David Frum ’82 — author, senior editor at The Atlantic and alumnus of the Tory Party — invited members of the Yale Political Union to debate his contentious claim that limiting legal immigration into the United States could “restabilize our own politics.”
On Tuesday night, the YPU hosted a debate in Sudler Hall titled “Resolved: Limit Legal Immigration” with Frum, who is originally from Toronto. YPU President Lucas Ferrer ’21 introduced Frum as an Atlantic editor, a member of the British think tank Policy Exchange and a former special assistant and speechwriter to President George W. Bush from 2001–02. Frum’s most recent work is “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” in which he expresses concern for the state of democracy and America’s future. After Frum gave an opening speech lasting approximately 10 minutes, party members asked him questions and gave speeches on immigration policy.
“America’s immigration question is so difficult because we approach it as [having] yes-or-no, win-or-lose answers… the questions in immigration are not binary,” Frum said. “There are more profound questions about how many, who, how much and what kind.”
Still, Frum said that there needs to be “some kind of limit” to legal immigration. According to Frum, about 1.2 million people immigrate to the U.S. every year. He said that policymakers set this figure in the 1990s under President George H. W. Bush’s administration. He said the law “doubled the legal intake” of immigrants in order to reduce the “backlog of 1986” and process relatives that recently naturalized citizens had sponsored.
At the conclusion of the debate, YPU Speaker Tommy Schacht ’21 called for a vote on the question at hand. After two recounts, the results were in. 19 students voted in favor of limiting legal immigration and 19 students voted against it. Zero students abstained.
Answering what immigration does and what its purpose is, Frum explained that immigration significantly contributes to the economy and growth of a population. With more productive workers, the “total output of a society” expands. Still, Frum said, “we don’t just aim to grow our economy.”
Frum said that immigration “pushes the native-born out of job categories by reducing wages,” which he said drives native citizens to other fields. The “classic example,” according to Frum, is that of a construction company whose U.S.-born workers’ wages decrease with the entry of immigrant construction workers. As a result, American workers must “up their skill in some way.”
“If that didn’t happen,” Frum said, “there’d be no economic benefit from immigration.”
Frum added that once U.S. citizens consider the economic impact of immigration, they can begin to see the potential risks. In Frum’s view, immigration “contributes to economic inequality and decreases social cohesion,” stating that since 1990, “25 million people have brought new ideas” to the United States.
“Immigration is the only policy in the book of public policy … where it is only good and nothing bad, where there are only benefits and no costs,” Frum said. “How do you make the trade-offs to make it better for immigrants themselves?”
According to Frum, the United States should prioritize curbing “the pressures that are bringing the rise of events like Brexit and far right parties,” in order to “restabilize our own politics.” The “tragic dilemma,” Frum said, is that “the societies that need immigration most can cope with it the least.”
From his point of view, America also needs a “meaningful crackdown on illegal immigration,” a remark that conjured overwhelming hissing from the audience at large as well as some clapping. While Frum conceded that the country cannot entirely stop undocumented immigrants from entering, he explained that “asylum needs to cease to be a backstop for illegal immigration.” To this point, he stated that there are 100,000 asylum seekers each month.
Because “the numbers in 1990 aren’t written in the Constitution,” Frum said that America needs to bring down the total number of immigrants in order to make the country “more socially manageable.”
Following Frum’s remarks, members of the Federalist Party, the Progressive Party and the Party of the Right, among others, responded with their stances on the issues. These opinions ranged from imposing strict quotas with an English language requirement to making all undocumented civilians legal residents.
In his response, Chairman of the Federalist Party Julio Granados ’22 countered some of the speaker’s arguments by saying that Frum resorted to “blaming the powerless for something that the powerful are doing.” Granados emphasized that limiting legal immigration usually translates to only letting a “certain few in,” such as people with higher education, and that the “worth of a human being” should not be limited to how much they can contribute to a society or an economy.
To the speaker’s point about “social cohesion,” Granados said that many Latin American citizens are socially conservative but tend to drift to the Democratic Party because the GOP isolates them through hateful rhetoric. He added that “if we were more accepting and less afraid” the country could have “more cohesion.”
In interviews with the News following the debate, individual party members said that the debate was challenging yet interesting.
“I really liked what one of the Progs said [about] interpreting politics to find the overlap between compassion and pragmatism,” Bea Portela ’23 told the News, referring to the speech by Emma Knight ’22.
Calista Washburn ’23 told the News that she did not think the debate “changed [her mind in any fundamental way,” but that it helped her “solidify [her] views about the issue.”
In an email to the News, attendee Ismael Jamai Ait Hmitti ’22 said that the YPU is a space he cherishes and believes is important to Yale. He pointed to the “possible associations with like-minded people to further activist causes” as well as the Union’s ability to serve as a “space for dangerous, radical ideas to meet and to interact in a meaningful way.”
Frum congratulated the Yale Political Union on its new “Italian parliamentary” style of seating and expressed awe for the “quality of undergraduates” he has encountered during his visit to campus.
In his time at Yale, Frum was a student in Directed Studies in addition to being a member of the Tory Party.
Larissa Jimenez | firstname.lastname@example.org