary given that, for example, some of the countries you have in mind are countries that are majority “people of color.”
But, nevertheless, there would be the sense that this would be stacking the deck in favor of some relative to others. And that’s why having a somewhat more … How do you say? Transparent, and even egalitarian approach which you’re saying that, look, we have certain criteria that we’ve set out. These are criteria for those would be applying for points-based visas, do you speak English with, again, some reasonable degree of fluency? Do you have a job offer in United States?
Oftentimes, there are many people who receive Green Cards after having lived in the United States for a period of time, as, for example, H1-B visa holders, L-1A visa, L-1B visa. There are variety of different temporary visas you can have, that’ll grant you work authorization in United States.
So I think that having some neutral criteria is really important and valuable. It happens that people from Singapore, from Canada, may well have an advantage in so far as these are people who are living in a knowledge intensive, highly urbanized economy. But you’re not discriminating against those from, let’s say, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, or South Asia where you have people who, if they were given some kind of guidelines, here are the steps they ought to take. Here are the ways to secure employment, here are the skills that are prized, could actually work their way through those steps, and put themselves in a pretty favorable position.
So I would not want to kind of so stack the deck in favor of people from some countries relative to others, not least because there are people who are citizens of those countries, who might actually be in a less of a position to thrive, than someone from Nigeria or Pakistan, let’s say, than someone who happens to arbitrarily be a citizen of this or that upper market democracy.
But I take your point about the cultural dimension. And I guess my argument would be that, my chief concern is, whether or not people are going to be in a position to enter the mainstream of the society. And that depends to some degree on certainly English language fluency help. But a lot of that is about whether or not you’re going to be marginalized in kind of permanently low wage employment. So, I think that, that’s something that goes beyond nationality.
Scott Kim: So, at bottom, do you support open borders, or close to open borders for the global bourgeois, and international intervention, or either screened immigration for everyone else?
Reihan Salam: No, I don’t. So I think that … I’m just very resistant to the idea of open borders, period, I’m not gonna lie.
Scott Kim: Not open borders but basically, very lenient immigration.
Reihan Salam: Well, I think that the system that I lay out makes a lot of sense to me. A system in which there are a fair number of hoops to jump through. But in a way it would be a somewhat more sensible and coherent system than what we have today. I’m not sure I say that it would be a more permissive system than what we have today. But, right now, if you’re entering this country illegally, particularly for entering not by a family ties, it is a mapping process.
Scott Kim: Yeah.
Reihan Salam: I mean, I know people who’ve sought Green Cards for 10 plus years, who’ve done everythIng right, who’ve earned very high incomes, people who have really struggled to make sense of it, and then had been denied, and have had to leave the country despite forming pretty substantial ties here.
And then of course, there are people who are unauthorized migrants, who are frustrated, because for them, they see other authorized migrants have gain legal status, and they haven’t been able to do so because the process is so arbitrary on all ends of the system.
So my thinking is that, yeah, I do think that you could make it somewhat more coherent, and that would be beneficial to all intending immigrants, because you realize, you can see what are the steps that you have to take in order to make it through.
Scott Kim: That makes sense. I wonder … So you talk about the sort of unfairness that today’s immigrants acts across all spectrums of the socioeconomic ladder feel toward the immigration system. And I was wondering, you talked at length in your book about policies that would be considered very generously in today’s immigrants for the betterment of tomorrow’s society, such as … I don’t know if you like the term amnesty, but amnesty for the currently undocumented or unauthorized immigrants here. But I was wondering if you support any kind of policies that would be considered pretty harsh on today’s immigrants for the betterment of tomorrow’s society at immigrants. And what and why do we have obligations to those who have broken our laws for their own benefit?
Reihan Salam: This is a very big, very deep question. And I guess my starting point is that, I was not … I was trying to approach this from a very ground level perspective. And basically, my question is our system is a system in which you need broad overlapping public support for a contentious legislation.
If you look at the history of the American immigration debate, over the last 20 plus years, you’ve seen attempts to broker a compromise between the partisans of a large scale amnesty, and the partisans of increased temporary guest worker immigration. That to my mind, is not a critical compromise that reflects the state of opinion in the country. So that’s why I wanted to compromise between those who want some kind of large scale amnesty, and also those who say we want a more controlled, managed immigration system in the national interest. That to my mind is something that captures a much broader swath of American public opinion.
One thing that has become clear to me is that there is very broad and deep support for some sort of amnesty for the long settled unauthorized immigrant population. Depending on the survey, you have perhaps a quarter or two, perhaps even a third of the electorate folks who are categorically opposed to such an atmosphere. I believe the number is closer to a fifth or a quarter. And I think that it’s really important to allay the concerns of those borders.
But you know what we’ve seen it that, when the Trump administration, for example, is deporting people who’ve been in the country for 10 years or more, when the Trump administration is supporting folks who have citizen children, or even citizen spouses in some cases, it raises hackles.
When you’re looking at the unauthorized population here in United States, there’s a huge number of people who belong to these so called mixed-status household. Over 60% have been in the country for 10 years or more, and thus form very substantial ties.
And there’s another argument, when you talk about the rule of law, one way to think about it is that when you are not enforcing laws for a sufficiently long period of time, you create a new set of expectations. And then when you suddenly start enforcing those laws, or enforce them in a different way-
Reihan Salam: you would disrupt those settled expectations.
So I would argue, that for many years, we in this country have had a legal immigration system, and an illegal immigration system. That illegal immigration system has been an ex-post system in which we tolerated people entering the country. We tolerated allowing them to work. We tolerated allowing them to form substantial ties to US citizens. And then we only deported those who are violent criminals.
Now, I believe that going forward, we ought to have a more stringent system in which we really are enforcing those laws. But to do that, you have to take into account those who formed substantial ties and had been in the country for 10 years or more. That is a really, really important part of the debate.
Now, on the other end of it, you really need to bring in folks who think, look, we want a system that it’s not just serving the interests of intending immigrants, but that’s also serving the interest of our existing communities. And one thing that we haven’t talked about so far is that, I don’t just talk about generosity in the form of amnesty, I talk about generosity in the form of making large public investments in the workIng class-
Garrett S.: Yes, you do.
Reihan Salam: … and the children of the working class in America. And that’s the group that’s disproportionately a second generation group, that’s disproportionately a group of folks who are children of immigrants. And that is another way of kind of mending the country together to deal with the challenges to come.
Garrett Snedeke: So, Reihan, in the news lately we’ve heard a lot about the debate over birthright citizenship, and in the book you briefly touch upon it in the chapter Somebody Else’s Babies, when you write, “American’s immigration system is multi-generational almost by default. According to most experts, the 14th Amendment compels the US government to grant citizenship to all US children born on US soil, regardless of the legal status of their parents. One result is that the United States is home to large numbers of mixed status households, in which US citizen children are being raised by loved ones who do not have legal status. Needless to say, separating citizen children from their parents in a charged issue, and it’s a central part of why so many Americans favor a sweeping amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. It’s also why a large number of other market democracies …”
Sorry. “It’s also why a number of other market democracies, such as Australia, Britain, France, Ireland, and New Zealand have ended automatic birthright citizenship and tried to ensure that the only babies with citizenship are the babies of individuals lawfully present in their countries or of citizens who find themselves abroad.” Given not necessarily the procedure by which the Trump administration is considering revising birthright citizenship, but more on the philosophical underpinnings of the idea, do you think that it would be consistent with the lived experience of this generation of Americans to rethink that connection between birthright citizenship and adjust our conceptions of national identity, or do you think that it is a truly impossible right now?
Reihan Salam: I believe that President Trump is going to find it awfully difficult to get federal judges to agree with him on his conception of what the 14th Amendment stipulates. I also believe that, look, when you’re thinking about the birthright citizenship question, I guess I have in the past argued that reforming birthright citizenship as part of a larger political bargain, in which we allow for an amnesty, is not an awful idea. The reason I argue that is because, again, the anxiety among those who oppose an amnesty, one anxiety is their sense that it will lead to a series of amnesties. Revising birthright citizenship would go a long way towards allaying those concerns.
However, it is a very contentious question, obviously. I find it very hard to imagine that he would get a broad, overlapping, public consensus in favor of such a move, and also on top of that, I think that there is the danger of creating a class of stateless individuals residing in the United States. You know, some say that this concern is exaggerated. There are certain diplomatic norms that have emerged overtime, but think about it this way. If you were a country that is antagonistic towards the United States, you are a country that is a country of origin of some number of your nationals who then have children on US soil, you could simply decide not to extend citizenship to those children and create a crisis in the United States.
I just really don’t think it’s wise for the United States to leave itself vulnerable to other states that might want to do such a thing. If you’re really concerned about the children of unauthorized immigrants, as I am by the way, and somewhere in the neighborhood of six to eight percent of all children born on US soil are born to unauthorized immigrant parents, I believe the way to address that is by having serious, stringent, immigration enforcement. However, the only way you can get that, politically speaking, is by having some kind of amnesty. I think that, you know, this is a very frustrating thing for those of us who are concerned about the rule of law, but I do think that that is the only realistic solution.
Scott Kim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Kim: I mean, this is kind of jumping gears a bit, back to that previous question, but a lot of the focus of your book has been on whether people can comfortably integrate with what you call, like in air quotes, the mainstream. I guess especially from our perspective, immigrant enclaves have been sort of engines of social mobility, whether those are in forms of cram schools or other means, but a lot of them propel kids from low income backgrounds, so like top income brackets, at a pretty efficient rate. I was wondering, do you think that that sort of biases my view or even your view about immigrant enclaves as a whole? Do you think objectively the existence of ethnic enclaves of immigrants is bad generally? Do you think that that sort of calls into contention, especially in conservative circles, about a call for local rule, which is sort of a widely endorsed principle in conservative thought and movement?
Reihan Salam: Well, you’ve touched on a few different issues there, all of which are very interesting. I guess that you’re certainly right that when you think about an enclave, one way to understand an enclave is that an enclave is a space in which you lower some of the friction that are involved in moving from one country to another. If I am moving from Seoul to Queens, New York, having a large number of people who speak Korean frequently, people who have already settled in the country, who flourished in the country, seeing them, learning from their experience and what have you can be very valuable to me. I think that that’s unquestioningly the case.
However, when those enclaves are sustained for a very long period of time, when they’re replenished at very high rates, it can introduce other complications, one of which is this kind of question of what happens as you go from one generation to the next. So, it’s one thing that if I am a recent immigrant, I settle on an enclave, and I make my life there for some period of time, but then one danger is that you’re not going beyond the enclave. You’re not forming partnerships with people outside of that group, and that can be something that can narrow the horizons of your life. In the case of someone who belongs to the second generation that can be an even bigger deal.
Granted, on the one hand, if you’re second generation, well, chances are if you belong to a small group, like the Korean American population, chances are you are going to rub shoulders with people who belong to other groups. That’s very, very likely. If, however, you belong to a very large group that is being replenished at very high rates, that can be a different story. You can become part of a group that really does experience itself as separate from the American mainstream. For example, South Korea is a country that is aging very rapidly. Its fertility is kind of quite low. It’s very far below replacement rate. I believe it’s around one, where replacement rate is around 2.2.
Garrett Snedeke: Wow.
Reihan Salam: The thing is that we’re not going to have a very large surge of immigrants from Korea in the foreseeable future, also because Korea is an increasingly affluent country that offers many opportunities for kind of people at home. So, in a sense, kind of for high scale Koreans who might be thinking about immigrating to the United States, they have a lot of options at their disposal. Mexico, similarly, is now a rapidly aging country.
Garrett Snedeke: Yeah. That’s right.
Reihan Salam: Actually, you’re likely not going to get a very large and continuing influx from Mexico in particular, but over the last 30 to 40 years you have had some very large Mexican origin enclaves emerge. So, it’s a kind of subtle question where you have to look at the particular nationality. You have to look at those dynamics. Then you also have to look at the skillsets involved, because again, if I’m someone who is a middle income Korean immigrant, there’s a decent chance that I won’t just work in the enclave economy in which I’m chiefly interacting with people in my native language.
There’s a decent chance that, for example, I might be a civil servant, or I might work for some big five accounting firm, or something along those lines that takes me out of my immediate ethnic community and that brings me in contact with people outside of it. That’s the thing that I think it’s valuable to pay attention to. This is a much longer conversation, by the way, about enclaves, which I’d be happy to continue.
Garrett Snedeke: Great. Great. I know we’re gonna have to wrap up soon, but in closing, we spent a lot of today’s conversation talking about big picture ideals and some of the philosophical underpinnings of the immigration system, but just for our listeners to know that the book does spend a considerable amount of time on practical solutions to very real problems that are confronting not only our immigration system, but also our native born population and questions of job loss and stagnant incomes in certain spheres. So, I want you to talk a little bit about the closing of your book, in which you offer some real solutions and some ideas for potential compromise, because they are some good places to start I think as we continue the conversation.
Reihan Salam: I’m sorry. Can you give me a sense of … just give me something I can grab onto there?
Garrett Snedeke: Oh. Yeah. Sure. In one part of your book you talk about how the rising cost of healthcare for US retirees is forcing them to consider where to-
Reihan Salam: Garrett, forgive me. This is such a kind of big, complicated subject, and also I’m supposed to call someone at 11:30, so if you could just, I don’t know, maybe give me some prompts that I could answer, just because honestly the whole issue of Mexican retirees and what have you is fascinating. As you can imagine, I can talk about it at great length.
Garrett Snedeke: Maybe what are one or two solutions that you might propose to maybe deescalating the debate over immigration? What’s some more maybe marginal or more workable compromises you can foresee?
Reihan Salam: I think a really important thing is to keep in mind the multi-generational character of American immigration. If we think about immigration as a question only for this generation, only for the particular migrant who is seeking to become part of our communities, then you might look at it one way, but when you think about the fact that the implications fort children of that immigrant and the grandchildren of that immigrant, how will that person be received, how will that person be fully incorporated into American life, then you start looking at these things in very different fashion.
I guess for me a big picture is in a world where you’re gonna have the offshoring of service employment, in a world where automation is going to continue to precede a pace and put lots of pressure on the wages of folks of modest skills, you really want to think about how are we gonna ensure that America is a country that has a high degree of civic solidarity going forward. That’s what I worry about most. That’s what I encourage people to think about. If you think about it in that longterm way, then I think we could come up with an entirely different political and policy discourse that would be a lot more constructive.
Garrett Snedeke: So, thank you, Reihan. For our listeners to remember, the name of the book is Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders. You can find it on Amazon or at book stores nationwide. Thank you so much for joining us.
Reihan Salam: Thank you very much guys.