A Conservative Critique of the Liberal Critiques of Trump’s DACA Critique


Over at The American Interest, my friend Jason Willick made a strong case that the left’s condemnations of President Trump’s DACA rescindment did not so much resemble courageous acts of statecraft- “public-spirited representatives bargaining for partial victories”- as they resembled a hyper-partisan chest-thumping contest, full of “maximalist factional leaders performing ideological purity rituals to increase their status within their tribes.” It became a winner-take-all contest in the minds of those commenting, bereft of any willingness to compromise on principles towards a practical solution- willingness to compromise that will be necessary if Congress is to come up with any reasonably just and sustainable solution for what to do about the hundreds of thousands of DACA-recipient Dreamers in this country before next March.


On the pro-DACA left, there seems to be a conceit that free travel, free movement, and free choice of residence is something like a universal human right, which the United States- being as it is a country purportedly founded on human rights- ought to uphold for all people. Liberal advocates probably wouldn’t put it in quite those terms, but their condemnation of opposition to anything less than functional open borders seems to betray a cosmopolitanism that doesn’t care much for national sovereignty. National populations should make the choice to be open to foreigners; if they make the opposite choice, that choice should be overruled.


This rejection of popular sovereignty on the immigration question may indicate a transformation of the left’s older ideas about democracy, which once implied some form of exclusive nationhood but now appear at times to extend into a universal humanism, incumbent at least upon the “indispensable nation” America. If the United States government is duty-bound to protect the rights not only of its own citizens but of all people, and if all people have the right to be protected by the United States government, the obligations and benefits of American citizenship certainly look different than they once did.


I assume most liberal immigration advocates reading this would assure me that they have no such philosophical conceptions or political utopianism in mind; they just believe in being good to people, being humane, and being welcoming. After all, anybody can be an American, and we are a nation of immigrants, right?


There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being welcoming. But as Ross Douthat noted in his excellent and insightful ten theses on immigration, an excess of welcoming-ness is an excess like any other excess, and the effects that unchecked mass immigration have on societies even as open as the United States- culturally, economically, socially, politically, morally- would seem to justify a rethinking of the post-1960s consensus on American immigration policy. Just look at the huge social divisions resulting from the debate over immigration- you wouldn’t have those if you had a humbler, more nationhood-oriented immigration policy that was working in the interests, and aligned with the values, of the majority of the national community. The inflexibility of the left, just as much as or more than the nativism of large elements of the right, is precluding any real debate and progress on moving towards more sustainable policies. The conviction of the defenders of the immigration status quo that they are defending humanity from oppression hardens their opposition to any movement on the issue, and the preclusion of reform makes the underlying crisis worsen over time. The pot will boil over soon enough, and it is the task of the statesmen of the moment to make sure- for everyone’s sake, including the Dreamers- that it doesn’t. That will require some tough and ideologically unsatisfactory choices.


I personally tend to favor the soft restrictions and new assimilation promoted by such moderate and reformist center-right thinkers as Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Michael Lind. I also believe the reforms these thinkers push for can be achieved within the current consensus on immigration in the American policy elite, which (ostensibly at least) promotes prevention of illegal immigration and a gradual path to citizenship for the eleven million or so undocumented aliens currently living in the United States. We could have some form of Gang-of-Eight-style comprehensive immigration reform while reducing overall legal immigration flows and switching preferences from low-skilled towards highly-skilled applicants. But all in all, our immigration policy should not be about compassion, should not be about humanity, should not be about justice and human rights- our immigration policy should never stray from serving the needs and parameters of the American people culturally, economically, socially, politically, and morally, because no immigrant will ever get the chance to become an American if the American nation tears itself apart over the question of immigration.


I’ve intentionally left unanswered the sticky question of what to do about the 800,000 or so Dreamers living in America and affected by Trump’s punting of the issue towards Congress. I can’t answer with any sophistication- but I hope people who know more than I do about the subject can answer with sophistication, rather than the trite appeals to righteousness and sentiment that have thus far characterized the public discourse on Trump’s decision.

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