'Melting Pot or Civil War' by Reihan Salam

'Melting Pot or Civil War' by Reihan Salam
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders,” which will be published this week by Sentinel.

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On the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump took credit for thrusting the issue of immigration onto the national stage. And while it is certainly not true that, as Trump put it, “illegal immigration was not a subject on anybody’s mind” until he ran for president, immigration has undeniably become one of the most important and fraught policy issues of the Trump era. It has become something of a litmus test for one’s ideological affiliation and a proxy for a host of other ethical and philosophical debates — about the rule of law, sovereignty, race, diversity, and meritocracy.

Perhaps for this reason, immigration has become one those policy issues about which rational debate seems increasingly impossible. “Restrictionists” construe arguments in favor of amnesty for those immigrants who currently live and work in the United States illegally as an embrace of “open borders” and “globalism.” To “admissionists,” calls to reform our immigration policies away from a family-based system toward one that prioritizes skills — as Canada and other countries do — are met with accusations of xenophobia or nativism. Ironically, the immigration policies of past Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush look, by today’s lights, un-conservative. And, at a time when immigration activists are calling for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the policies of the Obama administration — which deported more immigrants than any previous administration — appear positively Trumpian.

Reihan Salam’s new book, “Melting Pot or Civil War,” is thus a welcome reprieve from the Sturm und Drang over immigration today. Salam reminds us that “immigration policy is not about whether to be welcoming or hard-hearted”; rather, “it is about compromise.” This is because “like it or not we need to weigh competing interest and moral goods, and to adjust our approach over time.” Our current system is, for better or worse, the result of such a (past) compromise. And it is not at all clear why defending that particular arrangement should be the only rationally or morally defensible point of view on such a complex and multifaceted matter.

A son of immigrants and an advocate of amnesty, a robust social-safety net — including for poor immigrants — and a multicultural middle class, Salam is surprisingly and ironically well-positioned to make the case for reforming our immigration system. His case against our current system is not based on ethnic anxiety, but rather a concern about rising inequality and diminishing opportunities for the children and grandchildren of low-skilled immigrants. His case for moving away from a family-based immigration system towards a skills-based one does not stem from nostalgia for a declining white America — Salam is the child of Bangladeshi-born immigrants and grew up in a Muslim household in Brooklyn — but rather from a desire to see a flourishing, multiethnic, and multiracial American middle class.

The thrust of his argument is this: Were we more conscientious about the capacity of those wishing to immigrate to our countries to be self-reliant and economically prosperous, we would also be able to afford to provide for those already in our country who are less well-off, whether native or foreign born. This, in turn, would alleviate inequality, stimulate our economy, and help repair our nation’s fraying social fabric. To accomplish this, Salam argues, we must make a compromise: accept large-scale amnesty “followed by resolute enforcement” as well as a points system for accepting new immigrants that would “place greater emphasis on skills.” Rather than a slapdash pragmatist response to political realities, Salam outlines a coherent, not to say uncontroversial, conservative approach to immigration.

Salam’s policy prescriptions will certainly not please all parties — many on the left will decry his critique of our family-based system while many on the right will balk at his defense of amnesty and welfare programs. But his arguments for these policies are advanced carefully and humanely, making the usual ad hominem responses ring hallow. In short, this book serves as a reminder of what a genuine policy debate about a hot-button political issue can and should look like, even in our fractious times.

M. Anthony Mills is managing editor of RealClear Media Group. 

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