The Right and Left Are Both Wrong on Immigration. Here's What We Need | Opinion

Immigration has always been a hot button issue in America, and our generation is no different. Most recently, controls on immigration have been portrayed as racist and repressive by the open-borders Left and too expansive by the increasingly nativist Right.

Both sides have it wrong: Immigration is one of America's great competitive assets, but making sure this remains the case requires finding sensible policy—which won't much appeal to either the nativist Right or the multi-cultural Left.

That neither side is interested in reasonable policy is all too apparent when you take a look at the way partisans on both sides of the political aisle have been talking about the topic of late. Many conservatives see immigrants as a threat to the nation's culture and their own political prospects, and as a result, some have sought to limit all immigration, legal or not. The opposite seems to be the case on the Left, where a progressive push for open borders seems designed to augment their political power on the logic that demographics is destiny and immigrants from Latin America and Asia naturally would vote for Democrats over "the racist" GOP.

These are both extreme ideologies, neither of which works best for the country as a whole.

The Left-wing ideologues miss the fact that amidst a deepening cultural rift and rising inequality, inviting large numbers of poor, largely uneducated people seems a poor policy choice, assuring ever more conflict and competition at the bottom of the labor pool. For proof that this is the case, look no further than the fact that working class and minority workers did better in terms of income under the restrictionist economic policies of President Trump, who targeted illegal immigration, than under previous administrations from both parties.

Indeed, one does not have to applaud Trump's often offensive comments on immigrants or the calls by the likes of Arkansas' Senator Tom Cotton to slash legal immigration to see the need for a more intelligent and sustainable policy.

But the Right-wing ideologues are wrong, too. Immigrants still remain critical to our economy, especially at times like these when we're seeing a persistent labor shortage. The role of immigrants in high-value industries has also been well-documented; about one fourth of all technology and engineering companies started in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012 had at least one immigrant co-founder, and more than half of the American startups that became companies valued at $1 billion or more—including Google, Tesla, Stripe, and Uber—count immigrants among their founders and top executives. By some estimates, immigrants account for a quarter of U.S. invention and entrepreneurship.

US-Mexico Border, Migrants
SAN LUIS, AZ - JUNE 4: Migrants attempt to cross in to the U.S. from Mexico June 4, 2021 in San Luis, Arizona. Nick Ut/Getty Images

Certainly, immigrants who come without skills and occasionally with criminal records are not good for a country. Nor does it make much sense to bring in people who will be forced to use public services and funds to survive. But the Right needs to acknowledge the simple fact that we can't compete in tech without immigrants; according to research by the National Foundation for American Policy, citizens of other countries make up the vast majority of graduate students at U.S. universities in electrical engineering (81 percent), computer science (79 percent) and industrial engineering (75 percent).

To really see how this plays out, compare these numbers to China, where the labor force is expected to shrink by 20 percent by 2050. Consider the fact that according to World Bank data, in 2015, less than one-tenth of one percent of the people living in China were international migrants—compared to 14 percent of the population in the United States.

Sadly, the Biden Administration is as befuddled by immigration as past regimes. Today's Democrats are "stuck," as FiveThirtyEight's Alex Samuels put it, embracing what amounts to "open borders" and pushing back against Vice President Kamala Harris' sensible admonition that perhaps refugee migrants should not risk the trip north. (Harris was also slapped down by Guatemala's president, who blamed the mass immigrant surge on promises inherent in the Democrats' "open borders" rhetoric.)

And yet, this kind of sensible thinking is exactly what we need: an enlightened immigration policy that would focus on America's long-term economic and social goals.

And those goals have changed over the decades. Earlier immigrant waves to America came to a developing country with huge labor demand that included those with little education. Immigrants worked coal mines, farms and factories, while also establishing themselves as merchants in the country's emerging cities and small towns.

But we no longer live in a country that has an inexhaustible demand for strong backs and nimble hands. Less skilled immigrants compete with already struggling working class citizens, depressing their wages, as both Bernie Sanders and progressive writer Thomas Frank have noted. What America needs more of is immigrants who are medical technicians, software writers, and skilled manufacturing workers.

There are models for this approach from immigrant-rich Canada and Australia. Despite Canada's progressive image, the country's immigration policy is focused not on "diversity and inclusion" but on skilled workers; it aims to produce "a multi-ethnic, property owning middle class with a definite stake in the larger society," notes Alberta-based analyst Michael Cueno.

And it turns out, abjuring "diversity" as an immigration aim is likely to be popular with immigrants, who tend not to be as far left on issues of identity as the Left would like. Last year, over 840,000 green card holders became citizens, the most in a decade, and many are headed to the more conservative metros of the South, the Great Plains and Texas, rather than deep blue Northeastern or West Coast locales, a recent study from Heartland Forward found. They seem to have little appetite for what the progressive Left is selling.

Unless warped by our media and academic elites, these immigrants will confirm America in its historic mission as a society based on law and ideals, not race. They may come from different places, but they represent not just an economic asset, but proof of the vitality of our beleaguered nation.

Getting immigration right is critical to our continued predominance. Great societies are by nature expansive. Rome's rise, Edward Gibbon suggested, stemmed in part from its acceptance of religious heterodoxy and the fact that it extended citizenship to the farthest boundaries of its empire; by 212, all free people were eligible to be citizens.

"The grandsons of Gauls, who besieged Julius Caesar at Alesia, commanded legions, governed provinces and were admitted into the Senate of Rome," wrote Gibbon.

There's a crucial message there for America.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.