After fifty years of participant-observation and of a scholarly reading, both, I have come to think that hostility toward immigrants tends to follow a U-shaped curve, with degree of hostility on the vertical axis and numbers of immigrants on the horizontal axis. The first immigrants, those who do not go unperceived, evoke hostility because we are hard-wired to mistrust strangers and also because they are usually culturally incompetent. (Only usually; see my description of Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley who often land functionally capable). They don’t know how to act properly, often they don’t even know how to ask for help to learn how to act. In addition their newcomer status usually places them near the bottom of the relevant employment pyramid. Frequently, they perform unpleasant work. They are the disagreeable poor. Even rich immigrants may be summarily rejected for being “vulgar.”
As their numbers rise, the early instinctive hostility diminishes among many of the host population. Immigrants’ manners improve as the first comers coach the recently arrived. They do so directly and also through ethnic publications and via their churches. In the meantime, the host population learns that the immigrants are mostly not dangerous. With rising numbers also, there are growing opportunities for the native population to observe immigrants fulfilling useful functions, such as digging ditches in the hot sun and practicing medicine. At the same time, the opportunities for personal, face-to-face interaction rise exponentially. At some point, many in the host population begin to create exceptions in their own minds to their remaining hostility: Deport them all, except Lupita; she is a good housekeeper and I trust her with my possessions; Mexicans are lazy, except Diego, he is a really hard worker. After a while, exceptions have become the rule. Soon, hostility toward the immigrants is at its lowest. Fewer natives resent them and they don’t resent them deeply. (I think this is a useful distinction; ask me.)
If the number of immigrants continues to increase, however, more and more of the host population begin to feel that they are not at home anymore. They are like strangers in their own land, the land of their ancestors. Unavoidably, with large numbers, some of the immigrants will turn out to be talented, or lucky, and they will occupy visible positions of power, like bank branch president. Many will rise faster than the members of the original population. Envy makes matters worse, of course: He got here only fifteen years ago, he still has an accent, and he is the School Principal (or better, the president of a big university, a real case). My people have been here for two hundred years and….Hostility increases again; it’s become anew a simple function of too many of the other kind.
I think California has reached that area of the U-shaped curve, near the top of the second branch of the U. The three most common last names here are said to be: Garcia, Hernandez and Lopez, instead of the normal Smith, Williams, Anderson, or Miller. Many of my neighbors (many) think that not knowing Spanish has become an unfair work handicap. As I said, local hillbilly women with a high school education (Did I say “hillbilly”?) used to find reasonably good employment as receptionists in medical offices. Those jobs have dried up because the daughters of Mexican immigrants who know enough Spanish to deal with Spanish-only speakers cost no more than they. Some mothers also claim that the use of Spanish by other kids isolates their children at school. It’s probably rare because Spanish speakers are generally a minority but impressions matter, however devoid of basis.
Accordingly, it seems to me that, in my area, there is more hostility to Mexicans and Central American immigrants now than there was ten years ago. It’s dangerous hostility because it’s now fairly well informed hostility. Some of the derogatory ethnic stereotypes may well be realistic: Mexicans drive without insurance. (I don’t have hard figures but I would easily wager on this.) The hostility also remains somewhat abstract, for the moment. It hinders but little face-to-face, personal interactions. The exceptions regimen is still holding up to a large extent. The proof is that the number of anti-Mexican jokes remains remarkably low, steady, and repetitive, kind of boring, really. Bitterness, however seems more and more freely expressed in the social media where there is almost no price to pay for doing so. Incidentally, I don’t know where the inflection point is, where the hostility curves turn up. I wish I knew. It’s a doable study. Someone else will have to do it. Good topic for a doctoral thesis, maybe.
[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 11]
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 not punished 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!)
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.
[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 9]
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.
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.
[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 8]
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).
[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 7]
- Lessons of the Westphalian Peace for the Middle East Andreas Kluth, Handelsblatt
- Is Democracy Dying? Francis Fukuyama (interview), Hromadske
- Yes, the Press Helps Start Wars Ted Galen Carpenter, American Conservative
- The Most Hawaiian Stephanie Lee, Coldnoon