Liberals Need to Be More Conservative About Immigration

The U.S. owes allegiance to its citizens, warts and all.

Go slow.

Photographer: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Part of the long aftershock of President Donald Trump’s election is a new debate over immigration. Two provocative entries in that debate have appeared in recent days. Both featured columnists playing against type.

Conservative Bret Stephens wrote tongue-in-cheek in the New York Times that to make America great again, we should be deporting complacent native-born Americans rather than industrious immigrants. At the Atlantic, liberal Peter Beinart wrote that Democrats have become too insouciant about illegal immigration and need to remember the virtue of assimilation.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

Of the two, Beinart makes the stronger case. He notes that Democratic views on immigration have shifted over the last decade. Some prominent liberals used to talk about the potential negative effect of immigration on low-wage workers, and the damage to the rule of law from illegal immigration. Beinart correctly identifies a major reason for this shift: Democrats came to think that immigration and their support for it were going to help lead them to big political victories. (Beinart ignores another explanation, which I went into in a recent article on the Democrats’ leftward march: The conservative Democrats who once represented skeptical views of immigration mostly became Republicans.)

Beinart suggests that Hillary Clinton might have won the election if she had talked more about helping immigrants learn English rather than advertising her comfort with Spanish. But Beinart is, to my mind, too skittish in challenging his party’s orthodoxies. He says that reorienting our immigration system so that we do more to bring in high-skilled immigrants and less to reunite extended families would be cruel and betray our country’s “best traditions.” Our traditions have not, however, included an unlimited policy of extended-family reunification. Would a shift in emphasis really be so terrible? And Beinart does not pause to consider whether a reduction in immigration levels might aid the assimilation he rightly seeks.

Stephens’s column, on the other hand, is valuable as an illustration of a viewpoint that is rarely voiced so explicitly. Much of his column is dedicated to the idea that a lot of immigrants (legal and illegal) are more praiseworthy in various ways than a lot of Americans. That point is inarguable, and some immigration critics could probably use the reminder. But he jumps from that idea to the much less sensible one—which he makes entirely in earnest, dropping his Swiftian conceit—that the country belongs first and foremost to its newcomers. The idea that we may owe something to our fellow Americans that we do not owe to foreigners, however deplorable some of the former and laudable some of the latter may be, is notable for its absence from this article. Which is to say, the idea of national allegiance is absent from it.

As some liberals may be starting to realize, that is not a promising start for thinking about immigration policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.