We Americans should really get some perspective about where we live… I was reminded lately of every conversation I’ve ever had with an immigrant, almost all of which… included the notion, ‘Oh, you people have no idea. All you do is bitch about and bad mouth your own country, but if you knew about the country I came from, you’d stop (expletive) on your own…’ In Saudi Arabia, grown women can be jailed for doing the kind of things we think of as routine without the permission of a male guardian. China rounds you up if you’re the wrong religion and puts you in camps… Only five percent of Burundians have electricity. The homicide rate in Honduras is eight times what it is here. The inflation rate in Venezuela is 2,719%. The Philippines in the last five years has put to death 27,000 low level drug dealers… There is a reason Afghan mothers are handing their babies to us… Any immigrant will tell you we’ve largely succeeded here.
Bill Maher, from Real Time with Bill Maher, 8/27/21 podcast
In a previous post this year, I reluctantly argued that open borders advocates should temporarily assent to restrictions on immigration by the Biden administration in order to help protect America’s imperiled liberal democracy. I suggested that one element of the administration policy should be to admit immigrants at levels that existed prior to Trump’s presidency. One advantage of this conservative immigration policy would be to appeal to moderates in the electorate who are comfortable with some immigration, rather than alienating them with a policy that would allow unprecedented levels of immigration. Democracy in the U.S. was solid during decades of modest yet historically high levels of immigration after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. While the authoritarian Trump did make nativism the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, his victory was by very thin margins and was assisted significantly by unrelated factors such as the actions of James Comey and the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton.
Another advantage of a Biden administration strategy of maintaining a status quo ante Trump policy is that it would continue to infuse the U.S. with immigrants, albeit at lower levels than what open borders advocates would like, who will appreciate and help revitalize America’s democratic fabric. Many immigrants to the U.S. come from illiberal societies, and most of these individuals probably don’t take liberal democracy for granted, as suggested by a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce: “… immigrants, for whom the reality of oppression or lack of freedom is a not so distant memory, come not to undermine our values, but to embrace them.” Roya Hakakian, an immigrant from Iran and author of A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious, is clearly appreciative of American liberal democracy. Describing the impetus for her book, Hakakian states that “… I thought, what if I could somehow show… America that most native-born Americans can’t see, the small signs of democracy that may be invisible to those who have never lived elsewhere.” For example, she notes the widespread adherence to traffic laws in the U.S. as a reflection of the respect for the legitimacy of laws created by a democratic system. Similarly, the congressman Ro Khanna, the son of immigrants, was taught by his parents to appreciate the U.S. and its political institutions. “His parents took Khanna and his brother to Washington to see the monuments and insisted they both learn about the Constitution.” Abdul Memon, an immigrant from India who became an American citizen, states, “I don’t take my citizenship lightly. I think we have the best freedom anywhere – especially the freedom of speech.” One of the people who reported Trump’s abuse of power that was the basis for his first impeachment was retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child. Vindman recently remarked that “I didn’t think the president was above the law. This is a country of laws. And I did what I thought was right, which is reporting him.” It appears as though his commitment to and confidence in American democracy are at least partly due to, in his words, “… perspective on where my family has come from.” The attitudes of these four immigrants align with research indicating that “immigrant and second‐generation confidence in our political institutions exceeds that of native‐born Americans” and that “immigrants are boosting overall American confidence in our institutions of government.”
Meanwhile, many native born Americans seem to be hostile towards liberal democracy or indifferent about its possible demise. Tens of millions of Americans voted to retain Trump in the 2020 election despite his attempts to intimidate the media, his refusal to commit to leaving office if defeated, his use of the power of his office in an attempt to undermine a political opponent, and his affinity for foreign dictators. Moreover, shortly before the election, a USA Today article reported that “the number of Americans who feel they would be justified in using violence to achieve their political goals has increased sharply from 8% in 2017 to 33% today.”
Tom Nichols, author of Our Own Worst Enemy, posits that one factor in the willingness of some Americans to scrap our democratic traditions is an erosion of their character. He suggests that many Americans are spoiled by years of prosperity, feel entitled to do whatever they want, and don’t take responsibility for the effect of their actions on others, as exemplified by the January 6 insurrection. He states, “… with increasing frequency, our form of government is under attack by bored working and middle-class citizens…” A lack of “seriousness” among many Americans, according to Nichols, is problematic because this virtue is “the greatest requisite for a stable democracy.”
In contrast, immigrants are often the embodiment of seriousness and responsibility, enduring hardships by moving to a new country to ensure a better life for themselves and their children. As David Brooks wrote years ago, “… immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic.” A regular infusion of immigrants into the U.S. might help to counteract the decadence which may be undermining our democracy.
Another way immigrants fortify American democracy is through further demographic diversification. While diversity can trigger nativist populism, as it did with the rise of Trump, in the long term it could blunt the political power of white supremacist populism and the authoritarianism with which it is associated. Although there were surprising levels of support for Trump in 2020 among Latino and Asian American voters, Biden won most areas with large concentrations of these voters, often by enormous margins. Some observers suggest that “… the eddies of this shift are less important than the tide of Latinos — and Asian-Americans as well — who still voted mostly for Mr. Biden, and who deserve a large share of credit for Mr. Trump’s defeat.” Biden’s win may have saved American democracy, and the votes of recent immigrants and their descendants may have been necessary for him to prevail.
At times in American history, Americans have feared that immigrants would threaten our political institutions. The opposite is the case. A regular flow of immigrants will increase the number of “serious,” responsible citizens who appreciate and are committed to American democracy. It will also weaken the strength of authoritarian populism based on notions of white supremacy.