Review Essay

Should America Cut Off Low-Skilled Immigration?

The Right and Wrong Arguments for Restrictionism

In This Review

Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders
Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders
By Reihan Salam
Sentinel, 2018, 224 pp. Purchase

Smart, intellectually consistent cases for immigration restriction are in short supply these days. U.S. President Donald Trump’s voters claim that the president only wants to stop illegal immigration, even as Trump’s policies take aim at the legal variety. Fringe figures on the right resuscitate century-old arguments about the inferiority of non-Western cultures or make poorly supported claims about the perils of racial diversity, even as the president sneers at immigration from “shithole” countries. 

Given its provocative title, one might expect Reihan Salam’s new book, Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders, to be yet another jeremiad warning that modern immigrants—unlike those good immigrants of ages past—are failing to assimilate and that race war looms. In fact, it is something completely different: a thoughtful, well-informed, mostly economic argument for limiting low-skilled immigration. In a marketplace of ideas dominated by shouting and bad faith, Salam’s book, although not without its flaws, is a much-needed injection of calm rationality.


Salam’s case for immigration restriction is fairly simple. Mass immigration of low-skilled laborers—farm workers, child-care workers, gardeners, and so on—will create an economic underclass in the United States. In the past, waves of poor laborers from Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere eventually clawed their way to the middle class, but this time, Salam says, will be different. The rise of automation and globalization means that low-skilled labor will be devalued as never before—gone will be the good manufacturing jobs of yesteryear, replaced by insecure, low-paid work. The children and grandchildren of today’s low-skilled immigrants will become a permanent pool of surplus labor.

Salam prophesies that the negative consequences of this will go beyond mere economic inequality. Because most low-skilled immigrants to the United States, indeed most U.S. immigrants in general, are nonwhite, many of them from Latin America, there will be a racialized aspect to the underclass. When generation after generation of poor Hispanic Americans

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