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A Son Of Immigrants Makes The Case For Tighter Immigration Policy

Melting Pot or Civil War? by Reihan Salam. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Melting Pot or Civil War? by Reihan Salam. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

So why is Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review and the son of immigrants calling for tighter restrictions on immigration? We’ll ask him.


Reihan Salam, Executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow. Contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs. Author of “Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders” (@reihan)

Highlights From The Interview

On how Salam’s own family came to the United States

“My parents came in 1976 to settle in the United States. My mother received a skilled Visa, so she was able to bring my sisters and my father. My father, however, had in the late 1960s studied in the U.S. at Indiana University, and had some experience in the country, so that informed their decision. My mother, however, was more reluctant than my father, it was kind of a complicated question for them both as they had many loved ones back home. I that’s often the case for immigrants for potential migrants. It’s not always a slam dunk.”

On the effects of periods of increased immigration in American history

“It’s really important to understand that our history shows when you have a period of a lot of immigrant replenishment, that is oftentimes a period when you don’t have a lot of integration. It’s when the replenishment slows down that you tend to see intermingling. So consider the Greektowns and Little Italies we saw a century ago. Those were flourishing, vibrant communities. They were also communities that tended not to see a lot of inter-marriage and inter-mingling between other groups. When you see the replenishment slow down, that’s then the inter-marriage and inter-mingling started to become more common.”

On class and immigration

“When we talk about the immigrant experience, and we’re not talking about class and class stratification, we’re missing a big part of the story. Lots of folks who are in favor of immigration who have really big hearts, they often want to emphasize what they see as the costlessness of immigration. That really all immigration policy is takes is a matter of being open-hearted and decent, that’s all there is. The tricky thing here is, in a very stratified, in a very unequal society, actually there’s a lot more to it. When you have people who might themselves choose to make a leap to a different country and to do work that is difficult, dirty, dangerous work, they feel subjectively as though, ‘I have made that choice for myself.’ A really tricky and difficult thing happens in the next generation, in the second generation. For those working class second generation people, they grew up in households with very low-incomes, in households that in some cases were incorporated into marginalized communities…They expect equal treatment, they expect to at least have a fighting chance at leading dignified middle-class lives, and when we don’t have a thoughtful, balanced and measured approach to immigration, then we risk creating an underclass excluded from the mainstream of society.”

On why you can’t abstract class from conversations about immigration

“It’s pretty darn important when you think about how it contributes to the composition of the population, number one. And number two, when you see those moments in American history when you have had a sense of solidarity, when you have had that wider concern, it’s often been after you’ve had a more managed approach to immigration. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence. Because again, you’re not talking about a trivial number of folks when you’re talking about first and second generation Americans, you’re looking at a quarter of the population. And when you’re looking at folks who are struggling, folks who are lower income, a very large proportion of them are first or second generation. It’s not as though the issue of class can be abstracted away the question of, what are our future flows, what are our future immigration policies going to look like?”

On some ideas he has for reforming the US immigration system

“I don’t use the term merit-based system, partly because I believe there are many types of immigrants who have merit. The problem with our system right now is that it’s very heavily biased toward those who are related to US citizens or permanent residents. That system doesn’t allow us to take into account a variety of other factors that contribute to your adaptability. One way to think about it is this, right now the US has a wait list of over 4 million people who have had petitions for lawful permanent status that have been approved, but they’re literally just waiting in line. We don’t have any way to prioritize folks on this list. When you look at our system…it hasn’t really been modernized. When you look at some other countries, what they try to do is say, ‘Okay we are going to look to past immigrants and what has contributed to their success, to their ability to flourish, to support their families and much else. Let’s identify some of these characteristics and give would-be, to give potential migrants guidance on the kind of things that will help you succeed in the United States.’ I think that’s a wiser approach because rather than create some sort of total free-for-all in which migrants are frankly misled by our existing immigration system, you’re giving them guidance and rules for the road, as to how difficult it’s going to be to assimilate into a different society.”

On openness as it relates to the American identity

“When you feel as though, no, we don’t have to be dependent on this population because we can open ourselves up, if these folks don’t prove sufficiently helpful for our narrow purposes, we can look elsewhere, that is a pretty dangerous attitude. Immigrants have children, and when those children stumble, when those children need help, we ought to lift them up. But right now, this attitude of openness being the heart of our identity, rather than being, ‘We are a country, we are an extended community and look out for one another,’ I think that that latter sensibility built around communitarianism, built around solidarity actually has a lot of value. That doesn’t mean being completely closed, that means being open, but being open in a sensible, measured way, rather than being open to the point where then you invite a backlash, you create new tensions and new cleavages within the society that make it really hard to actually build communities.”

From The Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: A Way Out Of The Immigration Crisis — “We thus find ourselves confronted by a paradox. On the one hand, it is clear to many thoughtful liberal scholars and journalists that immigration-driven cultural change has greatly contributed to right-wing populism. On the other, they view slowing the pace of immigration as a complete non-starter. As they see it, the only option is to double down on the status quo and hope that the storm passes—even if this approach risks triggering a crisis for open societies, such as the one we are arguably living through today. It is as though these thinkers are convinced that things have to get worse before they can get better, and that conservatives who worry about the pace of cultural change must be crushed rather than accommodated.

This all feels particularly painful for me because, like a lot of Americans, I don’t really fit on either side of this new divide. As a son of immigrants, I’ve spent most of my life among newcomers. But during my childhood, the Bangladeshi immigrant community to which I belonged was quite small, so I had no choice but to forge friendships with Americans from very different backgrounds. I am of Muslim origin, but many of my closest friends and colleagues are observant Jews, evangelical Christians and Catholics.”

Excerpt From Melting Pot Or Civil War?

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review. He’s the son of Bangladeshi immigrants. He says if immigration continues on its current course, we’re headed for a kind of civil war. But Salam argues that there’s a way to solve the immigration conundrum. A way that’s bound to rankle uncompromising camps on both the left and the right. A way that rejects both white identity politics and what he calls “cosmopolitan extremism”. Merit based immigration at the borders. But also taxing the rich to boost economic support for the middle class at home. This hour, On Point: Reihan Salam’s vision for a new kind of national unity. —Meghna Chakrbarti.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.