Monday, August 15, 2005

Immigration, Then and Now

The U.S. is in the midst of a wave of immigration that has not been seen since the early part of the 20th century. Comparisons to the earlier great wave which lasted from roughly 1850 until the Immigration Act of 1924 gave the country a prolonged immigration time out (until 1965, when quotas were substantially loosened) are instructive. Below, gleaned from a Bureau of the Census Report on the 2000 census, are historical figures on the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born:


The foreign-born population is thus neither as high nor is it growing as rapidly as in the past. But now as then it is heavily concentrated. For all the talk about the difficulty of educating Spanish-speaking children in the meat-packing towns of Iowa, the foreign-born population is overwhelmingly in a few places. Five metropolitan areas with only about 20 percent of the U.S. population – New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Miami and Chicago – have 49.8 percent of the foreign-born population. As this is (other than Washington DC, with almost the national average of its population foreign-born) where the movers and shakers of American opinion congregate, our views of immigration will rightly or wrongly be determined by what people in these places think of it. In New York the sentiment is overwhelmingly positive, in California there is significantly more resentment; Texas probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What do we know about the foreign-born population? They are older than the native-born, but have a far higher proportion of working age (fewer children, fewer elderly). They have bigger households (3.72 people vs. 3.1), they graduate from high school at a somewhat lower rate, their households earn about $5000 less than the native-born, and their occupational distribution tends toward the less-skilled. And there are geographic differences among the foreign-born, with those from Latin America (about half the foreign-born total) tending to measure lower with respect to education and income than the native-born, those from Asia (a quarter of the total) about the same and those from Europe and Canada scoring higher.

But the story of the low-skilled immigrant is as old as the country itself. The interesting question is whether people who come here poor stay poor and bequeath poverty to their descendants. One report by a group that favors lower immigration finds that foreign-born Hispanics (the group, rightly or wrongly, of most concern) have some difficulty converging to the middle class, but their children do much better. There is little reason to think that this is much different from the way it was when Jews, Italians and Irish were the Mexicans, Haitians and Indians of their day. If the country’s assimilation machinery is the same in 2005 as it was in 1905 then immigration, based on historical precedent, is largely a non-problem.

But the country is in fact quite different. The two most important differences that rudely impose themselves onto the immigration controversy are the rise in the welfare state and of the multicultural ideology. It is said that up through the 1930s people could pass across the U.S.-Mexico border freely to work without incident. It is probably no coincidence that the establishment of the modern requirement of an implied work permit (in the form of citizenship or a green card) coincides with the establishment of the proto-welfare state at the federal level in the form of Social Security. The more there is an extensive web of public services provided, by necessity of circumstance if not by law, to all comers, the more tribalist rejection of the outsider will naturally rise to the fore. Some resentment of “those people” is inevitable in any multi-tribal society, but it can easily be exacerbated if one feels that “they” are drawing on scarce public services that is supposed to be for “you.”

In addition, the ideology of assimilation, which came to us as naturally as drinking water in an earlier era, has arguably been supplanted by a movement to relish all differences to the point of preserving them even when those who are different are inclined to be less so. One thinks of Pat Stryker, a Colorado billionaire who had a child in a public bilingual school and gave a significant amount of money to defeat an initiative in that state that would have outlawed bilingual education. There is little evidence that poor Spanish-speaking households whom bilingual education is supposed to benefit are big supporters of it. Rather, the primary support comes from cultural protectionists who wish the state to subsidize the preservation of their cultural heritage. (It is not difficult to find tales of students with Spanish last names or who are immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries yet fluent in English being funneled into bilingual education in order to pump up enrollment.) There is no reason to object to those who wish to promote a cultural heritage, as long as they do it on their own time. But when it is promoted as a boutique preference or to replace things parents who care about it should be doing themselves it enhances tribal tension. And bilingual education is representative of broader hostility to the public good of a common heritage which, if it is adequately invested in, well-trained citizens can draw on as they interact with their fellow citizens of different backgrounds.

The ultimate fear is that multiculturalism creates citizens unable or unwilling to transact across tribal lines. Inter-tribal trade is enhanced by a common language, which functions much as common currency does for the 50 states. I have found little data on the extent of retreat into tribalism, but another Census report finds that the percentage of “linguistically isolated households,” those where no one over 14 speaks English “very well,” has risen by a rather distressing 35.3 percent between 1990 and 2000. (The question was not asked prior to that, and the total number of households is still relatively low despite the huge rise, at 11.9 million.) To make it concrete, someone who speaks only Spanish will have a considerably more difficult time making it than someone who speaks English. (Someone who speaks both obviously has the greatest advantage, because he can easily transact in both linguistic currencies.)

In sheer economic terms, a multitribal society offers many benefits. A sheer taste for diversity – better restaurants, more ability to master foreign languages – makes it an improvement for some, other things equal. (A taste for uniformity, which is a fancy way of saying prejudice, is also plausible, but such a rationale would never be morally, economically or legally sufficient to justify restricting immigration.) Immigrants have been shown to create trading networks with their ancestral lands, improving the productive capacity of the U.S. economy. There are solid theoretical reasons to think that immigrants are self-selected for risk-taking, hard work and creativity, and a country full of such people will be not just a productive but a more interesting place to live. But most of those benefits depend on the ability to trade across tribal lines, and to the extent that government policy reinforces tribal differences we end up with a permanently sullen, tribally resentful country resembling a Belgium or a Quebec more than a country where people get along.

In his book One Nation, After All, the Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe, based on interviews with about 200 suburban Americans, finds them generally devoid of racial prejudice and comfortable with immigration, but hostile to bilingual education. This is not some unenlightened nativist backlash, but simple recognition that people are less likely to transact fruitfully (and get along more generally) when they cannot communicate, either literally or culturally. The more public policy works in opposition to quick mainstreaming, the more resentful people will be of immigration seemingly promoted in part to accentuate such differences.

While still trailing the great immigration wave of prior years, what we are witnessing now is transforming the country. The objective differences between immigrants and natives with respect to religion, physical appearance (“race”) and the like are much greater now than in 1900, but subjectively probably much less. (Average native-born Americans are probably much more comfortable with their Indian-born doctor than their great-grandparents were with their Irish day laborers.) Given the improvements in modern transportation and communication technology, and the continuing gaps in opportunity between the U.S. and other (sometimes dysfunctional) immigrant-generating nations, mass immigration is a fact that it is impossible to undo short of police-state measures. Given that we have built it and they will come, the most urgent task is to provide an environment where people can get along, and current social trends make that about a 50/50 proposition.


Anonymous Joel said...

To put things in an international comparison context, Australia and Canada have much larger proportions of immigrant populations. 27% of Australian population was reported to be foreign born after the 2001 Census while the figure for Canada runs at 20%. But to look at things in context, more than half of foreign borns in Australia are British or New Zealanders, the analogy would be that were 60% of immigrants to America were English Canadians. It basically is more like kin migration for British or New Zealanders to move to Australia.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Canada is like the U.S., drawing immigrants from everywhere. But they are even more committed to multiculturalism than we are, as the special arrangements for sharia in Ontario indicate. It will be an interesting historical experiment to watch the two cultures take different approaches to the same phenomenon.

11:12 PM  

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