Thursday, May 19, 2016

Immigration: My View

Having devoted the last two posts to the issue of illegal immigration, I thought I should offer my opinion lest people think the arguments in those posts cover my views exactly.  I have mixed feelings about immigration, which seems to make me unique in the country, everyone else being strongly for or against it.

First, I am convinced that illegal immigration is bad and should be punished.  It makes a mockery of a country to have its laws flouted with impunity.  If people think the law is bad, they should repeal it.  As long as it is on the books, and that includes up to the present, it should be enforced.

But is it a good law, or not?  In principle, I see the value to increasing population.  This is the classic measure of a successful state, and perhaps no country in history has been more successful at attracting voluntary immigrants than the U.S.  (Ironic, I suppose, since the U.S. also had one of the larger populations of involuntary immigrants, but that's another matter.)  It would be naive to think that all immigration is a net benefit, however; so, setting aside the moral question for a moment, let's consider the advantages and disadvantages of immigration.

Most people are chiefly concerned with the economics of immigration.  Libertarians (and liberals, when they're not talking about overpopulation) like to point out that people contribute to growth.  The economy is not a static pie, to be divided up among a larger or smaller population, but a dynamic value that typically grows with the number of people participating in it.  Immigrants bring labour, skills, and ideas that can help an economy grow faster than it would otherwise.  There is a particularly sharp debate about the need of immigrants with particular technical skills that are not found in sufficient numbers in the United States already.

On one hand, the law of supply and demand tells that, in the short run, the price of labour is bound to decrease if the supply is increased.  This affects people on all parts of the spectrum, from low-skill workers to engineers and scientists.

On the other hand, in the long run labour is paid based on the value it contributes, so demand will expand or contract to accommodate whatever supply is available.  That isn't necessarily good:  we don't want the high-skilled labour to be scarce and therefore earn extremely high wages if it means that companies have to forego creating skilled jobs because they can't afford to hire people at going rates.  But this, too, is relative.  In almost any economy, there would be more high-skilled jobs if they paid less.  It's impossible to say precisely where we want to draw the line, even if we had the power to draw it anywhere we wanted to.  One thing I think we can agree on is that a massive influx of labouring adults would cause short-term dislocations, which may not be fair to people already living here.  The country as a whole would probably not face such an influx, but for the states closest to the border, such as Texas and California, it is a real concern.

Then there is the moral question of whether we have any right to keep out imimigrants who want to make a better life for themselves.  I hold the traditional view that every sovereign state has such a right.  I also believe it is reasonable to show compassion to other people who are suffering, which is why the U.S. has a provision for accepting refugees from particularly troubled areas.

The vast bulk of our illegal immigration does not qualify for refugee status.  If you think they should, because they are from a poor country, consider that Mexico is in the top half of GDP per capita in the world.  It falls behind Turkey and Malaysia, but ahead of Belarus, Bulgaria, China, and a long list of other countries.  Do we have a moral obligation to accept all immigrants from countries poorer than the U.S.?  Do we care whether the individuals themselves are poor, and, if so, are we going to screen them to determine their wealth first?  Any amount of screening -- whether for wealth, country of origin, communicable diseases, or terrorist plans -- imply that we have some right to control who comes into our country, and consequently that anyone who comes here except through the established paths is doing wrong.

We should consider a third concern about immigration, alongside economic and moral; what we might call social concerns, or whether America will remain America in the face of immigration.  This can range from overtly racist fears that anglo-whites will become a minority, to concerns about balkanization of American politics, to more abstract anxieties about the nature of American society.  Balkanization is a more legitimate concern now than ever before as we have become increasingly judged not as individuals but as members of a particular group, whether sex, race, or national origin.  The same gerrymandering that led to the creation of majority black districts in Congress could be extended to other relatively homogeneous groups, and that could lead to calls for special treatment.  The fear is that we could end up something like Lebanon, whose top government posts are each reserved for a member of a different religion, and where numerous officially recognized religious groups have their own courts for many purposes.

Obviously, we are a long way from becoming Lebanon, but a lot of people talk as though that kind of "diversity" would help our country.  I'm all in favour of diversity of individuals, but having our legal system treat people as anything other than individuals is a formula for disaster.  This is a structural concern that has to do with how immigrants integrate into society, and it is something that can be crudely observed.  Most second-generation Americans that I have met seem at least as comfortable in our culture as I do, but there are places where immigrants live in more-or-less isolated islands and have interaction chiefly with each other.  Then again, the same thing could have been said about New York City for much of the 19th century, so it is not necessarily a problem if that happens.  The one thing I would insist upon is that all official business of the national government be conducted in English.  I don't care what people speak to each other, and I don't care if states want to accept official documents in other languages; I don't even mind providing all reasonable assistance to help non-English speakers use the government to the full extent of their rights.  I do think, however, that having a common language is perhaps the most fundamental element of a unified society, and, since we already have one, it would be rash to throw this away to accommodate people who don't want to learn it.

I admit that I'm not too worried about structural balkanization in America.  It's a big country, and modern media is a powerful solvent helping to integrate everyone into a single culture.  What I fear more than anything else is the abstract issue of the retention of American values, by which I mean things like equality before the law, freedom of speech and the press, and representative government.  Again, this is not in any immediate danger; peaceful immigration rarely poses such a danger.  However, I think it remarkably shortsighted of some proponents of free immigration to assume that America will always continue being "America" in the sense that they have come to know it.

And yes, I know that American values have changed over 200+ years, and that's fine.  I'm also aware that every society absorbs two kinds of immigrants each generation:  one, the smaller group, from outside its borders; the other, larger group in the form of new people born there that have to be integrated into the prevailing culture.  (I read this originally in Newt Gingrich's "To Renew America," but I can't remember if it was original with him or came from somewhere else.  It is a very powerful image, in any case.)  So a country can change radically in a space of 25 or 50 years without a single foreigner coming to settle there.

Still, I think foreign immigration is a much more powerful means of introducing new and different ideas, because the people who come here have grown up in a different society -- often a radically different society -- and so have different assumptions about the way it should work.  Most immigrants I have met have been as American as I am in their ideas, and I think that tends to be the case for legal immigration, although I can't prove it.  But certainly some people come here and don't share the same assumptions.  Some think homosexuals should be put to death.  Some think democracy is a bad form of government.  Some think that we should base our laws around an entirely different principle from individual responsibility; for example, those who believe in sharia law.  That may seem a distant threat now, and I grant that it is, but I don't think one should ignore threats just because they take a century to manifest themselves.  If you think it's too far off to worry about, just ask yourself what kind of society you want your grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be living under.

I offer these ideas not as a policy prescription, but as food for thought about immigration in general.  I can't think of any policy that could guarantee that the United States will not become like Afghanistan in a century or two, but I do think voters should consider how immigration is affecting society when they think about immigration policy.  The one specific policy that I would recommend is one we already have, the American system (which I assume is similar in other countries) of making immigrants learn about our government before becoming a citizen.  They may not agree with it; they may even lie when they swear the oath of allegiance; but at least they go through the process, learn about it, and are around others who support it.  I have no problem allowing in immigrants who have some different values, but there is no reason to allow in anyone who hates our society.  I wouldn't check too closely at this point, but if America came to be populated by a significant minority of people who wanted to change the country in a radical way, I would certainly want to examine immigrants more closely before I exacerbated a potential problem.

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