Anti-Immigration Restrictionism Is for Losers

Conservative intellectuals are pushing a turn that will alienate millennials, not secure the GOP's white base.


Donald Trump seems headed for an epic defeat next month. Several states that should be GOP strongholds—Arizona! Georgia! Indiana! Utah! Alaska!—are suddenly swing states. And it's pretty

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much all Trump's fault.

But even as Trump prepares for a blowout, many conservatives have convinced themselves that Trumpism—The Donald's brew of economic populism and anti-immigration restrictionism—needs to be taken seriously. Trumpism, these conservatives say, proves that the GOP ignores the restrictionist wishes of its working-class base at the party's own peril.

This is a dubious lesson to draw from the 2016 presidential race that Trump himself seems to be slinking away from given that at the final debate he talked about his Great Wall of Trump stopping drugs more than workers. But if the GOP still insists on going down this path, it won't secure the party's existing base as much as it'll alienate its future one.

Restrictionism used to be confined to the fever swamps of right-wing extremists—think Rush Limbaugh and Joe Arpaio. But today, the who's who of conservative intellectuals has embraced restrictionism in one form or another because, they claim, "mass immigration" is overwhelming the country's capacity to absorb immigrants. (For the record, America's immigration level—3.5 foreigners per 1,000 people—less than half of Canada's 8.5 per 1,000.)

But many of the country's top conservative thinkers—from National Review's Reihan Salam and The New York Times' Ross Douthat, both separately and jointly, to The Week's Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, to National Affairs' Yuval Levin—are all touting restrictionist remedies for restoring America's economic and cultural health. These are all smart, thoughtful people whose arguments are by no means frivolous. But it is striking that although all of them are appalled by Trump's harsh deportation talk, they are now pushing measures that few respectable conservatives would have touched five years ago.

For starters, they openly call their agenda "restrictionism," a term that was anathema just a few years ago. More strikingly, even Rush Limbaugh-style immigration hardliners used to maintain that their quarrel wasn't with immigration as such, only illegal immigration. They weren't opposed to increasing legal immigration, provided those who are here illegally don't get "amnesty."

No longer.

The new conservative restrictionists would never favor a guest worker program with Mexico because they claim that low-skilled immigration threatens native wages and jobs. (In fact, low-skill immigrants have a relatively small impact on jobs one way or the other, while delivering enormous benefits to American consumers in the form of lower prices of goods and services.)

The most troubling shift, however, is on high-skilled immigration. In theory, these conservatives are in favor of ramping it up. In practice, they have attached so many caveats that one wonders if they are serious. They want any increase in high-tech immigration accompanied with offsetting reductions in low-skilled and family-based quotas to reduce overall immigration levels. Mitt Romney, by contrast, wanted to staple green cards to the diplomas of foreign techies graduating from American universities. But if they were truly serious about letting more high-skilled immigrants in, their media outlets wouldn't be constantly demonizing and questioning the H-1B high-tech visa program, one of the few legal avenues for foreign techies to legally work in the country.

But the good news is that so far, at least, these conservatives aren't shifting public opinion. To the contrary, in fact.

A Pew Research Center poll released in March found a dramatic shift in attitudes toward immigration—in a pro-immigrant direction. In 1994, 63 percent of Americans said immigrants burdened the country and 31 percent said they strengthened it. Now, it's the exact opposite with 59 percent saying strengthen and 33 percent burden.

Millennials, who are more ethnically diverse and open minded than older generations, are even more positively disposed toward immigrants. The same Pew poll found that 76 percent of millennials say immigrants strengthen the country, up from 59 percent in 2013.

Likewise, even though millennials have grown up in the age of terrorism, border enforcement is just not a big deal for them. A mere 20 percent favor building a wall, compared to 34 percent of the general public. Relatedly, 82 percent of millennials say they want undocumented immigrants to stay in the country if they meet certain conditions instead of being deported—compared to 75 percent of the general public.

The Pew poll was consistent with trends revealed in a 2012 analysis by the Opportunity Agenda that found that millennials were more favorably inclined toward immigrants than their elders on virtually every dimension. Fewer millennials thought that immigrants hurt the economy, even though they were entering the job market during a downturn. And they weren't as worried about immigrants burdening social services or bothered by those who didn't speak English.

If escalating restrictionist attacks are having any effect on younger Americans, it is in the opposite direction of what conservatives want. This should not be surprising. Typically, anti-immigration animus runs deepest precisely where people have little direct contact with immigrants. But Americans growing up in a diverse country rub shoulders with immigrants on a daily basis and are less likely to buy into negative portrayals. And this imperviousness will only grow as every generation gets more educated, acquiring skills that make it more globally competitive and less in need of artificial protections.

It is ironic that conservatives, believers in limited government and the free market, should be pushing heavy-handed government intervention in the labor market to shield Americans from competition. It is doubly ironic that they should be doing so now.

They are fighting not just a losing battle on immigration, but the last war. In an effort to consolidate the GOP's vanishing base, they will lose everyone else.

This column originally appeared in The Week.