Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Making Sense on Immigration

This post by Herbert Meyer at Real Clear Politics seems to identify one of the major disconnects in the current debate over illegal immigration:

One of the most striking features of the immigration debate now raging in Washington is that none of the Democratic or Republican proposals seem to hold any appeal for ordinary Americans--which is why this debate is generating so much frustration among voters that no matter which proposal Congress adopts, the issue itself threatens to shatter both parties' bases and dominate the November elections.

Simply put, the debate in Washington isn't about "immigration" at all - and that's the problem.

To ordinary Americans, the definition of "immigration" is very specific: You come here with absolutely nothing except a burning desire to be an American. You start off at some miserable, low-paying job that at least puts a roof over your family's head and food on the table. You put your kids in school, tell them how lucky they are to be here - and make darn sure they do well even if that means hiring a tutor and taking a second, or third, job to pay for it. You learn English, even if you've got to take classes at night when you're dead tired. You play by the rules--which means you pay your taxes, get a driver's license and insure your car so that if yours hits mine, I can recover the cost of the damages. And you file for citizenship the first day you're eligible.

Do all this and you become an American like all the rest of us. Your kids will lose their accents, move into the mainstream, and retain little of their heritage except a few words of your language and - if you're lucky--an irresistible urge to visit you now and then for some of mom's old-country cooking.

This is how the Italians made it, the Germans made it, the Dutch made it, the Poles made it, the Jews made it, and more recently how the Cubans and the Vietnamese made it. The process isn't easy - but it works and that's the way ordinary Americans want to keep it.

The Two Hispanic Groups

But the millions of Hispanics who have come to our country in the last several decades - and it's the Hispanics we're talking about in this debate, not those from other cultures--are, in fact, two distinct groups. The first group is comprised of "immigrants" just like all the others, who have put the old country behind them and want only to be Americans. They aren't the problem. Indeed, most Americans welcome them among us, as we have welcomed so many other cultures.

The problem is the second group of Hispanics. They aren't immigrants - which is what neither the Democratic or Republican leadership seems to understand, or wants to acknowledge. They have come here solely for jobs, which isn't the same thing at all. (And many of them have come here illegally.) Whether they remain in the U.S. for one year, or ten years - or for the rest of their lives - they don't conduct themselves like immigrants. Yes, they work hard to put roofs above their heads and food on their tables - and for this we respect them. But they have little interest in learning English themselves, and instead demand that we make it possible for them to function here in Spanish. They put their children in our schools, but don't always demand as much from them as previous groups demanded of their kids. They don't always pay their taxes - or insure their cars.

In short, they aren't playing by the rules that our families played by when they immigrated to this country. And to ordinary Americans this behavior is deeply - very deeply - offensive. We see it unfolding every day in our communities, and we don't like it. This is what none of our politicians either understands, or dares to say aloud. Instead, they blather on - and on - about "amnesty" and "border security" without ever coming to grips with what is so visible, and so offensive, to so many of us - namely, all these foreigners among us who aren't behaving like immigrants.

I think this is why I'm so disinclined to have a guest worker program or to look for ways to accommodate illegal immigrants. If you want to spend an extended period of time in the United States, you should want to be a United States citizen and abide by the steps required.


MM said...

IMHO, this egregiously romanticizes previous generations of immigrants. The ethic he's describing is a Progressive idealization of the immigration process, not what actually occurred in America, where immigrants generally came for economic opportunity, not some high-flown notion of liberty and justice for all. Once here, they frequently formed ethnolinguistic enclaves (little Italy, Chinatown, Milwaukee), resisted assimilation (why does America have so many Catholic schools?), fought politically for their compatriots (hence the famous Irish political machine), and otherwise did exactly what Meyers is accusing the current crop of hispanic immigrants of doing. Over time, it's irrelevant; the kids blend into the dominant culture, and the anti-assimilationists lose. It makes sense to argue against policies like bilingual education, by which anti-assimilationists delay the inevitable, but America is just too mobile, the dominant culture too welcoming (and seductive) for me to believe that any group will manage to preserve a separate culture over the long term. Every one of the arguments currently deployed against hispanics was deployed against the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Poles, and any other group that got large enough to discomfort the neighbours.

The only one I find mildly convincing is that a contiguous border makes it easier to preserve ties to the old country. But that is countered by the fact that our long border makes it very much in our interest to have a free, prosperous Mexico . . . which I'd argue greater intercourse with America should surely promote.

Anonymous said...

The concept that "they are not immigrants" is ignorant of history and reality.

There was a time when many roadsigns in Michigan were also in Norwegian. In the 1940's, there were plenty of Yiddish radio stations on the air in New York city. My own great grandmother barely spoke English after 80 years of living in the U.S.

20% of illegal immigrants are Asian, so let's be clear we know who we are talking about when we say "illegal immigrant."

I'm sure more Mexican immigrants would like to be legal, but unless you have family in the U.S., low-skilled Mexicans cannot immigrate to the U.S. legally.

The U.S. only allowed in the same number of legal immigrants in the year 2000 that it did in 1900, despite the U.S. population more than doubling in that time.

Infact the U.S. population had more immigrants coming in each year from 1840 until 1910 as a percentage of population than it does now.

It didn't slow down until the 1920's, because that only when the U.S. started putting restrictions on immigration. Anyone could come in before then, like most of my great grandparents.

I say we let in anyone who wants to come to this country, and throw out ignorant columnists!

Bibamus said...

I agree with Jane. If one is going to claim that our current immigration problems are really different in kind from the stresses immigration placed on our society in years past, it would be helpful to reference things like 'facts' or 'evidence' or the 'historical record'. Maybe Meyer thinks that what he is claiming is obviously true, but count me a skeptic.

The only part of this just-so story that sounds like my family's immigrant experience is the bit about starting off in a miserable, low-paying job and working hard. Interestingly, that is the part of the story that even Meyer concedes applies to Hispanics. As such, I feel inclined (even obligated) to cut them a little slack.

(Let me state, for the record, that I am also uneasy with a guest worker program. But I'm not sure what the arguments Meyer is making have to do with anything. A guest worker program basically creates the type of duality that Meyer is talking about, but isn't it Meyer's claim that the duality already exists?)

Arun Khanna said...

Two points. First, a key issue has not been addressed in the immigration reform debate in Washington D.C. Dual citizenship rules being adopted by more and more countries including India, Mexico and Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan pose a challenge to the very concept of America. Never before in U.S. history have we faced a situation where a significant population of the country could have the option to hold dual citizenship.
Second, the debate on Hispanic illegal immigrants assumes that other Hispanics in the U.S. support illegal immigration. If limo liberals and limo politicians of both parties would get out of their limos and actually talk to some Hispanics (outside their circle of friends and token friends) they might find large differences in the cross-section of Hispanic voters in the U.S.

Barbar said...

I just wanted to say great comment by Jane.

So today we have a new kind of immigrant, one never seen before by history -- people who come to America just because it pays better than back home, and who aren't hell-bent on assimilating. As opposed to all the immigrants of the past, who were noble and much beloved by all due to their strong work ethic and intense desire to give up their roots. Makes me want to giggle, actually.

Andrew Samwick said...

It was a great comment, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

The last of my ancestors immigrated in 1915. They fled persecution in Eastern Europe and would likely have been killed for their religion had they stayed.

They came primarily for freedom, but also the economic opportunity that is best guaranteed by that freedom. None of my grandparents grew up in comfort--all of their grandchildren did.

They came here legally. Had America not been open to them, perhaps they would have settled in Western Europe, and been killed for their religion a few decades later.

They did preserve many elements of their culture when they arrived. But the sentiment that they expressed for their new home was gratitude. The sentiment I saw expressed at the pro-illegal-immigration rallies last week was entitlement.

That's the difference.

Arun Khanna said...

Taking off from your entitlement attitude of some immigrants’ observation, I have observed that the average foreign student from developing countries (including India) in the first month or so in the U.S. is reasonably positive towards mainstream society.

However by the end of the first semester or maximum first year, the average foreign student from developing countries adopts the rhetoric (if not views) of the more anti-American members of their community members. I think the explanation is so obvious that people don't even consider it. Most students have no deeply held views on the U.S. so they adopt views that help them fit in with people who look like them but are Americans (by citizenship) or have been living in the U.S. for a long time.

The exceptions to foreign students mentioned above are Pakistanis. I find that typical Pakistani students (regardless of social class or religiosity) are among the most anti-American people on the face of this earth.

Barbar said...

The main difference is the one between legal and illegal immigration, not between gratitude and entitlement.

The pro-illegal-immigrant rallies were in the context of proposed Congressional actions to build more walls along the US-Meixco border and to make illegal immigration a felony. Anyone participating in a rally as a response is likely to sound more "entitled" than grateful. Gratitude doesn't get you far in politics.

Do you really think that the illegal immigrants who sneak their way across the border are not grateful for their opportunity to be here? It is true that these illegal immigrants cannot properly be grateful for the legal immigration policy, which would not allow them in, but I am sure they feel grateful nonetheless (if only to the big business interests in the United States who find them profitable).

Bibamus said...

This post/comment thread is becoming absurd.

Personal impressions of things like
the 'sentiments' of whole classes of immigrants, to the extent that such a thing even makes sense, simply cannot be the basis for a rational immigration policy.

What's more, as Barbar notes, what kind of 'sentiments' did you expect to see at rallies held to oppose legislation that is nakedly - and gratuitously - hostile toward illegal immigrants? Are you really that confident that you can extrapolate from the 'sentiments' on display at such a rally to the day-to-day 'sentiments' of those people?

Finally, I think that we should be clear that the legality/illegality aspect of this debate is a red herring. It seems pretty clear to me that people are freaking out for all the usual reasons: there are a lot of them, they're poor, they speak a different language/have a different culture, they aren't immediately assimilating, blah, blah, blah. All the same things people freaked out about during every large wave of immigration in the history of this country. If you really want me to believe that what is going on right now is anything other than that, you really need to demonstrate why you think that. Otherwise we are just trading opinions.

Andrew Samwick said...

Some of them were carrying Mexican flags and making statements suggesting that they were reclaiming the Southwest. I think that makes this different, and I would never expect to see that at a rally that intended to change U.S. policy by peaceful means.

Everyone who has immigrated to this country has reaped the economic benefits of being here. But some people came here to avoid political or religious persecution. Those people made a break with the old country. That's what I expect of anyone who wants to become a citizen of the U.S. today as well.

LaurenceB said...

From his comments, I'm going to take a wild guess that Mr. Samwick was not actually present at one of the rallies. I was at the Atlanta rally and I saw zero (none) (nada) (zilch) "statements suggesting that they were reclaiming the southwest". I did, however, see a sign that said "Please USA, Let our people integrate in your community". Here's a picture of that sign:


By the way, the march in Atlanta was inspiring. I have rarely felt so proud to be an American. The overwhelming sentiment of so many people who wanted to be Americans was just fantastic. I've never seen so many American flags.

Balfegor said...

Finally, I think that we should be clear that the legality/illegality aspect of this debate is a red herring.

I don't know -- I think it's the crux of many peoples' objections. My own for example. Because I see it as a national humiliation that the citizens of a foreign power are marching in our streets, demanding that our government provide them with special legal accomodations. It reminds me of the unequal treaties, and a thousand small humiliations the Western powers (and the Japanese) inflicted on my ancestors and others. And I do not like it. Makes me want to go out and chant "尊皇攘夷!" in the streets.

Legal immigration = good! Wonderful! They come here on our terms, according to our laws. They are invited guests. Lovely to have them.

Illegal immigration = not good! They are trespassers, and that they have the cheek to turn around and demand from us that we treat them like invited guests after they forced their way in is unacceptable. In any other country, (e.g. Mexico) their reward for such effrontry would be deportation.

Most Americans probably do not see it in such stark National Honour terms, but I certainly do, and I think I am not alone. People in the debate have tried to convert this into a problem of "immigration" generally, and I think they are wrong to do it. Some of the complaint has to do with the rate of immigration. But the rage and humiliation people feel -- particularly when these foreign citizens parade the flags of their homeland in their protests and run our own flag upside down -- has little if anything to do with "culture," or "assimilation," and everything to do with national honour.

Perry said...

A friend recently told me about a tv program or film called something like "A Day Without the Mexicans"....showing life in California, at least, from the perspective of a time when all legal (I think) and illegal immigrants ffom Mexico were no longer present. Shows the many crucial roles that people from Mexico (and Central America) play in the society. The whole issue reminds me of playing with water and dirt, trying to stop the water from making ways to run out, past the dams I build...there needs to be a reasonable and caring, democratic process of accepting what already IS, and what cannot be stemmed with walls and brutal guards. With the differences between US and Mexican resources, infrastructures, and economies, people will always move toward what they perceive as the oasis.