Citizen, Community, and Welcoming the Stranger. A Bookman Symposium

The recent executive order from President Trump concerning immigration has caused controversy noticeable even by the unusual standards of this most unusual administration. The question of immigration concerns profound questions of who we are as Americans, and what our culture and society represent both to citizens and to those who wish to come here. As Ross Douthat has recently written, we are facing a clashing of narratives: “the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions.” Americans were settlers of a new world, rather than immigrants from the old. For numerous reasons that narrative has faded in preference for one that takes the language on the Statue of Liberty to be the animating force behind “who we are”: immigrants bound to little more than an aspiration to be liberated from a bigoted past.

Unfortunately, debate over immigration is often innocent of any knowledge of history, culture, or demographics, and proceeds almost solely on the basis of the immediate political points to be made. To remedy this lack of serious thought, The University Bookman has invited a number of distinguished conservative scholars to consider how conservatives should think about immigration.

Although the contributors differ in emphasis and, likely, policy prescriptions, some common themes emerge. The first is that America has a unique heritage: we are a nation committed to the truth that all men are created equal in political life, as David Azerrad explores in his reflections on the Declaration of Independence. But our equality is not the abstract Lockeanism that is prized by both the progressive left and the global capitalist right, in which we are seen merely as independent egos and consumers. Rather, we live in actual communities in the real world. These communities differ from one another and the people in them have the responsibility to maintain the goodness of these communities for ourselves and our posterity as our Constitution provides. But as Brad Birzer shows in his reflections, the personal experience of Americans, virtually all of whom descend from immigrants, cannot be discounted and must be integrated into the wider debate of how we treat newcomers. Indeed, Birzer makes the provocative point that nationalist restrictions on immigration is in fact a progressive innovation, and one inconsistent with American experience.

This leads to a second commonality,one that was once obvious but seems to have been almost forgotten: not everyone has the right to immigrate to the United States, and it is an appropriate exercise of sovereignty to think carefully about which immigrants to allow in; this is what Daniel McCarthy refers to as the “proxy war” over immigration, which reflects deeper divisions. This means that our immigration policy must be oriented around the good it does for America and Americans, as Yuval Levin suggests, and also a renewed emphasis on assimilation. Richard Reinsch refers us to the helpful work of Harvard immigration economist George Borjas, which has analyzed both the positive and negative effects of large-scale immigration on American workers.

America is a rich and welcoming country, and it should continue to be so, but we must welcome immigrants into a political society that values our country and its political and cultural traditions above those of others, as Bruce Frohnen discusses in his essay. Peter Lawler reminds us a republic is bound together by loyal citizenship, which avoids xenophobia and also rejects a kind of universal citizenship. Without that notion of republican citizenship, political society crumbles and must be kept together by bureaucratic tyranny and an imperial-type government.  

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