Book Review | Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders by Reihan Salam

by Dan Burton

Let’s talk about immigration for a moment.

It’s strange. In a country that was entirely founded, built, and peopled by immigrants and their descendants, few policy debates are more divisive than those dealing with immigration. Politicized to the extreme, the issue polarizes us. Few seem willing, or able, to compromise. Racism and resentment and limited resources combine to provide politicians with ample fodder to raise tensions and exploit fears.

Reihan Salam thinks there is a way, however, a compromise that can solve our immigration conundrums, and his book “Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders” is his effort to find common sense solutions. The son of Bangladeshi immigrants, Salam proposes that unfettered immigration is unsustainable.

He argues, persuasively, that those who support open borders are not giving thought to what will happen to immigrants when they arrive and in future generations. Cheap labor in an age of increasing automation and information technology only puts pressure on wages, hurting other laborers, especially as the need for unskilled labor declines. The jobs they seek are increasingly scarce. The result is ghettoization and the creation of a new and permanent underclass. This intensifies political tensions, especially as organized groups take advantage of resentful, marginalized, and segregated communities.

If you hate identity politics, open borders only aggravate tensions and divisions.

Low skill immigrants do seem to improve their economic situation, marginally, when they arrive on our shores, but only relative to where they came from, not to what they find in America. Their children find themselves stuck between two worlds. They begin to resent the America that has shut them out, economically and culturally.

“To turn things around,” he writes, “we need to craft an immigration policy that serves our long-term interests; we need to think not just about the people we bring to this country, but about their children, too.”

So, what does Salam propose?

If we are more conscientious about making those who wish to immigrate to integrate and be self-sufficient, we would also find a way to provide for those already in our country who are below the poverty line, whether they be native or foreign-born. This would relieve inequality, grow the economy, and ease social tensions. Tying a green card to points based on the ability to provide would allow immigrants and their children to feel secure and confident in their ability to make the most of America’s economic opportunities, not to mention allay fears about immigrants becoming a permanent drain on American taxpayers.

Adoption of a skills-based system that, he says, already has wide-spread support. It would prioritize the admission of well-educated English-speaking immigrants capable of holding down well-paying jobs. Special treatment should also be given to humanitarian cases. Salam wants immigrants to integrate, to become part of the American melting pot. “We should admit immigrants only if we are fully committed to their integration and assimilation. Our number one priority should be ensuring that new arrivals can flourish as part of the mainstream, not turning a blind eye as millions languish in poverty-stricken ghettoes.”

This creates a common, shared sense of nationhood. “Over time,” he writes, “nations united by a common destiny tend to evolve into nations united by common descent. Inherited ethnic and cultural distinctions fade, and new hybrid ethnicities and cultures emerge.”

But these policy shifts require both large-scale amnesty and “resolute enforcement” of immigration laws (which will find critics on the right) and while still allowing some family-based immigration, it will end extended family chain immigration (which will find detractors on the left).    Herein lies the problem in seeing Salam’s proposals obtain traction: while it requires both sides to sacrifice something. As a review of “Melting Pot or Civil War” put it in the New York Times:

“No doubt, “Melting Pot or Civil War?” will leave many immigration restrictionists unconvinced that enforcement would ever be adequately “resolute.” Some progressives will accuse Salam of underplaying the racial animus driving poverty among immigrants. Others will note that low-skilled immigration is already on the wane. Still, this bracing book could be a conversation-changer — if only the outraged on both sides would let it.”

Yep. Before we ever get to a conversation about immigration, we must all of us turn the other cheek.

Says Salam in the closing pages of his book: “If we are going to avoid turning America itself into a tinderbox, we will need a critical mass of people, young and old, who are willing to meet others halfway, even if that means risking embarrassment or alienating some of the members of your own cultural tribe. […] Favoring a more selective, skills-based immigration system does not make you a sinister xenophobe, and not every proponent of a large-scale amnesty is an open borders zealot. There are deals to be struck, provided we are willing to give one another an inch.”


Pick up “Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders” by Reihan Salam on Amazon and decide for yourself.

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