Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Random Thoughts on the Immigration Debate

I have never been able to figure out where I stand on the immigration business. I have some very strong ideas about it, but the ideas never add up to a policy, because they are contradictory. So I'm just going to throw them out in no particular order, and maybe someone can tell me what my policy is.

1) The idea that admitting vast numbers of the unskilled workers doesn't depress wages, particularly for low skilled workers, is baloney. If it didn't depress wages, why is business so in favor of it? On the other hand, cheap labor makes a country's economy more competitive. Again, any one who denies that is just playing games.

2) King Stephen of Hungary said that a kingdom should have people of many nations, for a kingdom of only one nation is a weak kingdom. If evey ethnic group has a "trick" then a country with only one ethnic group is a "one-trick pony." There is a certain narrow-mindedness that one finds in the intellectual climate of monoethnic countries that is not very attractive.

3) If your concern is with having an America be more egalitarian and more caring as a community, importing lots of poor people with whom many people already here have little sympathy seems to be a funny way to go about it. I had a student from Texas, who once told me that it is basically impossible for a teen to get a manual labor job where he grew up, because the work was being done by Mexicans. Of course, that's only his side of the story, but it sounds plausible that as more manual labor is being by experienced adult men willing to work for teenager wages, fewer teenagers will be hired for that type of work. What will that do to society when a growing class of persons, for reason of birth alone, feel exempted from manual labor? Will it create sentiments of privilege and unconscious "economic royalism"? Probably. Will it fuel guilt, belief that society is fundamentally unfair, and redistributionist schemes? I wouldn't be surprised.

4) It is essentially speaking impossible to immigrate legally to the United States, unless you have a relative here as a citizen already.

5) Mongolia had zero permanent residents in the USA in 1989, now there are approximately 20,000 (Mongolia's consulate's estimate). If more than 50 got their visas to the US on the basis of being "immigrants looking for a better life" I'd be surprised.

6) So add it up and you get a bizarre paradox: the President says the immigration is all about "people coming to America to make a better life for their families, because they believe in America." Well, go to any US consulate in the world, and say, "I want a visa because I want to make a better life for my family, because I believe in America." Unless you have a relative already here, you will not get a visa. But say: "I'm so well-off here at home, I don't really want to stay in America, just visit/go to school, and then return" or "I just want to make some money as a guest worker in America and then come home and be rich in my home country" or "I never wanted to leave my country, but I have to for fear of persecution" or any other story at all, except the one immigrant advocates say immigration is all about, and you can get a visa.

7) Ever noticed how the most intense opponents of illegal immigration are often immigrants themselves, but non-Latin American ones who had to come in on visas (as opposed to walking across the border)? Why is that? Could it be that unlike native-born Americans they understand the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of the actual visa game and so are not susceptible to romanticizing immigration? Or that they see finally a chance to strike back at the queue-jumpers who use the unfair advantage of geographical proximity that would-be immigrants from Britain or the Phillipines, or Russia could only dream about? Or are they importing the zero-sum, government-control thinking they grew up with in their home countries?

8) The idea that the open border is some special liability in the age of terrorism doesn't hold water. If terrorists were going to "strike" across the border from Mexico they would have done so already. Think: what's the one thing you can add to the building blocks for a terror attack by going through Mexico? Foreigners without a visa. Now, the only scenario under which that is an important component, is one in which a) there are no home-grown would-be mooj already US holding green cards or passports; and b) it is impossible for a foreign would-be mooj to get a visa. I'd love to think these are both true, but I really doubt it.

9) From the point of view of assimilation, unskilled labor is not necessarily a problem. A poor Mexican or Chinese or Nigerian worker coming to the US is likely to experience upward mobility and a dramatic improval in life for his or her children. Nor are they likely to have the kind of profound understanding of their home culture that could survive the transplanting process and inculturate their children. That means assimilation (into the pop culture, unfortunately) is rapid. A Mexican or Chinese or Nigerian professor of sociology is likely to experience humiliating downward mobility (from respected professor to despised taxi-driver, for example), and have all the theories of imperialism and underdevelopment in his head already to explain it as the result of American imperialism, and the intellectual equipment to pass that resentment on to his children.

10) Many journalists and politicians would be astounded to know that in certain strange corners of the USA, lots of people mow lawns who aren't Mexican -- and they do it for pay! I pass by kids as white as me doing that for landscaping companies every day walking to the office. And white people will even drive cabs too. Once I had a Mexican-American grad student from San Jose, California, come to IU. He took a taxi from the bus station to his dorm and told me what surprised him most: "It was the first time I'd ever seen a white guy driving a taxi."

11) We all want to reward those who play by the rules, right? Why do we never do so? Why has there never been an "amnesty" for those who apply to immigrate legally, some of whom have been chumps enough to sit on the waiting list for twenty years -- and let them get off the wait list by just giving them a visa and a green card? Wouldn't that be legal cheap labor?

12) One can make an analogy with the "time out" in immigration that occurred from the 1920s to the 1960s. But there has never been any period in US history when a concentrated effort was made to push back non-citizens resident in the US to their home countries (directly or indirectly). Never.

13) Illegal immigration isn't really a crime in the same sense that, say, stealing a car, or even speeding, is a crime, because it isn't an indication of moral turpitude. Take two people of equal education, demographics, background, income, residence, etc. -- one is an illegal immigrant, one is not. I doubt that the illegal immigrant would be any more prone to other criminal activity than the other one. The laws on immigration are based (rightly or wrongly) on government policies, not morals (as the laws against, say, armed robbery, adultery, or drunk driving are). It is natural that if the country decides to change the policy, then those who haven't been caught by the time the policy changes are no longer treated as criminals. In other words, amnesty for illegal immigrants is not such a shocking thing.

14) Mexico's birth rate is falling -- total fertility's now about 2.6 per woman. The sound waves of the Mexican baby boom will still keep echoing around for a few more decades, but it's over. The situation in the rest of Latin American is not much different. Does this mean that if we just hold the line for a few more decades the problem of massive immigration will be over? Or does it mean that we only have a few more decades to import hard working labor for a growing economy, before the shortage becomes pan-American?

15) If every single Mexican moved to the United States tomorrow, the US would be about 1/3 Mexican. But of course that's not going to happen. Given the declining birth rate mentioned earlier, the idea that Mexico is every going to be able to "swamp" the USA is a bit hysterical.

16) The idea that America might end up with Europe's immigrant problem ignores the rather obvious fact that Latin Americans are almost all Christians of one sort or another, and dress like, and entertain themselves like, and marry like and with non-Hispanics at a pretty high rate.

17) English is never going to be replaced as the overwhelmingly dominant US language of public discourse. It isn't. Believe me.

18) What about Aztlan? What about it? I see no evidence that it is anything other than the kind of idea that kids in the age of 15 to 25 play with as a way of seeking their identity and "sticking it to the Man." With the exception of those who become professors of sociology and Chicano studies, they will grow up, get married, get a job, and let Aztlan fade. Sure, they will mostly (but not entirely, by any means) vote left, they will still let the old feelings flow on boozy occasions, but no, it is not a serious point of view, and its proponents are not serious people.

19) On the other hand, there is a significant divide in Latin, especially Mexican, identity. Are Mexicans basically Spanish Catholics, with Indian blood mixed in? Or are they basically Aztecs and other Indians, who have been forced by imperialism into speaking Spanish and being Catholic? The former point of view is a lot more assimilable (as well as being, culturally any way, a lot truer) than the latter. But it's the latter that drives the Aztlan idea and Quetzocoatl statues in parks in California. About the latter a judge appropriately pointed out that it's not really religion, it's feelings of ethnic pride masquerading as religion; by the same token Aztlan is a feeling of ethnic pride masquerading as political thought. When Mexicans start seriously thinking about the world, life, and whether they really are good people, in other words, when they "get religion," Quetzocoatl isn't whom they turn to, it is (of course) Jesus -- and the only question is exactly what kind of Jesus. So when Cardinal Mahoney turns his diocese into a shill for immigration activism, it's annoying and pathetic, but in the long run, it's not harmful to America.

20) It is just impossible to deny that the Bible's message on immigration is, over-all, pro-immigrant. "I got mine" nationalism just has no place in it. But it is also pro-assimilation; God's law asks us to welcome the stranger and the alien, but also assumes that the stranger and alien will remain that until he or she adopts the ways and beliefs of the native community and is assimilated (ultimately through intermarriage -- see Ruth, Rahab, etc.). Of course, after Israel loses independence and becomes a hierocratic client kingdom of the Persian empire, intermarriage becomes a bad thing (see Ezra and Nehemiah).

21) Linguistic assimilation is crucially dependent on diversity of language among immigrants. Go back to the fabled nineteenth century wards of New York, Chicago or whatever sepia-tinted nostalgia locale you wish. The Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans: why did they learn English? To speak to the Anglo-Saxons already there? Partly, but just as much to speak to the other immigrant kids from a different homeland. If all or most of the immigrants speak one language, assimilation will be that much slower.

22) I wonder what building a wall will do to populations of jaguars, and other endangered animals along the frontier. Probably nothing good.

23) Loyalty to the US is probably affected by the attitudes people have to the country they left, which in turn relates to their status in the country. If for example, they left their home country because they were a hated and persecuted minority (like Jews in Tsarist Russia), then dropping that loyalty and picking up loyalty to the US is going to be easy -- they've probably already done it before they've gotten on the boat. If the belong to the majority society in the country they left and have always been taught to see the US as an imperialist power that has mistreated their country in the past, then presumably it will be a lot more protracted. In other words, the more successful self-determination and nationalism is in the world at large (and it's been riding high since 1914), and the more the USA intervenes abroad (for good or ill), then the less rapid transfer of loyalty will be, all other things being equal.

24) If immigration is the source of American drive, hard work, and success, why not have a rule? Three generations here, and if you're not a millionnaire yet, we'll deport you.

25) It's not true that America is "a nation of immigrants" still less that "all Americans are descendants of immigrants." At least it's not true if we define "immigrant" in any reasonable way. An immigrant is an individual who comes into an existing society and adapts to that society's way of doing things. (If immigrant means simply people who came to live in a place where at some point in the past they didn't live, then every country outside of Eden is a "nation of immigrants.") American Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos are not immigrants. Those whose ancestry in America goes back to the colonial era are not, in any meaningful sense, immigrants. If America is a nation of immigrants, then they are not really Americans. And involuntary immigration -- the slave trade -- is also not immigration in any real sense. Is it really true that, for example, Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King were fundamentally alien to what America is all about? Immigration is a very important part of the story of America, no question. But it isn't the whole thing, or even the most important part.

UPDATE: Two more

26) If you can't enforce the law, you have no business making it. If it is impossible to keep immigrants out, as so many proponents of slightly more open laws insist, then one has a duty to say, "We should abolish all general restrictions on immigration." But if you are going to be setting numbers, no matter how high, simple honesty should compel you to support enforcement of those numbers.

27) The line between those who see themselves in the immigrants of 1835-1925 and those who see themselves in the native-born population of that time, is the most important and least talked about divide in understanding our common country's past -- and present -- and future.