According to David Brooks, staying out of jail is a conservative value

The New York Times columnist writes:

First, immigration opponents are effectively trying to restrict the flow of conservatives into this country. In survey after survey, immigrants are found to have more traditional ideas about family structure and community than comparable Americans. They have lower incarceration rates. They place higher emphasis on career success. They have stronger work ethics. Immigrants go into poor neighborhoods and infuse them with traditional values.

When immigrant areas go bad, it’s not because they have infected America with bad values. It’s because America has infected them with bad values already present. . . .

I know what he means—-kind of. But this is also seems a bit weird to me, like he’s drawing up a list of everything he likes and putting all these things in the same column. Does he really think that people are virtuous innocents just by virtue of being born elsewhere and then crossing the border into the USA? What exactly are “bad values” that are already present here? Suppose an impoverished immigrant has Brooks’s traditional ideals and wants to feed his family, and the way he does it is to work hard every day and sell drugs (after all, occupations such as “newspaper columnist” and “statistics professor” are not so easy to reach if you’re a low-income immigrant). The trouble is, then he might go to jail, wrecking that “lower incarceration rates” statistic.

It does seem reasonable that if you have a group of people with low but above-subsistence incomes, who are afraid of being deported, and who speak other languages, that they might keep to themselves and not bother the rest of us. Which, I suppose, looks a lot like “traditional values.” But it’s not so clear why immigration opponents should be so happy about this.

I’m not saying that all of Brooks’s arguments are wrong, I just think he may be a bit too clever by half on this whole immigrants-are-conservatives thing.

7 Responses to According to David Brooks, staying out of jail is a conservative value

  1. Dan May 7, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Brooks is just trying to force-fit some details into his clever idea: to show how opposing immigration reform is self-defeating for the GOP, even on its own ideological terms. He’s basically a pro-immigration conservative, and wants to show why all conservatives should be pro-immigration without compromise.

    I agree, it feels like a stretch. And then again, why is Brooks pro-immigration? Is it only because he recognizes the sheer political consequences of alienating the immigrant community (which is largely and increasingly Hispanic these days, with that community growing in electoral influence as a whole), and thus is reaching to find a way to square the circle for partisan purposes? Brooks presents himself as “evidence-based” but I don’t always trust him in that regard.

    I like him when I agree with him, though. 😉

  2. DavidT May 7, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

    I know that a lot of liberals and moderates find this “immigrants believe in families and hard work; therefore they’re natural conservatives” line put out by pro-immigration conservatives a bizarre non-sequitur–as if nobody who believed in family or hard work could be a liberal. But the point is that the pro-immigration conservatives who write such things are writing mostly to persuade *other conservatives.* And since among conservatives, the notion that being virtuous is synonymous with being conservative is an axiom, it follows that if you just persuade conservagtives that immigrants are virtuous, they will believe that immigrants are “natural conservatives,” too.

    • Andrew Gelman May 8, 2013 at 7:11 am #


      Sure, but if immigrants are “natural conservatives” who happen to keep voting for Democrats, what good does that do for a conservative? Obama is still Obama, even if his voters happen to be hard-working shopkeepers who are devoted to their families.

      For that matter, Obama himself is a hardworking guy who is devoted to his family. That doesn’t make his policies conservative. If anything, one could argue that the main reason Obama’s policies are (occasionally) conservative is that he’s friends with lots of rich people. And that’s one bit of traditional values that low-income immigrants don’t have.

      • David T May 8, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

        The pro-immigration conservative response would presumably be that the only reason “naturally conservative” Hispanics keep voting for Democrats is that the GOP hasn’t been immigrant-friendly enough. (Such conservatives obviously would not deny that an *individual* could be hard-working, devoted to family, etc., and still vote Democratic, but they would still regard it as “unnatural” that a *majority* of such people would vote Democratic time after time.)

        Here I think the restrictionist conservatives have the better of the argument. In 1986, an amnesty was passed under Reagan, and in 1988 the GOP nominated a presidential candidate who actually had Hispanics in his family. Yet Dukakis still won the great majority of the Hispanic vote (69-30, just slightly behind Obama’s performance in 2012).

        Of course, given that the “Gang of Eight” bill wouldn’t let the newly legalized immigrants vote in any presidential election until 2028, the whole point may be moot.

      • Jacob A. Geller May 9, 2013 at 3:33 am #

        Brooks is bending over backwards trying to come up with immigrant characteristics that seem vaguely conservative, in an attempt to show that more immigrants = more conservative votes.

        …when all he needed to do was take a look at how they actually *vote* to see whether that were true.

  3. Dan May 8, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    I do presume that Brooks thinks that one of the main reasons immigrants who become citizens vote Democratic is specifically because Republicans voice such sharp opposition to immigration reforms, especially those that invoke “amnesty” for technical violations (that’s not a very punitive thing to do, and conservative values are big on punishment for transgressions per se).

    Thus, the reasoning is that if Republicans simply switch to supporting immigration reform then these eventual naturalized citizens will be “freed” to vote their “conscience” with the GOP more generally. Rubio would be the poster child for that theory (even with the occasional furtive sip of water), which is why it makes so much sense that he is out front on this.

    Not to put words in his mouth, but perhaps Brooks thinks that the differential on social issues between older and younger generations (immigrants/naturalized citizens and their children/native citizens) indicates something eternal and universal about how immigrant populations are absorbed into American society, and so he may want to latch onto immigrant populations systematically before they can be “swayed” by the local environment (get some tribal lock-in for the party as quickly as possible). But that generational differential could have been idiosyncratic to times and specific foreign origins, in this constantly evolving quicksand of collective culture. He has a lot more multivariate trend analysis to do before he should feel comfortable sitting on that theory. A little too facile at this point.

  4. Duncan May 9, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    There is some irony in that religiously based traditional values (perhaps not Brooks’ definition of traditional) when linked to American identity are related to immigrant animus (See McDaniel, Nooruddin and Shore (2011)). Brooks wants to make an argument that traditional values should matter, but shared identity regarding ‘family structure’ for instance is a weak linkage to overcome out-group anxiety tied to racial or linguistic differences.