In his new book Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies argues that immigration may have been good for America a century ago but not today—not because the immigrants have changed but because our nation has changed.
That’s an interesting thesis, but as the book unfolds, the arguments sound more and more familiar. Krikorian argues that immigrants at current numbers can’t be assimilated and that “mass immigration” jeopardizes national sovereignty and security, our quality of life, our jobs, wages, and wallets.
Despite his avowed goodwill toward immigrants, Krikorian’s book is a polemic written to paint immigration in the worst possible light. The word immigration hardly ever appears without the modifier “mass” before it, even though the immigration rate today is far lower than a century ago. He dismisses efforts in Congress to legalize low-skilled immigration as “amnesty” legislation, even though the proposals would have imposed fines, probation, and security checks. He also ignores important findings in the immigration literature for the sake of advancing his argument.
Krikorian’s worries about assimilation are nothing new and carry no more weight today than similar worries about the Italians, Poles, Irish, and Germans in past eras. Government promotion of multiculturalism and bilingual education don’t help assimilation, but they are not the insurmountable hurdles that Krikorian paints: Studies show second- and third-generation immigrants are almost all fluent in English.
The book is at its xenophobic worst in the chapters on sovereignty and security. Krikorian warns that “Mexico City is moving to being, in effect, a second federal government that American mayors and governors must answer to . . . becoming a permanent participant in the day-to-day business of governance, [exercising] joint dominion” over American territory. As evidence for “this assault on American sovereignty” he mostly just musters quotes from Mexican officials urging the U.S. government to reform its immigration system.
That’s only the beginning. While just about everybody recognizes that radical Islam is the most likely source of future terrorist activity against the United States, Krikorian is eager to bring every immigrant group under equal suspicion. In a section titled “Future Wars,” the author manages to slander millions of normal, peaceful, hardworking immigrants from China, Korea, and Colombia. “Though the nearly 700,000 Korean immigrants here came from South Korea, there can be little doubt that the Communist regime in the north has a network of agents already in place among them,” he writes, casting unwarranted suspicion on the corner grocer in Brooklyn and the worshippers at the Korean Central Presbyterian Church down the road from where I live in northern Virginia. In the same vein, Krikorian writes, “War with China is by no means a certainty, but it is clearly possible, and the nearly 1.9 million Chinese immigrants throughout the United States, including a major presence in high-tech industries, represent a deep sea for Beijing’s fish to swim in.” Is this really a valid argument for turning away immigrants such as Taiwan-born Jerry Wang, cofounder of Yahoo!, or Beijing-born Liang Qiao, the Iowa-based coach of the American Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson?
Turning to jobs and wages, Krikorian sounds like a class-warfare “liberal.” “Mass immigration affects society as a whole by swelling the ranks of the poor, thinning out the middle class, and transferring wealth to the already wealthy,” he asserts. The facts say otherwise. Studies show that immigration benefits the large majority of Americans, not just the wealthy. The middle class has not been thinning out but moving up: The shares of households earning below $35,000 a year and between $35,000 and $100,000 have both declined in the past 20 years as the share earning above $100,000 has grown. Fewer Americans were living under the poverty line in 2006 than in 1994, and the poverty rate has actually been trending down in the past 15 years—a time of robust immigration.
It is true that low-skilled immigrants consume more in government services than they pay in taxes, as Krikorian argues at length. But he dismisses the practicality of limiting access to welfare while glossing over the fact that the average immigrant and his or her descendents generate a sizeable net fiscal surplus for the government.
In the final chapter Krikorian advocates deep cuts in legal immigration and a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration. Among his preferred coercive tools would be a national database of all U.S. workers, native and immigrant alike; uniform national ID documents; enlisting local law enforcement officers in pursuit of illegal immigrants; and even barring private property owners from renting to people without the right documents.
There are plenty of thoughtful questions to be considered when it comes to the role of immigration in a free, modern, and globally connected society. Unfortunately, this book brings nothing new to the discussion.
Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.