07/02/2007 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Immigration Reform is Dead Because the American Dream is Dying

Why are so many people willing, indeed desperately anxious, to photoshop a "Do Not Enter" sign as a replacement for the Statue of Liberty's torch?

The failure of immigration reform isn't primarily due to nativism, or racism, or a belief that the availability of those willing to work for minimum wage puts a downward pressure on salaries. Although those are easy targets.

The real issue is a fundamental, structural shift in the economy that has resulted in an undeniably widening gap between rich and poor. But what's even more distressing than the gulf itself is its consequences. American optimism about the future, perhaps our most meaningful and successful national mythology - Fitzgerald's green light at the end of Daisy's dock - is dimmingt.

Self-improvement is as American as apple pie, but when the pie is shrinking you guard every last crumb of it. This is beyond a rational response, it's Darwinian, hard-wired into us by thousands of years of evolution. If there is an ample supply of fresh water at my watering hole, then I'm going to be less wary of any thirsty nomads than if we're beseeching the rain gods and sacrificing now-extinct mammals.

Just how dry is our watering hole? A recent study by the Economic Mobility Project, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, found that men under 30 actually earn less than their fathers (adjusted for inflation, of course). John E. Morton, who co-wrote the study, said that "...the expectation that each generation will do better than their parents has become a fundamental part of what we call 'The American Dream', but this new analysis suggests this bedrock belief may be shifting under our feet..."

It's that emotional climate which makes the specter of more twelve million undocumented aliens so profoundly fearsome. Whether someone's immediate job prospects are threatened isn't the point. It's that their "upside" - as we like to call it - is limited, which naturally makes someone quick to question the received arc of the American narrative. Millions are not exactly predisposed to see us as the "land of opportunity" for others, when they don't see it that way for themselves.

You can see in this context how absolutely irrelevant the contribution of immigrants to American life has been. All the lists about what immigrants have brought to America, and all the econometric modeling, are meaningless. You don't give a crap about how the guy who just meandered over to your watering hole invented a new slingshot when you're dying of thirst.

So when I hear the advocates of immigration bash opponents as undemocratic, as standing against basic American values, I can understand their response.

But the blame belongs to all of us. The political reality that crashed immigration reform has less to do with immigrants than it does to do with the closing of the American dream. When we're doing well, we are a generous people. But today, millions feel economically disenfranchised - whether it's autoworkers who foolishly put their confidence in the jerks running the American automobile industry, or those young people in their twenties and thirties not lucky or well-connected enough to be working in Silicon Valley or hedge funds.

As a result, millions of Americans believe that by keeping immigrants out - or by sending them back - they can lift themselves up. It's not logical. It's just human.