Mass Low-Skilled Immigration Plus Lack of Assimilation: A Dangerous Combination

Although Reihan Salam’s book, Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders, was published in 2018, the author’s analysis of immigration policy remains relevant. FAIR supporters will likely agree with many of Salam’s arguments, and will undoubtedly disagree with others (for instance, Salam wants mass amnesty, albeit in exchange for E-Verify and more rigorous interior enforcement). Either way, the book is an insightful and outside-the-box critique of our immigration system and a sobering warning about America’s future if the pro-mass-migration, open-borders trends and policies of the past several decades are not recognized and addressed in a realistic fashion.

A son of Bangladeshi immigrants, Salam was born in the United States and grew up in multi-ethnic New York City. He thus views the issue of immigration from two different perspectives, and he is undoubtedly worried about some of the problematic aspects he sees.

Thus, the title of the book is no mere marketing gimmick, but actually conveys the essence of the author’s argument and the alternative that America faces. The United States will either have to better and more fully integrate its large and growing foreign-born population in the spirit of the “melting pot,” Salam argues, or the resulting socio-economic inequalities and ethnic tensions will further radicalize and tear the country apart, possibly even leading to revolution or civil war.

According to Salam, sustained high levels of immigration – and in particular low-skilled and/or family-based immigration – exacerbate both socio-economic inequality and ethno-cultural friction. The reason, he argues, is that low-skilled immigrants may admittedly be better off in the U.S. than they would be in their homelands, but they nevertheless tend to languish in relative poverty at the very bottom of the American socio-economic pyramid without much hope for significant upward mobility. Moreover, we should “worry about the children they raise on American soil, and what will happen to our society if impoverished immigrants give rise to an impoverished second generation that has no memory of life in the old country and who won’t tolerate being relegated to second-class status.”

Such a second generation – resentful, radicalized, and cynical about the “American Dream” – would certainly be grist for the mill of revolutionary demagogues at the intersection of divisive identity politics and equally divisive class warfare. And, as Salam admits, mass low-skilled immigration (both legal and illegal) means that the stratum of immigrant children who feel the American system is rigged against them will only continue to grow.

In addition to increasing the number of low-income households, and the resulting tensions and inequalities, low-skilled migration has also “kept large swaths of our economy stuck in a low-wage, low-productivity rut.” Indeed, the widespread availability of cheap low-skilled labor, Salam emphasizes, discourages the technological modernization of the economy. He also mentions the recent example of Sweden, whose “business models have been designed to make use of high-skilled, high-wage workers augmented by loads of laborsaving technology.” The sudden arrival of large numbers of low-skilled migrants and refugees from the Middle East thus posed a particular challenge. As a result, “some Swedish firms are ‘de-engineering’ their business models to become more labor-intensive.”   

That is why the author has “come to believe that the United States badly needs a more thoughtful and balanced approach to immigration, including a greater emphasis on skills and a lesser one on extended family ties.” Salam argues 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.”

To Salam’s credit, he recognizes that high levels of unending mass immigration discourage assimilation. At the same time the author claims that America is not doing enough for its immigrants and their children, a problem that itself can be chalked up to our broken immigration policies. We are asking vital institutions, like our schools, to do the impossible – teach millions of non-English-speaking kids the common language of our country, provide for their nutritional and other needs – and not surprisingly, many are failing. But regardless of whether we agree with all of Salam’s arguments and theories, Melting Pot or Civil War? is a book that should be read by people on both sides of the immigration debate.

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