Debating Immigration Policy at a Populist Moment

As right-wing parties across the West indulge fascist impulses, should the United States pursue a relatively restrictionist or libertarian policy?

Mike Blake / Reuters

Earlier this year, David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote about “The Roots of a Counterproductive Immigration Policy.” Conor Friedersdorf, an Atlantic staff writer, takes a different view of the issue. What follows is a constructive exchange between two colleagues trying to understand each other’s perspectives on one of the central political issues of our time.

Yoni Appelbaum

Conor Friedersdorf: David, your piece on immigration policy is an intriguing contribution to debate on the subject. Typically, folks marshal moral or economic arguments for more or less immigration.

Your insight is that the optimal number of immigrants cannot be divorced from public opinion. You observed that, prior to the political rise of Donald Trump, political elites in the U.S. and Europe favored higher levels immigration than the citizenries they represented. And you attributed the rise of illiberal populists in multiple countries partly to the liberal failure to more closely restrict immigration. I want to quote your words, because you put the argument powerfully:

When liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals won’t do.

Put another way, you think liberals should settle for lower levels of immigration than they prefer, if only to avoid a backlash that ultimately harms liberals and immigrants.

Your argument reached me just as I was returning to the work of Karen Stenner, who wrote a book about the forces that tear countries apart. Some people, who she calls “libertarians,” strongly prefer freedom and diversity, she wrote, while others, who she calls “authoritarians,” possess a perhaps innate discomfort with difference. They prize sameness and unity, even if coercion is needed to enforce it. Countries devolve into conflict when the predispositions of the authoritarians are activated.

They hire fascists to do jobs that liberals won’t do.

In her telling, showily, absolutely insisting on unconstrained diversity “pushes those by nature least equipped to live comfortably in a liberal democracy not to the limits of their tolerance, but to their intolerant extremes.” And once authoritarians are activated, the outcome depends in part on how its conservatives react. If they side with the authoritarians, repressive policies follow. But under the right conditions, conservatives can be counted on to rally behind pluralism and tolerance. One condition is that they feel reassured "regarding established brakes on the pace of change, and the settled rules of the game.”

Thus my alarm. When it comes to immigration, many conservatives presently fear that there are no breaks on the pace of change, and that the rules of the game are being broken.

I find you and Stenner persuasive enough to take your arguments very seriously, to consider reframing some of my preferences to avoid alarming authoritarians, and to think about what views I ought to moderate to compromise with conservatives.

At the same time, I want to challenge part of your argument.

After criticizing Trump's original executive order on travel and refugees, you wrote, “without the dreamy liberal refusal to recognize the reality of nationhood, the meaning of citizenship, and the differences between cultures, Trump would never have gained the power to issue that order.” Does that really describe the liberal position?

The Obama administration did not refuse to recognize “the reality of nationhood” or “the meaning of citizenship” or “the differences between cultures.” The southern border was militarized for his entire tenure. Millions of people were deported on his watch. The number of refugees allowed to settle here was capped. And cultures with terrorism problems faced harsher vetting procedures.

Liberals don't like to talk about how many people Obama deported, or how many refugees his policies blocked from entry, or the nightmarish hoops legal immigrants had to jump through to gain admission, or differences in the way applicants from different countries were treated. The typical coastal-dwelling liberal or college student will acknowledge, if pressed, that they don't believe in open borders … but most are uncomfortable, unable, or unwilling to articulate just why.

I wonder if the result isn't the worst of both words from a liberal perspective. If Obama's immigration policy was substantively harsher than political correctness allowed liberals to acknowledge, the diversity-loving tribe risked the authoritarian backlash associated with “open borders” without its humanitarian benefits.

What do you think?

David Frum: The claim that the Obama administration engaged in large-scale deportation is based on a statistical sleight of hand. They inflated their deportation numbers by including within that total “removals”––people apprehended near the border who voluntarily returned home without legal process. Deportations from the interior  plunged under Obama: down 19 percent from 2011 to 2012, down another 23 percent between 2012 and 2013. (Note that those were years of economic recovery and expansion, when illegal immigration was rising again after the downtick in the 2008-2010 recession). Although the Obama administration claimed to focus on criminal aliens, deportation even of those tumbled in Obama’s second term.

And this is all before the Obama administration opened the gate to the Central American border surge in the summers of 2014 and 2015, when tens of thousands of teenagers walked across the border to take advantage of the promised amnesty for people who entered as minors. In almost every case, those lawbreakers remain here to this day.

I mention these facts not to re-litigate the Obama record, but to underscore your opening point about how to restore faith in the integrity of the immigration process. With regard to immigration, U.S. administrations, and not only the Obama administration, engage in what’s we’ve learned to call “security theater” when we see it at the airport.

Immigration enforcement budgets soar.

Fences rise.

Drones and jeeps patrol the border.

Immigrant advocacy groups denounce any kind of enforcement action at all as “mass deportation.” Yet the flow of illegal immigration continues unabated. After a hiatus during the Great Recession, illegal immigrations flows are accelerating again, this time led by Central Americans rather than Mexicans, yet still arriving via Mexico.

Democrats and Republicans alike collude in gutting enforcement at the workplace. Policing the border isn’t immigration enforcement. It’s a visually spectacular (and of course hugely expensive) substitute for enforcement. And even those Americans who don’t know the policy details understand that politicians are making immigration promises that they do not intend to keep. The all-pervading bad faith on immigration enforcement opens space for immigration demagogues.

Which is where we have arrived. There’s more to say, including about the obsolescence of refugee policy and the dysfunction of America’s legal immigration system.

But let’s pause here for now.

Friedersdorf: While I agree that lots of presidents have talked tough on immigration without cracking down on employers of illegal labor, and that some observers make the Obama administration's record sound tougher than it was, I am correct in observing that Obama presided over a militarized border, millions of deportations, a cap on refugees, and harsher vetting procedures for countries with a terrorism problem.

Those actions did not constitute a serious attempt to “solve” illegal immigration, but they still bolster the case that Obama believed in “the reality of nationhood.” Neither Reagan nor Bush nor Clinton nor Bush II nor Obama agree with the premise that undocumented immigration on their watches posed a threat to nationhood. And insofar as they perceived a threat to the meaning of citizenship, Reagan, both Bushes, and Obama felt that it should be resolved with a “path to citizenship.”

None of those men won the applause of actual open-borders advocates. And yet, many conclude that because they didn't preside over a border wall or mass deportations from the interior, they must have a secret ideological preference for open borders.

I am not even sure that they acted in “bad faith” on immigration. Perhaps they merely sensed that the public would quickly punish them if they carried out the sorts of harsh enforcement that were popular in polls, because the public is relatively uninformed and naive about how mass deportations or a wall would play out.

As yet, Trump's approval ratings are very low.

And I notice that all the politicians I've mentioned won a lot of reelections with their relatively moderate positions. One thing I wondered, after reading Stenner, is the degree to which rhetoric alone matters. If Hillary Clinton had talked about illegal immigration the way Bill Clinton did, do you think Trump would have beat her?

If you were Corey Booker, what would you say on the subject?

You believe a serious effort to address illegal immigration would begin not at the border, but by focusing on magnet that draws hem here: businesses that employ undocumented workers. I think you're correct that Republicans and Democrats collude to avoid such a crackdown and that campaign contributions are one reason. Another reason: the political constituency for “going after” business owners is smaller and less energetic than the one for “going after” Mexicans. Is there a viable coalition for restrictionist policy preferences other than the one Trump assembled?

Frum: Obama did not preside over “millions of deportations”!

The way you get the big number for Obama’s removals is by lumping together those illegal immigrants apprehended in the interior of the country plus those  turned away at the border who agreed to depart without judicial proceedings in order to avoid sanctions, especially the multi-year ban on any entry into the United States.

When you use the big number, you conjure up an entirely misleading image of what has been happening in the Obama years. Expulsions of people settled inside the United States sharply declined in the Obama years, perhaps by some 40 percent below the George W. Bush levels—and Bush was not exactly a deportation-minded president himself. The only way to push Obama’s totals into the plural “millions” is by adding together removals and returns of all kinds, including people caught 15 minutes after crossing into the United States.  

The border is not “militarized.” It is policed by civilian law enforcement, not troops. Yes, those police carry weapons. So do police on the beat in American cities, for the compelling reason that the lawbreakers they confront are also often armed. Those police do use technology pioneered by the military, including night goggles and drones.

People smugglers do not only work in the daytime.

Do you really cite “capping refugees” as some kind of tough position? The cap is set by Congress. The president has power to raise the cap, and in his final weeks in office, Obama did so by about 60 percent, or some 30,000 new persons (who will in time be eligible to bring their families with them, including their adult siblings and their siblings’ children.) But seriously, do you contemplate an uncapped refugee flow? The UN High Commission on Refugees regularly cites a figure of 60 million refugees on our planet. Yet even this figure is seriously potentially low.

As our German allies discovered, when an advanced country lifts its cap on “refugees,” a lot of young men from unexpected places discover that they too need refuge in the developed West.

I make all these points not only to set the record straight, but also to head you off from presenting a very extreme position as one of triangulated moderation. You seem to take as your premise that immigration restrictions are a perhaps necessary, but sadly unfortunate, concession to voter emotion. Your presentation of the issue begins by (mis)characterizing and denouncing those restrictions that do exist. If you really want to think in a blank-sheet way about this issue, begin by asking the question you’d ask of any other policy of government: why are we doing it all?

What’s immigration for?

What are countries in general—and the United States specifically—seeking to achieve by accepting new residents from foreign countries? How well does present policy achieve these objectives?

The U.S. now receives somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people per year, including both legal and illegal immigration. That’s a number that matches the very highest levels in U.S. history, back in the era of the settling of the West and the creation of a mass-production economy. This policy has benefits. It also has costs. As usual, the costs and benefits are collected by very different groups of people. In this case, most of the benefits are received by people who are not U.S. citizens, the immigrants themselves; the bulk of the remainder are collected by owners of capital assets and highly compensated workers. The costs include intense social strains, which have now expressed themselves by the election of an irresponsible authoritarian demagogue to the presidency of the United States. Are these choices wise?

Let’s start there.

Friedersdorf: Okay, let's start there.

I agree with you that there is a strong case for lessening total immigration flows for a while to ease social strains; that refugee flows should be capped both to avoid a backlash and to ease assimilation; that America should rejigger the rules that determine the mix of those who enter legally so that we benefit from more highly skilled workers and give less of a priority to non-immediate family members of past immigrants; and that immigration has costs and benefits that are spread unevenly, falling most heavily on the native born with the lowest levels of education.

I'd add that the internal enforcement of immigration laws and deportations of those living here illegally frequently imposes tremendously high costs on Americans. As residents of Maricopa County, Arizona, can attest, internal enforcement means that many thousands of Americans of Hispanic descent are asked by armed agents of the state to "show their papers" in their own country. Internal enforcement means that countless American citizens will have beloved employees, friends, neighbors, and even family members deported. Indeed, American born children will have their mothers and fathers deported. They bear mention in most discussions of citizens who bear the highest costs from immigration policy.

Deporting undocumented immigrants who commit crimes (excepting things like jay-walking or having a beer at a high school party) seems obvious. For law-abiding folks who've been here awhile, I favor amnesty, much as Ronald Reagan did. Politically, the compromise I'd prefer is (say) amnesty for those here in exchange for a sharp reduction in newcomers for 5 years. I think the long term benefits would be worth the terrible costs––that is to say, the millions who'll languish elsewhere rather than thriving in the United States, which helps segue to the big picture. As I see it, one thing immigration is for is to maximize human potential.

My purpose in repeating that Obama capped refugees and deported about 2.5 million people, now that I look up the figure, is not to position the Overton Window so that I can sneak a radical plan across the sill later in our dialog. It is to demonstrate that the actual Democratic position on immigration is not "open borders," or giving up on the concept of nationhood, or any number of other hyperbolic locutions used by restrictionists. That many of the deportees were detained near the Mexican border shortly after crossing does not undermine that point.

Under an "open borders" regime of the sort that prevailed for many decades in United States history, the analogs of those people would have been welcomed through a processing center as were my paternal ancestors. By advocating for immigration, another aim I hope to achieve is to preserve a policy I benefitted from, rather than enjoying the benefits, then denying others the opportunity that my family had, even at a time when the U.S. is much richer, and foreigners much more familiar with American culture, than was true in the 1800s. To "pull up the ladder" when the immediate costs to the United States are similar or lower seems immoral to me.

Today's immigrants risk their lives trying to sneak across a border that is, in fact, militarized.You are right that border patrol agents are civilian employees who use military tactics, equipment, and surveillance technology—facts that arguably warrant the adjective "militarized." In any case, Obama announced in 2010 that he would deploy "1,200 National Guard troops and request an extra $500 million to secure the Mexican border," the Washington Post noted. "By reinforcing the 340 Guard members already monitoring border crossings and analyzing intelligence, the initiative echoes 2006's Operation Jump Start, in which President George W. Bush devoted 6,000 guardsmen to a two-year commitment in support of the Border Patrol."

I also highlight mass deportations and a border that is more militarized and closely guarded than at any time in U.S. history because I believe that while some opposition to immigration is due to actual costs that it imposes––and the Americans who disproportionately bear them––other opposition is driven by xenophobic hysteria, fueled by talk-radio blowhards and Fox News commentators who deliberately stoke ethnic tensions, misrepresent the reality of border security, and egregiously mischaracterize what elected Democrats have actually done on immigration.

Despite our differences, I would be thrilled if every American read your responsible commentary in place of the hysteria-mongering of, say, Lou Dobbs, Ann Coulter, and Donald Trump. I suspect, to circle back to where I began this dialogue, that the wildly false impressions those commentators create resonate in part because Democrats are unwilling to talk as tough on illegal immigration as they act, even if you think, as I know you do, that their restrictionist actions don't go nearly far enough. If you and I were beamed into a Quantum Leap episode where we had to sneak across the Mexican border, but we got to choose whether to cross in 1998 or 2014, we'd be far better off during the Clinton years. You wouldn't expect that if you just listened to the way Clinton and Obama talked about the subject.

I take your point that "when liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals won’t do," and it is a good one in just the way you intended it. I also think that when there is an erroneous perception that only fascists will defend borders, voters will hire fascists to do the job.

Substance and perception both matter.

Frum: Internal enforcement should require every employer on any substantial scale to verify the eligibility to work of every employee. If caught employing illegally, the employer should pay a meaningful fine. Above all: The liability should be what lawyers call “strict”––meaning that “I didn’t know” would cease to be an excuse, just as it is not an excuse for employing minors or cheating workers on overtime or violating health and safety rules.

It’s the employer’s duty to know.

The government needs to build reliable systems to confirm eligibility to work. I happen to favor a national identity card. Such cards can be much more privacy protecting than the present over-reliance on the Social Security number as an all-purpose identifier. On its face, the card need show only name and photo. All the other information on the card, including the bearer’s citizenship or visa status, could be encrypted so it would be read only by a purpose-built card reader. (More details here on how such a card would work.)

Other systems are imaginable too. Immigration debate too often falls victim to the “Washington Monument” syndrome where opponents of enforcement insist only the most intrusive and costly means of enforcement are to be considered. The question of how much and what kind of amnesty is needed for the hard cases should be reserved until after we’ve ensured ourselves that a) we’ve dealt with the easier cases of law-breaking and b) that we’ve taken measures to ensure that this second mass amnesty in 30 years does not incentivize further surges of mass illegal migration.

Friedersdorf: When we began I wondered whether our shared fear of empowering illiberal populists, plus our belief that they’re empowered by the perception that elites are soft on illegal immigration, would help bridge our differences. And if we were negotiating, I'd certainly agree to a few of your desired reforms: 1) like you, I think legal immigration should be reoriented to privilege skills rather than family ties; 2) if we are failing to deport undocumented immigrants who've committed serious crimes I'm all for remedying that; 3) and I'm open to stricter workplace enforcement, though not the "strict liability" that you suggest, because that would create a powerful incentive to discriminate against those perceived to "look like immigrants."

But I'd be unwilling to make any compromise that didn't protect the law-abiding undocumented immigrants who've already established lives in the U.S. While I would trust you to keep a bargain in good faith, I don't trust the restrictionist coalition to get the harsh measures that they want now and then agree to an amnesty later. Insofar as they are informed by Fox News, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh, I'm not even persuaded that any measures would be seen by them as sufficiently harsh.

There will always be demagogues who profit by stoking xenophobia. And Donald Trump's rise has me convinced that there are more restrictionists who fall for such demagoguery than restrictionists like you and Mickey Kaus, who are more interested in protecting wages, social equality, and cultural cohesion than punitive xenophobia.

I remember frightened, punitive restrictionists well from my California childhood, when crime was high, talk-radio hosts were warning of a violent Mexican invasion, publications as responsible as The Atlantic were fretting about tensions between African Americans and Latinos, and Golden State Republicans were pushing a ballot measure to deny all state services to illegal immigrants. Proposition 187 passed but was later overturned in the courts. In Orange County, where I grew up, conventional wisdom was that something had to be done about "the illegals," and Pete Wilson was airing television ads like this to assure voters he would act.

Seeing how it all turned out in my home has a powerful influence on how I see this issue. Many white Californians who were so worried about immigration in the ‘90s and early aughts aren't worried anymore. They saw the population of undocumented Latinos (and legal immigrants from Asian countries) skyrocket. Over the same period, they saw crime fall dramatically. They saw Los Angeles, a city they expected to become a Third World hellhole, thrive as it hadn't in decades. They got to know more Latinos and saw them assimilate much as past waves of immigrants did.

I am not saying there were no costs to immigration, especially for native born folks without college degrees––just that the fears motivating most anti-immigrant sentiments were baseless or dramatically overblown. I expect some other American communities that are still getting used to more immigrants in their midst will eventually reach the same conclusion, and along with my desire to deport illegal immigrant criminals and preserve American nationhood, I am interested in getting from now to then without empowering the fascists you warn about. But you have different experiences and views, and I'll give you the last word.

Frum: The deal you describe below is precisely the deal that most Americans thought they had agreed to in 1986: 1) an amnesty for hard cases who had violated no other laws; 2) a tightening of legal immigration; 3) effective enforcement of the law in future. Instead we got an amnesty riddled with fraud; followed four years later by a doubling of legal immigration flows so as to accommodate the parents, siblings, and adult children of the most recent immigrants; and even weaker enforcement in the 1990s and 2000s than in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the wake of the 1986 failure, first the George W. Bush administration, then the Obama administration argued: Let’s do it all again! Another (vastly larger) amnesty; yet another increase in legal immigration flows; and one more cross-our-hearts-hope-to-die, this-time-we-really-mean-it promise on enforcement.

Meanwhile, we lose sight of the fundamental question about any policy: Why are we doing this? To achieve what? For whose benefit? The underlying premise of most discussion—including yours— is that the most important interest to be considered is that of the immigrants themselves, including those who entered the country illegally and who daily violate many other laws in order to sustain their presence here.

I dispute that.

I think immigration policy should be operated in the interests of the present citizens of the United States. Immigration that benefits them is welcome; immigration that does not, should not be welcome. This calculus is not a purely economic one. Loss of cultural cohesion is a harm. Fostering a more divisive and radical politics is a harm. The corrosion of legality is a harm.

Whatever the immigration law is, it must be enforced. Yet many writers on immigration seem to flinch from enforcement of almost any kind. On the morning I write, March 5, the New York Times has on its home page a sad story about the plight of the nearly 1 million people who have outright defied a judicial deportation order to remain in the United States. To date, the Trump administration has succeeded in removing only about 13,000 of these especially egregious lawbreakers. Yet even this teaspoon dose of enforcement is too much for many.

People on the pro-enforcement side of the debate do doubt the good faith of the other side, and for solid and well-established reason. Based on that reason, the pro-enforcement side insists that the question of what to do about the present illegally resident population should be postponed until after we put in place the measures to discourage future illegal immigration—and settle the extent and character of future legal immigration flows.

Reduce overall numbers.

End preferences for siblings and other non-spousal relatives of immigrants. Rebalance legal immigration in favor of the ultra-highly-skilled. Punish employers who employ illegal labor. Enforce removal against those people whom a judge has already ordered removed.

Then … wait. Some of the illegal immigrants will return home. Others will marry Americans and gain legal residence that way. Their children will be Americans from birth. As they age, many will take their savings and return home. Others will end their lives here. If we uphold the law, the problem will gradually adjust itself. If we act as you recommend, however, we are likely to discover that the flow of millions of illegal immigrants in the 2000s will be followed by a flow of tens of millions in the 2020s and 2030s, as the populations of the Middle East and Africa surge, and as travel costs continue to plunge. Migration flows respond with breathtaking speed and massive numbers to perceived opportunities—and the reaction to those flows can upend societies and overthrow democracies, as Americans and Europeans have experienced together, with potentially even more dangerous experiences yet to come.