Melting Pot or Civil War

Date Reviewed
March 18th 2021


The author of 'Melting Pot or Civil War?', a son of immigrants, argues against open borders. Reihan Salam, at first blush, may seem to be making the traditional conservative case of limiting immigration. But that is not actually where he is coming from.

The Liberal immigration philosophy seems to be that none should be restricted, at least not based on race, ethnicity, origin or poverty.

And Salam would probably not argue with poet Lazarus's quote inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

The author probably doesn't object to “tired, poor and huddled” but what he really wants is that they be educated and bringing skills that can be used, allowing them to prosper in their new home.

The main problem he sees with the open immigration policy is too many coming with limited skills, and even those for declining job opportunities. And the result is that they are mired in ghettos with limited opportunities to move into an upwardly mobile society.

In past decades, there were opportunities for immigrants with only a work ethic and determination to get ahead. It was probably not as rosy an opportunity as those nostalgic about the American Dream would have you believe, but with a growing middle class it was possible.

Now those emerging from such a milieu are much fewer as the ghettos grow and are self reinforcing with the offspring never escaping. And this increases the resentment of succeeding generations.

He cites Canada and Switzerland which have selected immigrants based on criteria increasing the likelihood of fitting in and prospering. They have not neglected the family reunion aspect, but more severely curtailed what “family” means for the purposes of sponsoring.

At first, I feared the book would only apply to American circumstances and that is mainly the situation, but he has investigated how immigration pressures are handled in other countries.

And while the author doesn't make much of it, the U.S. is one of the few prosperous countries in the world with a land border and corridor directly linked to a source of poor desperate people. And in that sense, it is among the first to experience desperate population pressure from the outside.

Salam barely mentions how climate change is going to increase desperate migration from equatorial areas.

One of his suggestions to ameliorate the desperation of migrants is to, rather than welcome them as immigrants with all the costs that entails, take that money and invest it in those countries making the lifestyle there more hopeful. And since many people would often opt for not moving from the life they know and understand, that would seem more reasonable.

But a crucial problem, and it threatens to increase, is the continuing deterioration of land and resources to provide the opportunities they utilized in the past.

Generally he is dealing with the situation and rationale of the recent past; immigrants looking to increase their economic prospects. But degraded resources and opportunities in their native countries coupled with vicious governance and violence may skew migration more toward trying to survive physically. This was the impetus for much of the by land immigration out of the middle east to Europe in recent years.

Resources directed to the issues in such countries may not provide much respite. He alludes to the idea that most people would rather not move to improve their prospects.


The author says there are 700 million people in the world who would like to move to another country and for 165 million that would be the United States.

Failure to enforce immigration laws that permitted many low skilled immigrants suited “unscrupulous low wage employers”. Now with declining low wage job opportunities the consequences are more frightening.

Immigrants, he says, should only be admitted if the country is committed to integrating and assimilating them into belief in the common destiny of the country.

He says the 'melting pot' idea is out of style.

Salam says solidarity longterm whites in the U.S. and European immigrants was cemented by a shared racism against the blacks. “In an ethnically divided society, to be outnumbered is to be afraid.” And non-Hispanic whites under 18 became a minority in 2020, with changes in demographics expanding. Whites' dominance will be replaced, he says, regardless of how immigration proceeds. He also suggests that there is a wealth transfer accompanying this.

Salam is forecasting that the generations of the darker unskilled immigrants will not be as quiescent. However, their political power may grow, while their education and hence opportunities in society do not. He suggests not enough is being done to break that cycle.

He points to Canada and Switzerland with distinct ethnic groups but not as much disparity in income and advantages as in the U.S. He adds that limiting low-skill immigration to the U.S., at least for a time, while welcoming high-skill immigration can change the dynamic.

He describes the U.S. as an outlier in poverty, especially among non white children. And further, good public services such as school are less available to them. Low wage and lightly regulated labour effectively keeps them poor. He calls it a “bottomless appetite for cheap services.”

Rags to riches stories are becoming rarer and more marvelled at. The rich and well educated usually come from the upper middle class and wealthy.

He points out that Chinese immigrants to the U.S. more often come from wealthy background and proportional education than Mexican. He doesn't mention that the difference may not be as much the country of origin as the relative ease of making the trip. In these times, China is an air flight and passport away where Mexico is a hike and sneak over the border available to many more people.

Salam says that because of social and language barriers many new immigrants are not aware of the benefits they qualify for and some immigration advocates think it is good that all the impoverished non-citizens are unaware. This jibes with immigration “yes” welfare “no”. But for some immigrants the improved wage over their home country makes it still worth it.

He points out that while local governments support programs for the young, the federal government disproportionately favours programs for the elderly.

There is a high correlation between low education with the parents and subsequent low education in their children.

There is a pattern where inclusivity in allowing people is paired with stingy in making sacrifices to provide services to help them fit in. On the other side more careful selection of immigrants is often paired with better services for them.

He cites Canada, Australia and Singapore as selecting high potential immigrants and granting them and their children permanent residence and citizenship comparatively easily. These people are also favoured for multigenerational sponsoring, whereas the low skill immigrants to these countries are not favoured in this way.

That these latter seem to be viewed as second class citizens, says Salam, is at odds with American values.

He expects interethnic tension to soar as more newcomers are admitted to disadvantaged groups under the melting pot idea that no longer works. Traditionally the divide has been white and nonwhite or mainstream and outsider. As the numerical dominance of whites decline this will add to the tension.

Country or origin suggests stereotypes that may be positive or negative. The author felt his as south Asian gave him an advantage in what was expected, at least in school.

From the advantages of monetary prosperity can flow 'social and cultural capital' that allow people to integrate into more advantageous circumstances.

Separate and distinct communities grow when there is a continuous supply of immigrants from the old countries. If there is not then those communities tend to blend into the community around them.

The existences of an earlier large ethnic community can provide a much different experience for a new immigrant than if there is not one. The latter suggests more integration.

Unauthorized immigration surged through the 1970s to 1990s as did a countering border enforcement. During the same period several amnesties were offered followed by more family-based admissions.

While the government tried to restrict immigration employer lobbies were effective in weakening workplace enforcement and the unauthorized immigration population continued to grow into the 2000s.

“Replenishment of impoverished communities” is what the author believes should be avoided.

While a skills-based immigration policy wouldn't solve all problems it would make them more manageable.

Immigration and ethnic communities are leading to tensions effecting taxes and crime and politically feeling toward an authoritarian state while undermining support for a welfare state.

Some who favour no slowing of low skilled immigration hope the problems can be defused by more anti-discrimination efforts. And they may see reducing immigration as capitulation to bigotry.

Automation will continue to reduce the relevance of a large pool of unskilled labour.

On the other side, Sweden, which previously had been using more technology and high skilled workers to decrease the need for low skilled workers, has reversed itself. This in order to accommodate more of the low skilled refugees from wars, but at the same time they are reluctant to dispense the same level of benefits and thus are creating a two tiered labour market and an underclass. This is an interesting development in light of forecast unemployment in the wake of automation.

Singapore takes in temporary labour migrants to do the less desirable work, but at the same time carefully polices the system. Singapore is less sentimental than Sweden.

Contrastingly, the U.S. has a large pool of low skilled workers and low wages and minimal regulation. Salam calls this a choice and not a necessity.

More labour intensive business models can absorb low skilled labour, but that is a policy decision running in the face of creeping automation.

Salam says ultimately the immigrants are the ones who benefit most from open immigration, at least initially. Contrary to a common belief, the low skilled immigrants do not depress native low skill wages and may enhance that of the high skilled native workers.

The rub, he says, is that Americans are not comfortable with a permanent underclass.

South Korea with a highly educated population utilizes more robots, especially at home and offshores, through investment, some lower skilled jobs to Vietnam for slightly lower wages. This seems a relationship satisfying both countries, with Korea remaining democratic and Vietnam more affluent.

The author suggests that advocates of free trade are more comfortable with change, also are more favourable to the movement of people across borders. On the other hand immigration skeptics are inclined to be more nostalgic and resistant to change, he adds.

The U.S. progressively has a system of high skilled workers at home and the low skilled workers overseas.

Some, he says, see immigration and reuniting of families as an uplift for the global poor.

Some U.S. employers are willing to support more immigration of unskilled provided it goes along with no minimum wages and less regulation. Without this more jobs will be automated or shifted overseas.

He points out that low skill natives suffer more than immigrants with alcoholism and poor health because the system does not offer the same hope to them than to striving new immigrants.

Maybe somewhat surprisingly low skill jobs in the U.S. often involve “high touch”, “emotional intelligence” or manual dexterity and are harder to simulate with robots and computers than many higher skilled jobs.

In addition, because they aren't high paid there is little incentive to automate them out of existence.

The writer suggest that anti-immigration backlash may be a response to the “similarly wrenching and botched” transition to a globalized economy. “Globalization's impact on the Rust Belt has sapped confidence in the basic fairness of America's institutions, and it has engendered an intense political backlash.”

Americans retiring to some of the poorer countries in the western hemisphere may provide a demand for services and hence income for people in those countries.

The U.S., he says, may have to give something to Mexico to continue to be a buffer against immigration pressures from farther south.

He points out that the increasingly wealthy countries of East Asia, long resisting immigration may become targets as the standards of living increase in them.

They will likely resist and may follow the pattern of Singapore and Saudi Arabia where guest workers are used but prevented from getting permanent residence or citizenship.

Building new “charter” cities from scratch in some countries may attract migrants looking for economic opportunities and at the same time they would be developed for the new people and have minimum pushback from the few local residents.

Remote countries may choose to sponsor the building of these cities in another country and commit investment to make them viable. It may prove a less expensive way than accommodating a flood of immigrants into their country.

Another way, he suggests, to release migrant pressure is to incentivize nearby neighbours to take people which would be less costly in the long run than hosting them in the wealthy countries. It may involve economic investments in these poorer host countries.

Virtual immigration where an information company in one country employs workers via modern technology, yet they stay in their home counties. The employing company would find it easier to meet to going wage for the other country.

Of course that may have a comparable backlash for the homegrown educated to exported low skill labour of the last two decades of globalism.

The author's three proposals are offering amnesty to unauthorized long residents, adopting skills based immigration, and fighting transmission of intergenerational poverty.

He points out that educational attainment of immigrants to the U.S. has risen dramatically since the mid-2000s, approaching half college graduates. However, differences in quality of education means it doesn't necessarily translate into marketable skills.

The author points out that a growing number of family members sponsored are aging parents, rather than young more productive relatives. He favours phasing out the family preference, but maintaining the level of “green cards” the same and allocating more to employment based visas and utilizing a points system of which family connection would be one category.

Salam says there are differences over how many immigrants should be admitted, but more unanimity over what type of immigrant.

The current, he says, should be the last low skill wave of immigrants to be absorbed with an amnesty.

The U.S., he says, has a higher child poverty rate than most wealthy countries and it is a result of too much low skilled labour immigrants.

In the meantime he sees it important to invest in the poor young especially so they have more optimistic prospects and don't become fodder for populist political demagogues.

Currently a lot of the poor receive neither tax subsidies nor food stamps. He advocates a universal child care benefit to offset the poverty.

Salam sees a safety net for the poor as a way of defusing potential ethnic conflict.

In addition, he hopes, that sufficient people will be willing to cross the “tribal boundaries” to promote cultural fusion between groups.