Conservatives, don’t demonize immigrants

Michael R. Strain, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


Whenever I’d see George, the first thing I always noticed was his shoes. He loved Jordans. He must have had two dozen pairs. The bright colors contrasted with the uniform he wore at the restaurant he managed, adding personality.

George was great at his job. He knew what my wife and I wanted to drink without asking, and had the drinks at the table a few minutes after we’d sit down. He always made sure there was a table available for his regular customers. My family went to George’s restaurant for weeknight dinners, to celebrate new jobs and promotions, when family and friends came to visit, when we brought our baby son home from the hospital.

He worked hard, holding down a second job as a waiter at another restaurant down the street. It wasn’t until a few weeks before he left the U.S. earlier this summer to return to his native Philippines that I learned he had been sending money home to his family for many years, at great personal sacrifice. To provide for his children, he would go years without seeing them.

I thought of George when I saw this summer’s edition of the Claremont Review of Books, a conservative journal. The cover art depicts immigrants as men with masks holding knives, Hispanics wearing sombreros, ominous-looking Asians, men with turbans and Muslim women in burqas, all shrouded in gray. They surround a worried-looking Uncle Sam holding a pennant reading, “Welcome.” It illustrates the alarmist and nationalist lead essay, titled “Diversity and Its Discontents.”

Portraying immigrants this way is shameful, and is a sad reflection of the ugly nationalism and xenophobia that apparently reaches further into the mainstream of the political right than we conservatives would have thought possible just a few years ago.

The public face of the right wasn’t always so hostile. Rather than succumb to base emotions and fear of “the other” following the traumatic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush called on Americans to be their best selves. Upon hearing that some Muslims felt intimidated by other Americans, Bush went to a mosque six days after the terrorist attack and said: “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America. They represent the worst of humankind.”

He also said: “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.”

President Ronald Reagan, standing at New York harbor, said of the immigrants who passed under the Statue of Liberty: “They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom. They came from different lands but they shared the same values, the same dream.”

I am not advocating policy by sentiment. The appropriate number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. is a subject on which people of good will can disagree. And there are real issues with immigration: the wages of some native workers might decrease, the pace of assimilation may be slower than some would like, local resources might be stretched.

But advocates of reducing immigration should realize that demonizing immigrants is counterproductive. When I see a picture like the one in the Claremont Review, my gut reaction is that immigration should be increased, not decreased. More importantly, it’s wrong. Immigrants are our neighbors, and they deserve respect. It’s immoral to stoke fear and anxiety. It encourages bigotry. It violates American values.

The dignity of the human person should be a central concern of public policy. But policy is often abstract. To grasp its meaning, it helps to put a human face on its impersonal constructs. I’ve recently tried to put a face on labor market policies by discussing the invisible victims those policies create. With immigrants, the faces are visible – you can pick one. Is the image on Claremont’s cover your choice? I hope not.

For me, the face is George’s. I am in awe of his courage. He left his home, traveled thousands of miles, and built a career on our shores. People like George help make America great. I am grateful that my country, and my family, got to share in George’s success. And I am proud that of all the nations in the world, George wanted to come to America. I hope that the lamp’s light beside our nation’s golden door never fades.

Strain is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of “The U.S. Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy” and the co-editor of “Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy.”




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