The Magazine

Who Gets In

And what happens once they're here.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By PETER SKERRY
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Krikorian identifies himself as a conservative addressing "Americans in the patriotic mainstream, liberal and conservative." But his approach might be more aptly described as a curious blend of populism and technocratic policy-wonkery. On the populist side, he articulates a defense of "the revealed preferences" and "natural" choices of millions of ordinary Americans whose freely made decisions are being "artificially" controverted by their government's immigration policy. He sees immigration overwhelming the stable or slow population growth resulting from "the reproductive free market" in which Americans have opted for small families. And while he does not defend suburban sprawl when driven by increased population pressures from immigrants, he does insofar as it results from choices made available to Americans by technology and affluence.

Up to a point, this stance is prudent, even admirable. Too many Americans today feel besieged by immigrants, while their grievances are ignored or smugly dismissed by elites. But surely Krikorian pushes his populist perspective too far when he opposes skilled immigration on the grounds that it would hurt the earnings of college-educated Americans. This is a concern, to be sure; but he never explains why such relatively well-off Americans should be shielded from competitive global labor markets.

In Krikorian's view, America's immigration policy is a vast social engineering project overseen by transnational elites insulated from popular pressure. In the one faint echo here of Lou Dobbs, Krikorian invokes the specter of a remote, out-of-touch government that makes contemporary America sound like pre-revolutionary Russia. Yet while elites have behaved irresponsibly, they have not simply foisted mass immigration on the American people. Krikorian underestimates the extent to which immigration is tied to our understanding of ourselves as a nation. This self-image is rooted in history and ideology, but also embedded in the fabric of daily life. In this regard it is telling that he never addresses the perspective, most elegantly put forward by MIT economist Michael Piore, that far from being a threat to modern societies, immigrants are essential-not merely because they work for less, but because their flexibility and drive overcome the rigidities and constraints arising from affluence and entitlement.

At some level, Krikorian must understand this-hence, his goal of 400,000 immigrants annually. Yet rather than articulate a broad rationale capable of sustaining responses to the inevitable demands for fewer (or more) immigrants, he arrives at this number with the spare logic of an accountant. Such is the curious nature of Krikorian's technocratic populism, which is extremely well informed about policy details, but tone-deaf and too reactive to sustain a new direction for U.S. immigration policy.

For example, Krikorian holds up Japan as a low-migration society from which the United States has much to learn. Arguing that America's reliance on low-skilled immigrants retards innovation, he points admiringly to Japan's advances in robotics. Yet he fails to consider the myriad ways in which Japan's antipathy to immigrants and foreigners reflects a way of life quite antithetical to fundamental American values. Certainly those millions of freedom-loving, patriotic Americans feeling squeezed by immigrants are not going to be drawn to Japan as any kind of model.

Similarly cramped is Krikorian's reasoning about illegals. He rejects mass roundups and deportations because of the fiscal cost, the economic disruption, the ability of immigrants' rights attorneys to derail such efforts, and the pervasive media presence that would broadcast the inevitable missteps. Completely missing is any suggestion that mass deportations might be unfair to a significant number of people. Krikorian simply fails to consider that immigrants who live and raise families here might, over time, come to have claims on this society. These are complicated and emotional questions, too often pushed toward a predictable open-borders conclusion by advocates and their sympathizers. Nevertheless, these are more wrenching dilemmas for many Americans than Krikorian's cold logic allows.

Finally, Krikorian proposes a limit of 50,000 humanitarian admittances (refugees, asylum-seekers, and others) per year-about half what we have typically been accepting, at least before 9/11. The problem is not that the figure seems too low or too rigid, but once again, that it is too narrowly arrived at. Krikorian seems to have opted for this number because it was the target set by the Refugee Act of 1980, not because it somehow speaks to the larger question of why a nation like the United States accepts refugees. Nor does he offer any broader exploration of how doing so might be central to American ideals or responsibilities as the most powerful nation on earth. Indeed, he does not even acknowledge these dimensions of America's refugee policy.

These days the New York Times clearly believes that immigration policy can be reformed on the basis of the genuinely wrenching personal tragedies that it features almost daily. Serious analysts might well react in frustration. Yet melodrama and moralism must not be permitted to obscure the moral underpinnings of this nation's immigration policy. In this regard, the limitations of Krikorian's perspective are clear. Still, those who reject his perspective would do well to provide as sober and reasoned an articulation of their own position.

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke.