What If Americans Mattered?

What If Americans Mattered?


This is the seventh in a series on the major policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda. (For the opposing view, see Kristie De Peña, "Higher Walls Alone Won't Fix Immigration.")


However the 2016 election turns out, the Donald Trump irruption will change American politics profoundly, for both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats will find it necessary to muffle the contempt many of them feel for Republicans, after the blowback from Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” But it’s the Republican establishment — with its comfortable and dated orthodoxies, its checklist of received ideas — for which Trump poses the greatest challenge. He has defeated them in the voting lists, and now he challenges them in the battle of ideas.

Three ideas behind the Trump movement bid to rescue what is living from what is dead in American conservatism. First, the level of corruption in America: The crony capitalism personified by the Clinton Cash machine is a silent killer of our economy, and reining it in is more important than any single policy issue. Free-market policies don’t mean a thing in a corrupt country. Second, economic policies should be evaluated by how they affect all Americans, not just the top ten percent or the economy in the aggregate. In particular, the American Dream, the idea that this is the country where everyone can get ahead, has been betrayed by a new aristocracy, where rich parents raise rich kids and poor parents raise poor kids. Third, the open-borders cosmopolitanism of some Republican establishment figures has been decisively rejected by Republican voters, whose nationalism will come to define the conservatism of the future.

All three principles inform Trump’s policies on immigration. He’s spoken out against crony capitalists who support the lax border laws that provide them with cheap foreign labor. He’s also championed the idea of a mobile society in which our children can hope to rise up the economic ladder. And more than any politician he’s brought the idea of nationalism — of American greatness — to the center of the policy debate.

It’s no great mystery to find a set of immigration policies that would satisfy these principles. All one need do is look to Canada. About 15 percent of the people in the U.S. (including illegals) are foreign-born, but it’s 20 percent in Canada, and yet immigration is not an issue there. All Canadian political parties strongly favor immigration and their country’s current policies for admitting new arrivals. And it’s a system Donald Trump would love.

There are 10 times more undocumented aliens per capita in the U.S. than in Canada — about 11 million in the U.S. versus 100,000 in Canada. The difference comes down to a difference in will. In Canada illegal immigrants are given a refugee hearing and put on a plane and sent home if they fail. And while some Americans might think this heartless, no one in Canada seems to think it’s a problem.

The cross-border difference in attitudes comes down to three things. First, Canada accepts vastly more legal immigrants than the U.S. — about 250,000 a year in Canada vs. 1,000,000 in the U.S. On a per capita basis, the U.S. would need to admit about 150 percent more immigrants annually to match Canada. As such, worries about illegal immigrants are considered less pressing in Canada. “We’ve already done our part,” they think.

Second, the Canadian system gives preference to immigrants who can be expected to make native Canadians better off. What that means is that Canada admits a lot more people on the basis of economic merit. What Canada wants are people who are going to start out as givers, not takers. It’s wrong to distinguish between American givers and takers, as Mitt Romney did, but it’s just fine to distinguish between would-be immigrant givers and takers.

Canada prefers younger immigrants, people who are educated, people who want to go to places where there are labor shortages, people who are going to start businesses in Canada and hire Canadians. In absolute numbers, Canada actually admits more immigrants under economic categories than the U.S. There are about 160,000 such immigrants a year in Canada versus 140,000 in the U.S. Remarkably, a country one-tenth the size of the U.S. takes in more people who promise to make the native-born better off.

Economic criteria are also a pretty good proxy for the virtues of good character. Not being priests, immigration bureaucrats may not be able to screen people for the cardinal virtues. But if they select immigrants on the basis of education, industry, and entrepreneurship, they’re likely to get a pretty good sort of fellow. They’ll also be picking immigrants more likely to integrate into Canadian society and to adopt its values — which Canadians think is a good thing.

By contrast, the American system is geared towards family reunification, which systematically advantages the countries from which recent arrivals have emigrated — in other words, Mexico and not Ireland. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big one for families. But in an age of Skype and cheap airfare it’s not like the old days. Back then, it used to be the long goodbye when you left the old sod. Not today. And now we’re left with an immigration cohort less skilled and educated than native-born Americans — not the highest of bars, when you really think about it. As if that weren’t sufficiently daft, the U.S. admits a further 50,000 people a year just because they’ve won a lottery, with no screening whatsoever. Cretinism doesn’t descend any lower.

Differences in immigration systems go fair ways in explaining why the American Dream, so battered in the U.S., lives on in Canada. In The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America, I show how the Great White North is a far more mobile country than the U.S. American immigrants earn less than native-born Americans, and the children of immigrants earn less than the children of native-born Americans, and this effect persists at least into the third generation. We’re importing immobility, and those who defend our present immigration system don’t have standing to complain about economic inequalities in America. You can’t suck and blow.

One of the casualties of America’s immigration system is our tradition of generosity. We used to be the country that, more than anywhere else, came to the aid of people elsewhere who needed our help. Think of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift. Now we struggle to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees. Canada, by contrast, has admitted 32,000 Syrian refuges and plans to admit as many as 50,000.

To match that, American would have to admit 50 times more refuges than it plans to do. What makes matters worse is that the problem was created by misguided American foreign policies. Like a child in an antique store, we broke it and then walked away from it. And, unlike Canada, America isn’t admitting Christian refugees, when Christians are the principal victims of ISIS terrorism.

People who want to admit immigrants who will make Americans worse off aren’t showing compassion for illegal immigrants. They’re showing a lack of compassion for Americans, and possibly a desire for cheap maids and gardeners. Besides, when you have sensible policies for regular immigrants, you can then have a generous refugee program, as Canada does. Start caring a bit more about our own people, and our country’s legendary compassion for others will come roaring back.

Almost the worst thing I can say about America’s immigration system is how the best instincts of the most generous people in the world are stifled when they have reason to think that their country’s elites despise them. If Americans no longer trust their government to look after them, our immigration policies are a big reason. 


F.H. Buckley is a law professor at George Mason University and the author of The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America (Encounter Books, 2016). 


Author's Recommended Reading: 

F.H. Buckley, The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America (New York: Encounter Books, 2016), especially chapter 17, "Immigration."


(Read the response by Kristie De Peña.)

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