But there are other threats to American national unity looming on the horizon. My admittedly unscientific sense is that we are living through a period in which Americans’ sense of solidarity or group cohesiveness is declining. Liberals tend to see this decline in solidarity as a symptom of income and wealth inequality. Conservatives blame it on a rising emphasis on ethnic identity over national identity, or the turn to moral relativism. I see it as a product of the economic and social isolation of huge chunks of our population.
One challenge is a thoughtless immigration policy, which makes it hard for immigrants currently living and working in the United States to find a foothold in American life. When we debate immigration policy, we tend to focus on the economic impact of future immigration on native-born workers. What we forget is that 13 percent of the people living in the United States were born abroad, and immigrants make up 16.3 percent of the U.S. workforce. These immigrants are already a part of our society, and their interests should count for something. While some of these immigrants are the kind of high-fliers who found Silicon Valley startups and hedge funds, far more of them are people with modest skills who are struggling to find their footing in a changing economy. Poverty among naturalizedimmigrants—that is, those who have become U.S. citizens—is lower than poverty among native-born Americans. Poverty among unauthorized immigrants, however, is extremely, heartbreakingly high, both because it is hard to make a living when you’re living in the shadows, but also because unauthorized immigrants tend to have the lowest skill levels. If we grant legal status to unauthorized immigrants, and if we accept that we have a responsibility to protect the interests of the immigrants who currently live and work in the United States, the last thing we should do is increase future immigration, which will intensify labor market competition for these workers. Moreover, it will tend to delay the assimilation process, as immigrants will be less likely to settle in integrated neighborhoods and form bonds with Americans from backgrounds different from their own.