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'The Atlantic': If Liberals Won't Enforce Borders, Fascists Will


If President Trump came into office with the phrase Make America Great Again, he intends to win re-election with the tagline Build The Wall, or as he more often says now, Finish The Wall. He and many of his supporters continue to point to immigration as a security threat, although illegal immigration has dropped dramatically from its height in the early 2000s, and legal immigration has been relatively consistent since then.

David Frum is no fan of President Trump, but he agrees with him that immigration should be restricted. In the current cover essay for The Atlantic magazine, Frum argues that antipathy towards Trump is preventing tough choices about who gets to be an American. The piece is called "If Liberals Won't Enforce Borders, Fascists Will."

DAVID FRUM: What I observe in this article is that the effect of the Trump presidency has been, upon many liberal-minded people, to drive them to a point where any enforcement of immigration laws, beyond removing convicted felons, is emotionally, psychologically unacceptable. And this is happening at a time when we are living through a democratic recession that has brought authoritarian populists to power in this country, in Europe, in other countries.

Immigration is not the only driver of the authoritarian populism that is besetting democratic institutions, but it is maybe the most proximate, most urgent. And so I'm imploring people to understand the power of this issue and the need to bring immigration into some kind of order if you're going to sustain, not only democratic institutions, but open trade, the European Union, other institutions of the liberal world order.

MARTIN: Let's get to your prescriptions to curb immigration. You make two primary recommendations - to limit immigration quotas to pre-1990 levels and to focus on technical skills, rather than preference for family relationships. Why?

FRUM: I don't think most Americans understand how big the numbers of legal immigrants coming to the United States are and how recently this has changed. In 1990, the United States doubled its intake of legal immigrants from about 540,000 a year to 1.2 million. There wasn't really a compelling reason to do that back in 1990. And as it is today, all these years later, it remains kind of an arbitrary decision.

MARTIN: But what's the problem with that? Like, what's the problem with having that many legal immigrants?

FRUM: I don't think most Americans understand how small the benefits of immigration are - the economic benefits - to the legal residents of the United States. In 2007, the Bush administration tried to quantify the immigration surplus - the benefit of immigration to American residents - and came up with a figure that was about $30 billion in a $14 trillion economy. It's negligible. It's not - it's real, but it's negligible compared to other things.

And the social and political costs, we see all around us. Brexit, Trump, the crack of the European Union, the drive to authoritarian populism worldwide - those are political and social costs that have to be assessed.

MARTIN: You point out that the poor are expensive to support. And low-skilled immigrants in particular are likely to remain poor. But that is also true for poor Americans, right? I mean, it takes five generations for a low-income family to reach an average income in the U.S. So how much of this is primarily a social mobility problem, an economic problem, not an immigration problem?

FRUM: People correctly note that we have difficulties enough creating opportunity for poor Americans, and they use that as an argument about immigration. That's not an argument about immigration. That's an argument about how we are failing at home.

Immigration proponents hope that if we care as much about poor people outside the United States as we do about poor people inside the United States, we'll raise the level of care for both. We've seen, instead, as we have become more cosmopolitan in our sympathies, we've ended up caring as little for fellow Americans as for people everywhere.

It is precisely because we are not honoring our commitments and our promises and our obligations to our fellow Americans that I'm urging people to have a stronger sense of social solidarity. And the way you get that stronger sense of social solidarity is by making the meaning of Americanism stronger, and that means making it more of a national community. And communities have boundaries between themselves and the rest of the world.

MARTIN: You ground a lot of your argument, though, in white Americans' fears, really, about a country that's getting less white. So is limiting immigration the answer? I mean, doesn't that just play into those fears and then legitimize them?

FRUM: I don't ground very much of my argument on that at all. What I ground my argument upon is a tendency of the human mind, perceived by psychologists in people of all backgrounds, to be stressed by rapid change.

If you are disturbed by what has been happening since 2005, by things like the rise of the National Front, by things like the rise of extremist parties in Italy and Poland, by the impending crackup of the European Union and by what's happening here at home, you need to focus on how can we build a stronger sense of Americanism for people of all backgrounds, including, by the way, the most recently arrived immigrants.

Just to give you a sense of what's at stake in this argument - the United States is on track to become majority minority by the early 2040s. If the United States were to adopt my recommendation and cut legal immigration in half, it would become majority minority by the later 2040s. It would bump that change by three, four, maybe five years, not more...

MARTIN: What's the problem with becoming majority minority?

FRUM: So I'm saying - it's not - that's not the - relevant. I'm saying that - people say this, that your argument is driven by concerns about being majority minority. I'm saying that decision's already made. The question for us is how do we make a success of this? And on present policy, we are in real danger of not making a success of it.

Let me give you a very, very concrete point of where we're going. So the peak decade for illegal immigration was the 1990s. Of the 45 million or so foreign-born people in the United States, about 11 million are here illegally. And most of them are probably, right now, under 45, but very soon, they're going to be reaching 65. The majority of the illegal immigrant population has been here for more than a decade. They're not going home.

So when they turn 65, what happens to them? Do they get a pension? Do they get health care? Or do we write them off? Making Americans of them is going to be a huge challenge. Otherwise, we're going to have a lot of old, sick poor people living amongst us with no agreement as to what their status is.

MARTIN: David Frum - his recent piece is on the cover of the April edition of The Atlantic magazine. David, thank you so much.

FRUM: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.