On the immigration debate: It's the Latinos, Stupid!

The Cato Institute with which I'm affiliated as a research fellow in one of the leading pro-immigration think-tanks, while the American Conservative for which I write as a contributing editor wants to place restrictions on immigration. So... I've chosen a neutral forum, the Singapore Business Times to publish my analysis of the current immigration debate. There is no doubt that economics plays a role in this debate. It's not surprising that American businesses support a more open immigration policy and as a classical liberal I tend to sympathize with their position. But... it seems to me that much of the opposition to immigration in the United States and in Europe (with regard to Arab and Moslem immigrants) has to do less with economics and more with such core existential issues as national and cultural identity. One could use terms like "xenophobia" to dismiss concerns among Americans over the reality in which many Latino immigrants aren't assimilating into American society. But you have to be blind and/or deaf when you visit L.A. or Miami (and many other parts of the country) not to sense that we have here a making of bi-lingual nation. Hence the common use of the term "Anglo" to refer to English-speaking Americans (as though an English-speaking American is only one element in this nation's "mosaic.") Ironically, there was a time when a Cuban immigrant character -- Ricky Ricardo in the famous "I Love Lucy" television show -- was a symbol of an American Dream, of someone who was proud of his cultural heritage but whose main aspiration was to become an American. I'm still waiting for pro-immigration advocates, many of whom are fans of multiculturalism to come up with a clear strategy (as opposed to wishful thinking) to deal with the huge influx of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America in a way that wouldn't turn the United States into a bi-lingual or even a bi-national country a la Canada.
Business Times - 07 Apr 2006
It's the Latinos, stupid!
Americans are anti-immigration because most new immigrants are from Mexico and the rest of Latin America
THE global media have focused in recent years on the political backlash in France, Germany, Holland and other Western European countries against immigration. In fact, these sentiments haven't been directed against all immigrants; for example, Germany has invited Russian-Jews to settle in the country. Most of the opposition has targeted Muslim immigrants, in particular from the Middle East, who are seen by many Europeans not only as a security threat, but also as a serious challenge to their political and cultural identity as Western, and mostly Christian societies.
Similarly in the United States, the simmering debate over immigration that has dominated the public and policy agenda in recent weeks, while Congress considers several immigration bills isn't really about 'immigration' per se. It is not even about the issue that seems to be at the centre of the deliberations on Capitol Hill, that is, whether to criminalise (as one bill in the Senate proposes) or provide an amnesty (as a competing bill suggests) to the estimated 11 million illegal or 'undocumented' immigrants in the US.
In fact, only a small percentage of America's workforce is considered to be illegal and two-thirds of the foreign-born residents of the country are either naturalised citizens or holders of 'green cards', that is, those with a right to permanent residence in the US. Moreover, most of these illegal immigrants don't cross into the United States through the US border with Mexico (along which some lawmakers want to build a 1,126 km-long fence) but enter the country as tourists or students.
Economists continue to debate whether the illegal immigrants contribute to the US economy by doing jobs that Americans refuse to do, and by providing a cheap labour pool for big and small businesses - which, not surprisingly, are opposed to restrictions on immigration - or whether they depress the wages of poor Americans as well as put pressure on social, educational and health services. But no one seriously argues that the illegal immigrants are responsible for any of the structural problems facing the US economy, in particular the decline in manufacturing jobs. Similarly, most analysts agree that the majority of the immigrants, certainly those who arrive from Mexico and Latin America, don't pose any security risks.
Certainly, the proposals by the Bush administration - that are backed by many senators - to set up an annual quota of foreign guest workers and also offer existing 'illegals' the possibility of eventual citizenship after they have paid a fine, seems to make sense based on economic, security and moral considerations. After all, no one seriously expects the US government to have the massive resources that would be needed in order to deport the 11 million illegal immigrants.
So, why are the majority of Americans and their representatives in Congress opposed to such modest proposals? Indeed, polls indicate that most Americans are in favour of imposing restrictions on immigration, and see it as a threat to their economic and social well-being. Indeed, if one wants to do well in the coming mid-term Congressional elections, waving the anti-immigration flag will certainly improve his or her chances of getting elected or re-elected. But the fact is that most Americans - with the exception of Native Americans - are the descendants of immigrants and are not really against immigration. Indeed, it's not difficult to imagine that if most of the illegal immigrants come from Ireland, Canada, Russia or Poland, public attitudes on the subject would have been quite different.
It's the Latinos, stupid! Based on results of polls - as well as on anecdotal evidence - it's obvious that the anti-immigration attitudes among Americans reflect growing concerns over the fact that most of these immigrants are arriving from Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, even Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe were regarded by Americans as too alien and 'exotic' to be able to assimilate into the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority in the United States. But the difference between then and now was that those immigrants wanted to assimilate into the American society and were provided with incentives to do so.
The current immigrants from Latin America - illegal and legal - are in a society that celebrates 'multiculturalism'. And that provides them with inducements to maintain their Hispanic identity, as well as to preserve their ties to the 'old country', which is just across the border and not thousands of miles away in Europe or Asia.
The result is the growing expectations (or fears) among middle-class white Americans that their country would soon be overwhelmed by an Hispanic majority - with some parts of the country becoming the way Miami and Los Angeles are today - that is, bilingual communities of 'Anglos' and 'Latinos', where the Spanish-language media now reaches a larger audience than English-language newspapers and television stations.
According to the nightmare scenario, the day will come when the Hispanic majority in California and Texas would demand to secede from the US and become once again part of Mexico. Hispanic public figures dismiss those fears as 'xenophobic' and insist that most Latinos are assimilating into the American society and culture and are making their own contribution to the American culture, not unlike Italian, Polish or Jewish immigrants have done in the past.
The Hispanic or Latino community is certainly not homogenous, for example, there are major socio-economic and cultural differences between immigrants from Mexico and Cuba. Moreover, inter-marriages between members of Hispanics and non-Hispanics are bound to make it more likely that the Latino population will assimilate.
And then there is reality that suggests that notwithstanding the current anti-immigration mood, there is not much that Congress would be able to do now or in the future to stem the flow of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America into the country. No great walls or legal restrictions are going to prevent them from coming into this country by the hundreds of thousands as long as American businesses and individuals - which include those who oppose immigration - would hire them as their gardeners, cleaners, and nannies.
If and how they would integrate into American society and culture - and change it in the process - remains an open question.
Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said…
Ricky Ricardo should have been reported to the authorities. Fred and Ethel were too liberal.

Popular posts from this blog

When will Israel attack Iran?

my new op-ed in Haaretz