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The Immigration Dilemma
In often needlessly harsh ways, President Donald Trump is forcing Americans to face issues that have been festering for decades, but effectively swept under the rug by the ruling party duopoly. Nowhere is this more evident than with immigration, an issue that helped to spark Trump’s quixotic, but ultimately successful, campaign.
Many Americans are clearly upset about an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and many also fear the arrival of more refugees from Islamic countries. Perhaps no issue identified by Trump has been more divisive.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s rhetoric has stirred bitter anger among the country’s polite establishment, right and left, as well as the progressive grievance industry. His call for a massive border wall has not only offended our neighbor, Mexico, but also created legitimate concern in Latino communities of massive raids. According to a 2012 study for the National Institutes for Health, the undocumented account for roughly one in five Mexicans and up to half of those from Central American countries.
The weakness of the open borders position
Anti-immigrant sentiment has a long, if somewhat nasty, history in America. It usually follows periods of great immigration, and ethnic change, as occurred in the mid-19th century and early 20th century, when immigration policies were dramatically tightened.
Today, economics dictates some change of direction. In a country where wages for the poorest have been dropping for decades, the notion of allowing large numbers of similarly situated people into the country seems to be more a burden than a balm. In California, among noncitizens, three in five are barely able to make ends meet, according to a recent United Way study.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has famously laid out a “Welcome” sign to both Mexican illegal and legal immigrants coming to the state. Many progressives consider concerns with nationality and cultural integration as vile attempts to have them “Anglo-Saxonized.” The open borders ideology has reached its apotheosis in “sanctuary” cities which extend legal protection from deportation even to criminal aliens who have committed felonies.
Trump’s over-the-top response
Politically, the open borders rhetoric helps Trump. Even in California, three-quarters of the population, according to a recent UC Berkeley survey, oppose sanctuary cities. Overall, more Americans favor less immigration than more. Most, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, also want tougher border controls and increased deportations. They also want newcomers to come legally and adopt the prevailing cultural norms, including English.
But in his rants on immigration, Trump may be going too far. Only a minority favor Trump’s famous wall, and the vast majority, including Republicans, oppose massive deportations of undocumented individuals with no criminal record. Limiting Muslim immigration does better, but appeals to only roughly half of Americans.
Trump’s restrictionist choice for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is also on record opposing more legal immigration. This could prove ruinous to the country’s long-term future. Like most high-income countries, the United States’ fertility rate is below that needed to replace the current generation. If the U.S. cuts off its flow of immigrants too dramatically, we will soon face the labor shortages, collapse of consumer demand and drops in innovation already seen in the European Union and much of East Asia.
An overly broad cutback in immigration would also deprive the country of the labor of millions of hard-working people, many of whom do difficult jobs few native-born Americans would do. The foreign-born, notes the Kaufmann Foundation, are also twice as likely to start a business as the native-born.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.