Observers on the right must have been confused by the controversy that erupted following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent appearance on Fox News. What he advocated sounds at first glance like common sense.
“When we admit people to our country, we should be like Canada,” Sessions said. “What good does it do to bring in somebody who’s illiterate in their own country, has no skills, and is going to struggle in our country and not be successful?” Based on these comments, you could be forgiven for thinking a plague of unskilled illegal immigrants had descended upon the United States. Rest easy; a combination of increased border enforcement and a tightening labor market—trends that predate the Trump administration—resulted in a decline in the low-skilled illegal immigrant population.
The statistics are beside the point. The attorney general is packaging unsavory preconceptions about immigrants in a marketable pitch to centrists based on meritocratic assumptions. The fact is that Jeff Sessions is not qualified to determine who will or will not be a “successful” immigrant to the United States.
Sessions’s vision of a meritocratic immigration regime assumes that success is beyond the reach of under-educated immigrants—a judgment based only on his own preconceptions. That’s not just immodest but antithetical to conservatism, a philosophy which, at root, recognizes that the billions of daily interactions and events that we call the economy routinely frustrate those bold enough to issue predictions about its trajectory. Sessions’s vision of a meritocratic immigration system really isn’t that meritocratic at all; not if it is based on his presumptions about who should and who should not have the chance to prove their worth.
There is truth in the notion that under-educated, low-skilled immigrants are no benefit to some Americans, but not because they are unlikely to be successful. Precisely the opposite; they are more likely to be successful, shutting low-skilled Americans out of the market. Those on the left who revel in the condition of the native-born Americans displaced by this phenomenon shouldn’t laugh too loudly. Whether they recognize it or not, they are the mirror image of the right’s hardliners. What’s more, they are helping fuel the polarization that led to the ascension of an administration that ran explicitly on a restrictive approach to immigration.
Outgoing Illinois congressman Luis Gutierrez, a man with ambitions for higher office, exemplifies the blinkered radicalism of the left when it comes to immigration. This week, Gutierrez announced his opposition to the Trump administration’s desire to end “chain migration,” the practice by which American green card holders and U.S. citizens transfer their family members into the United States. Gutierrez insisted that American residency should be transferable to an immigrant’s siblings, parents, spouses, and children, regardless of whether or not they’ve demonstrated the capacity or interest to assimilate into American society. That’s not meritocracy; it’s charity.
Of course, there are those on the intellectual left for whom meritocracy is an illusion indulged only by those who don’t know the extent to which their successes are not their own. That’s the view of Linfield College English Professor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant, who claimed the “logic of meritocracy that is built on this racist assumption that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.” It’s the view of columnist Jo Littler, who insists that “meritocracy is a myth.” Western democracies like the U.S. and the U.K. are closed systems in which wealth and opportunities are reserved for those with connections to people with an abundance of wealth and opportunity. Meritocracy “is a smokescreen for inequality.”
What these successful opinion-makers have marketed as wisdom is really just blinding resentment. In the United States, in particular, there are no rigid class strata, and there most certainly isn’t any closed loop that guarantees the wealthy that status in perpetuity. “Citing tax scholar Robert Carroll’s examination of IRS records,” National Review’s Kevin Williamson observed, “Professor [Mark] Rank notes that the turnover among the super-rich (the top 400 taxpayers in any given year) is 98 percent over a decade—that is, just 2 percent of that elusive group remain there for ten years in a row. Among those earning more than $1 million a year, most earned that much for only one year of the nine-year period studied, and only 6 percent earned that much for the entire period.” Among those who found their way onto Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans in 2016, a record 42 of them were immigrants from 21 different countries. Together, they have a combined net worth of over $250 billion.
Among liberals, however, this kind of old-school class envy is practically passé. What’s really in vogue isn’t resentment toward American capitalism but American culture. For many on the post-Marxist left, race and identity have supplanted wealth and power as the traits by which structural haves and have-nots can be identified and pitted against one another. For nearly two decades, liberal ideologues have debated whether assimilation into American society was possible or even desirable. Not only does assimilation represent the tacit acceptance of and submission to American racism, but it is the surrender of cultural heritage and traits that are superior to America’s heterogeneous soup of appropriated customs. “Assimilation, instead of bringing upward mobility, brings downward mobility,” Aviva Chomsky wrote in 2007. “It’s not lack of assimilation that keeps them marginalized—it’s assimilation itself.”
As the decades have shown, and as the literate left would likely concede, assimilation continued apace, and it has not yielded a racial hierarchy. A 2015 study conducted by Harvard sociologist Mary Waters for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that immigrants, particularly second-generation immigrants, are integrating into society faster than migrants of earlier generations. This is not without its setbacks; the strain on U.S. English language programs in schools and the evidence suggesting low-skilled migrants “appear to be filling low-skilled jobs that native-born Americans are not available or willing to take” increase social tensions. But assimilation is occurring, and all parties are richer for it.
America in the 1990s and 2000s experienced an immigration boom and, as historian Arthur Schlesinger said, “Mass migrations produce mass antagonisms.” Even though the undocumented and legal permanent-resident populations have leveled off since the collapse of the economy in 2008, America’s politics haven’t caught up with the trends. As the light and heat around immigration fade, so, too, should the insufferable generalities about immigrants bandied about by opinions makers on both the left and the right. At least, that would be ideal.