This is the right place for a painful digression. It’s painful because it’s about a program related to immigration that is both confusing and calculated, as if by design, to become controversial. Yet, as I argue below, toward the end of this essay, it’s a program with promise.
Many middle-class foreigners with college degrees are in the US on temporary working visas. By numbers, the main category of working visas is the H-1B visa. (This is confusing, but there is currently no such thing as an H-1A visa.) Holders of the H-1B visa must meet specific educational qualifications. They are sponsored by American employers – but also by employers who look much like labor contractors based abroad. They may stay in the US for a period of three years, renewable for an additional three years. That’s except if they work for a university or for a research institute, in which case their visa is pretty much eternal. Although the number of visas allotted each year is capped, by accumulation, the program involves significant numbers of people, about 350,000 in 2016. Some or most H-1B visas are allocated by lottery on an annual basis. (It’s completely separate from the diversity lottery described above [in Part 1], as I said.)
The rationale behind the H-1B visa is to supply workers in specialties that industrial and other organizations cannot find domestically. The program is controversial for two reasons. First, unlike other temporary visa programs, this one explicitly allows holders to apply for a green card – for immigration – on the basis of occupational qualification. (See above.)
Applications from such foreign workers tend to be successful because the applicants are already familiar with American society where they have spent three to six years, including from a work angle. In addition, they are often sponsored by an employer willing to support their long and arduous application process and to pay for its elevated legal costs. (The H-1B visa is a heaven on earth for specialized attorneys and a gift that keeps giving.) The program is sometimes criticized as a back door to immigration. I don’t know how many H-1B visa holders go home, how many stay or try to stay. I would guess that most try to stay because a US green card is invaluable, even if you want to live principally in Bangalore.
The H-1B visa program is often criticized in the press and on the internet as a devious means to keep down the remuneration of domestic employees. (Norm Matloff, “Trump Is Right: Silicon Valley Is Using H-1B Visas To Pay Low Wages To Immigrants,” Huffington Post, February 31, 2018.) Significant legal dispositions narrow down this possibility. There is an absolute minimum wage for H-1B visa holders; employers must pay them the mean wage for similar workers in their company, or the prevailing local wage, whichever is highest. They are forbidden from being used as strikebreakers, etc.
Moreover, the large, prosperous, visible high-tech firms who make regular use of H-1B visas offer tempting targets for any upstart law firm with an ability to mount a class action suit. Such class actions could potentially include tens of thousands of plaintiffs or even more. I ask myself why would firms using H-1B take the risk, at the hands of jurors who could easily identify with the American-born plaintiffs? Nevertheless, inspections of this visa program show as many as 20% frauds and technical violations. (I have not examined further the nature and seriousness of these infractions. It’s probably worth doing.)
It’s easy to come across bitter individual accusations against the H-1B program. Below is a literal communication – cited without permission – from the Facebook timeline of populist activist Peggy Traeger Tierney’s sampled hap-haphazardly on July 14, 2018. The writer is an anonymous contributor, not Ms Tierney:
“My husband after 15 years of excellent service with Cisco computers was part of a massive layoffs which they do every single year but in 2015 he was part of 7000 that were laid off while Cisco Employed foreign workers or then turn around after they do massive layoffs of American workers and they turn around and higher [sic] foreigners under that H1B work visa program and my husband being an American citizen and an army wartime veteran was laid off by Sisqó [sic] while foreigners were not laid off or than Cisco turns right around and rehires foreigners after they lay off thousands of Americans every year Cisco does this and I think it’s disgraceful.”
The quotation above does not specify if the laid-off husband was a tech worker.
Without denying that abuses must take place, as someone who worked in a Silicon Valley full of H-1B holders, I am mostly skeptical of the allegation that holders of this kind of visa put a downward pressure on local wages. The main reason for my skepticism is this: every year, employers in Silicon Valley complain bitterly that there are not enough H-1B visas to satisfy their employment requirements. Once the quota of H-1B is filled, the local press reports that many specialized positions still go begging. I have trouble believing that Silicon Valley employers perversely decline to fill positions with competent native workers or with green card holders even after it becomes clear that there will be no H-1B relief for at least one year. It makes more sense to think that the supply of qualified workers who are either American citizens or green card holders is intrinsically insufficient.
Several knowledgeable people have pointed out to me that the jobs may go begging because, even given an equal cost, employers prefer foreign workers who are assumed to be more compliant than native-born workers and holders of green cards. This may be true but it does not make sense to me as far as the industries I know are concerned. Supposing that H-1B visas are really more compliant, compliance is just not so valuable in high tech industries. It’s not valuable enough that betting that it exists in a defined category of workers justifies the certain revenue loss associated with unfilled positions.
This hypothesis is nevertheless familiar to me because it sounds so mid-20th century. It’s possible that it’s valid for other categories of work-based visas pertaining to unpleasant, tiring, dangerous, or unfamiliar occupations. There are few of those left, of course. The pliancy hypothesis ignores the possibility that there are significant numbers of native-born applicants who qualify marginally on paper, from a narrow technical standpoint, but seem to lack basic vigor, based on other types of information to be hired. Letters of recommendation come to mind. (If you are guessing that the last sentences spring spontaneously from my 25 years of teaching in Silicon Valley, you are right!) The presence of applicants on easy-to-access-social media may also play a role. I note in passing that job applicants who live in the US are likely to have a bigger and more visible media footprint than do foreigners applying from abroad.
Today, generalizations based on national origin are taboo (“haram”), of course, but it’s a ridiculous, irrational taboo. Here is a quick test: You have to spend ten years on a desert island. You are allowed to take your significant other, your children, and a cook. You have a choice between two cooks. All you know about them is that one is English and the other is French. Which do you chose? Now think of young Indian tech workers who grew up under conditions such that 20,000 applicants compete for 135 slots in a top school.
Legal Immigration in Quantitative Historical and Cross-National Perspective
The total number of people who became legal immigrants to the US in 2016 amounts to fewer than five per one thousand American residents (US citizens and legal immigrants already inside the country).
To assess the rough magnitude of their impact, suppose that the number of births more or less balances the number of deaths in each yearly cohort of immigrants for ten years. (A fairly realistic assumption for this short period.) Let’s assume the same number of people is admitted each year for ten years. Under these assumptions, in the years 2016 to 2025 included, legal immigration will have added to the US population about 12 million people. For simplicity’s sake I also assume that the US population does not otherwise grow or shrink during those ten years. By 2025, the new legal immigrants (since 2016) will account for a little less than 4% of the total resident American population. So there is an accumulation of the foreign born, but it’s not speedy. If you change my assumption to assume a modest excess of births over deaths among the new immigrants, their cumulative total over ten years may actually reach 4% of the resident US population.
This is a subjective impression, of course, but such a modest rate of increase in the number of foreign born does not seem to comport with the degree of emotion often expressed publicly on the topic. I refer to the common perception that the US is being “invaded.” When I announce these numbers among conservatives, online, or in person, I am regularly met with disbelief. The consensus is that I must have made a mistake that the actual number is much larger. Of course, there is a local factor in this perception. I would bet that the percentage of recent immigrants must be significantly greater than 4, in central California where I live. And, of course many people don’t have the time or the leisure or, in some cases, the intellect to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. The distinction is essential because if the numbers of both are a problem, they call for different solutions. The largest figure I have heard for illegal aliens is 15 million. That’s only 5% of the US population. But they are concentrated in certain areas which makes them quite visible. Around where I live, I would bet that 90% of the cooks are illegal aliens.
The Census Bureau estimates the number of foreign-born persons in the US in 2016 at about 13% of total population. This includes long assimilated immigrants (like me) and illegal aliens. That figure is high by historical standards but far from extreme by comparison with other developed countries. It’s higher than in 1940, at 9%, and higher than in 1850, at the beginning of Irish mass immigration, also at 9%. However, the percentage is equal to what it was in 1900, at the height of historical emigration. (See: Nativity of the Population and Place of Birth of the Native Population: 1850 to 1990, US Bureau of the Census; internet release date March 9, 1999.)
The percentage is not high in comparison to other developed countries, except, Japan, and perhaps, Singapore. The US is, in the matter of the percentage of foreign born in its population, like Germany (13% – before the recent admission of one million-plus refugees), and right next to France (12%), as well as a little lower than Spain. Canada has 20%, and Luxembourg – with a much higher GDP/capita than the US – has about 40+%. Portugal, a poor country, has 8%; even Chile has 2%. (All these figures for latest date available, mostly after 2013, from: Foreign Born Population, OECD.) These percentages matter in connection with the common fear of the native born that they will be swamped by foreigners in their own country (about which, more below). I note that both Canada and Luxembourg, with their large foreign-born populations, seem viable nation-states. (That’s although Luxembourg is a mini-state of Germans who pretend to be French! Ask me.) Switzerland, a country well worth envying, has about 28% foreign-born which, admittedly, annoys many Swiss.
Why Care About Immigration? An Incomplete Classification of Immigration’s Effects on the Society of Destination
In the US, national discussions about immigration legislation seem to revolve around four issues of unequal importance. These conceptually different topics are often mixed in common discourse and even in political discourse. Sometimes, several even appear in the same sentence. I disentangle them to facilitate mental experiments and mental trade-offs. Those four issues are as follows:
Effects of immigration on demographics. This topic obviously overlaps with the next but each is interesting in its own right;
Effect of immigration on the economy, including and especially on wages;
Influence of immigration on the culture of the host society;
Influence of immigration on national politics, including the balance of power between national political parties.
I deal with these main topics in a more or less orderly fashion below. I allow myself digressions into areas that seem to me to be poorly understood and in connection which I think I have some expertise, even if ever so slight expertise.
Immigration and demographics
Immigrants have higher fertility than the native American population, and the latter does not reach its replacement rate of around 2.2. It may be as low as 1.80 now. (See “Fertility Rate,” in Max Roser, Our World in Data, 2017.) Incidentally, it seems that immigrants everywhere have higher fertility than both their population of origin and their population of destination. An influx of foreigners is an instantaneous way to make up for the shortfall in native born reproduction. It’s also an amazingly cheap solution if they are the right kind of immigrants. Most immigrants arrive in the US all brought up, at no cost to America, and ready and eager to reproduce. The children of immigrants also tend to have more offspring than the children of the native born. So, the replenishment effects of immigration last more than one generation.
These self-evident truths are not often the object of public discourse, perhaps because they involve a sort of devil’s compact. From the ill-defined yet deeply felt standpoint of identity, immigrants do not constitute perfect replacements for the demographically missing native-born, they are only rough approximations. It should be obvious though we don’t say it aloud that some countries of origin provide better approximations than others. Collectively faced with decisions about immigration, the native-born objectively have a choice between being imperfectly replaced in the coming generations, possibly even with much distortion, on the one hand, or eventual physical extinction, on the other. I mean, the way of the Japanese, and, largely, of the Italians today. That’s although the Japanese seem to have just taken a step in another direction, acting to transform their temp. workers programs with limited duration contracts into admission for some chosen foreigners with no time limitation. I take this administrative change to become soon a covert invitation to settle and reproduce in spite of palpably widespread Japanese repugnance to live with the culturally alien. (See: “Japan Plans to Lure Skilled Foreign Labor” by Peter Landers, in Wall Street Journal, October 13-14 2018: A9.) Later I will explore the difficult issue of collective identities that is obviously related to the matter of demographic self-replacement.
Immigration is a quick way to stoke up population growth, which is itself positively associated with economic growth. I will also examine this relationship below, in another segment.
Immigration has another important, more important, demographic consequence. Most immigrants at any time are youngish adults of working age. In 2016, according to Homeland Security (see above), 68% of persons admitted to the US were older than 19 and younger than 60. For that year, and contrary to a long-standing fact of international migrations, more than half were female (54%). Female immigrants were predominantly of working age, but this overlaps a good deal with child-bearing age. Women of child-bearing age are both contributors to the economy and, indirectly through reproduction, important drains on it. This fact complicates the calculation of immigration’s effect on the overall national economy.
Contrary to some stereotypes, adult immigrants mostly arrive ready to work (as I never tire to repeat). The easy evidence is this: in times of economic hardship for the US, the period right after 2008, for example, net immigration from Mexico dries up quickly. If, as a category, Mexican immigrants came seeking to be on welfare, one would observe no such drying up. But the US suffers a shortage of young workers to satisfy its social entitlements obligations. Together with other developed countries, the US has placed itself in a demographic Ponzi scheme situation with respect to government-funded retirement benefits (including Medicare). In this scheme, current workers finance the benefits of those who have retired. But the ratio of the ones to the others is progressively becoming worse, both because of the low general fertility of the native-born and because of unplanned rises in longevity among the retired. (See the good summary article by Yuval Levin and James C. Capretta, “A Failure of Responsibility” in the Weekly Standard of October 1 2018, 24-04). There are several endogenous solutions to this problem. Perhaps, the most obvious solution would consist in raising the age of retirement for an increasingly healthy elderly population. I have yet to see the Devil’s Compact expressed clearly: Retire later or accept more immigrants. New immigrants can easily fill up the additional years of work at the end of life the native-born and the permanent immigrants are reluctant to give.
It’s possible that large improvements in productivity per worker will make the Ponzi issue obsolete. However, this last solution would require productivity gains such as have never been seen by anyone currently alive. It’s a long shot. In the meantime, immigration provides another nearly instantaneous solution. Adult, selected immigrants can be allowed in tomorrow and begin contributing to the dwindling Social Security fund the day after tomorrow. Again, this quick fix is also inexpensive because the immigrants’ society of origin bore the cost of raising them to working age. Of course I refer to legal immigrants who are not prevented from contributing fiscally by fear of discovery.
I am mindful of the fact that the age and sex structure of the relevant immigration may also place a burden on some social services broadly defined. These would include police, courts, jails, and prisons, primarily, according to cost; and, secondarily, roads, public utilities, hospitals, maternity wards, and schools, nearly all locally funded services. So, in this scenario, benefits to the broader American society take place to the detriment of local entities. The fact that the social costs associated with the presence of immigrants tend to be supported locally poses a sharp political problem. I will revisit this issue because I suspect it’s at the heart of much of the shrillness about immigration. Note that this particular problem would continue to exist even if everyone were convinced that immigrants in general carry their economic weight in American society. However, a strong argument is often made that the current composition of un-selective, unsorted immigration is such that immigrants, considered as a whole, are unlikely ever to support themselves. I examine this important allegation below from different angles.
Immigration and the Economy in General
Economists have pretty much reached a consensus that, on the whole, immigration into the US serves economic growth. The US Chamber of Commerce summarizes the research tersely: “Curbing immigration by 45%… and reducing the number of legal immigrants… by 22 million over the next five decades…would spell disaster for our economy.” (Paid ad in the Weekly Standard, February 12, 2018). Two qualifications. First, economic growth is partly an almost mechanical function of population growth. So, the link of the former to immigration might be kind of spurious, since immigration is a form of population growth. In the US, in fact, population growth is largely led by immigrants, both directly and, indirectly, through the superior fertility of most immigrant groups. Thus, immigration numbers, population growth, and economic growth tend to move together. The hidden premise in the Chamber of Commerce statement is that population growth among the American native-born and their children is nil or negative (pretty much the latter as I have said).
The consensus does not extend much further. Beyond the statement that immigration benefits Americans in general by means of economic growth there exists of course the possibility that it harms some Americans. The most obvious possibility is that immigrant competition keeps low the wages of certain categories of native-born workers, and of previous immigrants. In this view, new immigrants from Mexico, for instance, tamp down the wages of farm workers in California, and immigrants from China and India may impose a ceiling on the earnings of Silicon Valley software engineers, also in California. (Forgive my parochialism!)
Of course, employers of certain kinds of unskilled labor welcome the opportunity to recruit from among immigrants for work that is unpleasant or dangerous and for which they would have to pay America-based workers much higher wages. Chicken processing factories come to mind. It’s also true that in big swaths of the country many jobs that are neither very unpleasant nor dangerous go largely to immigrants. In my area, for example, all visible cooks speak Spanish at work, and so do many of the gardeners. And carpet cleaning is practically a Brazilian monopoly! I speculate that the generation of Americans reaching the labor market in the past twenty years had little or no experience with physical work, not even from afar. The kind of Mexicans that comes to my part of the world, par contrast, has grown in rural areas where there is only physical work. It’s also credible that employers in general might, in the short run, tend to profit by the downward pressure on wages that a consistent increase in the labor force through immigration would provide. I take the liberty here to make a digression to suggest that the last statement is just a particular case of a more general phenomenon.
Digression: Raise Wages, Expel the Wives
Immigration is not, however the strongest source of wage restriction. It is often forgotten that the massive and long growing contribution of women to the labor force is likely an even more important source of slow wage growth. It’s a bigger one and a more potent one because, by and large, the wives of male workers, and their sisters, are somewhat like their husbands and brothers in their occupational qualifications, broadly defined. They tend to have similar levels of education and an equal command of English, and equivalent or superior social graces of all sorts. They must therefore compete most directly with them, their (collective) husbands and brothers.
The wife of an insurance agent in California, for example, is more capable of doing quickly her husband’s job than is the average newly arrived legal immigrant from Mexico, usually with rural roots and little English. Or even, in general, than a well educated Chinese person from the People’s Republic. The native-born women also are immediately available if they are not already employed. The social costs of their integration is low and the cost of their assimilation tends to zero. Both native-born women and immigrants thus contribute to the overall downward pressure on wages, native women probably much more than nearly all immigrants under the current system.
The pressure to keep wages low that both women and immigrants impose must, in turn, lower prices on both material goods and services from what they would otherwise be. In the short and middle term, low prices are thus like a universal pay raise that is seldom directly acknowledged. Immigrants are singled out for their unfavorable influence on wages because it’s easier to keep them out than it is to expel wives and sisters from the labor force in order to raise men’s wages! Immigrants are seldom credited for the de facto pay raise for all in the form of lower prices for which they are equally responsible.
I have just deviously introduced the simple notion that the willingness to accept work competition is closely connected to similarity: I am more willing to restrict those who are least like me that those who resemble me. Immigration policies, accordingly, rarely conform to rational economic decision-making.
Penalties for Employing Illegal Immigrants, a Test Case About Vigilance
Interestingly, many must silently acquiesce to the silent pay raise that immigration (along with American women in the labor force) provides because legal punishment of the many large and therefore visible employers of illegal immigrants seems to be rare. I had trouble finding how many employers were fined in any recent years, nationwide, for employing illegal immigrants, although I spotted a case of an unlucky farmer sentenced to jail in addition to a $185,000 fine for same.
In general, the federal fines officially amount to $2,000 to $5,000 per illegal employee for a second offense. I don’t know if such amounts are dissuasive. Suppose a chicken plant gets caught every five years in such a second offense in connection with one hundred workers. The maximum fine would be $500,000. It just might be worth risking this and treating it as a business expense. One unlucky tree trimming company accepted a penalty of $96 million for employing illegal aliens, I don’t know for how many years. I wish I knew the rest of the story about its labor policies following the fine. Evidently, for some big employers of low-skill labor, there is a calculus that determines what risk of repression is worth taking. It would be good to know more about this. I don’t.
I believe that fines are rare for the unscientific reason that I follow the news faithfully with a special interest in immigration matters. I think if numerous penalties were applied to employers of illegal aliens, it would have drawn my attention, even in the back page of the second section of the Wall Street Journal (that I read five times a week). It seems to me that citizens and business competitors are not proactive in reporting instances of illegal employment of immigrants. I deduce from this passivity that it’s common for Americans to understand to some extent and to enjoy the benefits derived from the presence of immigrants, including legal immigrants.
Immigration and Wages: an Extreme Position
One article that seems to have gained much traction asserts that all the economic benefits immigration confers on the host country are extracted from the difference between labor costs as they are and the higher labor costs that would prevail, absent immigration. This view was presented curtly in the March 25-26, 2017 issue of the Wall Street Journal by Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Krikorian states that he rests his case on an authoritative study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. The academies are a respected source. (I take it that Krikorian reports accurately, but I have not read the study in question.) Krikorian is the author of the book: The New Case Against Immigration.
This forcefully expressed opinion appears absurdly easy to dismiss. Of course, some of the value that immigrants bring comes from other than the difference between labor costs as they are and labor costs as they would be were there no immigration. It assumes that no immigrant, not a single immigrant, brings to American society additional value – value that would not be there without the particular immigrant. Moreover, it’s possible that the value brought to America by this single immigrant may actually be in excess of the wage loss immigrants together allegedly inflict on American society. (That’s a separate statement.) Take immigrant Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. Some will argue that had not Brin moved from Russia just in time, someone else would have co-invented Google. That’s putting a lot of faith in historical necessity. This is a conceptual problem underlying much discussion of the economics of immigration we will encounter again.
This does not seem worth much discussion. To generalize from small examples, it should be enough to point out that in the past twenty years, about 40% of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans went to immigrants. To counter this rebuttal would require that one believe first, that Nobel Prizes are like a pie with a dedicated slice for each nationality of potential awardees; second, it would require that we further believe that absent the foreign-born American Nobel Prize winners, they would have been exactly replaced by an equal number of equally meritorious native-born Americans. This seems really, really absurd! Elsewhere in this essay, I use the case of a non-Nobel winner, mine, to illustrate immigrants’ less spectacular contributions, I mean other than keeping some wages low. (See footnote 3)
All arguments regarding the depressive effect of immigration on wages more or less assume either a high degree of labor substitutability between the resident workers and immigrant workers, or else, that immigrants are somewhat inferior workers deserving of lower pay. This is an overly broad reach, as I discuss below. Unsorted immigrants – most of current immigrants – can be either and/or both worse or better than native-born workers on any dimension. Liberals are mostly not capable of developing the last point without going all emotional and unbelievable, so I have to do it myself, even if it damages my humility.
The Indisputable, Obvious, Innate Superiority of Immigrants
The costs immigrants impose on the host society are easier to assess than the benefits they bring it. The confusion of much American public opinion on the left also paradoxically interferes with this assessment. It you welcome immigrants because you have a good heart, it’s kind of crass even to wonder what benefits they bring you.
Immigrants often improve and enrich the host society and especially its culture, broadly defined. This is not to deny the possibility of cultural dilution (or erosion), with which I deal later. But how can anyone disbelieve, for example, that the influx of Italians at the end of the 19th century improved the general quality of food in America? I mean that after that group’s immigration, Americans in general gained access to better food without a corresponding rise in prices, another change that is equivalent to a pay raise. And how did a version of Mexican food become so quickly the national American eating-out everyday food? Did not its quick adoption suggest that it filled a need that was left unattended before then? Doesn’t the simple exercise of consumer preference answer this question? (I am not a food critic but a social scientist – loosely defined!) Often, immigrants improve the host society in ways that don’t lend themselves to measurement, or even easily to description. It does not mean that they don’t exist. Take my case, that of an immigrant from France making my home in the US since 1963.
I landed for good at age 21, without connections, skills, or even a real high school diploma. I brought with me nothing of value, save my potential. I attended university in the US for eight years total, although none of my relatives had contributed to the creation or maintenance of American universities. I am unable to estimate in current dollars the costs incurred, discontinuously, between 1963 and 1974. (If I had to guess, I would answer this: [community college: $10,000 x 2] + [Stanford undergraduate tuition: $30,000 X 2] + [Stanford graduate tuition: $20,000 x 4] = $160,000. Graduate tuition may seem low. I estimated it down, because hardly anyone pays it; doctoral students live on fellowships.) The figures I use would have been approximately correct two thirds of the way into my academic career. (Stanford undergraduate tuition today is $36,400 annually.) These costs ought to be mentally applied against whatever benefits I claim to have brought American society. My favorite critic – Stephen Cox – points out that all the time I was going to school, I was also using roads and other common equipment. That is true but I was working and paying some taxes during much of this time. I addition, like other adult immigrants, I brought with me a fully functioning adult – myself – the production of whom had cost American society nothing. I think the numbers I give above are good enough for my limited purpose.
After more than 50 years, my acculturation is still incomplete; always will be. I don’t understand the rules of baseball, for example. I never bothered to learn, because the game seems boring. I have never attacked baseball in any way, but it could be argued that my body occupies the space that would otherwise be held by a diamond fan. All the same, I must be conversant with a lot of American culture, just for having acquired my professional credentials in the US, and even more so, for navigating everyday life in my society of adoption. I accomplished all this without losing my ability to make an original contribution squarely based on my national, foreign origins.
In discussing this, I want to emphasize the often ignored point, that the acquisition of another culture does not entail a one-for-one exchange, like changing clothes, for example. Much, indeed most of what the immigrant brings with him, he retains. When I was learning American culture, I was not leaving French knowledge behind with the hat-check lady (“check person”). The first thing kept by those who, like me, immigrate as adults is fluency in their native language. It’s true that one can become rusty in a language one does not use often. The quality of self-expression in the mother tongue may deteriorate during time spent abroad. Yet it’s very unlikely that a literate immigrant will lose the ability to watch the news in his native language, or to read a newspaper. So, I follow the news in English, of course, but also in French, on most days. The reporting of the same events in the two languages overlaps only imperfectly. There is a net gain in reading both. It’s like using the kind binoculars that provide somewhat three-dimensional vision.
I am thus routinely learning things I probably would not learn if I knew no French. Here is an example. Tired of the repetitiveness of American television news channels, idly, I switch to TV5, the French language channel. In a weekly show of which I think well, Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal is being interviewed. He is a native Arabic speaker and a Muslim by birth who writes in French. For a half hour I learn things about violent jihadism I would never have encountered in my English-only haunts, at least not without effort, at least, not casually. Thanks to the French language, I am understanding issues I might not otherwise understand. It’s difficult to assess how much of an advantage this is but an advantage, it is.
That’s in addition to carrying in my head much disorderly factual information imported from my society of origin, some of which turns out to be useful at unpredictable intervals. In my former job as a teacher and as a scholar, I was thus routinely able to draw on broader information than did my native-born colleagues – well, a little broader. I wouldn’t say (although I am tempted) that I had twice as large a store of information at my fingertips as they did, but I definitely had more than they. Additionally, having two sets of data on the same events sets the stage for forming a real perspective, a critical one. Keep in mind again, as I make these claims, that I had to overcome the same obstacles, waged the same battles, and traveled on the same roads as they, my American-born colleagues. There is no affirmative action in academia for white, male Europeans! (Unless they are Marxists, post-structuralists, or other poseurs, a good friend of mine, also an academic, adds. Well, I am none of the above.)
So, my additional cultural contribution – such as it was – came at little or no cost to my society of adoption apart from the expense of my university education. This contribution would have been a pure, unconstrained bonus except that some or all of it can be considered reimbursement for the loan of eight years of university education, as described above. I am arguing, in fact and with little embarrassment, that I must have been a better teacher and scholar for 30 years than most (not all, by any means) of my native-born colleagues with similar credentials; this, by virtue of being an immigrant. (And please, don’t try to factor in the advantage of a purportedly superior European education I would have brought in my baggage with me; I am a French high school dropout.)
Estimating 100 students per year for 30 years of teaching, the cost of my American university education could have been spread at the rate of $50 to $60 of today’s money per student. My, my, that’s the price of a thin-ish boring textbook many buyers won’t even open! Also, please, note in passing that foreign students are not the only ones receiving free or reduced tuition from the kind of private university I attended.
Some features of my remaining foreignness enriched American culture for 50 years, I think. But this was not just prettifying as people who hear my French accent tend (insultingly) to assume! Whatever university professors do (admittedly a task not easy to define), I had superior productivity in some of it. (In real universities, faculty are supposed to produce something called “scholarship” that is published in specialized journals. Those published articles in turn are read and often cited by other scholars. The sum of such citations provide a convenient metric of scholarly influence. By this metric, I am nowhere near the top of the relevant scholarly disciplines but I place comfortable well above the average. Note that the influence of scholarly articles often continues long after the scholar is gone. (There are other valid methods of estimating scholarship that I need not go into here because it’s not my errand but that, I think, would confirm the quality of my life-long production.)
The fact that measuring and rewarding accordingly such extra-productivity is often seen as a challenge does not change the basic fact: Immigrants often bring with them something useful that the native-born cannot supply. This kind of immigrants’ contribution is usually taken for granted when it is perceived at all. (For more of this kind of tripe, see my: “Why Immigrants are Superior”)
The corresponding free gifts from conventionally low-qualified immigrants may be even more difficult to perceive, but there are usually some. In my area, Mexican immigrants and, surprisingly, also their American educated children, are re-rehabilitating old fashioned good manners and automatic respect for elders: Yes, Sir; No, Madam; May I help you with this package? It’s not much, but that too is a gift to American society. Contrast with what I heard recently from an Anglo contractor painting my house: “I don’t give a fuck what I put in writing!” (Would I make this up? Do I even have the talent?) And yes, it’s true, in my area, some children of Mexican immigrants form criminal gangs. They don’t add much attractiveness to the local culture but I think they mostly kill one another. Incidentally, when I ask my Mexican friends why some of their children go bad, the retort, “Here, we are not allowed to beat them.”
Digression: Curiously, many of the children of North African immigrants in France do the same. I have heard of several other cases, always involving the so-called “second generation.” This is not – to my knowledge – a well studied phenomenon but it certainly should be considered a cost of immigration.
The proposal would be difficult to implement but, ideally, assessing the net effects of immigrants on the host society should take two steps. First, concerns should be voiced in the most concrete way possible about the wage compression and the cultural and other destruction for which immigrants are responsible, even by means of their mere presence. Second, their contributions should be deducted (mentally) from their unfavorable effects. Among those, one should try to include the salutary influence of new immigrants’ competitive pressure on the likes of my Anglo painting contractor above. This simple exercise, incidentally, places the despised “diversity lottery,” discussed elsewhere, in a different light. It brings in cultural ferment at little cost, I would say.
Of course, the cultural pluses and minuses of a given immigrant group are not always immediately obvious. Their assessment is unavoidably subjective to some extent. As Vinay Kolhatkar reminds us: “The gravest danger to the West has come from the import of postmodernist European intellectuals, not hardworking Latino farmhands or conscientious Chinese engineers.” (The Savvy Street, February 15, 2018)
3 A warning and a digression. Rather than only reproducing what serious research is available on the internet, I rely to a large extent on information and on examples drawn from my experience in the area where I live. This is less frivolous an endeavor than it seems. I am aware of the research in a general and I keep it mentally in perspective. Nonetheless, some of my statements are tentative and should ideally be verified with rigorous research I am unable to perform. I offer these statements lest they be forgotten, and as material for mental experiments. I aimed at inclusiveness and broadness of content rather than precision. I hope this incomplete essay will inspire some rigorous research from others younger and, I hope, better trained than I am.