Among the species that populate the American political marshland, we are paying too much attention to the youngest. Pollsters were first sighted at the end of the previous century, but this non-native kind has since proliferated. Earlier this year, when the journalists (indigenous animals, by comparison) turned to the focusing event at the southern border that is still occurring, Echelon Insights and Morning Consult found immigration to be the principal issue for conservatives. Now, it is second in salience to “the economy” — a term that can mean everything and nothing — and ahead of national security. Assuming all survey respondents make the same distinctions between these overlapping concepts, what might they mean by immigration that isn’t an economic or security concern? Market research cannot reassemble a puzzle it has itself scattered.
What many conservatives and moderates are worried about is not immigration policy as such — say, why supermodels qualify for an extraordinary-ability visa, or the unpardonable duration of asylum processing — but what a changing demographic make-up entails for American national culture. In this moment of obsession with every sort of group identity, nobody is allowed to feign surprise at heightened nervousness about the national.
You and I are not the only ones to have had this hunch. Immigration may be a bonanza but non-economists are non-interested. An acute sense of the dilution of national identity, however inarticulable by a random sample of registered voters handed a poorly phrased list of issues, makes immigration different from most public-policy matters like the digits on an infrastructure bill, for example (or the war against the Asian giant hornet). All political matters can be reduced to the same elemental question of membership — who we are and how we should arrange our collective life — and immigration is an unrefined variant. Like foreign policy, it puts the question in its crudest and most explicit form.
Conservatives must outgrow the notion that the country is an insular, passive entity on which immigration is being inflicted.
President Donald Trump’s answer was unsatisfactory (and its execution amateurish), but it was an answer. To see immigration as an extrinsic shock to the community — something to brace against, cushion, manage — is a myopic but coherent vision. It doesn’t take too much squinting and head-tilting to see it less blearily (as expressed by David Frum, for instance). The other denizens of the District, however, have yet to formulate an alternative. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson guessed it in 2018: the Liberal reflex on the issue — to mechanically repudiate the Conservative — will not do when the White House is blue. The new president’s plan didn’t even animate his own party, and one suspects it wasn’t designed to. Given over 300 pages of ideation, it failed to enunciate a purpose for the U.S. immigration system and its function for the American body politic.
Liberals’ inability to find direction on this topic partly results from sniffing dismissal at those who think they have. Since the very essence of immigration law is to decide whom to exclude, accepting the premise itself looks like a trap to established Democrats besieged from within their party by green progressives eager to spring on the latest thing. Besides, the vaguely humanitarian cause of legalizing a few million immigrants every generation or so might seem a decent way to rally an increasingly college-softened and ethnically airy electorate. But moderates will not — should not — forget having watched this government cede the power of the argument to the Right yet again by excusing itself from the forum, or otherwise trying to find executive and procedural ways around it, while mumbling the staccato of “build back better.”
And neither should they forget the Trumpian fiasco. Conservatives must outgrow the notion that the country is an insular, passive entity on which immigration is being inflicted. A political community’s traditions are inherently valuable: they are the individual member’s moral starting point. But demographic change and cultural abrasion are not synonymous. Migration is an omnipresent, natural phenomenon constitutive of all communities; social conditions are protean and, as any macroorganism, American culture and identity too are highly adaptable. Radical change in a homogeneous society could be ruinous, but the immigrant share of the population in the these states has always vacillated between five and 15 percent: there is nothing new under the southwestern sun.
A purely reactive migration policy would be as much of a waste as a purely reactive foreign policy: an untouched lever of statecraft which can move the gears of security and economic and grand strategy. (For the unimaginative reader: comb-over virtuoso and Soviet sediment, Alexander Lukashenko, offers exceptional cynicism by weaponizing migration against the European Union in a regional scuffle.) We would not bear lying supine in international affairs. Why tolerate such inaction at the crossing of the international with the domestic?
Pollsters of all breeds will continue to find this question regnant beyond 2022, and deduce that indecision on it was one of the factors that forced many Democrats out of the Capitol. They will do so with renewed dismay at our “polarization” or “divisiveness,” even when their own prodding is often what magnifies it. Whatever they glean about the fundamental puzzle of American culture will be accidental. The next member of the statesman genus to see through the mottled surface of the immigration debate and offer a satisfactory, modern, evolving conception of Americanness shall inherit this political world, and might just avoid having to seasonally emigrate from office.