On one of the most controversial hot-button issues of our time, the right and the left are talking past each other.
I’m talking about immigration, the always-with-us issue that became relevant again last week when President Trump introduced a merit-based immigration plan that sparked a heated exchange between White House aide Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta.
That conversation might serve as a microcosm for the larger debate taking place in America today. People on the left tend to believe that conservatives are racist xenophobes, and people on the right tend to believe that liberals (a) have no interest in preserving Western culture (and possibly even want to sabotage it!) and (b) are keen on importing more Democratic voters.
The voters, apparently, have gotten the memo. Republicans continue to lose the votes of minorities, while Democrats, associated with pro-immigration policies, are essentially writing off increasingly large swaths of white voters, with predictable results.
This is the politics of bad faith, and it is compounded by the fact that there are elements of truth for those who want to attribute the worst motives to their opponents. Many immigration restrictionists really are racists. And a lot of the most vociferous immigration advocates really do want to fundamentally alter America (they are the ones waving Mexican flags at immigration rallies, supporting sanctuary cities, and ignoring the rule of law).
Meanwhile, many working-class white Americans really do worry that immigrants are taking the jobs of American workers, while (on the other hand) many hard-working immigrants simply want a chance to work hard and achieve the American dream for their kids.
Both sides of this great debate also have sincere advocates who are trying to do what is right. And the good news is that some of these more moderate arguments are finally getting a public hearing. There has been a much-needed trend of columnists on the center-right and center-left making sense on immigration. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, and RealClearPolitics’ Carl Cannon have all contributed to this refreshing movement.
These voices generally agree on a few things. Yes, America has benefited greatly from immigrants, and, yes, America is about a proposition, not blood or land or skin color. But no, America cannot absorb unlimited numbers of immigrants and assimilate them into what might now ironically be called liberal values.
At some point, adding too many immigrants leads to diminishing returns. At some point, it becomes impossible to inculcate the values of Western civilization. And at some point, too many immigrants result in a breakdown of trust and an atomizing of society. We become more individualistic and less communitarian. These are results that no liberal should hope for.
On the other hand, there is clearly some level of diversity that causes us to flourish. There is a sweet spot. Rather than rejecting this truism, immigration advocates should be wary of crossing the Mendoza line and creating a backlash. But how much diversity is too much?
Perhaps that now-famous exchange between Miller and Acosta could offer us some clues. At some point during their squabble, Miller attempted to pin down Acosta, asking him: “In 1970, when we let in 300,000 people a year, was that violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land?” Miller asked. “In the 1990s, when it was 500,000 a year, was it violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land?” To be sure, Miller wasn’t honestly attempting to resolve this question. He was playing a “gotcha” game. Still, it’s worth pondering.
Because the U.S. population always increases, it’s wrong to think of it in terms of a number. More relevant would be a percentage. It stands to reason that there is some percentage where we reach that point of diminishing returns—a point at which assimilation becomes impossible. Finding that percentage, and steering clear of surpassing it, would presumably be a win/win for the right and left. And, in defense of immigration restrictionists, we are nearing the historic high point in terms of the percentage of the foreign-born population. On top of that, although it’s fair to point out that there have always been ethnic enclaves where English was the second language (how do you think places got names like “Germantown”?), America is probably less well equipped to assimilate immigrants today.
So what is that percentage? Is it 15 percent? Maybe 14? If we could settle on this (a big “if”), it would go a long way toward healing our politics, just as agreeing on some other fundamentals—when does life begin, what share of GDP should be claimed by federal taxes?—would make our downstream political debates a little less toxic. Of course, that would be bad news for those who have an incentive to divide us.
Still, the bitter debate between Acosta and Miller might have inadvertently shed some clues on areas of common ground. And it begins with this question: Is there some amount of immigration that the vast majority of us can agree is healthy, and—if so—might this be grounds for an immigration compromise?
With the percentage of legal immigrants settled, we could then move on to a broader compromise that might include allowing DREAMers to stay, construction of a border wall or fence, and maybe—once it is clearly established that America controls its borders—a plan to humanely deal with undocumented immigrants. But if we can’t even agree on how much legal immigration is fruitful for a strong America, it’s hard to imagine us ever getting around to the really tough choices.