Symposium: Citizen, Community, and Welcoming the Stranger

by Richard M. Reinsch II

America’s more open approach to widespread immigration is faltering, the support for it eroded by our low-growth economy. For too many, the pie seems to be shrinking, with those at the Little Debbie level much more aware of this than those who can afford double-swirly cheesecakes. To be sure, some of the blame for the Obama era’s anemic growth can be put on aggressive regulatory policy. Obamacare increased, in effect, the tax on labor that employers must pay, with predictable responses on their part. The Federal Reserve became the largest financial intermediary in the country under the reign of quantitative easing, meaning that the central bank, and not an array of investors, has been the biggest allocator of capital. As Bastiat told us, we’re unable to see the value that wasn’t created as a result of centralized policies that squelched opportunities for growth.

Harvard economist George Borjas’s work points us to the distributional benefits and costs of unskilled immigration, which has been the powerful undertow of our politics since the early 1990s. The immigration debate was dominated by the position that immigration’s gains weren’t overwhelmed by real economic losses for certain workers. Dissenting from this line often led one to be the recipient of a raft of unsavory accusations. To summarize Borjas, while the overall economic pie has increased in America owing to the past two decades of immigration—nearly $50 billion annually—the income of native unskilled laborers has declined. These workers’ annual incomes dropped by $800 to $1,500 because the unskilled workforce increased 25 percent, lowering the price of labor for this group.

At the same time, immigration’s welfare burden has equaled about $50 billion annually, Borjas argues.In the long run, economists mostly contend that income losses equal out, but tell that to those laborers, largely unskilled, working more and receiving less than they did. Those who employ immigrant labor have benefited greatly, to the tune of $500 billion annually.

But something more than these statistics is responsible for our deeply fractured approach to immigration, with our meritocrats favoring a wide open system of immigration and many middle and working class Americans supporting a more restrictive policy. The visceral political responses of the working class shouldn’t be difficult to comprehend. It is rather the refusal to heed them that contributed to the most unpredictable political season in memory.

Before the election, Charles Murray apologized for overlooking how mass immigration has impacted the working class: “[I]t didn’t hit home to me the degree to which the immigration policy that I, as one of the elites, find good is good only because I don’t pay any of the price for it.” Murray added that “the ruling class in this country is governing in its own self-interest, and ignoring the legitimate complaints of the working class and, for that matter, of the middle class.” And this truth has been brought home to our elites in a striking way.

More dramatically, Murray now posits that the American idea of a middle class country that personified a shared claim of citizenship rooted in the rule of law, freedom, and individualism is moribund. This creed no longer garners the universal assent that it did only decades ago. We struggle now with what it even means to be an American, and as a result are unsure of what to offer those newly arrived to our country. Many question if they should show up in the first place. But this cannot stand.

Think of the bargain America once offered without apology to immigrants. Abraham Lincoln told the people of Illinois that even those who couldn’t trace their lineage back to the founding could be confident that “When they look through that old Declaration of Independence,” and read “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” they know that the “moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men … and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men wrote the Declaration, and so they are.”

We should recall the wisdom of John Quincy Adams who said in 1820 to recent immigrants that they “are not to expect favors from the governments. They are to expect, if they choose to become citizens, equal rights with those of the natives of the country.” Adams emphasized that the immigrants’ children must embrace this country wholeheartedly. This nation, he said, is different because you are equal with every citizen. You will work hard and should expect no special treatment. Your children must welcome their future as Americans without reservation for the past.

Our bargain on immigration hinges on this belief in the equality of citizens because we have all been created by God. Government is to offer equal protection of the laws to all citizens that they might pursue their different goods, but also that they offer full loyalty and devotion to the country that has nurtured them and given them so much. Added to these principles is the chain of memories we have formed in our common pursuits as Americans. We are joined as citizens, but in a country that also acknowledges the distinctive excellence of every human soul with purposes higher than government.

Do we still speak this way about our country? Do we invoke the virtue of free and responsible persons who carve out an independent life for themselves and their families? Or do group identities, etched into our laws and the fabric of our thinking and practices, now determine the contents of American citizenship? We have become clients of the government, slotted by various memberships, administered to and serviced in various ways, with some made higher than, not equal to, other citizens. The bargain is undone. At worst, we repudiate Lincoln’s address. To desire to be “flesh of the flesh” with the Fathers is something of an affront. At best, we hear Lincoln’s words, but can no longer receive them and make them our own.

It is on these twinned dangers that we must focus our efforts to rehabilitate American citizenship. When strongly believed and practiced, such citizenship is welcoming of an immense number of human souls. We have to go back, and with creativity and daring, make the arguments again that Lincoln and Adams made. We should steel ourselves for this work, which does not end.  

Richard M. Reinsch II is editor of Law and Liberty.