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Why Not a Merit-Based Immigration System?

Reihan Salam's latest book makes the case for an overhaul along Trumpian lines.

Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders, Reihan Salam, Sentinel, 224 pages

It’s hard to imagine a more needed contribution to America’s immigration debate than Reihan Salam’s civil, sober, and penetrating Melting Pot or Civil War? At a moment when the major dueling discourses revolve around lurid depictions of immigrant crime by one side, and appeals to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and accusations of racism by the other, Salam’s data-driven argument about the future consequences of today’s immigration choices could not be more timely.

While Salam is the child of middle-class professionals from Bangladesh who settled in New York at a time when there were virtually no Bengali speakers in the city (there are now tens of thousands), apart from a few personal anecdotes, his book could have been written by an author of any ethnicity. Yet in our increasingly racialized debate, an argument made by a “son of immigrants” (as the book’s subtitle announces) may be less likely to face summary dismissal from the centrist liberals and moderates who are its most important audience.

Salam’s case is that America’s legal immigration system needs be reformed on lines roughly similar to what the Trump administration now and others before it have long advocated: changing the rules to place a greater emphasis on the economic skills of immigrants while deemphasizing the role played by family “reunification” would ensure both that new immigrants are an economic plus to the economy and, more importantly, that they are more likely to integrate into the American cultural mainstream. This would put the U.S. more in line with the generally politically popular systems in place in Canada and Australia. The proposal is tempered, or balanced, by measures to shore up the condition of the American working poor and an amnesty giving long-term resident illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, as well as ambitious measures to enhance economic development in the Third World.

But the meat of Melting Pot or Civil War? is not in the proposal but in the getting to it—a route which passes through numerous nuggets gleaned from contemporary research and a depressing if persuasive analysis of the consequences if America stays on its present course.

First of all, Salam reminds us, an alarming number of recent immigrants and their families are poor. This does not mean that almost all of them have not improved their economic status by migration: they have. A low-skilled job in the United States pays several times better than such work in many countries, so low-skilled migration is, without a doubt, a benefit to low-skilled migrants. Recent immigrants grateful for the opportunity to live in America may accept living in poverty, though Salam is right to remind us of the miserable conditions, redolent of the teeming tenements of the early 20th century, in which their lives often unfold. He makes the subtle point that part of the current appeal of America’s major cities to upper middle-class professionals is the presence of a politically docile service class of low-skilled immigrants, many of them undocumented.

But the families such immigrants form tend to be poor as well: today’s immigrants face headwinds to upward mobility that the storied Ellis Island generations did not. There was much more need in 1900 for unskilled labor than there is now, and no substantive gap then existed in education level between the immigrants and the general American population. The data Salam deploys is not overly dramatic but decisive nonetheless: children of immigrants now make up 30 percent of all low-income children (where they are 24 percent of the whole); roughly half of immigrant families have incomes within 200 percent of the poverty line; nearly a third of immigrant children grow up in families headed by someone without a high school diploma; the average Mexican immigrant has 9.4 years of schooling, rising to 12 in the second generation but flatlining after that.

As the gap between the earnings of American college graduates and others has grown in the past two generations, this means that the social problem of the intergenerational transmission of poverty is being intensified by the ever continuing flow of poor, unskilled immigrants, both legal and illegal. And while such immigrants may well be politically quiescent, their children are unlikely to be.

These somber facts are balanced, and in many ways veiled, by the immigrant success stories which Americans rightly celebrate. But while it may be unkind to say so, immigrants don’t arrive as blank slates, mysteriously sorted out upon reaching these shores so that some become doctors and software entrepreneurs.

As Salam makes clear, successful immigrants tend to come from relatively rich and urbanized societies. The parents of Google founder Sergey Brin were accomplished scholars. An astounding 45 percent of immigrants from India—who make up the latest version of a high-achieving “model minority”—are Brahmins, members of the tiny Indian hereditary upper caste. Indians who come here tend to be “triple selected”: most enter the country by way of high-skilled worker visas, which means they are products of India’s highly competitive education system, which serves only a fraction of India’s population. Similarly, Chinese immigrants tend to come from that country’s college-educated elite.

Salam explains that under the current system, most visas are doled out according to family ties—not skills or education. And the larger the number of immigrants is from a given country, the lower their average earnings and educational outcomes will be in the U.S. Conversely, the harder it is for a given group to enter the United States, the more likely it is that immigrants will be drawn from the top of their country’s pecking order.

One might conceive of this as a stable system—after all, there are many jobs for low-skilled immigrants. But of course immigrants have children, at rates far higher than the native born, and the children of lower-skilled immigrants make up a continually growing share of Americans at or near the poverty level. “The children of elite immigrants make their way into America’s elite, where they add a much needed dash of superficial diversity, enough to make us forget their inconvenient working class counterparts.” The result, of which there is already ample evidence among the Millennial cohort of immigrant children, is a growing population which has grown up in poverty, isn’t doing especially well in income or education, and perceives the American dream cynically, as a kind of whites-only sham. This divide will influence our politics for the foreseeable future. The question is how much.


While much of Salam’s analysis is a deep dive into statistics of intergenerational poverty, educational outcomes, and the growing achievement gap, he doesn’t shy from the ominous implications of the racialization of the immigration debate. There is ample evidence that college-educated Americans of all ethnicities marry one another at reasonable and growing rates, producing a fair number of mixed-race people who feel themselves part of the cultural mainstream. As scholars have long reminded us, “white” is a broad and fungible category in American history, and there is a fair prospect that the college-educated and middle classes will intermarry enough to produce a 21st-century version of the storied melting pot.

But that isn’t the case with poorer immigrants, even as their children learn English. Current family unification statutes encourage poor, non-white immigrant communities to continually replenish their new arrivals. Thus there are two competing processes going on—amalgamation, in which more educated immigrant families are joining the middle-class mainstream, intermarrying with whites and with one another, and racialization, in which a new immigrant group finds itself ghettoized and cut out of the mainstream. This latter phenomenon is most pronounced in some Mexican-American communities, which are demographically the largest immigrant groups, but exists in many immigrant communities.

It is in this subset, for example, where ISIS has found recruits, and where—on a less dramatic level—the Marxist Left is able to make inroads. As America’s demography grows less white, the political salience of radical immigrants of color is likely to grow. While Salam exercises great restraint describing the phenomenon, his foreboding is unmistakable: “The danger, as I see it, is that as the logic of the melting pot fails to take hold, and as more newcomers are incorporated into disadvantaged groups, the level of interethnic tension will skyrocket, and we’ll look back wistfully on the halcyon politics of the Trump years.” Or again, “Imagine an America in which wealthy whites and Asians wall themselves off from the rest of society and low wage immigrants and their offspring constitute a new underclass.”

Of course it is not merely racial minority immigrants who are tempted by political radicalism. The current extremist white backlash is widely noted by scholars and journalists. But among the liberal establishment it is viewed not as problem to be alleviated but a social development to be crushed. Salam observes immigration scholars who are scrupulous about reporting the ways immigration is making America less united, threatening social cohesion, “leading to greater divisions and tensions,” while never considering reducing or reforming immigration (with greater emphasis on skills) as a possible answer to the problems. They hope— against considerable social science evidence that political instability is endemic to multicultural societies— that greater diversity will somehow bury ethnic conflict. This Salam calls the Backlash Paradox: while mass immigration contributes to bigotry and polarization, the only acceptable option among elites is to double down and hope the storm passes, as slowing the pace of immigration is considered a “callow surrender to bigotry.”

I have focused on the social and political elements, but Salam’s argument also relies a great deal on economics, much of it focused on economic choices molded by a relatively high-skilled or low-skilled labor force. His major point is that labor shortages spur technological innovation, while loose labor markets discourage it. Labor scarcity, Salam observes, has been the historical secret to American prosperity, spurring one labor-saving innovation after another. A high-immigration economy, with a completely elastic number of workers willing to work for a minimum wage or less, is an economy under a completely different calculus. There is no question we should prefer the first.


I have only minor caveats with this outstanding book. It might be a necessary concession to the immigrationist lobby to maintain the raw number of immigrants as high as it is at present, but it seems likely that lowering it to, say, half a million a year, roughly the number urged by the Clinton administration’s task force on immigration, would break the fever more quickly and lead to far more rapid assimilation of recent immigrants.

I find Salam’s earnest plea for the United States to dramatically raise its spending to accelerate economic development in the Third World well intended, but likely futile. An answer which comes to mind is one that diplomat George F. Kennan suggested a quarter of a century ago, that the single greatest benefit the United States can deliver to the world’s poor is to maintain itself as a relatively high civilization able to inspire by example, and provide help and insight to others seeking answers to their problems.

And though it is a subject in itself, I wish Salam had directly addressed the new leftist ideology built around the fighting of “white privilege”—which now includes under its rubric everything from getting rid of standardized tests to delegitimizing police departments, railing against the First Amendment to ripping down statues of long-admired white Americans. This largely white-led phenomenon does far more to intensify nativist dread about being reduced to minority status than any racist agitation leveled against immigrants of color, however lamentable the latter might be.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.