The Conversation

Readers respond to our April 2019 cover story and more.

How Much Immigration Is Too Much?

We need to make hard decisions now about what will truly benefit current and future Americans, David Frum argued in April.

David Frum’s statistically dense exploration of America’s immigration conundrum is an important and welcome antidote to the simplistic and xenophobic rhetoric of the president, which dominates the public discourse. Mr. Frum’s analysis, however, suffers from a fundamental omission. It ignores the elephant in the debate on immigration—xenophobia and racism.
Throughout our history, antagonism toward racial, religious, and ethnic minorities has dominated American immigration policy. Mr. Frum writes nostalgically of the period of slow immigration from 1915 to 1975. His analysis ignores the fact that racist immigration policies helped create this age of “cohesion.” It also ignores the fact that the United States economy during this period benefited greatly from the federal government’s enormous investment, and from the economic devastation of Europe and Asia and the resulting paucity of international competition. In any event, I doubt that African Americans of the Jim Crow South, or minorities in other parts of the U.S., considered this period to be particularly “cohesive.”
Mr. Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies and rhetoric are simply the latest manifestation of America’s original sin of racism. Until we acknowledge this reality, we can never have an honest debate about the role of immigration in the success of the American experiment, or about how to determine “how much immigration is too much.”
Robert Thornton
Irvine, Calif.

[Frum’s] central premise—that if liberals don’t enforce immigration laws, the nation will turn to fascists—is bedeviled by reality. President Trump, Fox News and the Republican Party tried with all their might to demagogue immigration before the midterm elections. The GOP got clobbered. Democrats did especially well in elections in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, the states that border Mexico. In fact, all nine members of Congress who represent the districts along the Mexico border oppose funding for Trump’s border wall.
According to Gallup, 67 percent of Americans think immigration levels should either stay the same or increase, and 75 percent think immigration is a “good thing,” an all-time high …
Frum’s essay also includes some bizarre, anti-historical observations. This one might be the strangest: “America was built on the revolutionary idea, never fully realized, that those who labor might also govern—that every worker should be a voter.” The United States was, of course, actually founded on the still-revolutionary—but not nearly as revolutionary—idea that every white, male landowner should be a voter. We weren’t even ready to admit that the people doing the most work at the time were full human beings.
Radley Balko
Excerpt from a Washington Post column

A country as large and rich as America can afford to temper self-interest with generosity. “Give me your tired, your poor …” should not be the only consideration driving America’s immigration policy, but neither should it be neglected entirely.
Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Providence, R.I.

[Frum] says:
Under present immigration policies, the U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2050. Nobody is seriously planning for such population growth …
An American population of 400 million and beyond is not only imaginable, not only being planned for: it’s the world most Americans should want … A growing America, a mighty America, an America with a wind at its back as successive large generations of young people propel it to success and innovation and strength, sends a signal to the rest of the world that the experiment is working. Liberty and self-government, aside from being morally good, are simply more effective than the alternatives. This sets the stage for more peaceful and confident relations between the United States and other countries.
So unlike Frum and other declinists, I’m excited for 400 million Americans. I’d like even more than that.
Lyman Stone
Excerpt from a Federalist article

David Frum offers a brilliant exposition of the nature of the immigration crisis, and he points toward a comprehensive immigration strategy. But why does he preach to liberals that solving the problem is up to them? Conservatives still dominate American politics with money, powerful lobbies, political-action committees, and more. Mr. Frum, a conservative, enjoins liberals to stop fascism because, apparently, conservatives are unavailable. Conservatives should step up and put their own house in order.
Christopher Sweet
Chicago, Ill.

Today’s discourse is so polarizing and devoid of nuance that it often feels like you’re crazy if you fall somewhere in between Trump-loving nativists and their counterparts on the far left requesting an end to immigration enforcement. We need more articles like Frum’s that center the debate on realistic outcomes.
Geoffrey Dodson
Sacramento, Calif.

David Frum replies:

Thanks to all who joined the discussion on my article. You can read fuller answers to more specific criticism and queries in my follow-up, “Faith, Reason, and Immigration,” on Here, I’ll reply only to Radley Balko’s objection that the United States was not founded as a democracy. He’s right! Which is why I didn’t say otherwise. Here’s what I did say:

America was built on the revolutionary idea, never fully realized, that those who labor might also govern—that every worker should be a voter. The struggle toward this ideal has been slow, arduous, and sometimes violent. The immigration surge has had the effect of setting this ideal back. Half a century after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the United States has again habituated itself to employing workers who cannot vote and therefore cannot protect their interests or even their lives.

A building rests upon a foundation—but rises above it. Since the founding of the republic, Americans have, century upon century, built a country of wider possibilities for ordinary people. One reason to fear that this achievement might be lost is precisely that it did not always exist. If my words failed to convey that strong message, I correct them here.

Psychiatry’s Incurable Hubris

The quest to understand the biology of mental illness has so far failed, Gary Greenberg wrote in April. But you wouldn’t know it from practitioners’ claims.

I read “Psychiatry’s Incurable Hubris” with a mixture of curiosity, disappointment, bafflement, and anger. As a psychiatrist charged with not only seeing patients but also teaching psychiatry trainees, I am well aware of how little we know about disorders of the brain and mind. Psychiatrists frequently share with one another our frustration with the complexity of the psyche. We may not know how or why something has gone wrong in the brain, but we certainly know when it has. And so we rally all the resources we have in order to offer relief to those in pain—theories, hypotheses, experiments, data, observations, neuroscience, medications with terrible side effects, logic, kindness, a listening ear—and we do our best. Is this “hubris,” as the article says? Try desperation. Try humanity.
Alison May, M.D.
Associate professor of psychiatry, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences
San Francisco, Calif.

Greenberg’s article, which at first offended me with its seeming dismissal of medication-based treatment, pushed me to look closely at modern scientific studies of the chemical-imbalance theory I have accepted since I was diagnosed with depression at 15. I wholeheartedly agree that mental-health professionals would benefit from adopting a praxis that incorporates just as much social science as chemical.
However, as someone who has taken antidepressants since that diagnosis and suffered badly during periods when I went off them, I want to make sure The Atlantic’s readers know that medication does help an enormous number of people. Even if we don’t understand exactly how these medications help, they do. Millions of us with mental illnesses have to muddle through life while doctors muddle through theories. Surely it’s worthwhile to continue using what we’ve got until we’re offered something better.
Sarah Walsh
Cincinnati, Ohio

At any given moment, a substantial proportion of the population is experiencing diminished quality of life due to emotional distress or cognitive impairment. Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that works to mitigate these difficulties. As Greenberg indicates, psychiatry has many flaws. But the distress that psychiatry addresses begs relief. If we dismiss psychiatry, what is the alternative?
E. Michael Kahn
Abingdon, Va.

Gary Greenberg replies:

Alison May is correct to say that psychiatrists, like all of us, are outmatched by the complexities of the psyche and the brain from which it arises. She is also right to point out that hubris does not always lie behind the act of offering relief when something has gone wrong. However, hubris does manifest itself when psychiatrists tell people experiencing depression that they have a chemical imbalance, without knowing which chemicals are out of balance or what the proper balance should be. The gap between knowledge and practice should not stop people from using drugs that help them, but it should make us wary of shaping our identities around specious theories of mind.