Then versus now
Some opponents of open borders have argued that open borders were suitable in a past era but are not suitable today. There are two broad kinds of reasons offered, which are outlined below.
Blog posts and articles
- The Golden Age of Migration by Bryan Caplan, May 31, 2011, for EconLog.
- Why was immigration freer in 19th century USA?, March 18, 2012, by Vipul Naik on the Open Borders blog.
First reason: Change in the nature of the society receiving the immigrants
Mark Krikorian makes this case most eloquently. To paraphrase Krikorian, “It’s not the immigrants that have changed, it’s us.” In his book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal, Krikorian writes in the introduction:
It’s not the immigrants—it’s us.
What’s different about immigration today as opposed to a century ago is not the characteristics of the newcomers but the characteristics of our society. Immigrants are what they’ve always been: not the poorest of the poor but one step up from the bottom, strivers looking for better lives for their children, coming from rural or small-town backgrounds in traditional—what we would call third-world—societies. But the changes that define modern America—in our society, economy, government, and technology, for example—are so fundamental that our past success in dealing with immigration is simply no longer relevant.
This is a new argument. It’s not that previous critiques of immigration have been wrong—indeed, much of what follows in this book is based on the outstanding work of others over the years. Instead, the source of the problems created by immigration has usually been located in differences between immigrants past and present rather than in differences between America past and present. Immigrants in the past, it is said, were white, but now they’re not; they used to want to assimilate, but now they don’t; or they used to be self-sufficient, but now they seek out government assistance. We’ve all heard the laments: “My grandpa from Sicily learned English, and my grandma from Minsk got by without welfare—what’s the problem with immigrants today?”
The problem is that the America your grandparents immigrated to a century ago no longer exists. This is neither a good nor bad thing—it just is. Of course, some of the changes brought by modernity are generally positive, others negative. We all welcome, for instance, the spread of easy and cheap communications and transportation but mourn the weakening of our communities. Other changes will be embraced by some but not by others; the growth in government, for instance, is seen by the Left as a recognition of our social responsibility to the poor and marginalized but feared by the Right as likely to erode liberty and personal responsibility.
But whatever steps we take to accentuate what we consider positive about modern life and ameliorate what we see as negative, the basic features of modern society are not subject to debate. The social and other changes briefly outlined below are inherent characteristics of a mature society; we cannot say that “immigration would be fine if only we got rid of (fill in the blank)” when what we fill in the blank with is an inextricable part of how we live today. Instead, immigration undermines many of the objectives that our modern, middle-class society sets for itself and exacerbates many of the problems brought on by modernization.
Krikorian, Mark. The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal (Kindle Locations 37-59). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
Krikorian identifies the following differences in the following realms between then and now:
Second reason: change in the nature of immigrants
Other groups have argued that the racial and ethnic make-up of immigrants today is different from that of immigrants in past eras, and that is why open borders are not feasible today, even though they were in the past.
For instance, in his book Alien Nation: Common Sense about America’s Immigration Disaster, Peter Brimelow writes:
But it must also be stressed: that was then; this is now. There are important differences between the last Great Wave of Immigration and today’s.
1. Then, there was an “Open Door” (essentially — and with the major exception of the restriction on Asians). Now, the 1965 reform has reopened the border in a perversely unequal way. Essentially, it has allowed immigrants from some countries to crowd out immigrants from others.
The 1965 Immigration Act did not open the immigration floodgates: it opened the immigration scuttles — the influx is very substantial, but it spurts lopsidedly from a remarkably small number of countries, just as when some of the scuttles are opened in one side of a ship. Which is why the United States is now developing an ethnic list — and may eventually capsize. Your grandfather probably couldn’t get in now anyway.
And this brings us to another of this book’s central themes:
• The problem is not necessarily immigration in principle — it’s immigration in practice. Specifically, it’s the workings of the 1965 Immigration Act and its subsequent amendments.
This cannot be stressed too much.
It’s significant of the one-way American immigration debate that I have never met an immigration enthusiast who will defend the actual workings of the 1965 Act. When cornered. But they are not cornered very often.
And there are other differences between the First Great Wave ending in the 1920s and the Second Great Wave of the 1990s.
2. Then, immigrants came overwhelmingly from Europe, no matter how different they seemed at the time; now, immigrants are overwhelmingly visible minorities from the Third World. Not withstanding which —
3. Then, there was an aggressive public and private “Americanization” campaign (celebrated in Leo Rosten’s 1937 comic classic The Education ofH* Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N); now, there’s “multiculturalism” — i.e., immigrants are officially not expected to assimilate.
4. Then, there was no welfare state and immigrants who failed often went home; now, there is a welfare state — and fewer immigrants leave.
5. Then, immigration was stopped. There was a pause for digestion— the Second Great Lull — that lasted some forty years. Now, there’s no end in sight.