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The Elite Revelation on Immigration

Conventional wisdom is turning away from unrestricted immigration. The question is how to put that into policy.

Credit: Everett Collection

The American Conservative’s motto, “Right From the Start,” betrays a certain polite frustration. The principles and policies that generally cause the nation to flourish—coincidentally the policies that have come to be identified as conservative or right-wing—have been largely unchanged since the McKinley administration. 

Take the trade issue. The commonsense approach of Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge—trade should be facilitated, but strategic industries and the American worker should be protected by moderate tariff regimes—disappeared from the political scene in the latter decades of the last century, with catastrophic strategic and social consequences. Donald Trump brought it back; now an aggressive trade policy is again the consensus position. Biden’s trade representative, Katherine Tai, is holding the Europeans’ toes to the fire over steel and aluminum imports. Right from the start indeed.


Similarly, until quite recently—1998 is really the year of inflection—fiscal discipline and a balanced budget were considered broadly good things. Then came the disco era of deficit spending: the Global War on Terror, the Bush administration’s ambitions to rival Great Society spending on social programs, the easy money Federal Reserve regime, the bailouts and stimulus packages following the 2008 economic crisis, multiple years of quantitative easing, Covid-19 relief. All of a sudden, with a little help from inflation and increasing interest rates, mainstream opinion has rediscovered the virtues of fiscal discipline and a balanced budget. Right from the start again.

The list goes on. A foreign policy based on restraint and the prioritization of American interests in the Western hemisphere and the two great oceans? Right from the start. A social policy targeted at family formation and the strengthening of local communities? Right from the start. The prevention of cartels and trusts dominating and distorting markets? Right from the start. You get the idea.

It looks as if we’re set for another vindication. A memo must have gone out over the mainstream journalist group chats this week, telling our brave fourth estate that it turns out immigration is a problem. David Leonhardt at the Atlantic:

Immigration tends to impose costs on lower-wage workers and to alter the political atmosphere in ways that make government policy less generous to those same workers. The past century suggests that there are trade-offs between immigration levels and progressive policy goals. Reducing immigration would probably make reducing economic inequality in the United States easier. Lower levels could make Americans more amenable to policies that would benefit immigrants who are already here, such as a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

Especially noteworthy is Leonhardt’s observation of the distortions introduced by immigrants abusing chain migration—a topic that Phillip Linderman of the Center for Immigration Studies addressed for TAC at length not a full month ago. Right from—well, do I need to say it again?


A variety of bien-pensants pundits on Twitter also appeared to experiment with immigration skepticism. (One must wonder whether the viral images of Arab immigrants protesting in the U.S. and elsewhere in support of Hamas’s ugly war are behind the wavering on this particular liberal piety.) As our own Helen Andrews pointed out, the arguments fielded are ameliorationist and mealy-mouthed. Yet there is a change; this is a far cry from the rhetoric comparing border enforcement to genocide that became so familiar during the last administration. It is worth observing that the pointy-heads are merely catching up with the views held by a majority of Americans, who tend to favor some immigration but regard the current system as a disaster.

These are not new ideas, but, on the whole, late is probably better than never—although it is very late indeed. The question, of course, is what anyone can do with this fresh gnosis. It appears unlikely that the Republicans, the proper standard-bearers on immigration reform, will be able to get any kind of legislation over the line on their own initiative in the near future; notwithstanding their current episode of internecine warfare, there are reasons to harbor pessimism about the GOP’s prospects for 2024, some inherent or structural, some not. That means any movement on immigration will have to happen on a mostly Democratic line—unlikely, given the radicalism of the existing House Democratic caucus—or on a truly bipartisan basis. 

The consensus that has quietly emerged on trade, antitrust regulation, and to some degree on foreign policy is a cause for hope. (Deficit spending and the debt remain elusive.) Set against this is the fact that the House Republicans, as soon as they settle on a leader they can tolerate, are saddled with a politically confounding impeachment, which is liable to sink any cross-aisle overtures. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

We are in a rare moment of clarity, where there is broad sectional agreement on a variety of classic right-wing policies. The trick is enacting those policies. Barring a more favorable political reconfiguration, it looks as if incrementalism and, hateful as it is, bipartisanship will have to carry the day.