In a new Atlantic article, ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum argues that unless the left gets behind reducing immigration, fascism will come to America. (“If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.”) This, he says, is because immigration is a crisis. And if the Democrats refuse to do anything about this crisis—if they become radical “open borders” advocates who believe people should be able to travel the world as they please without restriction—then hard-right demagogues will come along instead to correctly diagnose the problem.
I would like to note, first of all, that there is a long tradition of conservatives insisting that unless the left adopts conservative politics, it will lose. Recently, and hilariously, I came across an NBC article by a woman named Ashley Pratt arguing that Democrats need to nominate Joe Biden in 2020 “because he doesn’t view Republicans as enemies.” Only at the end in Pratt’s bio statement do we discover that she “served as director of media relations and public affairs at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)” and “currently serves on the Board of Republican Women for Progress.” I tend to be dubious about advice from people whose core political goals are wildly different from my own.
But Frum makes a series of arguments, and they are bad ones, and it is worth looking at a couple of them to see why the case for new immigration restrictions is so weak. There are many who want to make Americans far more hostile to immigration than they currently are, and some anti-immigrant rhetoric even comes from people who describe themselves as leftists. They need to be dealt with, to reduce the danger of them persuading anybody.
Frum tries to scare us with statistics that imply a migration crisis. He says that “by 2027, the foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population is projected to equal its previous all-time peak, in 1890: 14.8 percent.” Personally, I don’t find that number especially high or shocking: Within 10 years, a whopping 15 percent of Americans will have been born in one of the other 194 countries in the world. As he says, that’s the same number as a century ago. I was born outside the U.S., so were other Current Affairs editors, and so was Frum himself. My first reaction, then, is: What’s the problem? Should I not have been able to come? Should my colleagues Oren and Vanessa have been banned? Should he not have come? Or is this the old “pulling up the ladder behind you as soon as you’ve climbed it” approach?
In fact, I honestly find it hard to understand from reading Frum’s piece why the presence of a somewhat higher percentage of foreign-born residents is anything to panic about at all. You should read the article yourself to see if I’ve missed something, but I sense a kind of gaping hole where the actual argument should be. There are a lot of words to be sure, and a number of statistics that seem somewhat arbitrarily selected (e.g., percentage of Egyptians who would seek employment in a different country). Frum advocates something very specific: reducing the number of annual legal immigrants by half and “rethinking asylum policy” so that “unemployment, poverty, and disorder” in one’s home country do not provide justification for entering the United States (“disorder” being a vague word that Frum presumably uses because saying “violence” would make him sound callous). Yet while his conclusion is clear—there is a migration crisis, unless we dramatically reduce our legal intake of immigrants fascist backlash will emerge—I find myself incapable of seeing how he arrived at it.
The article is filled with passages like this:
Large-scale immigration also comes with considerable social and political costs, and those must be accounted for. In November 2018, Hillary Clinton delivered a warning to Europeans that mass immigration was weakening democracy. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, referring to the upsurge of far-right populism destabilizing countries such as France and Hungary. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken, particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.” Clinton’s assessment of the European political situation is accurate. According to recent poll numbers, 63 percent of French people believe too many immigrants are living in their country. One-third of the British people who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union cited immigration as their primary reason. In Germany, 38 percent rate immigration as the most important issue facing their country.
Here is my frustration: From the left perspective, this entire panic about immigration is built on a myth. People are told that the very real problems they face have something to do with immigration. Pundits like Tucker Carlson fabricate crime statistics and tell them that “gypsies” are going to show up and poop all over their town. Because many people believe what they hear in the press, they freak out about something that isn’t actually affecting their lives in any way. (Frum concedes that “anti-immigrant feeling usually runs strongest in places that receive relatively few immigrants,” and you don’t find nearly as much of it in places that actually have large immigrant populations like New York City and Los Angeles.) So when French people “believe too many immigrants are living in their country,” it isn’t automatically evidence that too many immigrants are living in their country. It may instead be evidence that French political elites have failed their people and now everyone is blaming poor immigrants who haven’t actually hurt anyone! The left has good reason for thinking this: We look at the history of the United States, where German and Irish and Italian and Chinese immigrants were treated abominably in their day, and today the xenophobic Know Nothingism of the time seems deluded and reprehensible. In a country where prosperity could be had by all, why were people blaming fellow workers for their problems? If you’re a leftist, you realize that the labor movement’s historical anti-immigrant position was deeply harmful to the cause of working people, and that we should have solidarity among the people of all races and nations.
So when Frum points out that people like Hillary Clinton blame political turmoil on immigrants, he’s not actually addressing the left case, because we agree that people like Hillary Clinton blame political turmoil on immigrants, and we agree that French people have been turned against immigrants. What we disagree about is whether immigrants actually are a problem.
Amazingly, Frum seems to think that the existence of xenophobic attitudes among Europeans is itself proof of the problem. But this is like saying that anti-Semitism is proof that Jews are a problem. In a truly remarkable passage, Frum writes:
Demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address: unemployment in the 1930s, crime in the 1960s, mass immigration now…If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.
Consider what this implies about Hitler. When he spoke of the need to destroy a “Jewish menace,” was he talking about an issue that “mattered to people” but that more conventional leaders “appeared unable to address”? Well, to the extent that Germans were anti-Semitic, the issue “mattered” to them, but the position of any sane person is that there was no actual “Jewish question,” that this was just bigotry. It’s dangerous to treat the existence of popular prejudice as proof that the subject of that prejudice is an “actual” problem. Now, I think we do know that Hitler arose because of real issues, like, as Frum says, unemployment. But to take the contemporary parallel: The problem is not the immigrants, just as it was not the Jews. The problems are that the economic and social system is causing people to be miserable, and so those who come along with plausible scapegoats find a ready audience.
What’s remarkable about this whole thing, though, is that Americans aren’t anything like the French in their attitude to immigrants! If Frum believes that immigration levels are too high when popular opinion says they are too high, then American immigration levels aren’t too high. The plurality of Americans believes that current levels of immigration are either perfectly fine or even not high enough, while under a third believe that the numbers of immigrants should be reduced. Look at the polls! A cross-country comparison from Pew last year showed that the U.S. is one of the least anti-immigrant countries. It’s remarkable, actually: Even with all the attempts by Trump and FOX News to turn public hatred toward immigrants (instead of billionaires), most people aren’t having it. The statistics are staggering: According to Gallup polling, in 1995, 65 percent of people thought immigration levels should be decreased. Now, in 2019, only 31 percent do! In the same time, the number of people who thought immigration should be increased went from 7 percent to over 30 percent. True, the public often ranks “immigration” as a high-priority issue come election time, but that includes both people who fear immigrants and people (like me) for whom immigration is an important voting issue because we think borders are a crime.
So Frum tells us his argument is “because people are worried about immigration, we need to stop the immigrants before the fascists do,” but it’s actually more like “we need to make more people stop being tolerant of immigrants.” Trump’s attitude is a minority opinion, and it will stay that way unless people like David Frum succeed in taking know-nothing xenophobia from the fringe to the reasonable mainstream. Now, you may think: “Well, but what about inequality? The people who do well under neoliberalism are pro-immigrant, but the left-behinds in Trump country are justifiably enraged.” In fact, this isn’t the prevailing attitude even in America’s most destitute places. I encourage everyone to read Chris Arnade’s upcoming book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, which chronicles the lives and worldviews of the country’s poorest people. Immigration is a marginal issue. They’re far more concerned about the disappearance of good jobs, the rise of drug use, the collapse of community, the contempt shown toward them by political elites. Fear of immigrants exists, certainly. There’s too much of it. But the project of the left is to give people good lives, so that they’ll stop being afraid of those who are different from themselves. (Some other people, of course, have great lives already and are still bigots. Fuck those people.)
Look at the kinds of stupid arguments David Frum has to make to convince us we should care about this:
Under present immigration policies, the U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2050. Nobody is seriously planning for such population growth—building the schools and hospitals these people will need, planning for the traffic they will generate. Nobody is thinking very hard about the environmental consequences, either. The average American causes the emission of almost 17 tons of carbon dioxide each year, quadruple the annual emissions of the average Mexican and 45 times the emissions of the average Bangladeshi.
The U.S. population was 150 million in 1950. Today it’s 325 million, and the problem with American healthcare is not that we have “run out of hospitals.” When countries’ populations grow, people invent and produce more things and their economies grow and they build more buildings and people work in those buildings. Frum doesn’t actually provide any evidence that the U.S. can’t comfortably house 400 million people. (China’s population has been lifted out of poverty even as it has more than doubled over the last half century.) Instead, he just throws out a big number of people hoping we’ll all be very afraid. And good Lord, the traffic? The waste? The problem here does not seem to be immigrants. It seems to be the fact that U.S. per-person carbon emissions are destroying the planet, and U.S. “car culture” has produced badly-planned cities whose roads get clogged. These are both fixable without mass deportation.
Some of the arguments Frum makes cross over into the truly hilarious. This one had me rolling on the floor of the Current Affairs office:
IMMIGRANTS ARE ENABLING EMPLOYERS TO BEHAVE BADLY… [In the last decade] mining fatalities have declined by two-thirds. Mining, however, is an industry dominated by native-born workers. Industries that rely on the foreign-born are improving much more slowly. Forestry, fishing, and farming are three of the most dangerous industries in the United States. They are 46 percent reliant on immigrant laborers, half of them undocumented… When so many workers in a job category toil outside the law, the law won’t offer much protection. America was built on the revolutionary idea, never fully realized, that those who labor might also govern—that every worker should be a voter… [Yet] the United States has again habituated itself to employing workers who cannot vote and therefore cannot protect their interests or even their lives.
In this formulation, immigrants are “enabling” their own exploitation. Note that Frum doesn’t say why it’s impossible to have labor, employment, and workplace safety laws that protect noncitizens as well as citizens. I mean, he says that since they can’t vote, they don’t have a way of enforcing their interests. But is it inconceivable that America’s majority pro-immigrant voting public could pass laws that require all employers not to let trees fall on their workers? Are basic safety standards really so unthinkable? It’s also strange that Frum’s principle that “every worker should be a voter” leads him to believe we should kick out the immigrants because they don’t vote. For me, and many of my leftist sisters and brothers, it leads to quite the opposite conclusion: Let non-citizens vote. Frum is right: The outcome of elections is going to affect workers, and workers need to be able to protect their interests. And since even Frum doesn’t advocate zero immigration, there will still be a class of people who have “taxation without representation.” So let’s give them representation! (Or at the absolute bare minimum, let’s make sure they’re not being killed on the job by greedy employers who don’t care about their lives.)
I mean, really, look at this:
More and more of the people who live among Americans are not on equal legal footing with Americans. They cannot vote. They cannot qualify as jurors. If they commit a crime, they are subject not only to prison but to deportation. And because these noncitizens are keenly aware of those things, they adjust their behavior. They keep a low profile. They do not complain to the authorities if, say, their boss cheats them out of some of their pay, or if they’ve been attacked on the street, or if they are abused by a parent or partner at home. Heavy immigration has enabled the powerful—and the policy makers who disproportionately heed the powerful—to pay less attention to the disarray in so many segments of the U.S. population.
There are these people called “immigrant rights advocates” who are keenly aware of all of this. They are aware that immigrants do not call the cops because they are afraid of the police, and that they have their wages stolen because they cannot afford lawyers and do not want to go to court. But instead of advocating reduced immigration, immigrant right advocates believe we should do things like: Make sure people don’t have to fear deportation for reporting crimes! If the “powerful” are, as Frum says, “paying less attention” to people’s needs, then perhaps we could have a democracy in which the “powerful” weren’t the ones making and enforcing the rules, and in which everyone’s interests were protected. Or is it some kind of mad utopianism to think that someday we might live in something resembling a democratic society?
Here are some more things Frum says:
- “U.S. immigration policy is driven by nostalgia—by ancestral memories of a world long gone. Give me your tired, your poor …This is no way to think about the problems of today. These are new times, calling for new thinking.” People in this country do not believe in taking in the tired and poor because of “nostalgia.” It’s because they are, most of them, basically decent, and believe that when you live in a land of milk and honey, you ought to be willing to share it with others. Like nearly every other anti-immigrant writer, Frum doesn’t address the moral case for permitting immigration, which is quite simple: The right to restrict others by force from crossing geographic boundaries needs to be justified, there is very little justification for doing so when it comes at little or no cost to yourself, and even if it does come at a cost to yourself, every human being has an obligation to help people in need. The answer to “How many immigrants should the United States take in?” is “As many as we can possibly convince the American public to accept,” because it’s an injustice that being born on U.S. soil gives you so many more material advantages than being born elsewhere, and we should share our great fortune. Housing the tired and poor isn’t “nostalgia.” It’s what Jesus would do, and what Martin Luther King would do, and what really any person who isn’t a sociopath would do.
- “Many Americans feel that the country is falling short of its promises of equal opportunity and equal respect. Levels of immigration that are too high only enhance the difficulty of living up to those promises… No wonder that, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, nearly half of white working-class Americans agree with this statement: ‘Things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.’” Note that Frum is doing the demagogue-thing! People feel the country is falling short of equal opportunity and that the country is changing in ways that alienate people. It must be the immigrants. There’s no evidence that it’s the immigrants causing the country’s political stress. In fact, the evidence goes the other way. But to Frum, alienation from one’s country can’t conceivably be because capitalism is making people lonely and is decimating and “disrupting” communities.
- Frum makes some rather stunning admissions that detonate his own case. While he hauls out the standard anti-immigrant factoids that immigrants may use a bit more in social services than they put in in taxes (he concedes that there are a lot of debates over this), he ultimately concludes that “adding millions of additional immigrant workers every decade makes the American economy in the aggregate much bigger than it would otherwise be,” even if you “accept the most negative estimate of immigration’s dollar costs, and the United States could still afford a lot of immigration,” and “immigration’s most important effects are social and cultural, not economic.” He even concedes that the number of Mexican-born immigrants has actually been dropping, which is arguably evidence that even the big scary “influx” (15 percent!) won’t be very big. So if there’s not a very strong economic case against immigration, is there a social and cultural case? Well, he then concedes that immigrants do fewer drugs, own fewer guns, commit fewer crimes, and disproportionately win Nobel Prizes. The few facts he cites suggesting that immigrants are a problem are things like: Immigrant children who do not speak English well do worse in school and when non-English speakers are in classes with English speakers, everyone in the class may do worse. Neither of those is surprising, since it is very difficult to teach a class in two different languages! It also seems like a very solvable problem, and Frum is vague about the extent to which it actually makes any difference nationally.
- Nearly every talking point here seems silly. For example: “The gains from immigration are divided very unequally. Immigrants reap most of them. Immigration contributes very little to making native-born Americans richer than they would otherwise be.” Yes, I’m sure that immigrants benefit more from their own migration than people who are not them. But I’m not sure why the immigration debate should be about whether immigrants make us “richer than we otherwise would be.” The well-being of others is not important to me solely to the extent that it makes me rich. This is because I am not a “homo economicus” whose sole value in life is the pursuit of material gain. I also care about them because they are worth caring about. I believe in letting people into this country because who the hell are we to declare that this is a fortress and nobody is allowed in unless they prove their worthiness to us? This is a land, not a country club, and if our new neighbors pay their taxes and just want to make decent lives for themselves, why are we even debating whether they can come?
- Frum’s case against asylum-seekers is grotesque and doesn’t spend any time dealing with the actual human consequences—people being murdered—of his position. He simply says that if we start letting people in because they’re suffering, we’d have to let half the world in. But just as “There can be no perfect justice, so there shouldn’t be any justice at all” isn’t a good argument, it’s not clear why we can’t at least admit as many suffering people as possible. Frum’s suspicion of “family reunification” is similarly inhuman. It’s good that we let people sponsor relatives. Having families together is positive! It makes lives better! Don’t be afraid of “chain migration.” Honestly: The right never shuts up about how important families are, until those families are brown.
- “Without immigration restrictions, there are no national borders. Without national borders, there are no nation-states. Without nation-states, there are no electorates. Without electorates, there is no democracy.” And so, by impeccable logic, without immigration restrictions there is no democracy. Except that’s not true. You can have electorates without immigration restrictions. Imagine a hypothetical world in which every person was free to move anywhere they pleased, and voting districts were assigned based on where you happened to choose to reside. I know that may be difficult to conceive of, but we have such a place: It’s called the United States. You can move from Florida to Georgia, or California to Wisconsin, and while you cross a “border” and enter a different political unit, there are no immigration controls. The free movement of people just means that countries would be like states. They are independent political units, but there is free choice of which unit you belong to. Unless Frum believes that “there is no democracy” because Florida doesn’t control the number of emigrants from Nebraska, his logic is stupid.
I could go on. I don’t know if you respected the Atlantic before—I hope you didn’t—but really, the fact that this is a cover story should demonstrate conclusively how poor the quality of mainstream political media in this country is. The Atlantic editors did not make Frum respond to any counterarguments. They did not make him actually prove his case that there is a crisis. Instead, they just let him throw out a pile of meaningless statistics (Africa’s population is growing!) and use it to support the false notion that there is disastrous cultural chaos requiring us to stop offering asylum to people fleeing violence.
I’m very glad that people in the United States generally aren’t receptive to this stuff. It’s something that, speaking as an immigrant, makes me proud! But it’s troubling that mainstream political discourse includes so much space for “we have to adopt the fascists’ policies so that the fascists don’t take power” arguments. How about this for an alternative: Let’s show people why the “problems” the fascists talk about aren’t the actual problems facing humanity, and present a vision of a world where people can freely move about and live peacefully together, celebrating both their similarities and their diversity, and working with their neighbors to build universal prosperity. I refuse to believe that in a land of colossal abundance, it’s so difficult to share some land and wealth with people who need it more than we do.
If you liked this article, you may enjoy: “Responding To ‘The Left Case Against Open Borders.’”
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.