The Problem Isn't Immigration; It's National Identity

Immigration differs from other public-policy issues because of a strong feeling of national identity degradation.

We pay too much attention to the youngest among the animals that occupy the American political wetlands. Pollsters were originally discovered around the turn of the century, but this non-native species has since spread. 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. What may they mean by immigration that isn't an economic or security problem, assuming that all poll respondents draw the same distinctions between these overlapping concepts? Market research can't put together a jigsaw that's been strewn all over the place.

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 response was unsatisfying (and his delivery was sloppy), but it was a response. Immigration as an external shock to the community — something to brace for, cushion for, and manage — is a shortsighted but consistent perspective. Things doesn't take much squinting or head-tilting to make it look less bleak (as expressed by David Frum, for instance). The District's other residents, on the other hand, have yet to come up with a viable alternative. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic anticipated it in 2018: when the White House is blue, the Liberal response on the topic — to mechanically reject the Conservative — would not suffice. The new president's strategy failed to energise his own party, and one assumes it wasn't intended to do so. Despite over 300 pages of brainstorming, it failed to articulate a purpose for the US immigration system and its role in the American political system.

Liberals' inability to find a path on this issue stems in part from their dismissive attitude toward those who believe they have. Accepting the assumption appears to be a trap to established Democrats beset from within by green progressives eager to spring on the latest thing, given that the purpose of immigration legislation is to pick who to exclude. Besides, rallying an increasingly college-softened and ethnically breezy electorate around the vaguely humanitarian cause of legalizing a few million immigrants every generation or two could seem like a good idea. But moderates will not — should not — forget how this administration once again ceded the debate to the right by withdrawing from the forum or by attempting to find executive and procedural ways around it, all the while murmuring "build back better."

They should also remember the Trump debacle. Conservatives must abandon the idea that the United States is an isolated, passive entity on which immigration is imposed. Traditions in a political group are intrinsically valuable: they provide the moral starting point for each individual member. However, population shifts and cultural abrasion are not the same thing. Migration is an ever-present, natural phenomena that affects all societies; social conditions are fluid, and American culture and identity, like any macroorganism, is very adaptive. In a homogenous culture, radical change may be disastrous, but the immigrant population share in these states has traditionally fluctuated between 5% and 15%: there is nothing new under the southwestern sun.

A merely reactive migration policy would be just as ineffective as a solely reactive foreign policy: an untapped lever of statecraft capable of shifting the gears of security, economics, and grand strategy. (For the unimaginative reader, Alexander Lukashenko, comb-over virtuoso and Soviet detritus, offers unparalleled cynicism by weaponizing migration against the European Union in a regional brawl.) In foreign affairs, we could not afford to remain passive. Why should we put up with such inactivity at the international-domestic border?

Pollsters of all stripes will continue to find this subject resonant beyond 2022, and many Democrats will be thrown out of the Capitol as a result of their inability to make a judgment on it. They'll do so with renewed dismay at our "polarization" or "divisiveness," despite the fact that it's frequently their own pushing that exacerbates it. Whatever they learn about America's basic puzzle will be coincidental. The next statesman to see below the murky surface of the immigration debate and give a satisfying, modern, changing vision of Americanness will inherit this political reality, and may just avoid having to depart from office on a seasonal basis.

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