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Immigration and Citizenship: The Canadian Model and the American Dream

Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration entered office with big plans for immigration reform. As of this writing, the proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 sits in the House Judiciary Committee. It is too early to tell what will ultimately become of this attempt to resolve one of the most controversial issues in U.S. politics.

At this stage, the risk to Americans is less that they might drown in “an unending flood of foreign nationals,”1 as congressional Repub­licans claim, or that they might return to the bad old days of Trump, whose legacy Democrats are determined to overturn.2 Rather, the risk is that both parties will continue to sound their talking points to their respective echo chambers while the substantive reforms needed for a lasting settlement on immigration fall by the wayside. In this scenario, the United States muddles along, as it has for decades, without a coherent immigration policy and without a consensus answer to the question, “Who is an American?”—further weakening the basic sense of civic cohesion needed to confront other pressing national challenges.

In my essay “A Tale of Two of Immigration Systems: Canada and the United States,” published in the Spring 2021 issue of American Affairs, I offered a comparison of the Canadian and U.S. immigration regimes. The stereotypical images associated with the two countries present America as a “melting pot,” emphasizing unity, while Canada is a “mosaic,” with its love of diversity. Looking at the actual policies in place, however, it is actually Canada’s immigration system that fosters a greater degree of social and economic coherence. This is because the Canadian government’s abiding concern for national unity and civic cohesion compels it to align immigration policy with the interests and concerns of the existing population, thereby avoid­ing the backlash and polarization that is now the norm in the United States.

Furthermore, despite claims by the American Left and Right of wanting to emulate a “Canadian-style” immigration system, both sides only hold it up as a model to the extent that it reaffirms existing ideological commitments. U.S. progressives admire Canada’s embrace of diversity without considering how such enlightened attitudes co­exist with—and even rely upon—highly selective immigration poli­cies. U.S. conservatives, on the other hand, wish to adopt similarly selective standards, most notably through the famous “points sys­tem,” but without contemplating the various regulations over busi­ness hiring practices that are critical to the enforcement of Canada’s immigration policy regime. At this point, it is clear that Republicans’ supposed concern for border sovereignty is not nearly as important as either their desire to provide business with access to cheap labor or their ideological hatred of the “administrative state.”

This analysis will complete the argument laid out in the last essay: contrary to both of America’s partisan orthodoxies, a society that is comfortable with immigration and ethnic diversity is one that can count on secure border controls, which in turn rest on a responsive and authoritative government bureaucracy. After an exposition of how Canada’s multicultural regime works in practice, I will offer a broad evaluation of the Biden administration’s current proposals as well as further prescriptions for how America can build a more functional and sustainable immigration policy regime. Though taking some inspiration from Canada, these prescriptions will address cir­cumstances unique to the United States, such as the pressures of sharing a long southern border with a much less developed region.

Left in Theory, Right in Practice:
A Note on Canadian Multiculturalism

Canada stands out as an officially multicultural society—multi­culturalism is formally written into its constitution—but multiculturalism is often dismissed in the United States and Europe, not just by politicians of the Far Right but by many in the mainstream. Critics have included center-right leaders like David Cameron, Nicolas Sar­kozy, and Angela Merkel, who have all publicly declared the failure of multiculturalism in their societies. There have also been critics from the center-left, such as the eminent liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Swedish sociologist Göran Adamson, who have questioned multiculturalism’s ability to foster a sense of social cohe­sion and fellow feeling among members of different ethnicities.

How to explain, then, the discrepancy between these harsh indict­ments of multiculturalism that resonate in much of the West and the version of it that appears to work so well in Canada? (It is also worth keeping in mind that many of the leaders of countries where multiculturalism is a dirty word also profess to admire the Canadian system.) One answer is to recognize that what Sarkozy, Merkel, or Schlesinger have referred to as multiculturalism is not the same as what Canadians call multiculturalism.

When Europeans hear the word, they might think of the infamous “no-go zones” in Malmö3 or Molenbeek4 or the banlieues of Paris.5 In other words, they see unintegrated ghettos and parallel societies whose inhabitants are different from the rest of society not only in terms of race or religion, but also in terms of basic social and eco­nomic conditions and standards of living. Such disparities in turn make the inhabitants of these communities ever more susceptible to extremism and radicalization.

When Canadians hear the word multiculturalism, however, they see a very different picture. They might think of the immigrant-heavy “905” suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area, so called because of the local area code. These include towns like Brampton (73 percent nonwhite or “visible minority”), Mississauga (57 percent visible minority), Markham (78 percent visible minority), Richmond Hill (60 percent visible minority)6—all materially prosperous and dynamic communities that host concentrations of key industries7 like advanced manufacturing, information technology, life sciences, electronics, transportation, and finance.8 More than sixty of the Fortune 500 companies, for instance, have their Canadian headquarters in Missis­sauga.9 Prominent visible minority ethnic communities include South Asians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Iranians, Latin Americans, and black Canadians, in addition to older European immigrant ethnic groups like Jews, Portuguese, Italians, and Ukrainians. Each of these groups maintains a distinct presence in the form of various cultural associations, ethnic businesses, and religious institutions that act as focal points for a rich communal life. These institutions do not run parallel to the larger society but rather form an elementary part of it, very much in the mold of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons.” The populations of these suburbs are generally educated and have high rates of homeownership.

These communities also show a propensity to vote for conservative parties and candidates.10 They are hotbeds of support for “Ford Nation,” for instance—the conservative-populist political brand of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his brother, the present premier of Ontario, Doug Ford.11 In the 2011 federal election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a resounding parliamentary majority by energetically courting the immigrant vote in these 905 suburbs, as well as in districts with similar demographics in other major cities like Vancouver and Calgary. This victory was thanks in large part to a strategy pioneered by the immigration minister at the time, Jason Kenney. Kenney sought to invite immigrant communities into the conservative coalition by emphasizing themes such as family values, law and order, low taxes, entrepreneurship, and economic responsibility—in other words, a set of issues that would appeal to middle-class suburbanites with aspirations of achieving financial stability and social mobility.12 When these immigrant suburbs vote conservative en masse, as they did in 2011 and then again in 2018 at the provincial level, they enter into a coalition with largely white rural and exurban communities beyond the city limits (with whom they tend to share social conservative sensibilities), disproving a common trope from the political dis­course in other countries, which holds that these groups must always be opposed to each other.

Taken together, these trends demonstrate Canada’s successful record of integration. Where European countries have too often pro­duced a socially and economically isolated lumpen proletariat, born of the failure to integrate waves of “guest workers” and refugees into their ethnically homogeneous societies, Canada has produced a multi­ethnic, property-owning middle class with a definite stake in the larger society.

In the 2015 federal election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals defeated the Harper Conservatives in large part by reclaiming the vote-rich 905 constituencies with a middle-class-centric campaign under the slogan of “Hope and Hard Work”—a feat that the Liberals managed to repeat in the 2019 election. The new Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, has determined that his path to victory goes through the same suburbs that gave Stephen Harper his 2011 majority.13 The variability of the immigrant vote and the intense political battles fought over it show how far immigrant communities are integrated into the political mainstream. Like any other group or constituency of Canadians, immigrants are fair game for both Conservatives and Liberals, who actively fight to represent their interests. There is none of the extreme political ghettoization and polarization that bedevil ethnic politics elsewhere. When parties and candidates make appeals to the broad Canadian middle class, immigrants, more often than not, see themselves in it.

The emphasis on the “middle-class” character of Canada’s immi­grant communities has more to do with the points system than with multiculturalism as such. After all, as the demographic statistics show, the points system does not discriminate on the basis of race or eth­nicity. But it does discriminate in favor of a certain type of immigrant, i.e., English- (or French-) speaking, skilled, educated, financially secure, upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial, and so forth, drawn from the ranks of the globalized middle classes of many nations. In this sense, Canada might be thought of as a society that is formally (and aesthetically) multicultural but functionally unicultural. The one dominant culture, in this case, is not an ethnic, linguistic, or religiously derived culture, but a class-based one that can be described as a sort of North American middle-class mainstream, best embodied in the quiet, orderly, and somewhat bland—and, therefore, typically Cana­dian—suburban life that characterizes the neighborhoods of the 905.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber made the connection between the austere theology of Calvinism and the economic success of the rising middle classes of industrializing Europe.14 At a comparable stage of development, it is no surprise that something resembling Calvinism infuses the mentality and outlook of the rising middle classes of the developing world today, whatever their actual religion. It is an acquisitive (yet ascetic), classically bour­geois disposition that strives for prosperity and respectability while retaining a commitment to family, community, and a relative measure of cultural conservatism—essentially the same value set that predominated in much of the West before the 1960s. This is what the Canadian points system, in effect, draws from when it selects candidates (and their immediate families) for admission as economic-class immigrants. It very conveniently reinforces the middle-class character of Canadian society, making for remarkably smooth processes of integration.

The probability of gaining a university degree (bachelor level or above), a traditional marker of status and respectability, is higher by a range of 10 to 40 percent among the children of immigrant parents hailing from Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe compared to the chil­dren of Canadian-born parents.15 Immigrants themselves have been found to “represent a significant portion of the population with a STEM degree.”16 This demographic has also been quick to catch up to the native-born in achieving that other marker of middle-class res­pectability, property, with the homeownership rates being identical (at 69 percent) for both the immigrant and native-born, according to data from Statistics Canada.17

Another classic middle-class trait, savings accumulation, is also in evidence: immigrants come with an average of around $47,000 in savings18 (a considerable sum for anyone earning in Chinese, Indian, or Philippine currency), which helps them plan for buying a home. When it comes to basic measures of their later economic success and integration, census data shows that, on average, immigrant households go on to earn roughly $85,000 a year, while the figure for nonimmigrant households is $90,000.19 (It usually takes about five years before high-earning immigrants begin to match the salaries of their native-born counterparts.20)

This is notable owing to the underemployment and credentialing issues newcomers face.21 Although the average immigrant might earn less than the average nonimmigrant, near parity at the household level indicates that immigrant families have more earners among them and that they possess a formidable collective capacity to find work and pool resources. These are all attributes that help to ensure that new­comers are eventually able to succeed in Canada’s advanced economy and, just as important, fit into Canada’s society.

The consistency of immigrant economic habits and outcomes across multiple ethnic backgrounds, and their convergence around the middle-class ethos, suggest that the philosophy animating Canadian immigration is not so much multiculturalism but what might rather be called “globalized Calvinism.” Consequently, instead of describing the kind of society that this system produces as a multicultural “mosaic,” a better way to think of Canada’s social template might be something along the lines of a multiracial “confederation of the mid­dle classes.”

The importance of the middle-class character in shaping a society’s concept of citizenship and in strengthening its capacity for civic cohesion should be familiar to Americans. This is a concern that featured prominently in America’s own ascent to middle-class demo­cracy. Vanderbilt University law professor Ganesh Sitaraman dedi­cated his 2017 book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution to this topic. In it, he expounds on the economic dimensions of citizenship and explains how political equality of the kind promised by the U.S. Constitution—and along with it, the very legitimacy and sustain­ability of the liberal democratic system—is conditional on a relative degree of social and economic equality among citizens.22 Whether the architects of Canada’s immigration policy were ever consciously aware of it or not, this insight lies at the heart of the system they established, and once again, the contrast with what the Europeans and Americans have done could not be greater.

By adding to the numbers of its middle class through the points system, Canada can grow its population dramatically without detract­ing from its civic cohesion. This differs from the stratified societies of Europe, in which an imported lumpen underclass of a different race and religion constitutes an expendable reserve army of labor, feeding the politics of interethnic distrust and resentment. Those in the liberal center should note that this is a situation that provides a boost to the fortunes of both “Islamist separatism” (in the terminology of France’s Emmanuel Macron) and far-right nativist ethnonationalism. The American experience stands in between these two poles. At its best, the U.S. immigration system has more than rivaled the Canadian one in being able to integrate newcomers into the fabric of citizenship and mass middle-class society, particularly with its own economic-class immigration streams. At its worst, the American system has sunk to nearly the same degrees of immigrant and minority de-cohesion that exist in Europe. The implications for U.S. policymakers looking to redesign the present immigration system should be clear.

Canada has also experienced the danger of going to the other extreme and allowing for a warped system of “elite investor immigration” to award citizenship to the highest bidder. For these reasons, the Harper government ended the twenty-five-year-old “Immigrant Investor Program” in 2014. In addition to criticism for being funda­mentally unfair, reports of its distortionary effects on the real estate market in cities like Vancouver, where home price inflation was traced to an influx of Chinese investor capital, became hard to ignore.23 This proved to be a wise decision that preserved the charac­ter of Canadian immigration and highlighted its preference toward authentically middle-class applicants who are willing to put down roots in the country.

It is evident that a common floor of social and material equality helps to neutralize differences and sensitivities around race and ethnicity. If everybody is relatively equal in their station, if they speak the same language and are functionally part of the same ubiquitous (middle-class) culture, questions of what scripture a person reads or what holidays they celebrate are unlikely to provoke hostility.

This is not to say that these things are entirely unimportant, however. In fact, one of the most important, or at least conspicuous, assignments that a Canadian member of Parliament has is to show up at local celebrations for such events as Diwali, Eid, Vaisakhi, Nowruz, Rosh Hashanah, Thai Pongal, Chinese New Year, Portugal Day, Ukrainian Heritage Day, Philippine Independence Day, Greek Independence Day, etc. This politician might arrive at the event attired in the appropriate ethnic costume, along with some memorized lines to mispronounce in the applicable language. He or she might say a few words praising the invaluable contributions of said community to Canadian society before sampling the colorful cuisine and posing for a photo op, which will then be redistributed to that ethnic community come election time. The ritual is reminiscent of Al Smith or any number of twentieth-century American politicians making the rounds at the local St. Patrick’s, Columbus, or Pulaski Day parades (a phase now understood to have been beneficial for the process of political and civic integration24).

This is Canadian multiculturalism in a nutshell, and a case can be made that its rhetorical and performative embrace of diversity is as far as multiculturalism actually goes in Canada. Canadian historian Peter H. Russell has surveyed just how small the effect of official multiculturalism is on government policy:

As concrete public policy—beyond the symbolism—there is very little to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism. There was no immediate legislative follow-up to Trudeau’s 1971 statement. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed in July 1988. . . . It does not require anyone to do anything or prohibit anyone from doing anything, nor does it authorize any funding for any specific program or group. . . . The only other significant recog­nition of multiculturalism in Canadian law is section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [but] Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada rarely refer to it. . . . In fiscal year 2010/11, the government’s multicultural grants program paid out $905,753 to support 94 events across Canada—peanuts in a multibillion-dollar budget.25

Multiculturalism is even less influential in Quebec, where it has never enjoyed the same popular symbolic cachet that it does in anglo­phone Canada. There, the intellectual leadership proffer an alternative known as interculturalisme, which leaves greater space for the recog­nition of the centrality of French language and culture.26 Author Daniel Stoffman has also observed that in spite of the logic of multiculturalism, Canadian law and society actually has no tolerance for cultural practices that deviate in nontrivial ways from accepted norms and standards, such as cockfighting, polygamy, female circum­cision, or use of the intoxicating khat drug.27 Left-leaning philosopher John Ralston Saul even went so far as to criticize the term itself since it was a “clunky” foreign import based on “the Austro-Hungarian argument . . . that this is an empire in which there are 50 peoples, and those peoples are pods.”28 In other words, multiculturalism falls short as a suitable designation for Canada’s singular approach to pluralism and integration.

What then is the point of the prodigious lip service paid to multi­culturalism (at least outside of Quebec)? Canadians often employ the word as a shorthand for what they regard as their more enlightened attitudes and tolerant disposition, especially when compared against the crass and imperious monoculture of the continental hegemon to the south. It is here that multiculturalism finds its use.

The Canadian psyche has always bridled at the prospect of being absorbed into its larger neighbor. George Grant once said that Canada was founded by people “who didn’t want to be Americans.”29 For obvious reasons, this was a more difficult proposition for English Canadians than French Canadians, and so as long as the British Empire was a world power, identification with the monarchy was an effective signifier of non-Americanness. Indeed, when asked why he was a monarchist, former prime minister John Diefenbaker answered, “well, having a royal family means we’re not American. And isn’t that enough?”30 Of course, as part of the grand reshuffling of sym­bols that took place in postwar Canada, Diefenbaker’s monarchical conservatism fell out and Trudeau’s multicultural liberalism took its place. But the essential function, if not the form, of the civil religion stayed the same—just as Canada’s political self-conception took a 180‑degree turn from being more traditionalist than the Americans to being equidistantly more progressive. Thus, Canadian multiculturalism, like the Canadian monarchy, is an almost entirely symbolic institution that is accorded rhetorical reverence because it serves an important national purpose: it reminds Canadians that they have not yet become Americans.

Not being American, however, is not just about having a monarch or a multiculturalism clause in one’s constitution: there is a distinct function to it as well as distinct forms. For beneath the liberal gloss of its politics, Canada’s ruling “Laurentian Elite” remains instinctually committed to cultivating an organic sense of social cohesion that is in line with “peace, order and good government”—the country’s anti-revolutionary constitutional motto and its communitarian reply to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is not just Canada’s isolated geographic position, therefore, that keeps it safe from the chaos of uncontrolled immigration, nor is it just America’s long border with Mexico that renders it so vulnerable to the same. More than physical distances, an argument can be made that it is the philo­sophical distance between a Tory commonwealth grounded on funda­mentally conservative principles and a radical Jeffersonian republic premised on altogether different axioms that accounts for the contrast between the countries’ immigration systems—an elaborate, disciplined, and often unyielding immigration policy in Canada, versus the light-touch, laissez-faire approach that impairs so much of U.S. immigration policy.

A similarly scrambled relationship exists between the form and function of the civil religion in the United States, where, unlike in Canada, the consequences have been detrimental. The American self-conception often takes on the rhetorical form of a muscular national identity, but the classical liberal, hyper-individualist, and congenitally anti-statist basis of that national identity functionally leads to severe policy fragmentation. With respect to immigration, especially, it often entails faulty enforcement of the laws. Under such a regime, private interests, not the government, effectively make the decisions on who gets to stay in America: they are granted this privilege by the impuni­ty with which they are able to acquire and hire undocumented labor.

Against the atomizing tendencies of the dominant political culture, however, leaders and reformers throughout the history of the United States have found ways to construct viable models of national and social cohesion: from the Hamiltonian Federalists to the New Deal Democrats, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era. These were all periods of nation-building, in which the object of politics was the practical alignment of the political, economic, and social dimensions of citizenship, leading eventually to the creation of a multiethnic mass middle class by the late twentieth century (only for free market glo­balization to overtake and eviscerate those gains). Whichever specific reforms might be called for today, any attempt to fix U.S. immigration must be anchored in a strong and binding sense of citizenship. Its aim must be to uphold the ideal of a mass middle-class democracy and not (as the Europeans have done) to produce a subject underclass, which is the inevitable result of any unregulated immigration regime in the developed world.

America’s Immigration “Anti-System”

In Canada, governments of different political persuasions have cooperated to build a successful and dynamic immigration system, one that has earned the broad approval of its citizens. In the United States, on the other hand, the two political parties have managed to raise the level of ideological polarization to febrile extremes, in effect working together to maintain a highly dysfunctional status quo that in turn fuels greater backlash and polarization. The United States now has less of an immigration system and more of an intentionally anarchic “anti-system” in place. Donald Trump was but the logical conclusion of this trajectory. American elites who rue the day of the famous escalator ride may rightly charge that Trump won in 2016 by ruthlessly exploiting the fears, anxieties, and divisions generated by the immigration issue. But he did not by any means create them. The fault lies elsewhere.

As in Canada, the legislation that initiated America’s present immigration regime, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act), was meant to turn the page on the country’s past record of race-based restrictionism. It did this by abolishing the discriminatory national origins formula that favored white northern and western Europeans.31 America’s shores were opened to newcomers from all over the world, regardless of color or creed. President Lyndon B. Johnson intended that “merit” should be the principle by which the new system would operate even as the new legislation prioritized family reunification32—a path from which U.S. immigration policy would not deviate, leading to the phenomenon of “chain migration.”33 Instead of the kind of meticulous care that Cana­da showed for balancing the inflow of migrants with the social and economic cohesion of the host country, what followed in the United States was a long period of bipartisan policy incoherence that belied a deep-seated deference to the interests of influential business lobbies with an insatiable appetite for cheap, easily exploitable foreign labor.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, led to the amnesty of nearly three million unauthorized immigrants,34 which constituted a major infu­sion of mostly low-skill competition at a time of accelerating labor market atomization (when labor unions were on the decline, employment was becoming more precarious, and the trends of wage competi­tion and stagnation were in full swing35). Just as important as the amnesty were the law’s effects in keeping the remainder of unauthorized immigrants underground. Despite its tougher penalties on the hiring of illegal immigrants—the bill was misleadingly sold as a “crackdown”—enforcement of this part of the law would prove to be weak or nonexistent.36 Rather than establishing systems and incentives for securing the compliance of employers, as was done in Canada, the act effectively allowed them to accept fraudulent papers from employees, leading to the expansion of a black market for fake documentation and social security numbers.37 The mandate for heightened border security proved a poor deterrent in the face of greatly increased demand for illegal labor, and the years after its passage would see the unauthorized population in the United States explode from 5 million to 11.5 million by 2015.38 The law’s wage-depressing effect has also been noted by the liberal-leaning Migration Policy Institute in a 2005 report which concluded, “The earnings of low-skilled workers have generally grown more slowly relative to the wages of other workers since 1986.”

The following decades would be marked by ever more futile attempts to repair America’s broken immigration regime. A 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton enhanced the government’s punitive deportation capabilities and made the status of unauthorized immigrants more precarious, but it did nothing to address the structural flaws of the system as a whole and left the enforcement issues of the 1986 law unresolved.39 The new millennium saw a succession of proposals like the dream Act, the strive Act, and the “Gang of Eight bill.” Aside from the creative acronyms and slogans, these bills would contribute next to nothing to immigration reform. They simply provided the occasion for more hot air and grandstanding on the part of politicians trying to reconcile their rhetoric about “law and order” or “compassion” with the U.S. economy’s dependence on cheap migrant labor. The Obama administration’s reliance on execu­tive actions, most notably with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, only served to highlight the hopelessness of pursuing comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

This parade of failed bills and policies would set the stage for the abominations of the Trump era. Where Canada appears to have arrived at the best of both worlds in combining a highly regulated immigration system with a proud culture of pluralism, the United States, once again, has built the inverse, the worst of both worlds. A de facto regime of open borders—often aided and abetted by the same pro-business Republicans who advertise themselves as immigration hawks—coexists with an atmosphere of anti-migrant hysteria stirred up by right-wing news outlets to rally the conservative base. News and images of ICE raids on illegal immigrants and reports on the often disgraceful conditions in which they are detained serve a mostly symbolic propaganda function. On the right, they bolster the narra­tive that Trump was doing something about the problem (even if deported migrant workers can easily be replaced with more migrant workers the very next day). On the left, these images serve to whip up an equal and opposite hysteria to rally the activist base against the “fascist police state,” while lending justification to their calls to “abolish ICE.” In the end, poor migrants and the low-skill Americans they displace are alike enlisted as props in these two competing morality plays. Neither side seems interested in proposing systemic solutions that would prevent these instances of abuse, exploitation, and precariousness in the first place.

Donald Trump: The Open Borders President

The one policy that might conceivably make the provisions of the 1986 law more enforceable and render the system as a whole more coherent is national mandatory E-Verify,40 and this was of course opposed by Donald Trump and his administration. (As noted in the previous essay, the Canadian example suggests that universal employ­ment verification is probably the single most effective way to enforce immigration laws, more so than either a border wall or arbitrary ICE raids. It bears stressing that for much of the last decade, visa overstays have consistently exceeded illicit border crossings as the means for illegal immigration to the United States, accounting for more than half of the undocumented population.41)

Asked point blank on Fox News if he would consider mandatory E-Verify, Trump admitted, “It’s a very tough thing to ask [employ­ers] to go through that. So, in a certain way, I speak against myself, but you also have to have a world of some practicality.”42 Indeed, this is a president who has vilified and attacked vulnerable migrants to no end even as his family business continued to exploit them. The Trump Organization only “volunteered” to institute E-Verify in 2019, two years into his term,43 and was still found to be using illegal labor a year later.44

Unsurprisingly, a March 2020 report from Pew Research found that ICE arrests under Trump “remain[ed] far lower than during President Barack Obama’s first term in office,” while deportations of unauthorized immigrants, which stood at 337,287 according to the most recent available full year data “remained below the levels recorded during much of the Obama administration, including a three‑year period between fiscal 2012 and 2014 when there were more than 400,000 per year.”45 Near the end of Trump’s term, the Houston Chronicle would report that “Barrack Obama’s ICE arrested and deported more than twice as many people during his first term in office.”46

The most prominent immigration bill of the Trump years, the raise Act, did not feature a proposal for national mandatory E-Verify (though the bill itself came to nothing and was not even voted on). One of the Act’s sponsors, Senator Tom Cotton, has subsequently presented bills in 201947 and again in 202148 that did feature mandatory E-Verify—though as proposals from a member of the minority party, these do not stand a serious chance of becoming law. And however sincere Senator Cotton might be in his desire to see mandatory E-Verify become law, it is evidently not a commitment shared in any meaningful way by his party’s leadership.49

Another recent example of this fundamentally unserious approach to labor market security from the party of “law and order” was the recent bill signed into law by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, which mandated E-Verify for all public employers as well as businesses that enter into public contracts.50 But what exactly prevented DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally, from requiring that all employers in the state do the same? DeSantis actually campaigned on such a promise, only to fall short with what’s been dubbed by one disappointed lawmaker as “fake E-Verify . . . optional E-Verify.”

Despite growing support from groups that have historically had reason to oppose national mandatory E-Verify, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce51 and the National Restaurant Association,52 the establishments of both parties appear to have sided with lobbies like the Western Growers Association53 and the American Business Immigration Coalition (the latter aided by the libertarian think tank Cato Institute),54 who have taken public stands against the federal mandate becoming law. On the other end of the labor market, Silicon Valley firms have relied on H-1B visas to facilitate a form of high-skill indentured servitude,55 perpetuating a status quo that benefits blue‑state elites just as much as red-state elites.

Aside from the forty-fifth president, the figure who most aptly personifies the contradictions of the Trump era was his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Eager to advance “economic nationalism,” Ban­non’s words and deeds nonetheless demonstrated just how wedded to stale free market libertarianism the Trump Republican Party still is, and just how irreconcilable the insistence on “small government” remains with the imperative to defend the country’s borders. The first sign of how ineffectual the MAGA movement was going to be in dealing with immigration came early in the Trump presidency when Bannon appeared together with Reince Priebus at the February 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. There, they talked about “im­migration, protecting the sovereignty of the United States, putting a wall on the southern border” only for Bannon to then say that their objective was going to be the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” a line that won enthusiastic applause from the professional conservatives in attendance.56

But what if, as the Canadian example has shown, the administrative state is an essential component to any secure and well-function­ing immigration regime? It is, after all, the Canadian government bureaucracy that is entrusted with administering the points system; helping to enforce the SIN Code of Practice (Canada’s version of mandatory E-Verify); overseeing the flow of temporary foreign workers; among countless other mundane but crucial administrative tasks that go into the operation of the most highly reputed immigration system in the world. (Trump’s advisers should have known this since they repeatedly claimed Canada as a model.57)

Bannon led the way in reviving the rhetoric of “the nation-state,” but the problem is that while conservatives have no shortage of love for the nation, they refuse to consider the efficacy of the state. They therefore fail to understand that a strong and authoritative state is precisely what is required in order to insulate the nation from, among other things, the destabilizing effects wrought by the unconstrained flows of capital, goods, and labor that constitute neoliberal globalization. This is what Canada’s experience in regulating immigration demonstrates. There, the strictly nonpolitical bureaucracy is generally accorded a level of trust and respect that is repaid with the competence that comes through in the smooth and satisfactory functioning of the immigration system among other areas of responsibility. But U.S. conservative orthodoxy has decided that the administrative state is the enemy and that government bureaucracy can only be either a tyrannical menace or an inefficient nuisance, or both. This encourages the Right to politicize, demonize, and delegitimize the civil service at every turn. Bannon led the way on this front as well, popularizing the conspiratorial idea of the “deep state.” The poor record of the Trump Republicans on immigration, as in other issues, only proved Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation that “contempt for government breeds contempt­ible government.”

As for the wall, it would never be built, nor was that ever the plan. As with so much else in the Trump era, the purpose was purely symbolic and rhetorical. If the administration had been serious about building a wall, they would have recognized that only the administrative state could have carried out the immense planning and logistical functions that such a massive undertaking would have called for. If they had been even more serious, Trump’s advisers would have dropped the misguided fixation on physical barriers (a static solution to a kinetic problem) and set about emulating the Canadian system’s strict emphasis on bureaucratic and labor market approaches to preventing illegal immigration, and they would have readily invested in the requisite administrative capacity. But this kind of practical thinking is simply incompatible with the rigid anti-statism of the American Right. In the end, Trump and Bannon were more globalist than the globalists.

Simulacral Sovereignty

Needless to say, the Trump administration did not deliver on the one issue it was ostensibly most concerned about. It could not produce a comprehensive legislative solution to the immigration issue despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for the first two years. To compensate for this political impotence, the administration relied on a raft of highly inflammatory but mostly diversionary actions in order to virtue signal its purported commitment to the nationalist agenda on borders, none of which did anything to fundamentally alter the structural factors and incentives that facilitate illicit migrant labor flows. These include the 2017 travel ban on seven arbitrarily selected Muslim-majority countries and the various itera­tions of it that followed;58 the early 2018 announcement of an equal parts cruel and confused “zero tolerance” policy of family separation that was almost immediately blamed on Obama before being rescind­ed a few months later;59 the late 2018 declaration of a national emer­gency over the imminent arrival of a Central American migrant cara­van invasion60 that never showed up (a narrative that was abandoned right after the midterms61); a string of executive orders laden with split infinitives directing officials “to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States”;62 and the presi­dent’s specialty, endless streams of the most vulgar and lurid rhetoric about “killers,” “rapists,” “predators,” “animals,” and “shithole coun­tries.”63

If building the wall and securing the border were supposedly the core concerns of the Trump era—the very concerns that gave birth to it—and virtually nothing of substance was accomplished in these areas, then what was it all for? Just as Jean Baudrillard once seized on the profound mismatch between imagery and reality in the coverage of Operation Desert Storm to assert that the “the Gulf War did not take place,” so too may a future historian look at the policy vacuity of the Trump era and declare that “the Trump administration did not take place.” The human suffering and acrimony were real enough, but nothing else was. These were years of smoke and mir­rors, spectacle, and stage drama, politics as pure simulacrum—and its most avid consumers were by no means limited to Trump’s followers. In fact, Trump’s fans were often outdone by his foes, who actually believed the president, took him at his word, and validated his postur­ing by engaging in complementary performative acts of “resistance.” As much as anyone, Trump’s opponents treated him as if he were something approaching the ruthless wall-building, sovereignty-ob­sessed strongman he claimed to be. The placards at their protests read “No Ban, No Wall.” And while there was a ban, however flimsy and prone to fluctuation its provisions may have been, there could be no wall—and on that, Trump and the protesters were agreed.

Taking Trump’s bait, the opposition radicalized in the direction of equally ludicrous and extreme ideas like abolishing border enforcement and condemning the very notion of having national borders as intrinsically racist and xenophobic.64 Responding in kind, the identi­tarian alt-right has made the most of this ideological polarization to push their own ideas about establishing a “white ethno-state.”65 These two extremisms are now allied in the belief that race must replace citizenship and civic values as the basis not only of immigration policy but of American politics and national identity. This sorry state of affairs on both ends of the political spectrum is, more than any­thing else, the true legacy of the Trump era.

Under the heedless leadership of Trump and the Republican establishment, the Right has signally failed to address the immigration issue, but the underlying root causes that fueled the appeal of Trum­pian populism are still there, among them the exploitative conditions of inequality and precarity that arise from permissive border policy and unregulated labor markets. Historically, these issues have been the territory of the Left and the labor movement, who should have an interest in reclaiming them and defusing the conditions that catalyze reactionary nativist politics in the first place.

As unlikely as it might seem at the moment, it is worth pondering: What if progressives took up the cause of protecting national borders and more stringently regulating immigration flows? What if they came to see the issue as of a piece with their wish to regulate global capital flows or global carbon emissions—as a logical extension of their desire to contain the excesses of neoliberal globalization? Might there be room for a political “Nixon in China” moment?

The policy directions taken by the Biden administration have been promising in some respects but also hazardous and untenable in others. There is a danger that it will settle for the same lax standards of enforcement that have distorted U.S. policy for decades and that Biden will, like other presidents, rely on inconsistent gestures and half measures, accomplishing little in the end.

Once again, the example set by Canada may be of some use to Americans. Divided among themselves and on the verge of fragmentation, Canadians in the twentieth century overcame a national iden­tity crisis by electing a center-left administration that responded with a series of sweeping reforms encompassing questions of national sovereignty, citizenship, immigration, the economy, and the country’s place in the world. It amounted to a stirring vision of constitutional civic nationalism that could face down and conquer the swelling tides of ethnic tribalism. It was firmly progressive in orientation but none­theless served the fundamentally conservative goals of preserving na­tional unity and projecting a common national purpose. The question for Americans in the twenty-first century is whether they can do the same.

A Left Agenda in Place of Open Borders

If the Right errs in loving the nation but not the state, the error of large segments of the Left lies in believing in the state but not in the nation, which is needed to legitimize the actions and authority of the state. Against this trend, however, there survives a hallowed left-wing tradition that still recognizes the importance of popular self-deter­mination and economic solidarity, both of which depend upon a sovereign and bounded political community called the nation-state. Indeed, many of the elements of a serious and popular left-wing position on regulating immigration are hiding in plain sight.

Unreconstructed leftists might still flinch at the thought of open borders, as Bernie Sanders did in a 2015 Vox interview where he derided it as a wage-depressing “Koch brothers proposal.”66 It is a sentiment shared to varying degrees around the world by others on the left like Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise,67 the Aufstehen movement of Sarah Wagenknecht in Germany,68 and before his total capitulation to the Labour establishment, Jeremy Corbyn of Great Britain.69 Among moderate center-left parties, the Social Democrats in Denmark70 and the Labour Parties of New Zealand71 and Australia72 have taken notable stands in favor of regulating the flow of migrants and foreign workers along with improving the welfare of the domestic labor force. And of course, there is Canada’s Liberal Party, which introduced so many of the policy innovations that allow the Canadian immigration system to combine multiethnic diversity with a strong civic identity. (Does the open borders Left believe that all these left-wing parties and personalities are stooges of white supremacy and xenophobia?) Between these options, U.S. progressives have plenty of inspiration for devising a different political approach to immigration.

As to specific policy objectives for resolving America’s long-standing immigration crisis, four should concern any progressive administration: (1) accounting for the legal status of the existing unauthorized population; (2) establishing an enforceable standard of labor market security through employment verification; (3) transitioning to a high-skills immigration system; and (4) stemming migrant flows at the southern border by taking a regional approach to addressing the causes of outmigration. As of this writing, the Biden administration has most vigorously pursued the first and fourth of these through its proposed U.S. Citizenship Act, while it has down­played the second and effectively disregarded the third. Only when all four of these objectives are well and truly met, however, can a lasting settlement on immigration be forged.

On the first objective, the U.S. Citizenship Act proposes an eight-year path to citizenship for America’s estimated eleven million un­authorized immigrants.73 Those eligible must have been in the United States on or before January 1, 2021. They will have to “pass criminal and national security background checks” as well as “demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics” before being allowed to apply for citizenship.74 To these prerequisites could be added a crash course acquainting the applicants with the full slate of workplace rights they will be entitled to as future citizens, including, for instance, the benefits of joining a labor union. (More such measures will have to be enacted to ensure that this bill, which also constitutes an infusion of mostly low-skill labor into the legal workforce, does not follow the 1986 law in leading to more atomized labor markets but rather becomes part of a larger trend toward greater worker bargaining power.)

Though not entirely fair or ideal, the bill’s proposed “road map to citizenship” is nonetheless a pragmatic and straightforward resolution to a perennial question that generations of U.S. policymakers in both parties have been unable to address. Republicans grumbling over amnesty should temper their opposition by considering that, on one hand, they utterly failed to resolve the issue when they had full control of the U.S. government in 2017–19, betraying either their own incompetence or their mendacity and thereby forfeiting much of their credibility on the issue. On the other hand, the alternatives to the Biden citizenship plan are either impractical and unpopular or differ only in degree. The hardline approach of attempting to deport every single illegal alien would be a highly disruptive and likely impractical res­ponse that has very little support among the American public, even among right-leaning voters.75 Somewhat more workable but only marginally more restrictionist are approaches like “last in, first out,” which would take into account the amount of time spent in the country and the level of demonstrated attachment a migrant has in making the deportation decision.

Nevertheless, to be successful, the Biden administration’s presentation of its citizenship plan will have to satisfy two conditions. First, the case for it will have to be communicated clearly and patiently to the American people, with the aim of securing their general approval. Second, to the extent that there will be any kind of amnesty program, it must be made just as clear both to the amnestied migrants and to all prospective new migrants that this truly will be a onetime privilege, to be followed by a clean break and a completely new system that will be far more vigilant in detecting future violations and far more puni­tive and decisive in responding to them. So far, the administration has failed to convey these messages. It appears to be rushing through a major immigration package in its early days without attempting first to impart a broader understanding of its goals for the future of American citizenship. It is also much too keen to emphasize its humanitarian pedigree while relegating issues of law and order for fear of sounding too much like Trump. Such a hasty approach to modifying the boundaries of the political community, however, will likely plant the seeds for a more intense backlash later on.

All the more reason for the Left to care about enforcement, which is the concern of the second objective. The integrity of any new settlement will depend on how effective the policy regime is at “de­tecting future violations,” and Canada’s example (where the “SIN Code of Practice” serves the same function as mandatory E-Verify) shows that embedding an enforcement mechanism into the everyday workings of the labor market is the most direct and effective means to that end. The U.S. Citizenship Act seems to recognize this—but only to an extent—since it calls for a commission “to make recommendations for improving the employment verification process,” deferring the politically difficult question for a future day. Yet Democrats should not beat around the bush. They should prove their commitment to labor market security by going even further than the Republicans ever could and establishing national mandatory E-Verify (combined with steep financial penalties for employers found in violation). This would fulfill the second objective in no uncertain terms: it would shift the focus of enforcement from the supply to the demand side of the labor market, and it should help to restore a measure of bargaining power to workers and unions. (On this point, as illustrated in the preceding essay, there has been a substantial divergence between Canada and the United States in wage growth for blue-collar workers without a degree.) Additionally, the bill could further advance labor market security through its provision granting DHS “the authority to adjust green cards based on macroeconomic conditions,” a move that would bring the U.S. system closer to the level of flexibility and discretion that the Canadian system enjoys.

The United States can—and should—follow Canada’s lead in building a skills-based policy regime. The transition to a high-skills system can begin with an adjustment of the proportion of immigrant intake according to primary entry purpose designations. The United States needs to move away from its present emphasis on family-class migration and toward economic-class migrants, as is already the case in Canada. The United States could then set up its own version of the “points system” (which is not entertained in the Biden bill). This might be followed by a comprehensive review and reform of the existing work visa system with the goal of eliminating the abuses associated with, for instance, the high-skill H-1B and the low-skill H-2B. Though the U.S. Citizenship Act contains some provisions im­proving the workings of the high-skills immigration stream, the bill as a whole is weighed down by a commitment to retaining family reunification and “diversity” as favored criteria for immigrant admis­sibility. This does not bode well for either the political or economic sustainability of the U.S. immigration system.

As the United States transitions toward a new phase of reindustrialization (encouraged by other Biden administration policies), the search for prospective immigrants should be aligned with this goal. The imperative to attract and integrate foreign expertise into the national economy is as old as the Industrial Revolution. Precedents stretch back to Alexander Hamilton’s advice that “means ought to be taken to procure from Europe skillful workmen” in order to grow the young republic’s industrial capacities.76 Given the apparent shortage of STEM talent in America today,77 reindustrialization in the twenty-first century calls for a comparable policy. The Left should make it a priority to ensure social harmony between skilled immigrant and native workers. Canada’s experience shows it is a plausible goal so long as there is the potential among high-skill immigrants for genuine civic and economic complementarity with the larger society.

Before moving on to the final objective, it is worth acknowledging that the U.S. Citizenship Act provides for improving “border re­sources with technology and infrastructure,” such as through upgrad­ing facilities at all land, sea, and air ports of entry in order to better detect illicit activity.78 This emphasis on technology goes beyond the previous administration’s fixation on erecting a sedentary physical barrier and has the potential to be more effective in the long run. Canada’s adoption of artificial intelligence to streamline border man­agement and screening procedures79 is something the United States can learn from. A related aspect of immigration reform that a progressive administration could also champion has to do with the neglected field of public administration. While the Right railed against the administrative state, derailing the government’s ability to actually carry out immigration policy, the Left can push for major new invest­ments in and the reorganization of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services so that it may develop the requisite technical and administrative capacity to execute the bold suite of new immigration programs in store.

But there remains the unavoidable question of how a progressive administration is supposed to push through such an agenda while still respecting the universalist ethical impulse toward compassion for the poor and displaced in other nations, which forms an integral part of the Left’s worldview and contemporary self-image. This is a dilemma that nearly all major developed nations face, and while Canada gen­erally has the luxury of contemplating it at a comfortable distance, the facts of geography have ensured that the U.S. must engage with it constantly and under the most urgent pressure.

“A Vast Crucible of Revolutionary Ideas”

The U.S. Citizenship Act recognizes that only by ensuring stability at the border can endemic migrant crises be ended.80 The bill, therefore, takes a regional approach to tackling the root causes of outmigration. It makes available $4 billion in aid to the countries of Central Amer­ica and envisions the establishment of “Designated Processing Cen­ters” to receive and process migrants in their home region, among other measures. In this, the administration has taken a very different approach to the confrontational stance and rhetoric of the previous president. Yet there is still something missing in terms of a truly unified strategic framework to solving the problem.

There was another time in history when a Democratic administration was compelled to address concerns about insecurity and de­stabilization emanating from the nations along its southern frontier. This administration produced a novel policy to marry pragmatic interests with moral ones, the coldly strategic and the genuinely idealistic. Like John F. Kennedy’s original Alliance for Progress, a new progressive “grand strategy” on immigration must treat human rights, social justice, economic opportunity, and development as all interlinked and dependent on a foundation of shared respect for the principles of sovereignty and self-determination.81 This would mean positively tying together a far more disciplined and consistent stance on immigration enforcement at home with a more generous, creative, and proactive approach to assistance abroad. Just as the United States will pledge to respect the sovereignty of its sister republics, renouncing the jingoism and imperialism of the past, so too must Washington ask its neighbors to pledge to respect the integrity of U.S. borders and laws.

So far, neither the U.S. Citizenship Act nor the rhetoric of the Biden administration have really embraced this position, giving the impression that America will help its neighbors while still maintaining a permissive attitude toward illicit migrant flows. This is the potentially fatal flaw at the heart of the administration’s immigration policy, which could unravel all its other plans and initiatives. After all, why would a Central American migrant settle for going through a “Designated Processing Center” and possibly waiting for a long time when he or she can take a chance at getting past a half-hearted border enforcement apparatus, acquiring a job in the United States, and eventually taking advantage of a future amnesty program? Unless and until this gap is filled, no matter what else the Biden administration does, there will be a de facto regime of open borders in America and an opening for continued uncontrolled immigration, with all the political and economic problems that entails.

Based on this integrated understanding of the issue and building on already existing plans, the following is an attempt to further develop the programmatic contours and components of a progressive, sovereignty-respecting vision for regional stability and cooperation. In the U.S. Citizenship Act, the Biden administration has made gener­ous funding assistance to Central American governments conditional “on their ability to reduce the endemic corruption, violence, and poverty that causes people to flee their home countries.”82 It has also pledged to work with regional development banks like the Inter-American Development Bank to channel private capital toward socially productive investment goals like infrastructure and job crea­tion.83

Bridging these two priorities of anti-corruption and developmental investment, the United States could also launch an effort to help recover the revenues and capital that is lost by local governments through rampant tax dodging and money laundering,84 with the aim of redirecting that lost wealth toward public investment. To impart a sense of just how much the region loses out on due to illicit financial flows, the Center for Economic and Social Rights has estimated that the Latin American economy “lost approximately 6.3% of its GDP in 2017” to tax evasion and avoidance while only 0.7 percent of regional GDP had been “invested in housing construction, community devel­opment, water utilities and public lighting.”85 This approach is thus less about funneling U.S. aid dollars into the region than it is about helping these countries to reclaim the wealth and endowment that the global tax haven industry has deprived them of.

With respect to climate change, if there is to be public investment in green innovation of the kind advocated by progressives, a sensible and worthwhile way to address the climate crisis in this region would be to aggressively diffuse new climate adaptation technologies, at low or no cost, to these countries. These technologies would include (but are not limited to) resilient crops, drugs for infectious diseases, flood safeguard systems, water purification and next generation irrigation, and weather forecasting applications.86 It would be a better policy than declaring “open borders” in anticipation of waves of climate refugees, as has been suggested by some on the left.87 Rather than glumly resigning themselves to the destruction of entire regions of settled life—a position of unremitting eco-defeatism that goes against the techno-optimism of the Green New Deal—might progressives better spend their energies devising ways to redouble the research and development efforts that could spark such fateful breakthroughs in climate adaptation as well as mitigation?

A “New Alliance for Progress” could also facilitate strategic coop­eration among the countries of the region as it relates to the possibility of managing migrant flows in systemic and mutually reassuring ways. This course would have especially promising implications for the United States and Mexico, who may form a “special relationship” of sorts in leading the organization’s agenda.

For instance, authorities in Mexico looked to dissuade the migrant caravans of late 2018 from continuing to the U.S. border by offering to settle willing migrants in Mexico’s southern states.88 Closer to the border, cities like Tijuana and Matamoros played a critical part in accommodating migrant flows. Shortly after, in January 2019, the Department of Homeland Security announced the Migrant Protection Protocols, informally known as “Remain in Mexico,” through which the United States can return migrants and asylum seekers to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings.89 Although based on the sound and reasonable premise of enlisting Mexico’s help in managing the migrant flow from its territory, the program turned out to be, in practice, a sloppy, reactive, and poorly executed policy measure on the part of the Trump administration. Human rights groups have rightly criticized the program for failing to actually protect migrants and leaving them instead in unsafe conditions where they could easily be preyed upon by violent gangs, leading to precisely the opposite of the “safe and orderly process” promised by DHS.90 In any event, the Biden White House canceled “Remain in Mexico.” But there is no reason why the administration could not revive the policy and work to improve it. This can be done by offering to generously fund and assist the Mexican government in matters of housing and humanitarian aid—to the point of sending in legions of usaid workers and Peace Corps volunteers to set up American-sponsored safety zones with “Designated Processing Cen­ters” within Mexico—in exchange for the latter’s full cooperation in intercepting and absorbing migrant flows headed for the U.S. border, as well as providing security for the migrants and aid workers.

To the extent that there will be capacity and political will in the United States to take in these migrants, they can be made to wait for processing from inside these safety zones. But the United States can also, through such a policy, persuade the remainder of Central Amer­ican migrants to settle in Mexico instead. Arrangements may also be negotiated with other more stable Latin American countries interested in taking in a share of migrants. Indeed, the U.S. Citizenship Act already gestures toward this prospect of more equitably redistributing the burden with partner states.91

At a political and ideological level, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “Fourth Transformation” agenda of public investment, infrastructure, and nation-building projects resembles the Biden administration’s own “Build Back Better” plan in its scope and ambition. Together, the Mexican and U.S. administrations can work to join their broad progressive aspirations and create the conditions for widespread social and economic opportunity in Mexico and throughout Central America. The enterprise should inspire the Left to live up to the soaring Pan-American rhetoric of Kennedy’s original Alliance for Progress, which promised to “transform the American continent into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and efforts.”92 As well as capturing their imaginations and their idealism, it would draw them away once and for all from the dead-end idea of open borders.

The basic goal, however, must always be to prevent uncontrolled migrant flows in the first place, lest Mexico eventually come to experience the same long-term instability on its southern border as that which troubles the United States. Alongside the main objective of supporting economic development in migrant source countries, assis­tance and cooperation should extend to the crucial security dimension. The U.S. Citizenship Act encompasses this through provisions enhancing “the ability to prosecute individuals involved in smuggling and trafficking networks who are responsible for the exploitation of migrants.”93 The Biden administration has also called for “a comprehensive, multi-national plan to address the [immigration] challenge” to be worked out at a future “regional meeting of leaders.”94 It can use the occasion to propose a binding agreement in which the United States, Mexico, the Central American and Caribbean countries, plus Canada would pledge to respect each other’s national sovereignty in practical terms and to consequently assist in maintaining order, secu­rity, and predictability along their borders. From this can follow a forum for institutionalized cooperation among the border services and law enforcement agencies of these states.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the American Left is right to call out instances of abuse and mishandling (“children in cages”) that have become an all-too-common feature of the U.S. im­migration regime. The Left goes too far, however, when it advocates for the abolition of the immigration enforcement apparatus altogether, which all but realizes the “Koch brothers” prescription for open borders. A reasonable compromise would grant this branch of the Left a say in the management and oversight of the U.S. government’s immigration enforcement and detention practices, through an execu­tive watchdog office perhaps or a congressional committee, so long as participants agree to the principle that immigration enforcement and detention are legitimate functions of government. (The U.S. Citizenship Act already points in this direction as it would provide resources to improve “standards of care for individuals, families, and children in CBP custody.”) Concerns about the safety of detention facilities are legitimate, but that in no way alters the core principle that a sovereign nation has the right to police its borders, to enforce its laws, and to refuse entry to those without legal authorization to be in the country.

The Ideal of Citizenship

Such a sweeping program of internal and external immigration reform would enable the United States to set its own strategic immigration goals. This might start with a temporary period of a moderate restric­tionism until such a point as the economy recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic (“taking a breather” on immigration, as New Zealand prime minster Jacinda Ardern’s 2017 campaign platform described a similar policy plank95) before pivoting to an era of controlled expan­sionism geared toward economic advantage, social cohesion, and strategic (skills-based) population growth, as described by Michael Lind in a 2016 article for the National Interest96—and indeed, as successfully practiced by Canada for many years.

Putting the immigration question to rest would also free up the United States to focus its energies on other pressing tasks, such as rebalancing the relationship between business and labor, which be­comes easier when labor markets are secure and regulated; or initiat­ing the next great moment of nation-building in the spirit of the New Deal, which becomes more possible when there is one less polarizing issue to worry about. But most important of all is reconstituting the badly fractured American nation on the basis of a shared citizenship that can transcend the divisions of race, class, and culture that so imperil America’s present and future.

As this analysis has shown, it is entirely possible for a nation to contain a rich diversity of identities and outlooks at the individual and subcultural levels, so long as these are firmly rooted in a strong civic foundation that encompasses the full moral, social, political, and material economic dimensions of citizenship. But while the United States can and should learn from the Canadian experience, it is unlike­ly that anything called “multiculturalism” will work as well in Ameri­ca given the different histories and subjectivities of the two countries.

Instead, there could be a revival of a distinctly American school of civic nationalism, one that can strike a comparable balance between a hearty pluralism and a wholesome particularism. It can be a vision that embraces the immigrant and the native-born alike, even as it blurs communal and ethnic differences before a common reverence for the civic values and history that have always bound Americans together. There is room enough, as it turns out, for the melting pot and the mosaic, for together they give expression to two contrasting but complementary facets of the ideal of citizenship in a free society.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 2 (Summer 2021): 60–92.

1 Jim Jordan and Tom McClintock, “How the Biden Administration’s Immigration Proposals Risk Undoing the Successes of the Trump Administration,” U.S. House of Representatives, February 18, 2021.

2 Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “Biden Plans Sweeping Reversal of Trump’s Immigration Agenda, from Deportations to Asylum Policy,” CBS News, November 11, 2020.

3 Samaré Gozal, “Malmo, a Segregated City—Separating Fact from Fiction,” EUobserver, November 18, 2019.

4 Feargus O’Sullivan, “How a Brussels Neighborhood Became a Breeding Ground for Terror,” Bloomberg, November 17, 2015.

5 Karina Piser, “‘The Social Ladder Is Broken’: Hope and Despair in the French Banlieues,” Nation, March 21, 2018.

6Focus on Geography Series, 2016 Census,” Statistics Canada, July 2019.

7Key Sectors,” Invest Brampton, 2020.

8Markham Economic Profile 2020,” City of Markham, 2020.

9City of Fortune: Mississauga, Ontario,” City of Mississauga, retrieved November 2020.

10 John Ibbitson, “The Collapse of the Laurentian Consensus,” Literary Review of Canada (January–February 2012).

11 John Rieti, “Ontario PCs Dominate Toronto Suburbs and 905, While NDP Swipes Urban Seats from Liberals,” CBC, June 7, 2018.

12 Joe Friesen and Julian Sher, “How Courting the Immigrant Vote Paid Off for the Tories,” Globe and Mail, May 3, 2011; Marci McDonald, “Is Jason Kenney Too Extreme for the Conservatives?,” Walrus, May 28, 2014.

13 John Ibbitson, “Prepare for a Very Different Conservative Leader with Erin O’Toole,” Globe and Mail, September 3, 2020. As part of an appeal to large immigrant communities, O’Toole has pledged to increase family-class migration, saying “We should accelerate it if it allows the family to keep their business operating [after the pandemic].” This is a risky policy that goes against the trend prioritizing economic-class migrants but which could possibly work so long as the contemplated changes are not too drastic a departure from the present balance.

14 Sidney A. Burell, “Calvinism, Capitalism, and the Middle Classes: Some Afterthoughts on an Old Problem,” Journal of Modern History 32, no. 2 (1960): 129–30.

15 Martin Turcotte, “Educational and Labour Market Outcomes of Children with an Immigrant Background by Their Region of Origin,” Statistics Canada—Ethnicity, Language and Immigration Thematic Series, November 15, 2019, Chart 4.

16Proportion of Immigrants Who Are STEM Graduates,” Statistics Canada, November 2015.

17 Kareem El-Assal, “How Do We Know If Immigrants Are Succeeding in Canada’s Economy?,” CIC News, March 6, 2020.

18 Bertrand Marotte, “Immigrants Come to Canada with an Average $47,000 in Savings,” Globe and Mail, April 15, 2015.

19 El-Assal.

20 El-Assal.

21 Described in greater detail in Michael Cuenco, “A Tale of Two Immigration Systems: Canada and the United States,” American Affairs 5, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 183–212.

22 Rebecca J. Rosen, “Can the Country Survive without a Strong Middle Class?,” Atlantic, March 21, 2017.

23Citizenship for Sale: The Immigrant Investor Controversy,” Ashton College, December 18, 2015.

24 Brent Staples, “How Italians Became ‘White,’New York Times, October 12, 2019.

25 Peter H. Russell, Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 343–44.

26 Antoine Dionne Charest, “Qu’est-ce que l’interculturalisme ?,” La presse, August 16, 2019.

27 Daniel Stoffman, “An Ideology, Not a Fact,” Globe and Mail, August 22, 2009.

28Does Citizenship = Belonging?,” Anima Leadership, September 26, 2018.

29Impressions of George Grant,” CBC Archives, August 5, 1973.

30 Ian Haysom, “Canada Shrugs as Charles Pays Us a Visit,” Times Colonist, November 7, 2009.

31 Ruth Ellen Wasem, “How a 1965 Immigration Law Forever Changed the Makeup of America,” Hill, October 3, 2020.

32 Alana Semuels, “The Last Time the U.S. Seriously Considered Merit-Based Immigration,” Atlantic, August 4, 2017.

33 Philip E. Wolgin, “Family Reunification Is the Bedrock of U.S. Immigration Policy,” Center for American Progress, February 12, 2018.

34 Betsy Cooper and Kevin O’Neil, “Policy Brief: Lessons from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986,” Migration Policy Institute, August 2005.

35 Nicolas Villareal, “Small Business’s Class War Could Finish Off American Dynamism,” Palladium, December 21, 2020.

36A Reagan Legacy: Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants,”, July 4, 2010.

37 Dara Lind, “The Basics of the US Immigration System,” Vox, August 4, 2015.

38 Lind, “The Basics.”

39 Dara Lind, “The Disastrous, Forgotten 1996 Law That Created Today’s Immigration Problem,” Vox, April 28, 2016.

40 John B. Judis, “North of the Border: Debates over Immigration Will Not Go Away,” American Affairs 2, no. 4 (Winter 2018): 36.

41 Richard Gonzales, “For 7th Consecutive Year, Visa Overstays Exceeded Illegal Border Crossings,” NPR, January 16, 2019.

42 Seung Min Kim, “In Fox News Interview, Trump Expresses Concern about E-Verify,” Washington Post, May 19, 2019.

43 Miriam Jordan, “Trump Organization to Use E-Verify to Prevent Hiring Undocumented Immigrants,” New York Times, January 29, 2019.

44 Joshua Partlow and David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump Organization Fires More Undocumented Workers—A Year after Its Use of Illegal Labor Was Revealed,” Washington Post, December 31, 2019.

45 John Gramlich, “How Border Apprehensions, ICE Arrests and Deportations Have Changed under Trump,” Pew Research Center, March 2, 2020.

46 Chris Tomlinson, “Tomlinson: Trump Made a Lot of Immigration Promises and Fortunately Failed,” Houston Chronicle, September 25, 2020.

47 Frank E. Lockwood, “Boozman, Cotton Back Internet System to Verify Workers,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 11, 2019.

48 Ledyard King, “Republican Plan Would Raise Minimum Wage to $10 but Only If Businesses Are Required to Ensure Worker Legality,” USA Today, February 23, 2021.

49 Frank E. Lockwood, “Both Parties Out to Stall Bill That Would Make It Harder for People Illegally in U.S. to Get Work, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton Says,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 31, 2019.

50 Ana Ceballos, “Desantis (Quietly) Signs Requirement for Electronic Verification of Immigration Status,” Tampa Bay Times, June 30, 2020.

51U.S. Chamber of Commerce Now Supports E-Verify,” Floridians for E-Verify Now, February 5, 2015.

52   Amy McCarthy, “Will the Restaurant Industry Survive Stricter Immigration Screenings?,” CNBC, March 10, 2016.

53 Dan Stein, “Agriculture Lobbyists Are Once Again Standing in the Way of E-Verify,” Hill, September 5, 2018.

54 Alex Nowrasteh, “Democrats and Republicans Should Both Oppose E‐​Verify,” Cato Institute, April 17, 2018.

55   Ben Popper, “Is Silicon Valley’s Immigration Agenda Gutting the Tech Industry’s Middle Class?,” Verge, July 3, 2013.

56 Ryan Teague Beckwith, “Read Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus’ Joint Interview at CPAC,” Time, February 23, 2017.

57 Alexander Panetta, “Canada’s Immigration Policy Inspired Donald Trump’s New Plan: White House,” Global News, August 2, 2017.

58 Vivian Salama, “AP Exclusive: DHS Report Disputes Threat from Banned Nations,” Associated Press, February 24, 2017.

59 John Wagner, Nick Miroff, and Mike DeBonis, “Trump Reverses Course, Signs Order Ending His Policy of Separating Families at the Border,” Washington Post, June 20, 2018.

60 Ted Hesson and Wesley Morgan, “Trump’s Troop Deployment to the Border Comes under Fire,” Politico, October 29, 2018.

61 Maggie Haberman and Mark Lander, “A Week After the Midterms, Trump Seems to Forget the Caravan,” New York Times, November 13, 2018.

62Recent Immigration Policy Moves Vex U.S. Workers from Abroad,” Marketplace, October 5, 2018.

63 Aubree Eliza Weaver, “Trump’s ‘Shithole’ Comment Denounced across the Globe,” Politico, January 12, 2018.

64 Peter Berard, “The Rise of Border Fascism,” Dissent, November 5, 2020.

65 Anna Orso and Ellie Rushing, “White Supremacists and Other Extremist Groups Are Using Protests and a Pandemic to Amplify Their Message,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 13, 2020.

66 Ezra Klein, “Bernie Sanders: The Vox Conversation,” Vox, July 28, 2015.

67 Sarah Paillou, “La France insoumise veut rassurer un peu ceux qui sont contre l’immigration,” Le journal du dimanche, December 4, 2018.

68 Darko Janjevic, “Germany: New ‘Aufstehen’ Movement of Sahra Wagenknecht Is Shaking Up Leftists,” Deutsche Welle, November 8, 2018.

69 Helen Lewis, “Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Wholesale’ EU Immigration Has Destroyed Conditions for British Workers,” July 23, 2017.

70 Richard Milne, “Danish Centre-Left Woos Voters with Tough Immigration Stance,” Financial Times, June 1, 2019.

71 harlotte Greenfield and Ana Nicolaci da Costa, “Hard Labour: NZ’s Ardern Takes Tougher Line on Immigration,” Reuters, August 21, 2017.

72 Tom Rabe, “Kristina Keneally’s Immigration Call Adds Fuel to an Old Fire,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 8, 2020.

73 Nicole Narea, “The New Biden-Backed Immigration Bill, Explained,” Vox, February 18, 2021.

74Fact Sheet: President Biden Sends Immigration Bill to Congress as Part of His Commitment to Modernize our Immigration System,”, January 20, 2021.

75 Max Ehrenfreund, “The Odd Thing That Happens When You Actually Ask Trump’s Supporters about Mass Deportation,” Washington Post, November 9, 2016.

76 Richard Sylla and David J. Cowen, “Examining a Founder’s Vision of a Working Economy,” Washington Times, July 24, 2018.

77 Arthur Herman, “America’s High-Tech STEM Crisis,” Forbes, September 10, 2018.

78, January 2021.

79 Roxana Akhmetova, “How AI Is Being Used in Canada’s Immigration Decision-Making,” compas, April 2, 2020.

80, January 2021.

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82, January 2021.

83The Biden Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America,”, 2020.

84 Michael Cuenco, “Tax Sovereignty in the Age of Global Capital,” American Affairs 3, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 54–81.

85 Olivia Minatta and Sergio Chaparro, “The State of Tax in Latin America: Massive Evasion and Avoidance Block Human Rights and Development,” Center for Economic and Social Rights, April 22, 2019.

86 Simione Talanoa, “10 Adaptation Technologies,” Climate Action, December 22, 2010.

87 Ben Ehrenreich, “Open Borders Must Be Part of Any Response to the Climate Crisis,” Nation, June 6, 2019.

88Migrant Caravan: Mexico Offers Temporary Work Permits,” BBC, October 27, 2018.

89Migrant Protection Protocols,” DHS, January 24, 2019.

90Q&A: Trump Administration’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program,” Human Rights Watch, January 29, 2020.

91, January 2021.

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93, January 2021.

94, 2020.

95 Debrin Foxcroft, “Immigration Numbers Could Drop without Too Much Heavy Lifting from Labour,” Stuff, April 10, 2019.

96 Michael Lind, “Was John Locke Really a Liberal?,” National Interest, April 23, 2016.

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