I am endlessly interested in issues of emigration/immigration. In part, this is because it’s the place where my personal experience, and my wife’s, intersect with my training and with my professional life as a sociologist. There is a deeper reason I try to explain below a little circuitously; bear with me.
I think that how humans form into groups is the central question about our species. The question arises because every adult individual without exception is simultaneously a member of several groups and categories. Thus, I am a husband (member of a very small group, at least under monogamous conditions), a member of the sociological discipline/ profession, a member of the teaching professions broadly defined (but never an “educator”!), a small-time member of a local radio station (KSCO Santa Cruz, 1080AM), a Republican but nevertheless, a libertarian (with a small “l”), and an American. Yet, as a former Frenchman I am also a member, though somewhat passive, of a culture group, roughly the francophone group.
All the above memberships are in groups. I also belong to several categories that don’t qualify as groups because they never meet and because they have little sense of themselves as belonging together. So, I am a male (decidedly so), a moderately overweight person past middle age (but athletic!), a parent, a tax-payer, and I also belong to the secret, vast, worldwide category of humans who lack hair on the second phalanx of their index finger. In America, I am also a white man. The latter category is a little problematic because it’s ill-defined, like all matters that have to do with race. It means that most Americans on looking at me would guess, probably correctly, that all or most of my ancestors lived in Europe ten thousand years ago. Do the count of your own memberships for yourself and you will be amazed.
Memberships are not all equal, especially at a given time. Some memberships become activated while others lie dormant. Individuals activate one membership over the others depending on circumstances and often, depending on their stage in the life cycle. The presence of others frequently triggers the activation of long-dormant membership, as when a thirty-something bumps into a couple of old high-school buddies. Finally, sometimes, individuals are forced to activate one membership to the near-exclusion of others. This happens most often in connection with the nation and religious denominations, including secular religions such as Communism in the old days. The penultimate sentence is a description of totalitarianism, political, religious, and other. It’s the most parsimonious definition I know.
Emigration matters because every act of emigration implies a reasonably conscious decision to de-activate a group membership that is salient in much, but not in all, the world: nationality. Emigrants may not be completely clear about how definitive their decision to move is but they always know that it entails an abrupt shutting off of whatever comfort one derives from being inside that particular group.
Emigration, immigration, after one begins to live in another country, typically remains emotionally costly for a long time. Besides, frequently, distance from others one loves, there are subtle issues of self-worth I cannot discuss here (but that I will discuss at some future time, especially if asked). In the classical age of worldwide, and American, emigration, it tended to be final. Travel was slow and expensive. If you did not like it in the new place, often, you just had to suck it up. (This is broadly true although turn-of-the-century American records show that surprising numbers of recent European immigrants left the US every year.) Today, the extraordinarily low cost of air travel means that nearly every dissatisfied immigrant may go home. In 2009, there were very few parts of the world for which a one-way ticket cost more than a thousand dollars. That would be under seven weeks worth of after-taxes minimum wage at worst. Tickets from the US to Europe, for example cost less than one third that amount off-season. In the same year, the average US wage was about $20 per hour. Estimating deductions of 25%, the net hourly wage was thus around $15. Hence, there were few if any parts of the world that could not be reached at the cost of net savings amounting to 70 hours of average wages (less than two weeks).
For emigrants to contiguous countries or proximate countries, such as Turks to Germany, Romanians to France, or Mexicans to the US, the option of going home is even more open, of course.
What I am trying to establish here is that emigration is normally a doubly voluntary act. Immigrants first volunteer to be in the country of immigration. Then, they keep volunteering by not taking up the option of moving back home, of re-emigrating.
Two things should follow from this volunteer condition: First, if they don’t like the country to which they have moved, immigrants have no one to blame but themselves. I know I am repeating myself but the imagery is so attractive, I can’t resist: If you come to the party, especially if you come uninvited (99% of immigrants, I would guess), don’t criticize the food, or the interior decoration, or the guests’ intellectual level.
Although there is a widespread impression to the contrary, it seems to me that few immigrants break this simple rule of their own accord. Rather, more commonly, they fall under the sway of political organizations who presume to speak on their behalf. These organizations are often political in nature. They seek to exploit the voting power of people unfamiliar with the national political customs. It’s in their interest to create and inflame feelings of deprivation. Moreover, since immigrants more often than not enter the host social structure near the bottom, they are frequently taken over by labor unions who do the same. In the US, specifically, recent immigrants are sometimes annexed by radical organizations with a long history of America-hatred. These influences confuse some immigrants, putting them in mental contradiction with their own choices. They do a great deal of damage by retarding immigrants’ emotional integration into American society. Note that I refer to integration rather than to “assimilation,” a cultural construct. Societies differ in the extent to which they expect immigrants to fit into the national culture, Canada little, France a great deal, with the US somewhere between the two.
Finally, organizations led by native-born who pretend to speak for immigrants also do the latter a great deal of harm by creating false impressions in the general public. The main false impression is that immigrants are more difficult to integrate than they really are. In the US, you seldom hear about the millions of immigrants who think that everything is just peachy or better.
The second consequence from the voluntary nature of the status of immigrants is seldom discussed: Immigrants make better citizens than the average native-born. Over 90% of Americans, for example, only took the trouble to be born in the right country. That’s akin to choosing your parents carefully. There is not much merit in it, first because it just happened. Secondly, most native-born citizens of any country would not have enough information to choose the land of their birth over others if the thought crossed their minds. Here again, the exception proves (“tests”) the rule: It’s possible to make such a choice since millions do, by emigrating, precisely. This would include the tens of thousands of Americans who live abroad more or less permanently.
Immigrants, by contrast, choose and keep choosing merely by staying put. Their choice is deliberate, conscious and informed. Their appreciation for the country of their immigration is a form of adult love. It should be superior to the baby-love of many of the native-born who only know one mother. If I were still a scholar, I would have a topic for a good study here. I would begin to endeavor to find data to test what is now a compelling hypothesis. But I am not, so it will remain this as far as I am concerned.
Immigrants into the US, specifically, possess superior qualities, whatever their national origin. First, they are usually hard workers, because this country offers some of the least generous social benefits (“welfare”) in the developed world. To sponge off “the system” in this country takes a great deal of skill. (A pregnant idea but I won’t go there in this essay.) Immigrants into this country must also comprise a large proportion of enterprising people, for the same reason. (There, I think data exist that demonstrate the validity of this claim.) Moreover, immigrants into the US have to be more adventurous, braver, than the native-born, on average. To change one’s living conditions drastically takes more courage, more tolerance of risk, and more imagination than moving to the next suburb.
I believe, accordingly, that American exceptionalism is rooted in exceptional institutions but that it is fertilized by wave after wave of immigration of a superior kind.
The following link will take you to an article about illegal immigration specifically that I published in the Independent Review with Russian immigrant Sergey Nikiforov: “If Mexicans and Americans could Cross the Border…“.