Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 12): The Shape of Anti-immigrant Hostility

After fifty years of participant-observation and of a scholarly reading, both, I have come to think that hostility toward immigrants tends to follow a U-shaped curve, with degree of hostility on the vertical axis and numbers of immigrants on the horizontal axis. The first immigrants, those who do not go unperceived, evoke hostility because we are hard-wired to mistrust strangers and also because they are usually culturally incompetent. (Only usually; see my description of Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley who often land functionally capable). They don’t know how to act properly, often they don’t even know how to ask for help to learn how to act. In addition their newcomer status usually places them near the bottom of the relevant employment pyramid. Frequently, they perform unpleasant work. They are the disagreeable poor. Even rich immigrants may be summarily rejected for being “vulgar.”

As their numbers rise, the early instinctive hostility diminishes among many of the host population. Immigrants’ manners improve as the first comers coach the recently arrived. They do so directly and also through ethnic publications and via their churches. In the meantime, the host population learns that the immigrants are mostly not dangerous. With rising numbers also, there are growing opportunities for the native population to observe immigrants fulfilling useful functions, such as digging ditches in the hot sun and practicing medicine. At the same time, the opportunities for personal, face-to-face interaction rise exponentially. At some point, many in the host population begin to create exceptions in their own minds to their remaining hostility: Deport them all, except Lupita; she is a good housekeeper and I trust her with my possessions; Mexicans are lazy, except Diego, he is a really hard worker. After a while, exceptions have become the rule. Soon, hostility toward the immigrants is at its lowest. Fewer natives resent them and they don’t resent them deeply. (I think this is a useful distinction; ask me.)

If the number of immigrants continues to increase, however, more and more of the host population begin to feel that they are not at home anymore. They are like strangers in their own  land, the land of their ancestors. Unavoidably, with large numbers, some of the immigrants will turn out to be talented, or lucky, and they will occupy visible positions of power, like bank branch president. Many will rise faster than the members of the original population. Envy makes matters worse, of course: He got here only fifteen years ago, he still has an accent, and he is the School Principal (or better, the president of a big university, a real case). My people have been here for two hundred years and….Hostility increases again; it’s become anew a simple function of too many of the other kind.

I think California has reached that area of the U-shaped curve, near the top of the second branch of the U. The three most common last names here are said to be: Garcia, Hernandez and Lopez, instead of the normal Smith, Williams, Anderson, or Miller. Many of my neighbors (many) think that not knowing Spanish has become an unfair work handicap. As I said, local hillbilly women with a high school education (Did I say “hillbilly”?) used to find reasonably good employment as receptionists in medical offices. Those jobs have dried up because the daughters of Mexican immigrants who know enough Spanish to deal with Spanish-only speakers cost no more than they. Some mothers also claim that the use of Spanish by other kids isolates their children at school. It’s probably rare because Spanish speakers are generally a minority but impressions matter, however devoid of basis.

Accordingly, it seems to me that, in my area, there is more hostility to Mexicans and Central American immigrants now than there was ten years ago. It’s dangerous hostility because it’s now fairly well informed hostility. Some of the derogatory ethnic stereotypes may well be realistic: Mexicans drive without insurance. (I don’t have hard figures but I would easily wager on this.) The hostility also remains somewhat abstract, for the moment. It hinders but little face-to-face, personal interactions. The exceptions regimen is still holding up to a large extent. The proof is that the number of anti-Mexican jokes remains remarkably low, steady, and repetitive, kind of boring, really. Bitterness, however seems more and more freely expressed in the social media where there is almost no price to pay for doing so. Incidentally, I don’t know where the inflection point is, where the hostility curves turn up. I wish I knew. It’s a doable study. Someone else will have to do it. Good topic for a doctoral thesis, maybe.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 11]

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