Reihan Salam, a wonky conservative columnist and all-around interesting person, wrote a bracing, emotional, personal, and far-sighted new book called Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders (2018, Sentinel). He admits that just a few years ago he found his views on immigration pedestrian and mostly aligned with the immigration activists. After a few years of research, he says he is more aligned with those, like President Trump, who think America should be more, not less, selective regarding immigration. This book is part-memoir, part economic and sociology literature review, and part-policy prescription; it is well written, nuanced, and generous. We need more books like this about disparate subjects as soon as possible.
Early on in the book, Salam makes the case that we need to forge a new “middle class melting pot,” that minimizes what he calls “between group inequality” (26). Salam is apt to highlight that the current immigration system is “increasing both the number and the share of children being raised in low-income households,” and that “today’s poor immigrants are raising tomorrow’s poor natives” (25), which should worry anyone who cares about the future of a united nation, one that actualizes the “melting mot” mythos of American identity. The data presented by Salam to substantiate his descriptive claims is numerous, and are from sociology, political science, and economics, among other fields.
The question that Salam took on was: How do we make sure we make an integrated America, that precludes racialization and ethnically Balkanized areas of existence? This is where Salam’s idiosyncratic mind comes in, one that is largely conservative but not entirely. In short, he thinks we need to limit low-skill immigration, at least for a time (this is Salam’s hedge); he claims that “a more selective, skills-based immigration system would yield a more egalitarian economy, in which machines do the dirty work and workers enjoy middle-class stability. And a more egalitarian economy would help heal our country’s ethnic divides” (28). But, in the pen-ultimate chapter of the book, he couples this more right-of-center idea with “offering amnesty to the long-resident unauthorized population, and fighting the intergenerational transmission of poverty” (157) sure to satisfy his left-of-center readers. I will get to the details of his package of proposals down below.
In a relatively short book (excluding notes, this book runs a crisp 184 pages), Salam is ambitious, far-reaching and explains complicated ideas simply, yet in a way that respects his reader and that does not engage in simple binary thinking. In chapter two Salam briefly describes the existing immigration systems operative in the world: mongenerational, the Qatari model; multigenerational, the US model; and a hybrid model like those seen in Canada, Australia, and Singapore (60). By doing so, he really focuses the reader to understand the range of alternatives: utopia doesn’t exist, and, we have to choose something (though the status-quo has largely remained the same because of a lack of choosing; almost no one thinks that the status-quo is sustainable, however). So, what are we going to choose? Salam’s choice is not a limitation on the number of immigrants America takes in, but a shift in which migrants we take in. His proposals assume that a multigenerational model is surely the American model of the future.
He has a chapter focused on the intersection between immigration and group identity, and it he portends a possibly dark future since assimilation is differentiated by groups. He introduces the concepts of amalgamation and racialization here. When immigrants effectively assimilate, they join the “melting-pot mainstream,” and become an example of successful amalgamation, or the process of becoming “mainstream American” where ethnic differences become insignificant. When the opposite occurs, ethnic segregation emerges, producing racialized enclaves or ghettos. Both of these realities exist in America. Salam argues that on our current trajectory, the later path is increasingly likely to become reality for second- and third-generation immigrant families. Why does this matter? Because the type of immigration that makes the ethnic enclave life more likely is the family-based system, the one that Salam thinks we should curtail; and because social science research is pessimistic about what happens when ethnic tribalism rises to the surface and becomes political tribalism.
Salam understands that if America did, in fact, decrease low-skill immigration that the source country could be worse off. Salam proposes ambitious solutions here: allow retiring Americans to access Medicare in Mexico, for example. This would create more low-skill jobs in Mexico, staunching the need for Mexicans to move abroad. Salam points out that we will have to get creative to adequately deal with a population that is getting older, sicker, and who are increasingly without kin (137). Salam proposes we shift some of our counternarcotics and counter-human trafficking budget to help develop poorer regions in Mexico (and Central America). Moreover, we should help subsidize Mexico’s efforts (already underway and successful enough) to “halt migrants long before they reach” the America-Mexico border. I like this idea and have nothing substantial to really say about the idea as a concept. Political contingencies always come to mind, and social security politics deserves a blog post of its own.
Salam believes that “our long-term objective should be to help all countries achieve broad-based prosperity,” because there is no way that America, or Europe, or countries such as China or South Korea, will be able to accommodate the hundreds of millions of people coming of age who will need work and fulfilling lives. So what does he propose? This, too, is where his idiosyncratic and curious mind shows off: the creation of new cities out of cloth. Call it “conservatism for those who read The Economist,” if you will. However, this is not a new idea, as Salam acknowledges: the world has already created “charter cities,” such as the successful example in China of Shenzhen, which turned a fishing backwater into a “teeming entrepreneurial metropolis of ten million” in just over three decades (144). Also see Paul Romer’s “charter cities,” TED Talk. The reason this idea is less pie in the sky then it seems is that the alternatives are far worse, and that the need is there. We have no choice argues Salam. We should strive to create “dozens of Shenzhens” (151). This is similar to Paul Romer’s idea to create “100 Hong Kongs.” However, Hong Kong was created after two wars, an imperial reign by the British, and has a symbiotic (deep financial integration) and contentious (remember the Umbrella Movement; this will flare up again) relationship with China to this day.
Another weakness of this “charter city” idea is he does not address how the creation of megacities could happen. If the goal is to create better governance, we must do it where people live right now; how to do this is contested. China carefully turned Shenzhen into what it is now, backed by the heavy hand of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and is home to visionary and successful (and heavily subsidized) companies such as Huawei. Even as a concept, the idea of “charter cities,” is underdeveloped, according to Kee-Cheok Cheong and Kim-Leng Goh, in an article for the international journal of urban policy Citites. I would have loved if Salam got more into this debate since it’s the most interesting part of his proposal. I’ve written an essay on what the future looks like for migrants and it’s mind-blowingly complicated, and requires multilateralism at its finest.
Salam digs into his syncretic proposal in the penultimate chapter. His goal is ambitious: how to reconcile those who are aligned with the Dreamers with those who sympathize more with the so-called “angel moms,” or parents of children who were killed by unauthorized immigrants (and often those who have committed earlier crimes who were not deported, or who were deported but returned). How so? First, “large-scale amnesty followed by resolute enforcement” (164). This entails support for DACA and Dreamers coupled with a verifiable and enforced E-Verify program. Fair enough; this is a popular idea.
Finally, Salam supports increasing the very successful Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and a “universal child benefit” (177). He does not go into details of what this would do to already existing child programs such as the Child Tax Credit (CTC) except as to say that his proposal would help the 25% of families who have children who do not receive any tax subsidies or food stamps and hurt the “nearly poor families” (178). Before I endorse such a program, I’d have to see more details.
I would support paring back some mortgage tax reduction programs that the upper-middle class receive, highlighted brilliantly by Derek Thompson and Suzanne Mettler. Many believe that the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (HMID) benefits the middle class but it mostly benefits the rich: three-quarters of the benefits accrue to the top 20% of households, those who make around $130,000 a year (Brookings 2017). Depending on how we reform the deduction, revenues could increase by as high as $60 billion per year, which could help support Salam’s proposals and also shore up existing programs such as the CTC. A melting pot requires stirring lest it curdles.
This is a burst of a book; a book that makes you think, and that was written in all earnestness. What should America do about immigration? What should America do about global income equality? What is the balance between humanitarian concerns and concern for second-generation immigrants in your own country? What about the lives of ninth-generation natives or immigrants? None of this is binary, Red or Blue.
I applaud Salam for this effort.