Let’s Put Immigration in Its Proper American Context

global crossings

Immigration reform is stalled in Congress and it is doubtful that any major laws will pass in the near future, especially not if Republicans make big gains in this November’s midterm election.

What that means is that the current flawed system will continue, as will our unsatisfying immigration debate, wherein both sides hurl accusations at each the other, cite dueling social science data, and twist history to suit their respective agendas. The chances of any political compromise between the two sides look less and less likely.

Democrats are united over immigration, with traditionally restrictionist labor unions and African Americans setting aside their concerns for what is seen as the larger interests of the party. Democrats cynically see immigration as central to the goal of locking in electoral majorities. As Latinos, Asians, and blacks vote heavily Democratic, the hope is that the continued demographic revolution currently unfolding in the United States will turn the Republican Party into a permanent minority.

The Republican Party, in contrast, is deeply divided on immigration. The pro-business and more libertarian wings seek a more expansive immigration policy, legalizing illegal immigrants already in the country, and securing more visas to satisfy domestic labor needs. They want to appeal actively to new Americans and have the party drop any rhetoric that might seem anti-immigrant. Disagreeing with them are more culturally conservative and populist Republicans, who are angered by illegal immigration and concerned that new immigrants are not fully assimilating into society.

Peruvian-born journalist Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s book Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America presents a primer for libertarian thinking on immigration. Vargas Llosa argues that we should have a minimalist immigration policy that allows the free market for labor to self-regulate the entrance and exit of migrants to the United States. “The more flexible, porous, and open a society,” he writes, “the better chance it has of creating a peaceful environment in which different groups can co-operate and eventually mix.”

The book’s central theme is the persistence of migration as a natural force in the global world. Vargas Llosa believes it is futile, immoral, and hurtful to the American economy to put restrictions on it.

Global Crossings is thought-provoking, and contains some important correctives to common misconceptions. The author points out, for example, that immigration is not heavier than ever today but within historical patterns. The peak influx period was the first decade of the 20th century. In 1910, roughly 15 percent of Americans were foreign-born, a figure slightly higher than today’s rate. The year 1907 saw a record of 1.285 million immigrants, a figure that would not be reached again until 1990. If you look at the 1907 figure as a percentage of the overall population, the United States was at that time a quarter of the size it is today, so it would be akin to having over five million immigrants arriving in one year today.

Secondly, Vargas Llosa reminds us that it is not the poorest of the poor who tend to migrate. The sheer act of migrating is a positive virtue, the mark of individual initiative, drive, and oftentimes courage. These are certainly qualities that we want in new citizens.

The current immigration stream represents more than just a random pattern of migration. A little more than half of all immigrants in 2011 came from just 10 countries. Of those, all but three were countries with which the United States has been deeply involved over the years: Mexico, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, South Korea, and Vietnam. (The others are India, China, and Colombia.)

Vargas Llosa also talks about the economic contributions of immigrants—such as well-known entrepreneurs like Google’s Russian-born Sergey Brin and South African-born Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal. Less entrepreneurial immigrants, too, make significant economic contributions. In cities like New York, immigrants have moved into economically distressed neighborhoods and brought economic revival with them. Take the number “7” subway train into Queens and see how immigrants from India, China, and Latin America have reinvigorated these neighborhoods. Years ago, a friend half-jokingly said that what really saved New York City in the 1980s and 1990s was the emergence of 24-hour Korean markets on street corners throughout the city.

Particularly eloquent are Vargas Llosa’s observations on what he calls the “malleability of culture.” We want immigrants to assimilate, but American society is constantly evolving. The America to which immigrants assimilated into 100 years ago is different from our current society, thanks in part to the contributions of those same immigrants. Assimilation is a two-way street: the host country shapes and influences immigrants at the same time that those newcomers transform their new home. “Perhaps the one lesson that can be extracted from the process of Americanization,” writes Vargas Llosa, “is that people change and adapt, and that immigrants influence the host country even as they assimilate.”

Food is an obvious way to see that. Many classic “American” foods—hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, bagels, and burritos—are contributions from various immigrant groups. Consider as well that America once defined itself as a Protestant nation, descended from Anglo Saxon settlers. Today the Supreme Court consists of six Catholics, three Jews, and no Protestants, a scenario that would have shocked the average American 150 years ago.

As promising as the book is, however, Global Crossings unfortunately traffics in its own share of misconceptions and historical fallacies. Vargas Llosa makes a persuasive case that immigrants are a net benefit to the U.S. economy. However, it is a complicated issue. For instance, what effect does immigration—especially that of low-skilled individuals—have on the wages of those already living and working in the United States? Vargas Llosa cites social science data showing that immigration boosts the incomes of everyone except those without a high school degree. That would confirm the idea that immigration hurts the economic prospects of those at the very bottom of the economic ladder. The data Vargas Llosa cites also shows that more recent immigrants cut the wages of immigrants who have been in the country for a number of years by 10 percent. So even if immigration is a net economic “winner” for most Americans, it still creates a not-insignificant share of economic “losers,” including ironically some immigrants themselves.

As befits a right-leaning libertarian, Vargas Llosa is critical of the welfare state and quotes Milton Friedman’s famous line that it is “obvious that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” The question of whether immigrants “cost more than they contribute” is tricky. Vargas Llosa notes that “the proportion of immigrant-headed households using at least one major welfare program in the United States is high—33 percent compared to 19 percent for native households.”

On the other side, immigrants pay taxes and contribute to the economy. To Vargas Llosa, this evens everything out. However, most calculations of the “costs” of immigrants leave out the cost of educating immigrant children, even those born here. That makes the issue much less cut and dry. Immigrants contribute tax revenues and economic production even as they put a strain on social services, hospitals, and schools, especially less-educated and poorer immigrants.

That Latino rates of out-of-wedlock births are now over 50 percent should cause additional concern about the economic mobility of second- and third-generation Latinos. Assimilation has become a more complex affair. National Review’s Reihan Salam summarizes the trend that social scientists call “segmented assimilation.” Writes Salam: “Second-generation Americans who benefit from high human capital parents, stable families, and a positive mode of incorporation tend to succeed. Some who are raised by parents with low incomes and limited education also succeed, thanks to strong families and supportive co-ethnic communities. Others, however, find it difficult to overcome the problems tied to low parental human capital, a negative mode of incorporation, weak communities, and unstable families.”

When talking about the flight of middle-class whites from California, Vargas Llosa asks how much was due to a reaction against immigrants and “how much was due to the deterioration of economic conditions resulting from an environment that many businesses considered unattractive?” A better question to ask is: What is the relationship between California’s new voters and the laws that Sacramento enacts? Many of California’s anti-business policies stem from the dramatic political shift in the state from Republican to Democratic, fueled in large part by the demographic changes brought about by immigration. First- and second-generation California voters seem to prefer Democratic candidates who support tougher business and environmental regulations. That’s something that libertarian open-borders advocates like Vargas Llosa should consider.

“Migration is a factor of production that adjusts itself to the economic environment, including the forces of supply and demand,” writes Vargas Llosa. “We have seen this adjustment, for instance, in the case of recessions.” Looking at historical immigration data, one does see evidence that immigration slowed down during previous eras of economic downturns (the Panic of 1873, the Depression of 1893, the Great Depression of the 1930s).

However, recent history is far different. After the tech bubble burst in the late 1990s, immigration went up dramatically from 644,787 in 1999 to 1,058,902 in 2001. During our own recent Great Recession, immigration has remained flat at fairly high levels, ranging from 1,052,415 in 2007 to 1,031,631 in 2012. During those six years, immigration never fell below one million. The only change in immigration was seen in the number of illegal immigrants; estimates have that figure falling from 15 million to around 10 to 12 million.

Arguments over the social science data aside, the author of Global Crossings voices a philosophy that holds the nation-state to be increasingly archaic. He says that “nationality and nationhood are becoming ever so slowly decoupled from national borders,” and this renders immigration laws increasingly meaningless and counterproductive. “Visas tend to create more problems than they solve,” he argues. One chapter in Global Crossings is entitled “The Law as Fiction.” It is very postmodern to view borders and the nation-state as mere social constructs, but it is important to remember that things we view as positive and vital to a free society, such as contract law or free speech, could also be seen as “social constructs.” That doesn’t mean they should be discarded.

This leads Vargas Llosa to mistakenly write that the “rights of human beings in modern states depends on whether they were born there or not.” Although it is true that in the United States, non-citizens cannot serve on juries or vote – although some local governments do allow them to vote in local elections – the nation’s laws and constitutional rights cover not just all native-born citizens, but all naturalized citizens, non-naturalized legal immigrants, foreign visitors, and even illegal immigrants who are currently on American soil. The non-citizen has the same 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures as does the American citizen.

What, then, makes an American? Vargas Llosa is correct that membership in our civil society is largely based on the belief in a national “creed,” although he has some trouble defining what that creed is. It is not race-based but instead relies on universal values, such as belief in the precepts of the Declaration of Independence, the system of government and protection of rights in the Constitution, and a larger adherence to a liberal democratic and capitalist state. It is a universalist creed—open to immigrants who accept citizenship here regardless of country of origin—but one that is bound to the specific history of an existing nation-state. This presents an unusual irony that defies easy explanation, making the success of the American experiment all that more impressive.

Without a German state, Germanic people would still be German. Without an American state, it is unclear what exactly an American would be since we are not bound together by race or ethnicity. Without a nation-state, the American “creed” would similarly become meaningless, nothing more than words on a paper. In fact, the forces that Vargas Llosa discusses that are slowly eroding national boundaries have actually ended up producing more fervent ethnocentrism. If anything, ethnic nationalism is on the rise in our more decentralized world.

Vargas Llosa also misinterprets American history. He sees anti-immigrant “nativists” on one side and pro-immigrant, open borders advocates on the other. In reality, American attitudes toward immigration have also been complicated and contradictory. Few Americans have ever been on the extremes of the debate, which usually centers on questions of how many and what kinds of kinds of immigrants should enter, not whether any should enter at all. Even the Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century (among whose ranks Vargas Llosa mistakenly puts both Ulysses S. Grant and Jack London) did not fight to keep out immigrants. Instead, their main proposal on immigration was to increase the waiting period for naturalization to 21 years. Besides, the Know-Nothings only lasted roughly a decade as an organized party.

Nor does it make any rational sense to write that we are in the midst of a period of intense anti-immigrant sentiment—not when America allows in over one million immigrants per year and when almost the entire national debate on immigration has centered on the millions of individuals who have entered illegally, with almost no one promoting plans to limit legal immigration.

What America needs today is not a radical shift in how we approach immigration, but rather reforms that would continue to allow reasonable numbers of immigrants to enter the country, perhaps shifting the emphasis away slightly from family reunification and towards granting more visas to higher skilled individuals. Such a policy will only work if the American public feels that the laws are being upheld and respected and has faith that new immigrants are truly benefiting the nation. I fear that the policies that Vargas Llosa is encouraging, and certainly the philosophical view he advances, would only undermine the nation’s faith in immigration.

Vincent J. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and is the author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

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