I am grateful to Stephen Cox, Editor of Liberty Unbound for firm editorial suggestions and for civilized contradiction.
This an essay about legal immigration. It includes a theoretical framework, essential facts, and subjective opinions. In this old-fashioned piece, there is no pretense of scholarly detachment. It’s a personal endeavor that I hope will be useful to others. I don’t have a hidden agenda but topical preferences I think I make clear. Footnote 1 describes my qualifications to discuss immigration. You might surmise that I have a more pro-immigration bias than most small-government conservatives but not than most libertarians (but who knows about them?). I deal with American immigration, specifically. I present rough figures only, trying to add some orders of magnitudes to the current complicated media narrative, and to establish distinctions that don’t always occur naturally. I don’t aim at precision. If mistakes of fact slip into my story, I hope readers will draw attention to them and thus, perhaps, start a conversation here. My few policy recommendations are all tentative but I hope they are logically linked both to orders of magnitudes and to conceptual distinctions.
I choose to address legal immigration specifically for two categories of reasons. First, there are reasonably good, trustworthy figures regarding legal immigration, while numbers for illegal immigration are largely estimated from data gathered for other purposes and often according to wobbly rules. Second, the relationship between legal immigration and illegal immigration is complicated enough to justify an essay all of its own. Here is a sample: Many illegal immigrants, especially many Mexicans, argue that there would be less illegal immigration into the US if there were more doors open through legal immigration. Yet, as I show below, to a considerable extent legal immigration facilitates illegal immigration and thus increases the numbers of illegal immigrants. So the numerical relationship between the two appears both negative and positive. In a co-authored article (referenced in Footnote 2) I examined the complex links between legal and illegal immigration in the special and numerically important case of Mexicans. Though that article dates back to 2009, it remains remarkably current in some respect. In the present essay I only refer tangentially to illegal immigration and only insofar as it serves my main object.
There are serious proposals to legalize (to amnesty) most or all of the many millions of illegal aliens present in the US. I think this will happen to some extent. The corresponding transformation of illegals into de facto legal immigrants would alter drastically the relevance of all reasonings based on current legal immigration figures, including mine below. Nevertheless, it’s worth discussing these current numbers and the processes that produced them. This, for two reasons. First, to perceive change properly we need a quantitative baseline. Second, an understanding of what numbers of what kinds of immigrants the current legislation produced would be useful in designing future, post-legalization immigration rules.
The public debate about immigration in the US is fraught with factual mistakes, misconceptions, and large zones of silence. That’s nothing new. There is hardly a subject that combines, so thoroughly, informational breakdowns with passionate belief. In the intensely emotional debate, or battle, of June 2018, centering on the forceful separation of children from their illegal immigrant parents, both sides, or perhaps, all sides, gave hourly proof online of a lack of understanding of the then-current laws. Conceptual confusion has policy consequences. I fear the party for which I vote most often is about to formulate new and different immigration laws on a shaky basis. Aside from its immediate policy aspects, immigration is an important theoretical topic for all who are interested in nation-states in general. The latter should include everyone of more or less libertarian inclination.
Saint Augustine is said to have prayed to God, “Please, my God, make me chaste but not right away.” That’s how I feel about the nation-state. I want it to go away, along with its cortege of both routine and extraordinary oppression, but I am afraid of worse oppression on the way to the stateless society. While I wait, I will settle for a state in which political power is limited and is gained only through honest elections, and where the rule of law prevails most of the time. I know that’s already a tall order. But, right now, as I see it, “no nation-state” = Somalia, and historic Afghanistan, and the Congo (formerly Zaire). It’s paradoxical to make this statement in a blog of libertarian orientation, but I am referring only to the present and to the near future. Tomorrow may be different. (By the way, the idea I record here was made more strongly and in abundant detail by Stephen Pinker in The Better Nature of Our Angels: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011.)
Human migrations – emigration from and immigration into – occur both domestically and internationally. I am discussing here only international migrations. They are simply the act of crossing an international boundary with the intention of staying on its far side permanently. (For a thorough, global and historical view of migrations with a libertarian slant, see Vargas Llosa’s new book: Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America.) International boundaries are the boundaries of nation-states. No nation-states, no international migrations. The US is an example of a nation-state; so is Canada, so is (more or less) Mexico, so is Luxembourg, so is the People’s Republic of China, so is Singapore.
Nation-states, because of their dual nature, shape migrations in two conceptually related but subtly different ways. First, nation-states historically have borders that are comparatively impermeable to human flows. That’s the “state” part of nation-states; it’s based squarely on force. These borders oppose resistance to entry and sometimes to exit. The fact that sets of nation-states – such as the European Union – sometimes enter into compacts to minimize the obstacles they oppose to the movement of capital, or of things, or even of people, only proves (tests) this definition. Nation-states use violence or the threat of violence to limit both ingress and egress, and all kinds of cross-border movements. They don’t usually allow for negotiations at the gate, or elsewhere.
In the elegantly minimalist definition of Max Weber, a state is an entity that exercises (or claims) a monopoly of legitimate violence over a territory and the population that occupies it. Of course, the monopoly may be imperfect and often is. Still, in theory, this monopoly clearly demarcates conceptually any state from any other sort of social organization, be it a corporation, a tribe, a family, or a sports club. States frequently go to war to defend their monopoly. In daily reality, the borders of nation-states are clearly based on coercion and routinely defended by force. You know that you approach a state boundary because the visible gun density increases.
Modern states, perhaps since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), and at least since the French Revolution (1789-1815), tend to be based on nations. A nation is a group of people, usually a large group – excluding generalized face-to-face contact – who think somehow that they have a common destiny. The basis for this belief is often a more or less common, more or less mythical history. The myth can be transparently contrary to literal reality without losing its force, as several immigration-based nations such as the US, Canada, Israel, and Singapore demonstrate. Nations are also often based, but far from always, on a common language. The French language is usually thought to be central to the French view of their nation, though the French don’t have a monopoly on French. Switzerland has four official languages, though no one doubts it’s a nation. But the Belgians, with two languages (two-and-a-half, counting German), have perennial trouble thinking of themselves as a single nation.
States may expand resources to meld and forge a nation from disparate elements, or simply to maintain a pre-existing nation. Public schools always play an important role in modern nation-building, as is the case in the US, with its large intake of immigrants, and in France, with its historical absorption of heterogeneous regions. Schools are central institutions to nations and everyone knows it. Aspirations toward a state when one does not exist are also a defining feature of a nation. The Kurds are a perennial example.
A fair to high degree of sacredness is associated with the idea of nation. It’s usually manifested in symbols such as flags and anthems. It once took a court decision – in spite of the First Amendment to the US Constitution – to establish as legal the burning a piece of fabric, the American flag. Notwithstanding the currently common linkage in the real world between state and nation, there have been exceptions – multinational states, some quite durable. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was one. But most seem fragile, kept together by internal force and breaking down along the lines of nations when the force subsides, the associated formal, subordinate, more or less national entities disintegrating in the process, and the component nations going their politically separate ways if they can. This happened in my lifetime with both the Soviet Union and Communist Yugoslavia, in both cases spectacularly.
There is a certain circularity in the definition of the nation-state, I realize; it’s unavoidable: You must be familiar with the state to understand nations well; nations don’t make much sense in a stateless context. Still, the concept it embodies and the distinctions it makes are useful. To complicate matters, though, everyday language, often among politicians, encourages a return to confusion. When politicians and even journalists, who ought to know better, refer to “nations,” they usually mean “nation-states.” I am a bit guilty of this myself: When I refer to “national boundaries,” I mean the “boundaries of nation-states,” as I do in this essay.
National boundaries – the boundaries of nation-states – serve several purposes, most associated with some form of self-defense. Much of what is being defended is quite concrete, such as territory and natural resources; some is difficult to define, or even to describe. This does not mean it’s not important. The defense of such intangibles, in the cultural realm for instance, regularly gives rise to fierce fighting. The equally intangible loyalty of sports fans is a parallel example. National boundaries are not like the walls of a steel container. Rather, they act as somewhat porous limits containing to varying degrees specific government traditions, laws and legal systems, cultures– including, sometimes but not always, language—and, surprisingly, specific demographic dynamics. (The 2016 fertility rate in France is 1.92; it’s only 1.60 in Germany, next door, and only 1.34 in Spain, also next door – differences of 32% and 43% respectively. Demographics of the European Union – Wikipedia)
Importantly, labor markets are also often well circumscribed by national boundaries. As I write, it’s still common for a car mechanic to earn 30 dollars an hour while his equally competent cousin, a mile away, but separated by a national boundary, earns only 30 dollars a day. Pay gradients thus invariably play a large role in attachment to national boundaries. Much of the resistance in the western European Union countries to achieving a border-free single market in 1994 was expressed in the form of the specter of the “Polish plumber,” a trained journeyman expecting only three-quarters of the current wage, or less. In an orderly world, blue-collar organizations are anti-immigration. American unions used to be frankly and often rabidly anti-immigrant. Now that their strength and likely their future lies with government workers, the concern with competition has been much reduced. Some unions may see in unskilled immigrant workers a solution to the problem of quickly declining number of blue-collar potential members.
Some would also argue that national boundaries circumscribe national economies. I hesitate to take this path because I think that the concept of national economy is, today, overused and often reified in political discourse in a way that induces bad thinking habits. (Paul Krugman, of all people, has a good academic article somewhere on why nation-states are not really economic competitors in spite of hundreds of political speeches to the contrary.) Nevertheless, most individual countries have central banks that matter because they largely determine the cost of money and the abundance of currency, and thus, the magnitude of inflation in a given country. They also handle the national debt, usually a brake on economic expansion and thus, indirectly, and obstacle to immigration. The (national) central banks usually channel the local availability of credit.
All the same, a broad variety of economic flows routinely cross national boundaries with little attention or scrutiny. They include merchandise, services, and money, in various guises. A “little attention” is the default option; it can be replaced quickly by temporarily intense attention, as in the first Trump administration. Some of these flows are quite large in relation to the size of the relevant domestic facts. Thus, foreign trade as a percentage of GDP varies from less than the US 25%, to near 100% for Singapore. In addition, there are a few very important national institutions that shape economic events much beyond the borders of the nation-states to which they formally belong. So, the interest rates of the US Federal Reserve Bank place a de facto rough floor on the mortgage rates paid by borrowers in many countries, at least in the long run.
National boundaries remain very concrete in spite of the so-called recent “globalization.” (See, maybe: Jacques Delacroix, “Another monkey on our backs: falsehoods and truth about globalization,” Strategic Organization [Sage Publications](2004) 2-3:313.) Perhaps this is because history weighs heavily in in multiple ways on the social structure and on the culture of countries. Even after 50 years without real borders between the two countries, you can easily tell when you are in France and when you are in Belgium. The food is better, the beer is worse, the service is bad. (Guess in which!) In summary: usually there are more homogeneities (plural) within national boundaries than across them. That’s true, even if citizens often overestimate homogeneity within their nation-state. National boundaries contribute to the self-perpetuation of those same systems. In fact, perceived danger to the self-perpetuation of national cultures specifically is often a powerful reason to oppose immigration. It’s right alongside the fear of incoming labor lowering living standards. The two are often mixed in the same hostile sentence. (Again, my credentials: I listen to talk show radio pretty much five mornings a week.)
It’s useful to keep conceptually separate what pertains to the state and what has to do with the nation, because the two may generate different kinds of claims, both in general and with particular respect to immigration. I mean different claims such as this: You may not come into my house and you may not dance with my sister!
The nation-states of Europe and their direct colonial outposts such as Australia are at once the seats of long lasting prosperity and the main repositories of conventionally and broadly defined democracy. The same nation-states are currently subjected to intense demographic pressure from without. It’s not foolhardy to speculate that their high standard of living makes them attractive, as their political traditions gives hope to migrants that they might, in fact, gain admission (as many do). Remarkably, other prosperous countries situated outside this Western political tradition seem largely immune from immigration pressure. I am thinking of Japan, of course, but also of South Korea and even of Singapore. They avoid the pressure by restricting firmly the length of stay of foreign labor and by specifying with brutal clarity that they have little or zero chance to become citizens. It’s useful to keep in mind that among the countries of Western tradition, the US is not the worst pressured.
Why Control National Boundaries?
As I write, currents of opinion are rather suddenly surfacing in the US that are both anti-state and, ultimately, anti-nation. They want the state’s capacity to control its borders with respect to the movement of people to be cut drastically. They seem to assign little value to the specific content of American culture, at least, or especially, as pertains to political institutions. Some appear frankly hostile. People in the libertarian tradition are almost doctrinally forced to detest national boundaries although they are not always clear about what immigration policies they desire. Just to be clear, I must declare that I, personally, believe that the United States must at present vigilantly control its borders, including who and how many come in, and for how long.
There are two conceptually distinct categories of reasons why I believe it must be so. First, there is the issue of sovereignty; the so-called “lifeboat argument” gives us the second reason.
Americans who have given it any thought probably overwhelmingly want the US to remain more or less itself: a constitutional republic with separation of religion and government, with comparatively clean elections held at predictable intervals; a country where the rule of law is common if not universal; a society that actively nourishes certain values, among which is individual self-reliance; a country where initiative, for example, is prized over discipline. I think they prefer a country where the reach of government is explicitly limited, though they may vary about how limited. Contrast with the current French constitution, for example, which explicitly declares France a social republic, that is, a polity that actively takes care of its citizens’ needs. Incidentally, the sister Republic that is France, born at about the same time as the United States, is down to its fifteenth constitution, while the US is still on its first. An appreciation of continuity is also one of the distinguishing features of American political culture.
A large influx of culturally alien populations could dilute or even swamp this model of society within a couple of generations. It’s worrisome that no one knows where the tipping point is, but it does not mean that there is no tipping point. Take France, with only a small Muslim minority (much less than 10% of the population, I think, of which only about one third declare themselves observant. (I lost the reference to this French source for this figure, unfortunately. It’s shored up by a statement in Wikipedia in French, which reports that 49% of French Muslims say they never visit a mosque. – Islam en France.)
This is a tough topic because it’s against French law to gather statistics about religious affiliation. No reason to trust anyone’s figure in particular. Many people there think that the declarative secularism of the republic is endangered because of the Muslim presence. I don’t know if this is a realistic fear, I think not, but it’s real in its direct political consequences. A large French political party – formerly the Front National – exists mostly, though not entirely, because of this belief. A victory of this anti-immigrant party would, in itself, transform the French Republic in several unpredictable ways. In the last election (2017), for instance, the party campaigned less with an anti-immigrant message than with with an extreme, primitively protectionist economic program that leaves me perplexed. (It perplexes me because it reads as an attempt to return to the 1950s, when nearly everyone in France was poor.)
The placement of the putative tipping point in the US may depend on the degree of similarity between American culture and that of the immigrants. It has to do in part with the legibility of American culture to the immigrants. I think this is especially true with respect to political culture. All despotisms are more or less alike, whereas political democracy depends on the robustness of a tiny number of fragile and improbable arrangements of parts. The US may be lucky, in this connection, to have the compatible Mexicans figure prominently among its candidates for immigration, legal and illegal. I develop this view below. Under the influence of too many immigrants, or simply through their indifference to existing organizing principles of society, the US could become a different kind of society, even if it were not necessarily a worse kind of society. Few Americans have anything crushing to say about Canada next door, but few Americans want their country to become like Canada, for example. If they did, it would be reflected in figures pertaining to American emigration to Canada, even discounting for climate.
Apart from concerns with political swamping, broadly defined, there is the view that the US – together with several other developed countries, comprising together no more than 10 % of the world’s population – is like a lifeboat in a sea of poverty and barbarism. (I am old and retired; I don’t care about political correctness; so let me say that this is what I believe. It is not an arrogant statement of American exceptionalism. I would make a similar statement if the issue were Finland admitting numerous American immigrants, for example.) American society provides many with a civilized life largely free of physical wants. If all the people worldwide who are attracted to some feature of this way of life were allowed to immigrate unchecked, its resource system would tank. The failure of economic infrastructure would constitute a second, indirect, way in which American society’s institutional foundation would be damaged. The damage thus inflicted would occur in addition to damage resulting for cultural incompatibility and hostility. The logical implication is this: even culturally compatible immigrants, in numbers large enough, would eventually destroy American institutional arrangements. Incompatible immigrants would do it faster.
To repeat myself: Institutional erosion could happen through immigrants’ innocent ignorance alone. The admission of immigrants actively hostile to some American institutional arrangements – the separation of religion and government, for example – would hasten the process, of course. An unchecked large influx of very poor people simply unable to support themselves might destroy for good, forever, the material foundation of the country’s institutions, as well as simply destroying its economy. In this scenario, the crowding swimmers would sink the lifeboat, to no advantage of anyone, including the swimmers. Many philosophical advocates of open borders and tender-hearted partisans of lax border enforcement – including some Christian advocates – appear not to have thought this through. Our collective ability to do good in the world, as their hearts require we do, might be obliterated forever by the same hearts’ unchecked generosity. And no Western ethics system requires suicide.
Standing in an Imaginary Line
Often, daily, I hear bitterness expressed in the media and, especially, in the social media about the estimated 10-plus million foreigners illegally in the US. The hostile remarks often come from the mouths of conservative politicians. Fairly frequently, liberals echo the same alleged facts but without the bitterness. I refer to the same liberals who call illegal aliens “undocumented immigrants” as if they had just failed to comply with some absurd formalities required by the fussy United States as conditions of admission. I hear the same anger also daily on talk radio. The lament is all over Facebook. Illegal aliens are frequently described as disorderly or unfair, or even as rude people who did not wait their turn to enter the US. For several months, in 2018, the conservative Fox commentator Laura Ingraham referred almost daily to doing it legally as an alternative to illegal immigration. Her guests never corrected her, or even coughed discretely. Other networks do not much discuss illegal aliens – just, defensively, the amalgam “immigrants,” the better to tar the Trump administration, and President Trump himself, with inchoate xenophobia. I hear liberal politicians accepting the idea of legal immigration as a simple orderly process more or less open to all, although they would better serve their objectives if they did not. This is an extraordinary misconception, an almost incredible display of ignorance of regulatory reality related to a hot political topic.
Here is the truth: There is currently no way for the average adult from, for instance, Norway, to immigrate into the US in a manner that is both planned and legal. The same is true for the average Mexican, in spite of the huge number of legal Mexican immigrants in the country (See below.) (2) So, it does not make sense to contrast illegal immigrants (the “undocumented”) with legal immigrants, as if the former were queue jumpers and the latter sedate law abiding types waiting patiently for their turn to come at the window. There is no queue; there is no line. There is no ticket to determines one’s place in the line, since there is no line. There is no window, zero window, for the general public of foreign countries. (On June 29, 2018, at 7:30 pm., I heard on Fox News the President of the American Conservative Union use explicitly – but falsely – the vocabulary of cutting in line, and thus cheating, to the detriment of foreigners who have applied for legal immigration. So clearly was the error expressed that I might have prompted him myself, just to make my point!)
If you are Norwegian and you want to move to the US for good and you want to do it legally, you can marry an American if you are single and sentimentally adventurous. Or you can try to take advantage of one of a few investors’ visas, bringing in a significant amount of money and promising to create so many new jobs in a given span of time. (More on investors visas below.) That’s about it. Marriage is quick, but it may entail divorcing your current beloved spouse or giving up on true love altogether. Besides, fraudulent marriages contracted only to obtain entry into the US are illegal. (I doubt, however, that the Citizenship and Immigration Services currently have many resources today to devote to this minor irritant. In the past, agents used to interview couples and observe how they sat in relation to each other, or if they touched – personal experience.) Incidentally, the investor’s visa looks like a sort of self-destructive proposition: How does one create and preserve a successful business in a country one does not know, I wonder? Interestingly, this category of visa is periodically under attack as a source of corrupt money for American politicians. (See: John Vecchione and Ann Weisman’s OpEd “No More Pay-to-Play Green Cards” The Wall Street Journal 9/19/18, p. 19.)
And then, there is a variety of temporary workers’ visas intended to compensate for a shortages of native-born workers which may, under some circumstances be turned into permanent residency. Under none of those can a person be sure that he or she is actually emigrating to the US, only trying. I describe these below.
The Legal Gateways into the US, with Figures
Now that I may have your attention, let’s review together the several gates of legal immigration into the US and the numbers passing through those gates recently. I deal here with immigration properly defined, the entry of people who intend to stay in the country indefinitely. Below are the several ways a foreigner can gain full admission to the US with an unrestricted right to work. It’s known colloquially as getting a “green card.” Note that this is different from citizenship, which includes full political rights, although admission – a green card – is a necessary step toward citizenship. I give the main corresponding numbers for the most recent year that is available (2016, unless otherwise stated), because there seems to be widespread ignorance about the orders of magnitude involved.
Technical note: All my figures are from Homeland Security: US Immigration and Statistics. They are rounded off for clarity. In general, the numbers may vary a little, year-to-year, but that does not much affect the orders of magnitude I present below. The exception is refugee figures, which may change suddenly. Note also that the number of persons physically arriving in the US is much larger than the sum of figures given below, because the former includes tourists, students, temporary workers, short-term resident executives of foreign firms, and others who are supposed to be visitors staying only for a stated length of time. Temporary visitors are a major source of illegal immigration. They simply overstay their visas. They are so numerous that catching and processing them for deportation overwhelms federal agencies.
Total admissions to permanent resident status that is, real immigrants:
Categories 1 through 5 below are discrete categories. There is no numerical overlap between them, no double counting.
1 Permanent admissions, based on a variety of occupational or business qualifications, to fill jobs needed in the US economy, plus individuals of extraordinary talent in any field, plus all their dependents:
That’s the near totality of current merit based final immigration. This figure includes 10,000 investors, people admitted with their capital under the promise that they will create a stated number of new jobs, and their dependents.
2 Now to total admissions based on family relationships. (This includes relatives of US citizens and others, namely relatives of lawfully admitted immigrants, who have not achieved citizenship.) I am aggregating here two official categories separated by some sort of bureaucratic process that needs not concern us. As before, I focus on the general grounds for admission.
That’s the bulk of the “chain migration” of which Pres. Trump complains. But look: of those, 300,000 are spouses of US citizens, and 170,000 are direct parents (fathers and mothers) of adult US citizens. Adult brothers and sisters of US citizens and their children -– probably one of the most problematic categories for many Trump voters and for other conservatives – only account for 37,000. The people admitted on the basis of their family relationship to someone legally in the US (citizens and legal immigrants) constituted a full 67% of the total entering the country in 2016.
Note: Immigrants within this broad category are admitted according to a complex set of priorities I don’t want to learn unless someone pays me to do it. I advise you to do the same unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise.
This is a good place to correct a widespread misapprehension. The US is one of many countries of jus solis. Any child born on American soil is automatically a US citizen. There is evidence I have seen that some foreign women practice “birth tourism,” that they travel to the US on a tourist visa for the purpose of delivering in the US. But the resulting “anchor babies,” contrary to a common perception do not procure for their parents automatic US citizenship, or even immigrant admission. The babies put their parents in the order of priority for such admission based on family status, in the crowd of those waiting rather than outside of the crowd. The deportation of citizen babies whose parents are not legally on American soil is common practice. (I mean deportation in the company of their parents.)
3 The next portal of permanent admission is the so-called diversity lottery. This is actually a real lottery, with no entry fees, that an individual foreigner can play as often as he likes. It exists only for areas of the globe deemed to provide currently very small numbers of immigrants. (There is a formula but it’s boring.) Currently, for example, Norway, Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia belong to eligible areas. How it is decided that an area is so under-served seems to correspond to complex but rigorous and transparent rules. The status of under-served areas is revisited periodically. Diversity lottery winners are allowed immediately to take with them their spouse and their unmarried minor children. They are all eligible for citizenship down the road. Contrary to some rumors, lottery winners are vetted on the same security grounds as all other immigrants. They must also fulfill some modest criteria of literacy in their own language. Their numbers are:
That’s 4% of all immigrants for 2016. I mention this so we keep things in perspective in the context of President Trump’s oft-voiced dislike of this lottery. Lottery winners in 2016 included people from more than one hundred countries. Only six under-served countries passed the bar of 2,000 lottery immigrants admitted. As I write, all but eighteen countries in the world belong to under-served, areas eligible for the diversity lottery. The purpose of the lottery is to insure that a diversity of immigrants in an undefined sense. I speculate retroactively that it may have been instituted at the initiative of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and as a compromise between those in Congress who wanted more Europeans (especially Irish) and those who wanted more black people of all origins. (Again, this is a speculation.)
The historical American immigration core of Western Europe– Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Norway, together sent a grand total of 1217 individuals to the US under this diversity qualification. That’s fewer than Cameroon, with 1664. These Western Europeans make up between 2% and 3% of the total admitted through the lottery. As a way to remember this order of magnitude, make it 4% of 4% of all immigrants in 2016, from Western Europe, through the diversity lottery. In view of these numbers, anybody who calls current American immigration racist is out of his mind, probably dishonest, as well as ignorant. (I am trying to stay moderate.)
Note: The diversity lottery should not be confused with another lottery, used to distribute H-1B visas, described below.
4 The next access to the US is the statuses of refugees and asylees. Refugees and Asylees (the juridical difference between the two categories probably does not concern us here):
That’s practically all the people admitted on solely humanitarian grounds in 2016. There are a few others under a miscellaneous category called “Others” that accounts probably for a small fraction of 35,000 people (see below). In 2016, about 50,000 of all refugees and asylees, or around one-third, were Cubans. The number of arrivals in this admission category and the number of admissions are different because in 2016, for example, about half the admissions were of people already on US soil, people “arrived” possibly many years earlier. The relevant processing may take several years. Not surprisingly, the number of refugees arriving on American shores – landing there – varies from year to year as a function of events in the wider world and of Congress’s responsiveness to those events. In 2016, there were 85,000 arrivals of refugees (narrowly defined); in 2002, there were only 27,000; in 1980, 207,000. Keep in mind that, in a given year, there may few arrivals but one hundred thousand admissions, because it takes time to process new arrivals into admissions.
It’s a mixed category of no great interest. It includes many corrections of previous mistakes, including former mis-classifications.
The H-1B Visas Confusion and Controversy
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, 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)
Substituting Immigrant Labor for Native Workers: A Mental Experiment
Although the area where I live is not representative of the US in general, it’s exemplary in important respects. What happens here often happens later, elsewhere in the country, in attenuated form. Santa Cruz, California is separated from Silicon Valley by a chain of hills that takes 25 minutes to cross at the right time of a good day, and up to 90 minutes at other times. On my side of the hills is a rich agricultural zone, probably the main vegetable and strawberries garden of America, plus some resort areas and several well-respected schools of higher education. I taught in an MBA program in Silicon Valley, on the other side of the hills, for 25 years. I have been the owner of needy houses in Santa Cruz for just as long, and thus a habitual user of various kinds of labor. On both sides of the hills, high-tech industries and high-margin industrial agriculture powerfully attract immigrants – although, mostly, somewhat different kinds of immigrants.
The claim that immigrants of all kinds take work from citizens is a constant background noise in my area. In general (only in general; it happens) I am skeptical of the notion that immigrants directly take jobs from the native-born, or that they threaten to do so. This is based on my parochial, local, but not insignificant experience. Employers on both sides of my hills have been complaining of a labor shortage for seven or eight years. Booming Silicon Valley employers require more engineers, more software writers, but also more of a little bit of everything, because industrial growth generates demand for all kinds of ancillary services, including dish washing. There was not a sufficient rush of diversely qualified labor while the unemployment rate was fairly high, right after 2008. It’s unlikely to happen now that it’s ultra-low (September 2018).
Big farmers on my side of the hills regularly lament their inability to pick crops in the field in timely fashion because of a perennial dearth of the requisite kind of labor. Many think that the requisite kind of labor has to be cheap. In fact one habitual user of farm labor declares publicly that he pays $26 an hour on average. This would mean, of course, that some of his laborers earn more than three times the federal minimum wage.(This is embarrassing but I cant find the reference for this item. It’s from a recent article – 2018 -. I am 95% certain that it’s from the Wall Street Journal. I looked at the article carefully when I came across it and assessed it as trustworthy.) This figure would add up to about $50,000 annual for a full time farm worker. The Economic Policy Institute only assigns a yearly full time wage of $35,000 in 2015. (“Farm worker wages in California: Large gap between full-time equivalent and actual earnings.” Posted March 21, 2017 by Philip Martin and Daniel Costa.) That’s for the best paid farm workers, those in vegetable growing and picking. Assuming a 5% rise in wages yearly because of labor scarcity, still leave farm workers much below that $50,000 figure. I read locally that the labor shortage is so acute that some farmers switch to crops not especially suited to the climate or to their skill-set but that are less labor-intensive. The lament has not lessened in several years, although there is an abundant supply of potential labor nearby, in the form of college students.
Local housing rents are high; the cost of living is also high; tuition keeps increasing. Most of the farm work that goes begging requires little more than a basic work ethic and good health. Yet the thousands of college students in nearby Santa Cruz and Monterey compete for a handful of low-paying barista positions rather than going for far more lucrative seasonal farm work. (I must say that my perverse heart is waiting for a real-life experiment in which farmers explicitly bid up dormant student picking talent: I would like to find out how high the remunerations offered can go without eliciting a response.) The cliché that there is some work that Americans reared in a soft society won’t do, is not completely absurd, it seems to me. The lack of exposure to hard physical labor of most Americans who have been students in the past ten years may play a role, possibly a preponderant role. And yes, I admit that at $60 an hour, for example, growers would probably find all the local unskilled labor they wanted. Yet, I doubt that this is what commentators mean when they complain about immigrants taking work from the native-born.
And, of course, I have to notice that very high wages paid for the production of ordinary goods corresponds to a pay cut for everyone. Nevertheless I do believe that in agriculture the pay cut would probably amount to little, in most cases. Take local strawberries retailing at $2.00/lb. Suppose field labor accounts for a full ten per cent of this retail cost. If this labor cost goes up by 100% net, the same strawberries will retail at about $2.25, at most. It seems to me that’s probably not enough to affect sales much. Farmers would have to agree among themselves to raise wages and prices which may be illegal or of dubious legality.
The Hidden Cost of Cheap Labor: Missed Mechanization
Somehow, one of the hidden costs of the importation of inexpensive labor seldom comes up in discussions of immigration. Inexpensive labor is often an invisible substitute for mechanization. As discussions amplified in 2017-2018 about a national $15 an hour minimum wage, the media produced numerous examples of employers of inexpensive labor, such as fast food restaurants, quickly increasing their reliance on robots. In those media stories, the causality was seldom well established, but it stands to reason that the relative scarcity or dearness of labor is a spur to mechanization. Conversely, the routine availability of inexpensive labor must prevent decision-makers from adopting new tools of automation, and inhibit inventors from creating others.
This relationship is demonstrated in one kind of farming after another. The European Union is a live laboratory in this respect. As the EU’s heavy fringe benefits, including its high social insurance costs, were imposed on new member countries, cheap labor turned correspondingly expensive, and mechanical ingenuity was quickly unleashed. French grape growers who swore for 200 years that their precious wine grape demands the incomparable dexterity of the human hand found themselves happily riding newly invented vine cultivating machines.
Faced with the same compensation hardships, Greek olive growers relinquished manual picking for crude tree shaking machines designed to drop the fruit onto a tarp spread on the ground. Turns out, there is actually an effective olive tree shaking device that is also deft enough to avoid endangering trees that are sometimes a hundred years old. Mechanical agricultural inventions notably now move from the Old World to the New, a historically rare pattern that tests the notion of labor substitution. As labor becomes quickly more expensive in the European Union, its farmers mechanize, while American farmers slumber in the comfort of an abundance of reasonably priced labor from Latin America. In the eighties, I helped a French fruit-drying entrepreneur sell his trailerable, self-contained, stainless steel, gleaming modern machine to California plum processors still relying on a 19th century, fixed, brick, drying tunnel. It was like standing next to a state of the art sports car while chatting with a hay wagon. As expected, much of the superiority of the French machine resided in its labor efficiency that was several times better than that of the old-fashioned brick tunnels.
A Localized Cost: Schooling Expenditures
As we saw, the first qualification to the thesis that immigration enhances economic growth is that it is simply a form of population growth. It does enhance growth, but this sounds almost trivial (except to draw attention to the fact that the native-born are not taking on the vigorous job of increasing the population). The second qualification is a little more complex. A positive effect of immigration on the overall (national) economy does not exclude negative localized effects. The GDP, a national quantity, rises but some local school districts, for instance, are fiscally overwhelmed by the influx of immigrant children. The economic benefits associated with population growth through immigration may be mostly diffuse, even imperceptible, but the localized costs of immigration are obvious and often dramatically painful. The schooling of immigrant children is a good example of a painful localized cost that gives immigration a bad name.
Internal domestic migrations would also cause local problems, but the effect would usually be of a different magnitude. Today, the bulk of immigrant children often (not always) bring significant special educational needs with them that are rarely found among domestic migrants. First, they may not know English; in fact, most don’t, although there are bright exceptions. Second, foreign immigrants may come from the poorest, most rural parts of poor countries, with inferior schools. (That is certainly the case for Mexican immigrants, the largest group in recent years.) Both conditions, ignorance of English and the family’s low educational status on arrival, require expensive remedial measures, the cost of which is borne largely by local taxing entities.
To make matters worse, the usual academic remedies often just don’t work. The public schools may be so utterly unable to teach immigrant children anything in a foreign language – English – that the standards for all children degrade and local Anglo children fall drastically behind, in reading comprehension, for example. Over several years, the cumulative deficiency can force some Anglo parent to switch their children to private schools. Native-born parents who are college graduates, or even merely high school graduates, often don’t accept with equanimity the news that their children are two or three grades behind in any subject. They frequently become bitter and, why not? If they complain, they are frequently charged with racism. (It happened to my brown-skinned wife.) Those who make the move to private school end up with both high local taxes and the need to pay tuition for their children, all as an indirect but obvious financial burden of immigration. Note again that this burden is borne by local families, with little help from those who make immigration decisions, at the federal level.
There are perhaps two reasons why the poor educational status of some, or many, immigrants is seldom discussed. First, the bulk of the host population may not be clearly aware of the educational backwardness of the immigrants. They may vaguely think of Mexico, for example, as 40 or 50 years behind the US educationally; yet the commonness of illiteracy in remote Mexican villages puts them more than 100 years behind the US in this respect. (Nevertheless, I have much respect – based on personal experience – for Mexican public education as delivered in small and medium-size towns.) When it comes to the many immigrant children from Asia, school authorities appear even more at sea. They don’t know what to make of the fact that a middle-class Chinese boy of 12 may not seem to be able to explain what he can and cannot read.
The second cause of timidity regarding the educational status of new immigrants is, of course, far-reaching political correctness. To say, “Luis can’t read English” passes for racist in many quarters, although it’s obvious that Luis actually can’t read English, or any language (See below). Discussion is further discouraged by the fact that in some areas, such as mine, immigration includes both broad categories of low educational achievers and of exceptionally high achievers, both farm hands and engineers with superior training. The existence of the latter grants verisimilitude to charges of prejudice regarding the former.
Here are anecdotes about the low level of preparedness of some immigrants. On two occasions widely separated in time, I had prolonged interaction with Mexican immigrants I had hired to help me work on my houses. I had opportunities to judge each of them to be intelligent, practical-minded, full of initiative, and flexible–real finds, in other words. Both times, I discovered fortuitously that they were illiterate in Spanish. I left them simple written instructions in that language, and none of the required work was done by the time I checked, although some other necessary work I had not explicitly requested had been performed.
The men were thus not shirking; they just did not know what I wanted done. (No, don’t blame my Spanish. It’s very good. I can read anything in that language except a chemistry textbook. I also write it with ease. After all, it’s just another debased Latin, like my native tongue, French.) Of course, this is a story about a tiny sample, hardly a sample at all. Yet the two episodes took place ten years apart, and I suspect they illustrate a common condition among Mexico-born men in my area. (I refer to immigrants, not to Mexicans in generals. The large and growing Mexican middle class seldom wanders across the border without a solid job and a gringo salary. I also know some of its members.) My illiterate journeymen’s children would be difficult and expensive to educate, even if they, the children, knew English well. There is just not much book learning in their households and it’s not likely to be well respected there.
In my otherwise bookstore-rich and library-rich area, books in Spanish were nearly impossible to find for twenty years. I think there is almost no demand for such articles. What little demand there is appears to be for Spanish translations of American books with television ties. This is more evidence of the low literacy status of Mexican immigrants in the area. (see footnote 4)
It’s also true that immigrants’ children who are truly bilingual may be an asset to the local economy as well as to the national economy. In my observation as a college professor, that’s a tiny number, and their usefulness can only be a long-term proposition. It’s a tiny number because knowing a language well requires reading and, I think, writing. There are few opportunities (few, not none) for native Spanish speakers to learn to read and write, in addition to their normal schooling in English. So called “bilingual education” in public schools does not seem to do the job. I base my judgment on the tiny number of readers and writers of Spanish I encountered in local colleges where you would expect them to congregate.
Few Anglos perceive advanced bilingualism as an asset; I am guessing, (guessing) that it’s because they see it associated with individuals of low socioeconomic status. Nevertheless, it’s useful, obviously, for lowly jobs catering in part to a non-English speaking public. My daughter tells me that it’s impossible to get a job as a medical receptionist in my area if you don’t know English and Spanish. As for well-paid occupations, I have never heard this asset mentioned except, ironically, in connection with the Border Patrol. I don’t doubt that it’s also sometimes put to use in the diplomatic service, and in the armed forces. But bilingual children of immigrants have to compete there with recent immigrants who know English well.
Other Locally Borne Social Costs of Immigration
I have pointed out that schooling, though heavily affected by national immigration policies, is financed locally. Here is a roundup of other largely locally financed services: various social services for the poor, (“welfare,” “public assistance”), health care, jail and prison resources (some of which are funded by the Federal Government). When evaluating the cost of these resources as allocated to immigrants, it seems to me that a reasonable baseline is to assume that immigrants consume such resources in quantities appropriate to their sex, age distribution, economic and educational levels, and marital status. In the US, men commit more crimes than women, especially violent crimes; women are more likely to be in charge of children than men and thus in need of help to maintain them; the poor commit more crime overall than the rich, except perhaps, white collar crime. The semi-literate are also less likely than the better educated to engage in white-collar crime. Married men commit fewer serious crimes than do single men.
Loud voices on the right proclaim that immigrants go on welfare and have dealings with the judicial system more frequently than do the native born.
Adopting the baseline I propose, even if only mentally, slows down the tendency to stigmatize immigrants, including unconsciously. Imagine (made up figures) that the median age of American men is 38 while the median age of a certain group of immigrants is 23. If you observe a crime rate among the latter 25 % above the rate for native-born Americans, you may have discovered nothing about the immigrant group propensity toward crime, just that they are young. The use of such a baseline does not exclude the possibility of making policy inferences from the social costs of various immigrant groups based on their collective economic, age, and marital status characteristics, like this: We don’t need to import young men from Central America who are just about certain to increase the frequency and the gravity of crimes in our country.
Bad and Worse Immigrants, and Fallacies
A study by the Center for Immigration Studies indicates wide variations in immigrant families’ propensities to receive welfare, according to their country of origin. Unfortunately, the study was published in 2011. Based on the Center’s appearances on television, it’s fair to say that it’s mostly anti-immigration although I am sure this is an oversimplification.
The score for Mexicans is 57%, 33% for Russians, 19% for Chinese, 14% for Indians, and only 12.5% for (the ever-saintly) Canadians. But the report of these seemingly clear differences may harm rational decision making in the way I warn against above. There are three reasons.
First, by emphasizing country of origin, the table seems to assume that different national groups have been in the US for the same length of time. In fact, nearly all immigrants arrive poor. Now, suppose that the average time in country for Mexicans is one year, and ten years for the Chinese. The 38 percentage point gap might vanish if the Chinese immigrants captured by the table had also been in the country for only one year. Obviously, those are made up figures. I don’t know what we would find if proper control for length of stay in country had been applied. It would have to be an average length of stay which complicates both data gathering and interpretation again although it can be done.
Second, immigrants from different countries probably belong to systematically different classes. This would affect their propensity to go on welfare, irrespective of national culture of origin. Suppose that all Indian immigrants are medical doctors or engineers, and all Mexicans casual laborers. This difference would suffice to account for the 43 point welfare gap between the two groups. The statement, “Indians are much less likely to go on welfare than Mexicans,” in this case, may be more about doctors and laborers than about Indians and Mexicans. That’s irrespective of time in-country. Note that I am not arguing that the two groups are equally desirable as immigrants but that their respective desirability may have nothing to do with the national propensity to go on welfare by Mexicans, specifically. I can think of arguments in favor of admitting more doctors and also arguments in favor of more laborers, factoring in the cost of their possible landing on welfare for a while. Note that the gap in two categories’ propensity to go on welfare may have no ethical meaning associated with nationality of origin. After all, we don’t know what the welfare participation of Mexican immigrants would be if they were at all doctors.
Third, we have to look at immigrants contributions, positive and negative, across several generations, as we do in connection with Latino youth gangs, for example. In fact, immigrants of the same national origin may be objectionable today while their children may be desirable for American society tomorrow. An example: Suppose all Mexican immigrants are young, married, unschooled laborers from rural backgrounds. Such people tend to have many children – more than, say, unmarried, older men from the best engineering schools in India. The first group will be more likely to go on welfare than the second and it will supply America society in the next generation with more contributors to the Social Security fund. In this scenario, paradoxically, the large number of Mexican immigrants may compensate for the likely lower income of their children compared to both the native-born and other immigrants’ children.
The Net Contribution of Immigrants: An Attempt at Critical Quantification
In his October 2006 article in Liberty, (“Immigration: Yes, No, and Maybe” by Richard Fields, Stephen Cox, and Bruce Ramsey), Cox tries to summarize the net cost that (then) current immigrants impose on American society by working out a quantitative example. He stages an imaginary but realistic (Mexican) immigrant family of five living in Los Angeles – two parents and three minor children. He assigns reasonable earnings to the parents and sets those against the probable costs that the whole family imposes in the form of normal local and other services. He arrives at the conclusion that the family annually costs American society 38,900 2006 dollars. (I agree with Cox that this may be a conservative estimate. That would be about 48,000 June 2018 dollars, using the CPI Inflation Calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics).
To gauge the real magnitude of the overall normal costs legal immigrants thus impose on American society, let’s suppose further that all of the 2016 legal immigration is composed of Cox’s families of five. That’s 240,000 such families. The aggregate excess of their social costs over their earnings is 48,000 x 240,000 = 11.52 billion dollars. As a percentage of 2016 GDP, this figure is less than 7/10,000 (seven over ten thousand – 2016 GDP from CountryEconomy.Com).
Now, let’s suppose that Cox was too conservative by one half in his estimate of the cost his family imposes on American society. This would imply that the legal immigrant families that compose all of 2016 immigration cost American society an amount that is like 14/10,000. The numerator in this last estimate includes only legal immigrants. Let’s suppose further that the number of illegal immigrants for the year of reference equals the number of legal ones and that they cost the same and contribute the same as legal immigrants. The cost that all immigrants impose on American society is then approximately 28/10,000 or about 1/3 of one per cent of GDP. If you assume that illegal immigrants earn only half as much as legal immigrants, the net cost of immigration overall goes up correspondingly. It’s still not much. My point is this: In the worst case scenario I can conjure, the net cost that immigrants impose on American society is very low. It’s of the order of 12 million Americans buying a $10 lottery ticket at Nine/Eleven every payday.
This is still certainly an overestimation, for two reasons. One, this scenario is the extreme, limiting case. There is, of course, zero chance that the total legal immigration in any one year is composed entirely of the kind of families of five Cox describes. Among the immigrants, as with nearly all immigration everywhere, there must be a preponderance of healthy young men and young women without children. This happens through self-selection: emigration is very difficult. It requires courage and even a solid dose of unrealism; children are a big impediment in this respect. But, in most cases, younger people without children must easily contribute more than they cost American society because they land all raised up and ready to work (as I said). The exceptions concern those who fall seriously sick– uncommon among the young – and those who end up in jail or prison. The latter is not a rare occurrence among the young in general, among young males in particular. As I said, I deal below with the particular cost of incarcerating immigrants.
The other imaginary limiting case is this: Among the 1,200,000 immigrants in 2016, there is a single family of five as described by Cox and the balance is made up of vigorous young women and young men who never become sick and never transgress the law. In that other limiting case, immigrants are almost certainly a net economic boon to American society. I don’t know where the reality lies and it may change from year to year. It’s doable research which, I think, has not been done.
The second reason why the figure of 28/10,000 is probably an overestimation, or why it leads to fallacious inferences, has to do with life cycles. First, there will probably be a period during the family’s life when the children will be grown and capable of working while the parents themselves are working, undisturbed by family obligations. During that period, three or four, or all five immigrants will in all likelihood contribute more than they take from American society, in spite of their low qualifications. This sweet spot may vanish when the parents reach Medicare and Social Security age. In the meantime, several family members will have contributed to the relevant social funds; one or more of the children will too, probably for 30 years or more. Hence, whether the family of five receives a net benefit or impose a net cost over a longer, trans-generational period depends on actuarial calculations that neither Cox nor I have performed.
I hasten to add that it’s quite possible that such actuarial calculations, performed with real numbers, would still show the five in my chosen family as perpetrating a net cost on American society. To be thorough, one would have to take into account two more things. One is the possibility that one of the three children will turn out to be a great, outsize contributor, like the 40% American Nobel Prize winners born abroad. Or all three. The relevant reasoning has to be trans-generational to some extent, it seems to me. Just look at the extreme imaginary scenario below.
For ten years in a row, the US admits as many immigrants as it did in 2016. That’s 12 million immigrants. Let’s assume none dies during that period and they have no children (We will see that this unrealistic assumption does not matter here.) Not one of the twelve million is able to pay his full fare. On the average, they each cost American society $20,000 there is no chance they will ever pay back, one way or another. However, one of these hapless immigrants is Steve Job’s biological father. You know the rest of this true story. Ask yourself: If it were your decision, knowing this and, and based solely on economic matters which are the stake here, would keep out all twelve million?
This quandary poses an interesting conceptual problem we keep encountering: Had Job’s biological father not accidentally made his girlfriend pregnant; had they not decided to give Steve up for adoption, would someone else have developed the personal computer with Wozniak? Without him? Would you bet on it? The truth is that American society is unusually inventive but it’s probably not the most inventive on a per capita basis. (Last time I looked, the Japanese were registering more patents than Americans – that’s per capita.) It’s also seems true that immigrants account for a disproportionate number of American innovations, including 40% of all Nobel prizes in other than literature. (And also excluding the often farcical Nobel Peace Prize.) It’s not absurd to think of American inventiveness as the happy encounter of American institutions unusually favorable to innovation with immigrant vigor. This is just a speculation, of course but how willing are you to discard it summarily?
Finally, the calculation of immigrants’ net burden imposed on American society necessarily fails to take into account real positive contributions that are difficult to quantify, more or less intangible contributions, some of which I have mentioned elsewhere. They go from Italian cuisine to my own ability to interpret some world events better than almost any native-born professor. Here is another mental experiment: Suppose a national society decided, through some process or other, to bring up the average quality of its every day food from, say English levels, to 1/3 of Italian level. The cost would be astronomical and the result would clearly constitute a significant improvement in the quality of Americans’ every day life – which is what the science of Economics is all about, of course. My point is that the fact that this felicitous result was achieved through the happenstance of immigration does not imply that its societal value is zero.
One of the highest per capita expenditures that immigrants–like every other population group over and below a certain age–impose on American society is the cost of incarceration. That cost is also mostly borne by state and local authorities, although there exists a process by which the federal government reimburses local governments for illegal immigrants incarcerated for crimes other than illegal border crossing (explained in Cox 2006). I examine below the tangled issue of the cost of immigrant incarceration.
Immigrants, Crime and Incarceration: Another Mostly Local Cost and a Causal Tangle.
There exists a widespread impression, deliberately fed by some conservative media and sometimes by President Trump himself, to the effect that illegal immigrants are especially prone to crime, and to violent crime. By extension, by illogical implication, immigrants in general are tarred with the same brush.
Immigrant crime agitates for different reasons that are not always disentangled from one another. First, there is the general social disorganization that any crime causes and the worsening of the quality of life it entails. Second, mostly youthful immigrants could have the power to reverse the general decline in crime that accompanies the aging of American society. They might be the agent of a step backward for American society. Third, capturing, trying, and incarcerating anyone is very expensive, more expensive than schooling, for example. Immigrant crime in general is especially apt to disturb emotionally because it seems to involve a kind of crass ungratefulness: I let you into my living room, or you enter while I am not paying attention, and you show your appreciation by stealing the silverware, and worse.
Belief in the criminality of immigrants as a group is not necessarily the result of a kind of emotional prejudice. Immigrants are predominantly young, ill-educated, and poor, all known ingredients of criminal propensity in any context. (To my surprise, current immigrants are not predominantly male, although maleness is a strong factor of criminality.) So, if immigrants to the US are like just about every population of the same age, income, and education ever studied, they should exhibit a higher crime rate than the native-born population that is, on the average, better educated, more prosperous, and, especially, considerably older.
It’s difficult to figure out the basic truths about immigration and crime because gross miscounting by partisan journalists is common. For instance, in his 2018 article in Reason on a report based on 2009 figures, Alex Nowrasteh shows how easy it is to make horrendous but simple mistakes of enumeration: Counting single events of incarceration as if they were individual immigrants, for example, as if illegal immigrants could not be repeat offenders. (“Restrictionists Are Misleading You About Immigrant Crime Rates.” Reason, Feb. 1, 2018.)
I explicitly do not accuse the authors cited below of such miscounting.
In his 2006 article in Liberty, Cox showed that about 2.6 % of inmates in federal prison and an astonishing 12% of people incarcerated in local jails and prisons were illegal immigrants in 2002. That’s 14.6% of all persons then incarcerated in the US. The highest estimate of the number of illegal aliens I could locate for any year is 15 million. With that estimate, conservatively, incarcerated illegal aliens would be about 5% of the then US population of 293 million. Roughly, illegal aliens, according to Cox, were thus incarcerated in 2002 at almost three times the rate of their occurrence in the general population. This rate did not include incarcerations for merely being illegally present in the US (which must have been a small number since that was only a misdemeanor). Cox’s study is based on figures for only one year for the whole country.
At any rate, Cox’s incarceration figures concern mostly illegal aliens. It’s not clear whether illegal immigrants’ propensity to commit crimes is similar to the corresponding propensity of legal immigrants, nor if their crimes are similar. Legal and illegals may come from different countries and regions. Even if they come from the same places, they may issue from different classes in their societies of origin. Even if from the same places and same classes, they may constitute different samples of the populations of origin from the standpoint of motivation and thus, of personal psychology. It takes different virtues to arrange for legal immigration via whatever path, on the one hand, and to swim the Rio Grande, or coolly to overstay one’s visa, on the other. These different virtues could easily be associated with different levels of different criminal tendencies. Finally, legal and illegal immigrants have different incentives to break the law or not, the latter being in a good position to not draw attention to themselves. That’s at least until the sanctuary movement.
A study published by the libertarian Cato Institute in February 2015 examined criminal conviction data provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety. It found that native-born residents were much more likely to be convicted of a crime than immigrants in the country either legally or illegally. For all crimes together, the legal immigrants’ score was less than one third that of the native-born. The difference in the likelihood of being convicted of homicide, specifically, was very large between legal immigrants and the native-born. The former were 15 times less likely to be convicted of homicide. Even illegal immigrants were only 70% as likely as the native born to be convicted of homicide. (“Two charts demolish the notion that immigrants here illegally commit more crime,” Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post on-line accessed circa June 28 2018.)
Note that the Cato Institute study is for one state only and for only one year. Cox’s figures cited above are also for one year only but for the whole country.
It’s not obvious how one should relate these contradictory sets of findings to one another. (There are many more such studies. I chose two researchers on my side of the political fence that seemed to me to have worked with seriousness.) First, figures about comparatively rare events such as homicide are notoriously unstable. The corresponding homicide figures for 2004 or for 2014 might be very different. Moreover, both sets of figures, Cox’s and Cato Institute’s use the heterogeneous categories “legal immigrants” and “illegal aliens.” To generalize from their findings requires making the silent assumption that the composition of both is stable from year to year. This assumption is unwarranted. Nothing regulates the composition of illegal immigration and little insures that the composition of legal immigration will be similar from year to year. The varying numbers of refugees alone could sway the legal figures one way or the other.
Here is a realistic scenario: For a period of a few years, both immigration flows consist mostly of rural, mountain Mexicans from rural areas where crime is scarce. In a subsequent and contiguous period, a large flood is added, through both refugee legal immigration and through illegal immigration, of urban Central Americans (thus, of people from some of the highest crime areas of the world). Both the frequency and the nature of immigrant crime may change swiftly as a result of this sudden (and realistic) change in the composition of immigration, legal or illegal, or both. The composition of legal immigration may change drastically in a single year because of the influx of refugees from a single location hitherto unrepresented in the US. The composition of illegal immigration may also change suddenly because of a disaster in a region that the American federal government does not recognize as a legitimate source of refugee status. It’s hazardous to extrapolate from one period to any other period. Hence both Cox’s and Cato Institute’s findings may be correct but, at the extreme, each of them for one year only.
It’s also risky to extrapolate from one domestic location, for example, Texas, to another, for example, the whole United States. Here is one reason among others why it is so: The (innocent) rural mountain Mexicans I mention above are likely to move to the Central Valley of California and to similarly agricultural areas in Florida. Crime-prone Central Americans, on the other hand, may seek their fortune in the more familiar big cities anywhere, including, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. In this imaginary scenario, immigrant crime in Texas (Houston and Dallas, per chance) may be grossly unrepresentative of immigrant crime anywhere else in the US.
Finally, as Cox pointed out to me in a personal communication, the comparison category, “native-born” is itself heterogeneous with respect to crime. The rates for African-American – most of whom are native-born – are several times as high as others’. Perhaps, the native-born would far better for incidence of crime if blacks were excluded from the comparison. I suspect this is true but I don’t know according to what theoretical principle, this exclusion should be made.
An Exemplary Social Science Attempt to Disentangle
Using estimations of the relationships between several sets of good data to infer causation is an old endeavor, of course. The difficulties to which I pointed above are not new. For a little over one hundred years, the social sciences have emerged largely with the mission to solve or circumvent such difficulties. Their efforts have been broadly productive; inferences of causation based on quantitative estimations that respect state-of-the-arts social science rules are more trustworthy than practically everything else. In brief, the more complex the issues under study, the more back-of-the-envelop calculations suffer in comparison with modern social science methodology. Issue of comparative immigrant vs native born criminality are pretty much at a level of complexity for which those methods were developed.
The rules of social science include an obligation to publish in scholarly journals where the findings will be subjected both to pre-publication and to post-publication critical assessment. (See my didactic essay on scholarly submission: “What’s Peer Review and What it Matters”) Publication in scholarly journals also facilitates eventual attempts at replication with its potential to root out major research-based fallacies. I realize that duplication is a rare event, but the threat of it keeps researchers on their toes. Note: This doesn’t mean that the degree of confidence one should award to serious social science products should be high, in absolute terms. There is a difference in practice between, “bad,” and “very bad.” Also, in spite of formidable recent successful hoaxes against pseudo-journals, some disciplines hold the line, including left-leaning Sociology. (Read Gabriel Rossman’s “Sokal to the Nth Degree” in the November 8th-11th issue of the Weekly Standard.)
As it happens, there is a recent study that addresses the topic of immigration and criminality that fulfills good social science criteria. It’s Michael T. Light and Ty Miller, “Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime?” published in Criminology, March 3, 2018. The study relies on data from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, collected from 1990 to 2014, inclusive. Its design is reasonable; it allows for the observation of change over time in the relationships of interest. The 24-year period of observation is a convenience sample of any longer period one would prefer, but it’s not known to what extent it is representative of a longer period. This is a common limitation on interpretation. Twenty-four years of observation is a lot better than one year for the purpose of generalization though. The estimation methods used in their study to express the relationship between numbers of illegal immigrants, on the one hand, and several well accepted measures of serious criminality, on the other, are up-to date. The same methods allow for the elimination of alternative formulations – that is, they allow for “controlling” for variables other than the main variable of interest, the number of illegal immigrants. The article contains a useful and thorough review of the literature. It’s written with remarkable clarity, given the inherent complexity of the endeavor it describes.
The study gives a straightforward answer to the straightforward question it poses:
The increase in the number of illegal immigrants (in the US) is associated with a decrease in serious crime.
The authors dispose fairly well of an interpretation of these counter-intuitive findings based on the idea that more illegals results in less crime reporting in the relevant populations, rather than in actual decrease in crime. This explanation would make their startling main finding practically spurious.
It is not equally clear to me that the authors have disposed completely of the hypothesis that an influx of illegal immigrants is causally linked to stepped-up law enforcement, and only thence to crime reduction. This formulation has important policy implications. It says: Illegal immigration does not increase crime, provided you do what needs to be done about it. And, you may be lucky and overshoot your mark. Ideally, I would have liked to see a measure of cost per some unit of crime reduction included in the estimation models.
It’s unfortunate for my purpose that this study focuses on illegal immigration specifically, since my own primary interest is in legal immigration. It matters little in the end because a secondary analysis within this study indicates that increase in legal immigration (considered separately from illegal immigration) is also associated with a decrease in serious crime.
As quantitative social scientists are unfortunately inclined to do, Light and Millet give us a literal expression of their main finding, like this (I think this practice, of making findings shout instead of whispering should be heavily taxed.):
A one-unit increase in the proportion of the population that is undocumented corresponds with a 12 percent decrease in violent crime.
We don’t have to take literally this metric wording and the causality it suggests. For example, there is no need to believe that if enough additional illegal immigrants enter the US, at some point, serious crime will disappear completely. It’s enough to acknowledge that a very good study on the relationship between immigration and serious crime leaves little room for the possibility that the more of the one, the more of the other.
Note, however, that the Light and Miller findings do not exclude this formulation completely. It’s possible that in some states an increase in illegal immigration is associated with a surfeit of serious crime. It’s possible even that for all states, but for a brief period, an increase in illegal immigration is quickly followed by a rise in serious crime. Because of these possibilities, the public perception and the startling results of this study may well be compatible. These would probably not be casually detected. Few regular observers, be they politicians, journalists, or public servants are likely to have a clear view of events in 51 separate entities sustained for twenty-four years. Intelligent, rigorous minded observers may be right about what they know and drastically wrong about what they have not studied through hard facts.
Light’s and Miller’s is a classically good article. It’s thorough without sacrificing detail; it offers a good quality and a useful review of the relevant sociological literature; it’s tightly reasoned. The estimations it reports on seem impeccable. I think Light and Miller is the standard against which all reports on the relationship between immigration and crime should now be assessed. Practically, this article should contribute to switching the burden of proof: Although they are less educated, poorer, and younger on average than the native-born population, immigrants appear to commit less serious crime than the latter. More surprisingly to some, illegal immigrants, who begin their American career by demonstrating their willingness to violate American law, do not appear to be prone to criminal violence. But, as I have mentioned before, an illegal status is a strong incentive to keep one’s nose clean.
I am not proposing here that Light and Miller’s article should forever block the progress of more conventional ideas to the effect that more immigration is associated with more crime. All it would take would be a single study of similar quality to overturn this remarkable study’s findings. In the meantime, it would be reasonable to shift the burden of proof away from where it has implicitly stood: immigrants tend to be criminal.
Culture, Immigration, and Culture
Immigrants, Language and Income
The culture of their country of origin immigrants carry with them may have consequences for the speed of their integration and for their ability to assimilate. In turn, immigrants may cause a variety of changes in American culture. Language is central to both types of cultural effects.
Current immigrants frequently have inferior earning capabilities because they are less educated on the average than are the native born. This is not the only disability they bring with them. Often, usually, their command of the English language is limited. This linguistic deficiency has consequences beyond the economic sphere. The continued poverty language incompetence fosters also retards their assimilation.
Many on the right declare themselves concerned with immigrants’ eroding influence on wages. Most of us are interested in the speed with which immigrants assimilate. Both phenomena depend to a large extent on immigrants’ competence in the English language. Linguistic competence influences the ease and speed of immigrants’ assimilation in the long run. In the short and middle run, it’s a direct determinant of income. Immigrants vary widely on a continuum of this crucial variable, from a superior command English, to no English at all.
The English language is special. Much of the world has English as a first language or as normal language of instruction in schools. A second tier includes English as a second language in its schools or, more often, in some of its schools. English is the first second language in the world. Middle class people everywhere learn English. In many countries though most people have no systematic interaction with the English language. The disadvantages of not knowing the common language of the country where one lives are so great that it’s a sort of miracle that so many even try to ignore those by moving to the US equipped with no knowledge of English. It makes sense then mentally to divide immigrants into the US in two broad categories according to their mastery of English as they land.
Silicon Valley is teeming with prosperous Indians, many of whom are actual immigrants. (There is a kind of optical illusions at work here though: Many Indians are on temporary, H-1B and F-1 visas. Indian immigrants who are not successful just go home, soon to be replaced by others. They leave little trace.) The Indian real immigrants can themselves be subdivided in two economic classes. Some spread all over the US where they utilize family connections to manage hotels and retail businesses. The Indians in Silicon Valley belong largely to another breed. Almost all are graduates from two dozen elite Indian engineering and management schools of higher learning. They are solidly middle class by upbringing although many arrive poor because of the steep income gradient between India and the US. My Indian wife – who knows I know not how, but who does know – assures me that all, or nearly all of the latter, belong to the lofty Brahman caste. (This is a case where class and caste correspond, far from a universal given.) They are people who could aspire to a good job back home in India where, however, their economic futures and their horizons would remain limited because India keeps being India. They all seem to arrive, amazingly, with a strong work ethic and with excellent work habits.
I think I taught between 200 and 300 Indian immigrants in my MBA career. Not one contradicted this generalization. Of course, this is not a generalization about Indians, but about the self-selected subgroup of Indians that shows up in central and northern California after having been admitted to and survived gruelingly selective schools back home. A couple who self-designated to me, their MBA instructor, as “lazy” would have been considered veritable Heroes of Labor in the old Soviet Union.
All the Indians from this second group are educated in English from an early age. They are used, via reading, movies and the internet, to American English (and to American culture) before they land. Outwardly, their adaptation is seamless. Digression: Except possibly that they may suffer a high rate of failed marriages. They engage in arranged marriages in India, bring their brides to America. Here, the young brides, utterly deprived of the usual Indian female support network and also, I am guessing, with a lesser mastery of English, become terribly unhappy. For this reason alone, I am guessing that Indian immigrants are less well-adjusted overall than are Mexicans who tend to bring everyone who matters with them. This is just a plausible redundant impression I gathered over 25 years. I have no figures in support.
These educated Indians obtain good jobs and they work diligently and intelligently. They are able to progress at work in good part because they express themselves with a clarity seldom achieved by other kinds of immigrants. (This, in spite of some peculiarities of Indian English: “You will go there, is it?”) They are thrifty at first, helped by the shock of finding out that a pound of lentils costs three times more in San Jose than in Kolkatta (personal research – an email to my sister-in-law there). So, they achieve a modest level of prosperity in a relatively short few years. The quick emergence of Indians in other walks of American life unconnected to high technology or to business, including medicine, the law and even journalism, testifies anew to those widespread virtues but all of this success would hardly be possible absent initial fluency in English.
Immigrants of many other different origins also make their way to Silicon Valley in response to the constant demand for high-tech specialists. The Chinese among them are numerous and conspicuous. I had them in my MBA classes for twenty-five years, right alongside the Indians. They gave me the impression of being about as excellently trained as the Indians. My intuition suggests that they were more entrepreneurial, on the whole, or maybe just more individualistic, but they nearly all struggled with English. (“Nearly;” one young Chinese woman had the cheek to correct my mistakes of syntax in class on several occasions.) If your native language does not use verb forms to distinguish between present and past, you can learn to say, “I did it,” instead of “I do it yesterday,” but it must be like a herd of potholes on the road you are traveling.
I suspect that many of the young Chinese immigrants I knew, star students back home, lived lives of frustration in the US because of the language barrier. The frustration runs deeper than a relative inability to get things done. (Though the latter counts too. I can mention it now because there is probably a statute of limitation: Forty-plus years ago, I wrote a Chinese student’s entire doctoral dissertation; it was very good both in content and in form. Also, the student cooked well.) If you express yourself at the level of a native-born ten-year-old, the unsophisticated foreign language virginal natives treat you like a fairly-gifted ten-year-old. This is pretty conjectural, of course. I would bet on it though! I have discussed this several times over steamed mussels with some favorite Chinese students with whom I had picked and prepared the shellfish; they had no reason to lie to me, not then, anyway.
It’s difficult to generalize about the few visually inconspicuous Europeans who also make it to Silicon Valley. Those who attended my classes were as competent in English as foreigners for whom it is a second language can be. I am guessing they were competent enough to be engineers. For some reason, Russians shone among them. Reminder: I am not indulging here in a devious comparative survey of different national educational systems. Immigration to America dips into different pools in different countries. Perhaps, smart Russians always go to America if they can while equally smart French engineers would rather stay home to continue their leisurely dégustation of blanquette de veau façon Normande.
It’s certain that mastery of English plays a big part in determining immigrants’ incomes as well as their economic contributions to American society. It’s also easy to miss the competence and the high character of those who don’t understand English well. And, as I have said, nothing sounds more like a ten-year-old than a bright foreigner whose English is struggling to reach the second grade level. With a low competence in English, even if it be only spoken English, the best jobs elude you although you would be capable of performing them, language notwithstanding. I believe that millions of immigrants are employed much below their maximum earning capacity solely because of their low linguistic competence. So, while the actual economic contribution of those immigrants is correctly assessed as low, their potential contribution is systematically underrated. This is a problem capable of solutions that are rarely discussed. A merit-based system would easily incorporate such solutions. So would a system of conditional admission linked to progress in English.
Anecdote: About twenty years ago, there was a tacit agreement among Anglo employers of casual Mexican labor that Mexicans were hard working and knew how to follow simple orders, but that was it. They were automatically treated as unskilled labor. Myself, with my good Spanish, I never had any trouble finding a tile layer, a carpenter, even an electrician among the day laborers gathering outside Home Depot every morning. The specialized workers I located were not slow to point out that the work I requested was skilled work and must be paid accordingly.
We must thus remember that linguistic disability must keep the wages of non-English speaking immigrants lower than they would otherwise be at a given level of occupational competence and personal ability. Language incompetence must thus also contribute to lower prices although at some cost to productivity. (Yes, here is the paradox: Each produces little but there are many of them. In the end, we pay less than if they were not here.) The situation of Mexican immigrant entrepreneurs, specifically, tests this idea. Entrepreneurs need to possess at least a fair command of English, if nothing else, to round up customers. The language disability is thus removed or lessened in their case, allowing for a more straight comparison of income with Anglos. It seems to me that immigrant contractors do not bid especially low, or not much lower than their Anglo counterparts. At least, when you ask for bids on a previously described job, you couldn’t guess by bid amounts who is a Hispanic immigrant. It may also be thought that such immigrants provide a better quality/cost ratio. I don’t know if this intuitive idea, based largely on my private experience, has been examined rigorously anywhere. It’s backed by the likelihood that the self-selected immigrant group possesses some traits of character superior to those found among natural groups, including among members of the host population. I develop this idea in “Why Immigrants are Superior” (referenced elsewhere).
Non-Economic Objections to Immigration; Assimilation and Stubborn Language Facts
In my area of central California, there are many people with ascendants from Mexico. You are normally in daily contact with some of them. As is the case with most immigrations (plural) of long standing though (notably, North African immigration into France), people of Mexican origins occur at various level of cultural integration. Some live with a foot in the Old Country; others, generations, from their immigrant forebears, only look Mexican, speak only a few practical sentences of Spanish but understand more, and they have Spanish last names. A few only have Spanish surnames and, perhaps, distant cousins in Mexico. I know one dark-skinned utmostly “Mexican looking” man whose acquaintance with the Spanish language is a good ability to pronounce Spanish words. This stratification of people identified as “Mexican” creates a kind of optical illusion with consequences on the native-born’s attitudes toward immigration.
Many conservatives, friends of mine included, are fully convinced that Mexican immigrants don’t “try” to assimilate and, in particular, that they don’t want to learn English. In addition, they often add that this resistance contrasts badly with former immigrants, from another era – usually their own ancestors – from Italy, or Greece, or Eastern Europe – who made the effort to learn English quickly, perhaps in six months or so. This common imagery is based on a fallacy and on a half-truth.
The most casual observation in my area is enough to contradict the view that Mexican immigrants reject assimilation into American life. There are people with Spanish first and last names, and a Spanish accent in all the restaurants (on both sides of the counter), in the movie theaters, at the gym I patronize. The same is true in the churches I don’t patronize, I am told. My granddaughter plays soccer with other girls that include the right proportion of Hispanic girls. Local Hispanic parents (mostly Mexicans) don’t fail to send their children to public school, except when they send them to religious schools alongside Anglo Catholics and Anglo evangelicals.
At the heart of the widespread suspicion that “Mexicans” reject assimilation are several myths, endlessly repeated on conservative talk radio, about immigrants and language. They include the idea that Mexicans, and also Central Americans, fiercely resist learning English. This is an important charge because using the language with ease is obviously a necessary condition to any degree of assimilation. In fact, Hispanics don’t resist learning English because they are mostly rational economic actors. They are perfectly aware that their incomes jump up when they know English. My first housekeeper was a vivacious and fully credentialed Mexican secondary school teacher. With good English, she would have quickly become a teacher in California and doubled her income overnight. She told me she knew it. In fact, offers to teach English in miracle time dominate Spanish language radio advertising. The inexpensive English as a Second Language classes in community colleges are chronically oversubscribed.
It’s fairly easy to form an impression of unwillingness to assimilate in connection with contemporary Mexican immigrants, for two reasons. The first is the seemingly permanent existence of a Spanish speaking population. For those who don’t think much about it, there is the easy illusion that the same individuals who spoke only Spanish in 1970 are those who don’t speak anything but Spanish in 2018. It’s in part an auditory misconception, if you wish.
People of Mexican origin have been present in significant numbers in parts of the US, especially in California, for a long time, since WWII, at least. For the past thirty years and until 2010, Mexicans kept coming into the US in large numbers. They are always within earshot of Anglos, who thus hear Spanish spoken ceaselessly. Every time a fresh batch of Latin-Americans lands, including Mexicans, the pool of Spanish monolinguals is replenished. Those who arrived twenty years earlier and left the pool of the strictly Spanish speaking did it one at a time, without fanfare or announcement. They are not especially noticeable; they are also taken for granted. Since the second generation usually retains the ability to speak some Spanish, any shrinking of the strictly monolingual pool is not self-evident. This process may account by itself for a widespread impression that Mexicans perversely refuse to learn English. If all Mexican and Hispanic immigrants suddenly stopped using Spanish, it would still take something like thirty years for all people with Spanish surnames to know English well. That’s pretty much an adult lifetime and many Anglos would be able to preserve their misapprehension in the meantime, a lifetime.
That was the fallacy. Second, the half-truth. People of Mexican descent live in those same areas in large numbers. Residence of long standing and large numbers both facilitate the formation of relatively ethnically homogeneous, partly self-sufficient areas. For recent immigrants, living in such areas eases greatly the transition via a culturally and linguistically intermediate sphere. It provides the new immigrants with familiar food, shelter, transportation information, and other practical information, directly and thanks to the presence there of Spanish-language media. It’s a rational choice for immigrants to live there, from the standpoint of short term usefulness. It helps considerably their economic and logistical integration into American life. Note that the current dominant mode of immigration based on kinship greatly helps implement this choice. Relatives easily provide temporary room and board, even small loans. Immigrants have always congregated with their own in this manner whenever they could.
At the same time, living in homogeneous immigrant enclaves must actually retard assimilation, the (obligatory) acquisition of the indigenous language, and a good understanding of the culture, in complex ways. Favoring the extended family for both cultural and practical reasons, Mexicans and their descendants often gather three generations under the same roof. Spanish-only immigrants cohabit with their children who arrived at an early age and who are consequently bilingual although often in severely limited ways. They also usually live close to the children’s children who were brought up in Spanish at home because that was the convenient thing for all though they attend school completely in English. These patterns of settlement for Mexican immigrants ensure that their descendants take a fairly long time to become Americans indistinguishable from others.
In my personal observation, the third generation is often struck between bad Spanish and bad English but they are able to function superficially with both. (Paradoxically, the grandchildren of monolingual literate immigrants may thus end up nearly illiterate in two languages.) Since they mostly go to public school, this is noticeable to all. That is big news and it’s bad big news. The solution is some forms of bilingual education but all bilingual education is anathema to many conservatives in spite of some shining successes. I know personally of one elementary school that offers a track where all the children -Anglos included – seem to me to be competently bilingual, including in writing and reading, in which they are only a little behind their English-only counterparts. So-called “bilingual education” acquired a bad reputation in California about 20 years ago and it’s very difficult to erase it. Courses of study are like teenage girls living in small villages! Rigorously monolingual native-born tend to believe that sudden immersion in the local language is the best policy. (It’s like teaching a child out to swim: Throw him in the deep water; if he does not drown, he can swim.) This belief is simply unfounded. If you don’t think so, try learning Algebra in Mandarin.
At any rate, there appears to be Spanish-mostly towns within sight of mainstream Anglo areas. Individuals who live there do not resist learning English as many would believe; they are learning, albeit slowly and often not very well. The false impression that immigrants stubbornly resist learning English is much fortified by the fact that the overwhelmingly proudly monolingual native-born Anglos have no idea of how time consuming it is to learn a second language. I am sure -from a good number of spontaneous statements – that many are confident that they would become “fluent” in Spanish in six months or so if they cared to. (Whatever “fluent” means; it’s a fluid concept!) One of the most charitable things I have done in my life is to re-assure dozens of Anglos that it was not shameful to be unable to hold a conversation in French even after studying the languages “for two year” in high school!
The native-born’s language delusion persists although they have been sending their children to college, and now, to high school expensive, “semester abroad,” for thirty years with no palpable results. In my experience, based on 25 years of close and careful observation, undergraduates come back from a school stay abroad – almost always on an American campus – having learned in the relevant foreign language only such rare words as “anti-freeze,” “ski wax,” and “suntan lotion.” Americans being overwhelmingly courteous people, they also know ordinary forms of salutation and several ways of saying “Please” and “Thank you.” I must add that this pessimistic assessment does not exclude the possibility that the experience did the young people some good intellectually, in other, non-linguistic ways. Learning a language is a bit like lifting intellectual weights. It’s good for you even if it’s functionally useless.
In point of fact, I believe that hardly any adult learns a language well outside of a school setting, or of some other regimented setting. (Again, see my essay on this narrow topic: “Foreign Languages and Self–Delusion in America,” referenced in Footnote Four.) And, for what it’s worth, of the twenty most accomplished bilingual individuals I now know in the US, more than half are Mexican immigrants; none is a native-born Anglo (or, as they say in Spanish, “ningún.”) They do want to learn English, at least, some do!
As I have remarked, to make matters worse, anti-immigrant rants often contrast explicitly the Mexicans’ putative unwillingness to assimilate or to learn English with the attitudes of imaginary, exemplary former immigrants, from a hundred years ago or more, often the ranters’ own forebears. Those, we are told, learned English almost overnight, never looked back at the Old Country, or much lapsed back into its language. This is a romantic tale with no basis in fact, as much American literature tells us. On the East Coast and in Chicago, American newspapers in languages other than English lasted for two or more generations after the wave of new immigrants of the relevant languages slowed to a trickle. They existed much beyond the 1920s when immigration was essentially shut off. (see footnote 5)
A word of caution to end this segment. One must weigh my words with an understanding of my California parochialism. Of course, I don’t know a lot first-hand about other kinds of immigrants in other parts of the country (the US). Dominicans are not Mexicans; Canadians who move to Florida for good are not Chinese; the Detroit area may make different accommodations for its immigrants than Silicon Valley for its own. Nevertheless, on the whole, I doubt that the broad processes by which immigrants are incorporated into American society differ much because they are so broad, precisely. I am open to contradiction, all the same.
Irrespective of willingness, immigrants differ in their capacity both to become integrated and to assimilate. This cold-hearted observation should be at the core of any wholesale immigration reform. I deal with the topic, of immigration reform at the end of this essay. I do not approach here what might be an important facet of the whole legal immigration phenomenon. Today, with fast and inexpensive transportation available, would-be immigrants often have several opportunities to reconsider, to decide whether they are really immigrants or just visitors. (I spent, myself, two separate years working in France before my final decision to try and stay in the US for good.) A one-way flight to Europe costs only $400 in the low season. A flight back to anywhere in Mexico costs even less; a bus fare less than half of the latter. It follows that real immigrants, those who remain for good are more self-selected than was true in the past. I expect that the self-selection pertains largely to the subject’s compatibility with American society. Would-be immigrants who have too hard a time in the US go home voluntarily, I expect. American reform efforts are directed at confirmed volunteers. It should matter.
Immigration and the Host Culture: Two Sources of Rejection
Those who know that they stand to benefit by immigration in the forms of cheaper goods and more affordable services may still oppose immigration on broad cultural grounds. Many think the nation is endangered by immigration and that the state should actively protect he nation even if immigration is economically advantageous. This idea is about coterminous with traditional xenophobia, usually perceived in English as a sort of neurosis. Nevertheless, it may also be well reasoned. It’s useful to separate cultural objections to immigration into two categories. There are objections based on revulsion and others based on the fear of cultural dilution.
Cultural revulsion toward immigrants is part of general anxiety about strangers that may be hard-wired in all humans: Babies do dislike most new faces. Once, the strangers prove harmless, the revulsion may dissipate quickly. Sometimes though cultural revulsion centers on tangible issues, including the immigrants’ own well articulated beliefs and customs. That’s especially true where culture intersects with the political system or with the moral order of the host country. Two examples. First, separation of church and state, of religion and government, is a pillar of American democracy (and of several other democratic countries, such as France). It’s a guarantee against a form of despotism historically familiar to people of European background. (The founding Pilgrims saw themselves as refugees from religious persecution, after all.) The separation acts like a firewall protecting us from old horrors still fresh in the collective memories of literate Euro-Americans. It was not so long ago that my own ancestors were burning people alive for wrong thinking, I know. (Not that I am not tempted today.)
So, other things being equal, I would rather not be surrounded by people for whom this customary belief is alien or indifferent. Other things being still equal, I would be slow to admit immigrants from a religious culture where this separation is itself religious anathema. Many Muslim immigrants come from countries where the lawful punishment on the books for apostasy is the death penalty, administered by the state, of course, by government. I realize it’s rarely applied but it’s on the books and it probably slows down the impulse to look out of the window of one’s own religion. In some of those countries, atheism is considered apostasy. This kind of attitude may be both widespread and tenacious. I will never forget a street demonstration of Pakistani attorneys shown on TV protesting the fact that apostasy was notpunished by death in their country. The same happened ten years later in Bangladesh.
Even those secular immigrants from Muslim areas who deplore the fact that apostasy is a capital crime in their country of origin probably still have a sense of moral normalcy that differs much from mine. I suspect they would go easy on milder forms of government interference in the religious sphere, and vice-versa. I fear that they would not rise against certain abnormalities, government punishment of particular religious or irreligious stances, for example, as fast as I would, and others who come from a secular society. As a case in point, I take the public declarations of major French Muslim organizations following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. To my mind, mixed with sincere expressions of regret, was the suggestion they favored religious exceptions to the constitutional French principle of freedom of expression.
At a minimum, I am concerned that even nominal foreign Muslims would be a drag in a fix, or in some fixes. Frankly, I mean that I would expect from them on the average a degree of social obscurantism not compatible with their level of education. Thus, the professor and television personality Tarik Ramadan, an elegant and articulate man of culture, was the face of intellectual Islam in the French speaking world until recently. When confronted by a French journalist not long ago, however, Ramadan famously weaseled out of condemning the stoning of adulterous women. (I saw the relevant video.) It’s hard to make him my trusted neighbor although I am sure he would do the right thing if my house were on fire.
Here is my second example of cultural revulsion toward immigrants, an apolitical and non-religious example: In a wide swath of Africa, little girls are routinely subjected to a painful, grotesque and dangerous form of genital mutilation misleadingly called “female circumcisions.” (One of my sources of information is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoirs, Infidel. I have read others over the past fifty years. Ali reports that she was subjected to this atrocity herself. I have known personally two victims of the practice.) Like many other Americans, I think there is a point where peaceful coexistence with routinely committed crime becomes complicity with the same crime. I don’t want to live anywhere near people who practice this custom. Even those from the same groups who do not practice it but tolerate it in the name of tradition are unacceptable to me. (Incidentally, it is not a Muslim custom although many practitioners believe it is.) I don’t even want such people to exist undisturbed in the polity to which I belong. For this reason, I would rather have in my neighborhood 5,000 new illegal Mexican immigrants than one hundred Somali admitted legally. My preference based on revulsion illustrates how there are concrete different cultural reasons to oppose immigration not rooted in blind, ignorant “prejudice” or “pre-judgment.” But overt public discussions are often limited to the feared cultural dilution large immigration may cause that I consider below.
Under current conditions of political correctness, where a religious test may be unthinkable, my objections regarding the separation of religion and government would lead, of course, to the easiest solution, the exclusion of most Muslim immigrants. President Trump tried this on a small scale in 2017 and 2018, with a small minority of potential immigrants. The decision was first frozen in the courts and then thawed. As I write, it’s not being implemented. Exclusion is an extreme solution and probably not necessary. I think I could devise a test about separation of religion and government if I were asked. The test would be given to anyone without exception seeking to emigrate to the US. It’s far from a ridiculous proposition. When I first came to this country there was a test to spot Communists. However effective it was in such spotting, it kept many European Communists out, from prudence. I knew some personally.
Culture Dilution (or Erosion)
There is also the fear without a name, or without much of a name, that lurks in the background of many animated discussions of immigration. Much of it is taking place on-line. It’s the fear that one will find oneself a stranger in one’s own land and, ultimately, that one will disappear to some extent, and one’s children to a larger extent. It’s the fear that one’s children’s children will exist as one’s descendants in the flesh alone. This fear is puzzling because it’s always true that children are unlike their parents. It’s difficult to figure why people are so attached to their collective vertical membership, to that identity. (The Lebanese author, Amin Maalouf, explores this issue poignantly in his 1998 Violence and the Need to Belong -Time Warner – English edition: 2001) It’s difficult to fathom why parents wish their children to be like them although they, the children, will surely live in a different world. It’s even more difficult to understand why, at a given time, people choose, put forward, one of their memberships, that one, over the several others available. Why, “American” rather than say, “college professor”? Why “mother” rather than “vegan yoga practitioner”? (The April 2018 issue of National Geographic addresses tangentially some issues of identity.)
This apparent amorphousness of the underlying belief does not mean that identity matters little. Perhaps, the reverse is true. As I pointed out, it’s at the center of the concept of nation. Emotion-based reactions may be all the stronger because people don’t know what they are thinking, only what they are feeling. That’s one reason the concept of “nation” and associated symbols give rise to intense discussions. Many realize that their knowledge of their own country is spotty but they know what they feel when the national anthem is played. Curiously, of all the collective identities available, the national identity is one of the most heavily invoked, by Americans, certainly, but also by Bosnians, and possibly, even by Haitians. It seems to rise instantaneously in the presence of the culturally different. It matters so much that people kill and die for it. It also motivates them to play good soccer (“football”) as the splendid team from tiny Croatia demonstrated in the 2018 World Cup. (It came in second, after France.)
Once, I wrote a scholarly article and traveled half-way around the world to deliver it at an academic meeting, mostly for the pleasure of reading aloud the Greek title I had devised for it:
It’s the fear that that which is inside your head will be stolen, that which makes you a member of your group, so that you will cease being yourself. No doubt, it’s real enough to deserve its own name. The presence of many immigrants bearing a different culture activates this fear.
The fear of cultural dilution is not necessarily all futile. The mere presence of immigrants often actually waters down perceptibly the host culture including, first in some haphazard ways and then, in its most valued features: That which was important still is important but less so. New and different facts of life crowd out the old. Suddenly, your diner coffee, heated for hours on end, tastes just as bitter as it always did but now, you realize it. Several of the local AM radio channels play only rancheras during your commute instead of news in English. Soccer partially replaces football. The girls who used to stand on the sidelines and cheer football players now play soccer themselves. Your own children may grow up playing only soccer. They accuse one another of being “offside” when they score that goal but they don’t mean what you think they mean. Your world is still there but it’s become a bit faint; its vivid colors are turning toward black and white. Baseball will still be played but its big events will have to compete for television time with God knows what, not activities you condemn necessarily, but activities that don’t ring a bell for you, Norwegian curling, for example.
Not everything is negative in involuntary culture change. I have mentioned elsewhere how immigrants will enrich the national culture, in matters of food and of music, most obviously, and even with respect to manners. A large influx of immigrants in one’s native culture is like a forced journey in place though. Some people like to travel; others just hate it and there is probably no remedy for the latter’s rejection. To accommodate them, probably – probably – requires that immigrants be admitted slowly, in small numbers at a time. Below, I consider in a limited way actual hostility toward immigrants.
Note: I may not be the right person to gauge attachment to the culture one grew up with. Like many an immigrant, I may be more indifferent to it than most. Those who love the culture of their mother country usually don’t leave and, if they do, they return. I am the other kind of immigrant although, frankly, I often miss tête de veau sauce ravigotte. (Don’t ask!)
Anti-Immigrant Hostility and Reactions
Immigrants are often or usually met with some degree of hostility, especially if there are more than two or three of them. It’s difficult to navigate the writings on the topic, even the recent ones, for two reasons. First, the relevant material looks to me like a few islands of scholarship surrounded by a vast sea of invective and of pious wishes mixed. Second, in the US, it’s not easy to locate recent first-hand documentation of words or deeds directed against immigrants, except on the Internet and, to a surprising small extent, on restroom walls. We have to rely instead on stories about the ill-treatment of immigrants. The stories are not always trustworthy because the plight, real or imagined, of immigrants has been massively exploited by a fraction of the Left in ways that must distort reality. Below is some evidence of this exploitation.
Demonstrations by beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) requesting normalization of their status shown on TV invariably incorporate one or a few Mexican flags. Since his inauguration, the demonstrations also include placards inscribed with crude insults toward President Trump. Neither inclusion makes any sense, of course. People brought up in this country are likely to be aware of the fact that brandishing the flag of another country is not a good way to sway public opinion in favor of their admission to this particular country. People reared and living in this country must also know, some of them, at least, that the president is in a position from one day to the next, to sign executive orders helpful to their cause. So why risk annoying him? Someone other than the immigrants themselves must be responsible for the flags and for the placards. Someone else is trying to capture the narrative for purposes other than those of the immigrants themselves. It seems to me the immigrants’ voices are simply being stolen from them. Here is an essay of mine exploring further this topic: “Immigrants’ Complaints.”
Below are two small conceptual contributions to the issue of contemporary native-born American hostility toward immigrants.
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.
The California Hourglass Class Figure
Discussions of the impact of immigration on native labor often have a 19thcentury, quasi-Marxist flavor. Implicitly, they seem to posit a large undifferentiated working class, on top of which sits a small middle, or professional class, itself crowned by a tiny capitalist class. (Today, it would be the absurd “1%.”) With this scheme, the capitalists, employers all, only want cheap labor, of course, and they keep importing immigrants to compete with native workers and thus keep wages down. In the meantime, the latter vacillates between resentment of foreign born wage competition and class solidarity cutting across nationalities and immigration statuses. The middle class, of course, opportunistically sells its political influence to one or the other main classes. Such a class structure is compatible with a good deal of hostility toward immigrants. The larger and/or the more organized, that native working class, the better expressed its hostility toward immigrants, the more likely that hostility will become institutionalized. At the extreme, it turns into the “Herrenvolk democracy” pioneered by the labor union-supported South African apartheid regime. (We are and were nowhere near that point in California. I evoke apartheid to indicate an extreme theoretical destination for such a movement, not by way of prediction.)
But when the class arrangements are not in such a conventional pyramid shape, attitudes toward immigration can be counter-intuitive. Imagine a society where the middle class is both very large and subjectively indistinguishable from a putative capitalist class because every member of the former sees himself as a good candidate for the latter (and correctly so, to a considerable extent). A society where the formal ownership of the means of production is widely dispersed through the mechanism of stock options gifted to employees. Imagine further that what remains of the old middle class has become numerically and socially insignificant. In particular, small merchants have nearly disappeared, replaced by salaried employees of large chains. The old professionals, doctors and lawyers, and the like, have lost their special standing in the close proximity of educated, prosperous mind workers.
At the same time, a combination of vertical mobility in the growth economy for some of the native working class, of physical movement out of the high rent areas associated with prosperity for others, and of increasing immigration, has created a largely foreign-born working class. The combativeness of this foreign working class is impeded by its low cultural competence and by the fragile legal status of many of its members.
The remarkable thing about this scenario is that few of the remaining native-born appear to feel threatened by immigrant competition. Those who are actually in competition with low qualification immigrants are too immersed in the prominent issue of immigrant numbers to gain a coherent voice. The middle/upper class itself has an immigrant component but that component constructs itself slowly and at a predictable rate because the federal government easily limits via the granting of visas the admission of those not carried by family relationships. Note that this has been largely the case for immigrants from India, China, and Europe.
I am describing here a vertically asymmetrical hourglass class structure with a large upper component, a possibly larger lower component, and not many in-between. To the upper component, the lower immigration-based masses comprise so many hewers of wood and drawers of water. What’s more, they do not compete in the same rental markets or in the same leisure areas (In my local terms, the middle/uppers do mountain biking in the redwood forests while the working stiffs go to the Boardwalk.)
Some immigrants from poor areas bring with themselves a superior capacity for high density occupancy of humble housing premises, even for downright crowding. They don’t’ stop property values from rising. The more of them there are, the lower the prices of services that the uppers must consume in large quantity because they spend a great deal of time at work. The same work situation that motivates Google to offer its employees decent free food at all hours insures that there will be a high demand for providers of common services. Even low-level tech Google employees don’t do their own laundry! (Personal observation.)
In that labor situation, you would expect little prejudice against immigrants and a high willingness to open the gates to more of them. Note, that illegal immigrants, specifically, make the best helots because they are often in no situation to complain or to demand anything. Or, they are simply not clear as to what their rights are, or what’s prudent in this connection. A “sanctuary” state, promoting a defense of all immigrants couched in the language of generosity, is what you would expect to arise here, and even flirtations with the notion of open borders. I have just described northern-central California today, of course. Other high-tech nodules across the country conform.
Immigration and Politics
Immigration is seldom politically neutral. Large-scale immigration as experienced by the wealthy Western countries changes the balance of power between domestic parties. Immigrants seem to never divide their loyalties evenly between existing parties. And, immigration may indirectly be responsible for the emergence of new, nativistic political parties.
Immigrants to France, nearly always join the French Socialist Party. Immigrants to the UK tend strongly to vote Labor. Immigrants to the US vote overwhelmingly Democratic. The reasons for these tropisms are complex. They may include the possibility that some sort of vaguely defined social democracy is the default preference for a humanity ever so slowly extricating itself from ancestral collectivism. Why else would socialist-sounding noises have still not lost their allure in spite of the many failures, some tragic, associated with the word, in spite also of the manifest success of capitalism in raising millions out of poverty? The dramatic sinking of socialist and oil-rich Venezuela though well documented by the media seems to have made little impression on young Americans, on people reared in the midst the plenty of capitalism. It’s as if a sort of subdued ethnocentrism protected Americans from rational consciousness: They are Latins; of course, we would naturally do better. Immigrants from poorer countries, immigrants from less well informed countries are not likely to resist the lure better than young Americans. (“Not likely,” it’s not completely impossible.)
Market-oriented thought does not come naturally to the many because, with its inherent (and, in Adam Smith, explicit) justification of selfishness, it’s ethically counter-intuitive. It invites us to act exactly contrary to the way our mothers and most of our religions demand. (Take the current Pope, for example….) At any rate, few Americans read Adam Smith, of course. It’s not obvious how much basic economics is taught in high school, or in college. In fact, it’s easy to graduate with honors from a good American university without a single course in economics. Others in the world, with a less vivid personal experience of successful capitalism, read him even less, I suspect. I don’t think I could find a single French adult who has read anything by Smith though some well educated people there have heard of him. (I cast a line on this issue on an active French pro-capitalist Facebook group – Libéraux Go – for a week without a single bite.)
I fear that there is no reservoir of intellectually market-oriented potential immigrants anywhere. Or of immigrants with a potential for market orientation. India will continue sending America leftists who function well individually in a market- oriented society while collectively wishing to bring it down. The most promising regional source of people ready for capitalism is probably the Islamic world. That’s not because many Muslims have a theory of the market but because, sociologically speaking, there is a vigorous merchant tradition in Islam. The fact that the Prophet himself was a merchant, as was his older, educated, mentoring first wife, probably also helps a little. The additional fact that Islam early on provided an explicit ethical framework for entrepreneurship – including lending – probably awards a degree of legitimacy to anything related to capitalism in Muslim countries that is practically lacking in the formerly Christian world, for example. (Please, don’t tell me about Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism! My friend, the late François Nielsen and I destroyed its myth in 2001 – “The beloved myth: Protestantism and the rise of industrial capitalism in 19th century Europe.” Social Forces 80-2:509-553.)
Perhaps, I am engaging in wishful thinking but, the multiple failures of socialist experiments in Latin America in a person’s lifetime may supply a trickle of pro-capitalism immigrants. (Currently, there is an exodus of middle-class Venezuelans to Florida.) Finally, disenchantment with the unkept promises of high-tax European welfare capitalism may give the USA another source, although the countries concerned are in sharp demographic decline. The first Macron government in France created a new cabin-level post charged with persuading the young elite to not emigrate! I take this as a good sign for the US.
Conservative Inadequacy with Respect to Immigration
Surely, in addition to those structural tendencies for immigrants’ propensity to tend left, there is a seemingly built-in electoral incompetence of conservative and other market-oriented parties. I, for example, have been waiting for years for Spanish language Republican ads on local radio (mostly cheap radio). Even modest ones, place-holding ads, would do some good because silence confirms the Democrat calumny that the GOP is anti-immigrant. And one wonders endlessly why the GOP seldom builds on the religious ethics of immigrants which are often conservative on a personal level even as they, the immigrants, are otherwise collectively on the left. Work hard, take care of your family, keep your nose clean, save, don’t bother others, are not messages that sound alien to the Mexican immigrants I know, to Latin Americans in general, nor even to some Indians who come over.
Incidentally I make the same disparaging comments about the one French political party that is unambiguously market oriented and its inactivity toward the Muslim immigrants who are numerous in France. Several years ago, Pres. Sarkozy had two nominally Muslim women in his first cabinet but this did not set an example, unfortunately. One was Attorney General. (Note: France being France, both women were very attractive, of course!) In the US, it’s as if the Republican Party and the several libertarian groups, had in advance abandoned the immigrant grounds to the Democratic Party. It’s perplexing to me personally because every time I take the trouble to describe Republican positions in Spanish to the main immigrant group in my area, I am met with considerable interest. Explaining the attractiveness of small government to Mexican immigrants fleeing the results of one hundred years of big government that is also deeply corrupt shouldn’t be a colossal endeavor, after all. Indians have had a similar experience though they would have to be approached differently. I don’t know about the increasing number of Chinese immigrants. It would be a good question to explore.
In the past ten years or so, the GOP has fallen into a crude trap. It has allowed the Democratic Party to treat its insistence on the rule of law with respect to illegal immigrants, and on the respect of sovereign boundaries, as proof of the GOP being anti-immigrants in general. The GOP, as well as libertarian groups, have failed even to point out the obvious in connection to immigration: New immigrants compete most directly with older immigrants for jobs, housing, and government services. The facts around sovereignty add to immigrants’ generic left-tropism to ensure that the bulk of new immigrants will come and replenish a Democratic Party otherwise devoid of program, of ideas, and of new blood. (The young Dominican-American woman who won a primary in New York in June 2018 is quickly turning into an embarrassment for the mainstream of the Democratic Party.) Immigrants have the power to snatch victory out of the mouth of the Demos’ defeat.
The various libertarian groups don’t speak clearly on immigration aside from emitting the occasional open borders noise that, fortunately, they seem afraid to pursue or to repeat. Who remembers anything the Libertarian presidential candidate said on the subject during the 2016 presidential campaign? I know of one dangerous exception to the observation that libertarians seldom finish their thoughts on open borders. Alex Tabarrok argued forcefully the case in his October 10th 2015 article in The Atlantic: “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders Completely.” In spite of its leftism, the Atlantic retains its high prestige and its influence, I think. What it publishes cannot easily be ignored. The article is enlightening and tightly argued but almost entirely from an ethical standpoint. Unless I missed something important, the author seems to sidestep the fact that no Western system of ethics requires that anyone commit collective suicide, or even, risk it. Thus he by-passes the lifeboat argument completely. This single article leaves pure libertarians in an intellectual lurch because it poses squarely the central issue of the moral validity of the tacit pact of mutual defense that is the nation- state: The nation-state violates your values through its very existence. Without the nation-state, it’s unlikely your values will survive at all.
Toward a One-Party System?
There exists a prospect that continued immigration of the same form as today’s immigration could provide the Democratic Party with an eternal national majority. The US could thus become a de facto one-party state from the simple interplay of demographic forces, including immigration. There are three potential solutions to this problem, the first of which is seldom publicly discussed, for some reason. As the European Union has been showing for thirty years or so, residence in a particular country should not necessarily imply citizenship, the exercise of political rights, in the same country. Ten of thousands of Germans live permanently in France and in Spain. They vote in Germany. (In July 2018, a German woman, thus a citizen of the European Union, who had lived and worked in France for 25 years, and with a French citizen son, was denied French citizenship!) This arrangement, separating residency from citizenship, seems to pose no obvious problem in Europe. (Nikiforov and I discussed this solution in our article in the Independent Review.)
Curiously, in the current narrative, there are no loud GOP voices proposing a compromise with respect to some categories of illegal aliens, I mean, legalization without a path to citizenship. This is puzzling because this is precisely what many illegal aliens says they aspire to. Latin Americans and especially Mexicans frequently say they want to work in the US but would prefer to raise their children back home. (See, for example the good descriptive narrative by Grant Wishard, “A Border Ballad” in the Weekly Standard, 3/9/18.) The simple proposition that easy admission could go with no path to citizenship has the potential to transform immigration to the US, to dry up its illegal branch, and to facilitate border control to a great extent. Yet, there is no apparent attempt to wean immigrants away in this fashion from their Democrat sponsors. The GOP does not seem to have enough initiative to try to reach agreement with immigrant organizations on this basis thus by-passing the Democratic Party. Again, the silence concerning this strategy is puzzling.
In early 2018, President Trump seems to be seeking an answer to the problem of a permanent Democratic takeover by combining the two next solutions. First, would come a reduction in the absolute number allowed to immigrate. Fewer immigrants, fewer Demo voters, obviously. Small government conservatives like me, and rational libertarians also, might simply want to favor reduced immigration as the only sure way to avoid a one-party system even as we believe in the economic and other virtues of immigration.
The second conceptual solution consists in the broad adoption of so-called “merit-based” immigration. There is an unspoken assumption that a merit-based system would produce more middle-class immigrants and, therefore more conservatively oriented immigrants. This assumption is shaky at best. The example of much of the current high-tech Indian immigrants is not encouraging in this respect. More generally, immigrants with college degrees, for example, might turn out more solidly on the left than the current rural, semi-literates from underdeveloped countries who are also avid for upward mobility. The latter also frequently are religious, a condition the Democratic Party is increasingly apt to persecute, at least implicitly. At any rate, reducing the absolute size of immigration carries costs described throughout this essay and merit-based immigration is no panacea, as explained below. I fear that some significant trade-offs between political and other concerns are going to be implemented without real discussion.
Merit-Based Immigration and Other Solutions
The long-established numerical prominence of immigration into the US via family relations makes it difficult to distinguish conceptually between legal immigration responding to matters of the heart and immigration that corresponds to hard economic, and possibly, demographic facts. The one motive has tainted the other and vice-versa. The current public discussions (2016-2018) suggest that many native-born Americans think of immigration as a matter of charity, or of solidarity with the poor of this world, as in the inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,….” Many Americans accordingly perceive as hard-hearted those who wish to limit or reduce immigration. Inevitably, as whenever the subject of hard-heartedness emerges as a topic in politics, a Right/Left divide appears, always to the detriment of the former.
It seems to me that conservatives are not speaking clearly from the side of the divide where they are stuck. They have tacitly agreed to appear as a less generous version of liberals instead of carriers of an altogether different social project. Whatever the case may be, the politically most urgent thing to do from a rational standpoint is to try and divide for good in public opinion, immigration for the heart and immigration for the head, immigration for the sake of generosity and immigration for the benefit of American society. Incidentally, and for the record, here is a digression: I repeat that I believe that American society has a big capacity to admit immigrants under the first guise without endangering itself. That can only happen once the vagueness about controlling our national boundaries has dissipated. Such a strategy requires that the Federal Government have the unambiguous power to select and vet refugees and to pace their admission to the country.
In reaction to the reality and also, of to abuses associated with the current policy, a deliberate, and more realistic doctrine of immigration has emerged on the right of the political spectrum. It asks for admission based on merit, partly in imitation of Australia’s and Canada’s. Canada’s so-called “Express Entry System” is set to admit more than 300,000 immigrants on the basis of formally scored merit in 2118. That’s for a population of only about 37 million. The central idea is to replace the current de facto policy favoring family relations as a ground for admission, resulting in seemingly endless “chain migration,” with something like a point system. The system would attempt scoring an immigrant’s potential usefulness to American society. In its simplest form, it would look something like this: high school graduate, 1 point; able to speak English, 1 point; literate in English, 1 more point; college graduate, 2 points (not cumulative with the single point for being a high school graduate); STEM major, 2 points; certified welder, 2 points; balalaika instructor, 2 points. Rocket scientist with positive record, 5 points. Certified welder, 10 points.
The sum of points would determine the order of admission of candidates to immigration into the US for a set period, preferable a short period because America’s needs may change fast. With the instances I give, this would be a fair but harsh system: Most current immigrants would probably obtain a score near zero, relegating them to eternal wait for admission.
There are two major problems with this kind of policy. First, it would place the Federal Government perilously close to articulating a national industrial policy. Deciding to give several point to software designers and none to those with experience running neighborhood grocery stores, for example, is to make predictions about the American economy of tomorrow. From a conservative standpoint, it’s a slippery slope, from a libertarian standpoint, it’s a free fall. Of course, we know how well national industrial policies work in other countries, France for example. (For 25 years, as a French-speaking professor on the spot, visiting French delegations to my business school would take me aside; they would buy me an expensive lunch and demand that I give away the secret of Silicon Valley. First, create a first rate university, I would answer meanly…)
Second, the conceit that a merit-based system of admission, any merit-based system, is an automatic substitute for the family reunion-dominated current policy is on a loose footing. Suppose, a Chinese woman receives top points in the new system as a world-class nuclear scientist whose poetry was nominated for a Nobel in literature. She walks right to the head of the line, of course. But she is married and she and her husband have three children. Can we really expect her to move to the US and leave her family behind? Do we even want her to, if we expect her to remain? Does anyone? Then, the woman and her husband both turn out to be busy as bees and hard workers, major contributors to the US economy, and to American society in general. (They are both also engaged in lively volunteering.) So, they need help with child care. The husband’s old but still healthy mother is eager and willing to come to live with the couple. She is the best possible baby-sitter for the family. The problem is that the old lady will not leave her even older husband behind. (And, again, would we want her here if she were the kind to leave him?)
Here you go, making ordinary, humane, rational decisions, the merit-based admission of one turns into admission of seven! And, I forgot to tell you: Two of the kids become little hoodlums, as happens in the best families in the second generation. They require multiple interventions from social services. They will both cost society a great deal in the end. In this moderate scenario, the attempt to rationalize immigration into a more selfish policy benefiting Americans has resulted in a (limited) reconstitution of the despised chain immigration, with some of the usual pitfalls.
The arguments can nevertheless be made that in the scenario above, the new merit-based policy has resulted in the admission of upper-middle class individuals rather than in that of the rural, poorly educated immigrants that the old policy tended to select for. This can easily be counted as a benefit but the whole story is probably more complicated. In the exact case described above, the US did replace lower-class individuals with upper-middle class people but also with people possibly of more alien political culture, with consequences for their eventual assimilation. I mean that all Mexicans tend to be experts in Americana and that our political institutions are familiar to them because theirs are copy-cat copies of ours. I surmise further that Mexicans are unlikely from their experience to expect the government to be mostly benevolent. Moreover, it seems to me the children of semi-literate Mexicans whose native language is fairly well related to English and uses the same alphabet, are more likely to master English well than even accomplished Chinese. This is a guess but a well-educated teacher’s guess. (I don’t think this holds true for the grand-children, incidentally.) Of course, if my argument is persuasive, there would be a temptation to down-score candidates just for being Chinese, pretty much the stuff for which Harvard University is on trial as I write (October 2018).
I described elsewhere how the fact of having relatives established in the country facilitates installation and economic integration, even as it may retard assimilation. Note that a point system does not have to forego the advantages associated with family relationships. Such a system can easily accommodate family and other relationships, like this: adult, self-sufficient offspring legally in the US: 3 points; any other relation in the US: 1 point; married to a US resident with a welder certification: 15 points, etc.
Reforms I Would Favor
Now, here is what I, personally, a US citizen and an appreciative immigrant, as well as a small government conservative, would like to see happen: As I pointed out before, most liberals and quite a few conservatives perceive allowing all immigration as a sort of altruistic gesture. That includes those who do not overtly call for open borders but whose concrete proposals (“Abolish ICE.”) would result in a soft state that would provide the equivalent of open borders. As far as I can tell – with the major exception of Tabarrok, discussed above – many pure libertarians whisper that they are all for open borders, but they only whisper it. I speculate that they are forced to take this principled but unreasonable position to avoid having to defend the nation-state as a necessary institutional arrangement to control immigration. Frankly, I wish they would come out of the closet and I hope this essay will shame some into doing so.
The most urgent thing to my mind is to separate conceptually and bureaucratically with the utmost vigor, immigration intended to benefit us, American citizens and lawfully admitted immigrants, and beyond us, to promote a version of the American polity close to the Founders’ vision, on the one hand, from immigration intended to help someone else, or something else, on the other. The US can afford both but the amalgam of the two leads to bad policies. (See, for example the story “The Refugee Detectives: Inside Germany’s High-Stake Operation to Sort People Fleeing Death…” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, April 2018.)
Next, I think conservatives should favor, for now, an upper numerical limit to immigration, one pegged perhaps to the growth of our domestic population. Though my heart is not in it, it seems to me that this is a prudent recommendation in view of the threatening prospect of a Democratic one-party governance.
The first category of immigrants would be admitted on some sort of merit basis, as I said, perhaps a version of the system I discuss above. The second category would include all refugees and asylum seekers, and, to a limited extent, their relatives. Given a strictly altruistic intent in accepting such people, Congress and the President jointly would be in a better position than they are today to apply any strictures at all, including philosophical and even religious tests of compatibility with central features of American legal and philosophical tradition – if any. (Of course, in spite of the courts’ interventions in the matter, I have not found the part of the Constitution that forbids the Federal Government from barring anyone it wants, including on religious grounds. Rational arguments can be made against such decisions but they are not anchored in the Constitution, I believe. (See constitutional lawyers David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey’s analysis: “The Judicial ‘Resistance’ is Futile” in the Wall Street Journal of 2/7/18.)
I think thus both that we could admit many more people seeking shelter from war and other catastrophes than we do, and that we should vet them extensively and deeply. We could also rehabilitate the notion of provisional admission. Many of the large number of current Syrian refugees would not doubt like to go home if it were possible. Such refugees could be given, say, a five-year renewable visa. As I pointed out above, some beliefs system are but little compatible with peaceful assimilation into American society. This can be said aloud without proffering superfluous insults toward any group. National hypocrisy does not make sense because it rarely fools anyone. In general, I think all American society has been too shy in this connection, too submissive to political correctness. So, think of this example: French constitutions, most of the fifteen of them anyway, proclaim the primacy of something called “the general interest,” a wide open door to authoritarian collectivism if there ever was one. There is no reason to not query French would-be immigrants on this account. I would gladly take points off for answers expressing a submissiveness to this viewpoint. (Yes, I am one of those who suspect that the French Revolution is one of the mothers of democracy but also, of Communism and of Fascism.)
Similarly Muslim religious authorities as well as would-be Muslim immigrants could be challenged like this: Just tell us publicly if Islamic dogma welcomes separation of religion and government. State, also in public, loudly and clearly that apostasy does not deserve death, that it deserves no punishment at all. Admission decisions would be a function of the answers given. Sure, people would be coached and many would cheat but, they would be on record. The most sincere would not accept going on record against their doctrine. Sorry to be so cynical but I don’t fear the least sincere!
The underlying reasoning for such policies of exclusion is this: First, I repeat that there is no ethical system that obligates American society to commit suicide, fast or slowly; second, probabilistic calculations of danger and of usefulness both are the only practicable ones in the matter of admitting different groups and categories. (I don’t avoid jumping from planes with a parachute because those who do die every time they try but because they die more often than those who don’t.) Based on recent experience (twenty years+), Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts than Lutherans. (It’s also true that there is a very low probability for both groups.) Based on common sense and the news, most Mexicans must have acquired a high tolerance for political corruption. Based on longer experience, many Western Europeans have extensive and expensive expectations regarding the availability of tax supported welfare benefits. Based – perhaps- on one thousand years of observation, the Chinese tend to favor collective discipline over individual rights more than Americans do. (See my: “Muslim Refugees in perspective.”)
Pronouncing aloud these probabilistic statements does not shut off the possibility of ignoring them because immigrants from the same groups bring with them many improvements to American society, of course. I could easily allow a handful of well chosen French chefs to come in despite of their deep belief in the existence of a common public interest. I even have a list ready. Admitting facts is not the same as making decisions. I can also imagine a permanent invitation to anyone to challenge publicly such generalizations. It would have at least the merit of clearing the air.
Last and very importantly: Invalidating the generalizations I make above, to an unknown extent, is the likelihood that immigrants are not a true sample of their population of origin: Chinese immigrants may tend to have an anarchist streak; that may be the very reason they want to live in the US. Mexicans may seek to move to the US precisely to flee corruption for which they have a low tolerance, etc. The French individuals wishing to come to the US may be trying to escape the shadow of authoritarianism they perceive in French political thought, etc.
How to Go About It
Admitting immigrants legally for the benefit of American society need not be bureaucratically demanding. The existing H-1B visa program could fairly easily be turned into a merit system. It would require only minor tweaking. The main tweak would be to forbid or, at least, to restrict severely employers’ reliance on labor contractors through which most of the abuses occur, I believe. (See, for example, the infamous Disney case, described below.) Let each employer applying for such visas be squarely on record as vouching for the individual beneficiaries’ quality.
Following the example of Canada, some degree of priority could be assigned to obvious contributions to successful adaptation to American society, beginning with knowledge of English. (This might actually require a new law making English the official language of the US.) I listed above other examples of immigrants features that might be scored positively. Note again that avoiding the drawbacks of a completely relative-based system does not necessarily imply the rejection of the simple idea that having relatives in the country often facilitates adjustment. Within the framework of a H-1B-type point system, some degree of preference could be assigned to the fact that the beneficiary has relatives in the US close to where he will first settle. This would not be family re-unification under a different guise because family relations would be subordinate to work capabilities and other features facilitating adaptation.
The next necessary tweak has to do with the fact that the H-1B program has a bad reputation among the unemployed and the uncertainly employed. So, in 2016, the Walt Disney company was sued, famously for having American workers train their F-1B visa replacements before they were laid off. The suit was dismissed by reason of what I think was a big loophole in the protective measures in favor of American workers in connection with the H-1B program. No one denied that Disney had done what it was accused to have done. Many believe furiously that the program actively discriminates against American workers and keeps their wages low. To make it more acceptable, the existing H-1B safeguards against noxious practices undermining the employment of the American-born and of legal resident immigrants would have to be widely publicized and remedies against abuses would have to be made judicially more accessible than they are now.
The American public would also have to be ready for the predictable consequences of merit policies in terms of culture and in terms of politics. The merit-based program I envisage would result quickly in a large increase in Indian immigration. Although Indians have been very good immigrants by most counts, there might be objections because nearly all of them seem to suck some form of leftism or other with their mother’s milk. In addition, and although India is often celebrated as the “world largest democracy,” there is some question about educated Indians’ attachment to the constituent forms of historically Western democracy, specifically. (I am a small-time expert on this because I read items in and through the Indian press and because I have Indian relatives. They are a tiny biased sample, of course but also an informational gateway of sorts. See also India-born commentator Jayant Bhandari in the October 5 2017 issue of Acting Man: “Canada: Risks of a Parliamentary Democracy.”)
This problem and others like it could be mitigated by placing a numerical ceiling on the total number of immigrants from any one country. I predict informally that this particular problem would turn out to be limited because, once the gates of legal immigration opened for real, there would be a sharp increase in applications from European countries with democratic systems similar to ours. This too would have consequences: As I have pointed out, by and large Europeans are not shy about using any form of welfare, broadly defined, including unemployment benefits. I note shyly that placing a ceiling on the contribution of any one nation-state to US immigration would seem “fair” to liberal opinion, making the whole project more acceptable than would otherwise be the case.
Incidentally, a reasonable merit-based system, aimed as it would at foreigners of some competence, might produce additional revenue to help defray both the cost of better enforcement of immigration laws, and the cost of caring for people admitted on altruistic grounds.
We must recognize than any orderly system used to select and admit immigrants involves a degree of bureaucratic slowness. Hence, the existing family preference-based program would have to be extended for several years, maybe as long as ten, while accepting no more new applications. It’s likely that the compromise solution would even have to be some sort of measure that guarantees that the last direct descendants and direct ascendants of existing immigrants have been accommodated.
To remedy the labor rigidity consequent on the abolition of family preference as the primary source of admission, the US might re-instate a new version of the 1942-1964 bracero program. I refer to a system of admission of temporary contractual workers guaranteed a minimum wage and decent living conditions by employers for a stated period. Temporary immigrants admitted in this manner would have no expectation of permanent admission to the US. The problem of “stay-overs” could be solved through a conventional bonding system. (I am puzzled about why bonding has not yet been tried in connection to immigration.) The work sojourns would have to be made renewable in law so that the US might preserve the option of keeping temp. workers who had acquired valuable and rare skills during, or even before their first, or following stay in-country. In exceptional cases, temp. workers in such a program could be channeled to the new F-1B program, perhaps with credit given for experiences working in the US and for cultural adjustment.
In summary: I deplore two features of current public discussions of legal immigration: They are ill-informed to an astonishing degree; and, they are often crude, lacking in both subtlety and imagination, like an argument between two people who keep cutting each other off. Unless one formulates a systematic alternative to the current system, one squarely separating immigration based on altruism from merit-based immigration, immigration based on the expected immigrants contributions to American society, the helter-skelter liberal project will continue to prevail. It is now prevailing by default in the minds of most Americans. Those who have the energy to resist it too often limit their response to a blind “No!”In the end, if no countervailing project emerges forcefully, we will witness the establishment of a statist one-party system in the US. Libertarians, among others, should hurry to confront their close friends and relatives who toy with the dangerous delusion of open borders.
1 I am a sociologist by training; I have an earned doctorate from a good American university. For 25 years, I taught in an MBA program located in the middle of Silicon Valley. My scholarly record is not stellar but it is well respected. I have written, in addition, non-academic essays, short stories, and two very different books of memoirs, one in English and one in French. I am an immigrant from France. I have lived in the US for about fifty years.
In addition to my own personal interactions, I have considerable experience dealing with the US immigration authorities. That’s mainly in connection with my foreign-born wife and with my two adopted children, also born overseas. (My family is thus a good example of “chain migration.”) I am a merit immigrant myself.
I seldom lose contact with immigration issues because I am endemically in touch with members of the wider francophone community that provides many recent and current immigrants, from Africa, in particular. I live in a part of California with many residents originating in Mexico and my Spanish is good. I read that language with ease and I listen often to the several Spanish language radio stations in my area. I pay attention to the advertising they carry. Of course, my frequent and varied, and usually positive interactions with Mexican immigrants and with their children influence my current views on American immigration policies. I spite of my long sojourn in academia, I am a conservative, a small government conservative of the libertarian-leaning variety. (It wasn’t easy, believe me!)
A link to my vita is on my “About…” page.
2 Several years ago, a co-author, a fellow immigrant, and I argued in detail in the Independent Review that a special favored treatment should be afforded to our neighbors to the south and to the north. We pointed to a possible two-way open door policy that would exclude access to American citizenship. (“If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely” – Formerly: “Thinking the unthinkable: illegal immigration; The bold remedy.” Delacroix, Jacques and Sergey Nikiforov, The Independent Review, 14-1: 101-133 (Summer) 2009.)
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.
4 I allow myself to be a bit of a bully on matters of bilingualism because the bulk of native-born Americans – who remain proudly monolingual – carry a ton of absurd ideas in their minds about the ease of language learning. Listen to me because I am able to do everything I know how to do in two languages, and because I am able to operate very well in a third – Spanish – while I read yet two others. (Most are related languages, of course, different varieties of bad Latin.) Naturally also, like all Frenchmen, I know a little German too, just in case. Just kidding! Read my shocking essay on language learning: “Foreign Languages and Self–Delusion in America.”
5 You can trust me on this. I know quite a bit about newspapers longevity. A co-author and I practically invented the concept! See: Carroll, Glenn and Jacques Delacroix. “Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 27:169-198. 1982, and: Delacroix, Jacques and Glenn Carroll. “Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 228:274-291. 1983.
Cultural Arguments in Defense of the Diversity Lottery
The existence of the visa lottery may seem to proceed from a naive sense of fairness toward people with respect to whom the US has no obligations. I think that’s not all in spite of the unfortunate “diversity” appellation. First, there is a historical issue. Given the large weight of family relationships in admission entire historically important groups would be practically excluded absent the lottery. So, in 2016, only 1,760 Irish immigrants were admitted to a country that must have been at least 20% Irish for several decades. (My estimation.) Compare, for the same year, with 174,000 immigrants from Mexico and 90,000 from the three Chinese entities. Incidentally, also in 2016, 362 people came into the US from Norway. That’s only slightly more than arrived from tiny Antigua and Barbuda alone (324).The US immigration system should probably not be in the business of guaranteeing that national groups that historically contributed much to the settlement of the country should be barred forever.
The second argument in favor of the immigration lottery concerns the rights, pleasure and convenience of American citizens. In 2016, only 78 persons came in from (admittedly small) Botswana. The lottery improves the chance that more will come or, at least, that the number will not go down to zero. This matters to me, an American citizen, for subtle intellectual reasons residing entirely in my imagination. It’s part of my pursuit of happiness if you will. I do not wish for my government to vouch that I will never bump into a Botswanan, nor my children, without traveling to southern Africa. It seems to me that the small lottery (50,000 admissions out of 1,200,000) is a reasonable burden to impose on my fellow citizens in the name of my interest in diversity as the word was understood before it was kidnapped to serve grotesque partisan purposes. This is a difficult position to defend, of course. I just suspect many other Americans feel similarly once the idea is explained to them (although not necessarily in connection with Botswanans).
Gains from Cultural Hybridization
Here is a sort of immigration fairy tale: In my town of Santa Cruz, California, a long time ago, landed separately two musicians from Morocco, one from the mountains and one from the gates of the desert. How these two musicians arrived here specifically, I am not sure. I sort of know how each got his green card; it may have been the old fashioned, honorable way, on their backs, so to speak.
Both were very well trained on several instruments in their traditional music, the music of the Amazigh minority to which they both belong (also known as “Berbers,” a name they don’t like.) They sing and compose in their native language, Tamazight, but also in English, in French, and in Arabic. They formed a tiny band. They played in the streets, in cafes, anyplace that would have them. Soon, they felt their duo-plus format was too constraining. One by one, they recruited local musicians with different skills and no training at all in Moroccan music, or in anything approximating it. The music they played changed, of course, it changed gradually in particular under the influence of the Western recruits. It became somewhat “inauthentic,” as the busybodies would say. After fifteen years, the group had the nerve to enter music festivals in Morocco itself. In 2015 or 2016 the group won a national award in that country. The group is called “Aza,” which means “Renaissance” in their language. (Please, buy their album on-line.)
The point of this story is that those two immigrants enriched in obvious ways, not only American culture, but world culture, if there is such a thing. They invented a new sound, a sound no one in the world had ever heard. It’s also a sound that may never have come into existence without them. This story makes me proud as an American. I want more such invention.
© Jacques Delacroix 2018
11 thoughts on “Legal Immigration Into the United States”
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