It isn’t hard to spot the inconsistency in our country’s two foremost challenges. The first challenge is that the free and democratic United States is fast becoming a low-trust nation that sometimes seems on the brink of dissolution. The second is that the U.S. is being overrun by a record number of illegal immigrants risking their lives to get in.
If the country is so badly off, why are people around the world flocking to it in unprecedented multitudes?
According to critics on the right, we’re a banana republic with a deep state bent on crushing dissent. Why take such a treacherous journey just to go from one banana republic to another? According to the left, we’re a racist, imperialist enterprise poised to turn white-nationalist or fascist once and for all should Donald Trump win reelection. Shouldn’t Latinos and Africans and Asians be risking their lives to avoid a place like that?
Apparently not. Last month, 181,000 people crossed the southern border illegally, the majority of them from Latin America. This beats the previous high, which was set in 2019—when Trump was president. Illegal immigrants aren’t nearly so hung up on partisan politics as American citizens are.
They’re coming here in numbers we can’t handle because America—uncertain, distrustful, and divided as it is—is the greatest country in the world.
As a free-market, federalist-minded people, Americans should understand better than anyone that where human beings with options choose to go is the most valuable measure of desirability. Gavin Newsom can call California the country’s true “free state” all he likes. But Americans are flocking to Florida and Texas for a reason. And immigrant hopefuls from around the globe are dying to come to the U.S., no matter how much we or anyone else complain about the state of our politics.
The flood of illegal immigration rightly grabs the headlines because it’s a massive law-enforcement failure that’s stretching the resources of every state. But legal-immigration statistics tell a similar story about America’s popularity, with the number of permanent U.S. visas issued to people applying outside of the country back at pre-pandemic levels. Today, as ever, the U.S. is the top immigrant destination by a huge margin.
The difference between Americans and would-be Americans in how they view the U.S. comes down to a difference in time scales. We assess the health of the country at the every-day level of the news cycle or the policy change. At the most, we see it in four-year chunks after presidential elections. By virtue of their distance from quotidian American life, they see the country on an enduring historic scale. From where they stand, the United States offers the same hope of freedom and prosperity that it always did.
Where we see a country-ending crisis, they see a blip. Where we see a deep-state despot or a xenophobic strongman, they see another president who was elected by the people they want to join. Where we lose trust in an institution or leader, they retain hope in the larger historic experiment.
It’s not that everyone coming here is deliriously enamored of the Founding. Many may not even be very familiar with the nation’s origins altogether. But they don’t have to be (until they take a citizenship test). American cultural dominance has long stretched to every continent, and it continues to leave people with a sense of the opportunities conferred by our system.
Naturally, among such people, there are those ready to sneak in, exploit our freedoms, and do us harm. That is a real crisis, but it’s not existential. Resolving it requires the every-day work of crafting policy, allocating resources, and enforcing the law.
Our trust crisis, on the hand, could be existential for the very reason that there is no policy fix. It thrives on the shared devaluation of our national self-image. Reversing it, then, surely entails keeping the country open to legal immigrants who take the long view of the American dream. And it wouldn’t hurt if we tried harder to see the nation as they do.