Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Perennial Immigration Debate Comes Up Again

Newt Gingrich’s controversial statement of support for qualified amnesty for illegal immigrants in the United States made me think about my own conflicted views on immigration policy. Philosophically, I’m sympathetic to the unimpeded movement of labor, as well as capital and goods, both across and within political boundaries. Realistically, I see our southern boundary as highly permeable and difficult to police.  I sympathize with those who came into this country, by whatever means, in order to better their lives and those of their families.  I recognize the economic contribution of illegal immigrant workers. While some have argued that these workers either lower the wages of native born Americans or supply rapacious employers with an exploitable work force, I see these new arrivals as responding to the demands of our current economic system. While native born Americans are constantly told by educators and government officials that everyone should be moving up into middle class jobs, our labor market has been opening up jobs at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. We need people to pick our fruit, weave our carpets, build our homes, and do a great many sundry jobs that require limited formal education but a great deal of flexibility. The products of all of these endeavors would be much more expensive for consumers if we had to pay the costs of native-born workers, assuming that employers could find sufficient numbers of natives willing to take insecure, difficult, low-prestige occupations.  In addition, the aging population of the United States means that immigration has become a prime source of youthful participants in our work force, and an important barrier against the demographic decline facing Japan.
At the same time, though, I think reasons for concern exist.  My philosophical support for free flows rests uncomfortably with my views on national sovereignty.  Every modern nation, as far as I know, maintains laws specifying rights of entry, residence, and citizenship. For the United States to declare that it cannot or will not try to maintain its boundaries would be a unique and unilateral surrender of its own national sovereignty, a strange kind of American exceptionalism. Enforcing our laws may lead to unfortunate consequences for some individuals, such as separating native-born children from illegal immigrant parents, denying educational opportunities to illegal immigrants who have grown up in this country, or uprooting those who have made their lives here.  But laws that are not enforced do not truly exist. And if we either unofficially ignore our laws or officially override them by periodically declaring amnesties, we make them meaningless and we do run the risk of communicating to the millions of people around the world who would like to come here that our borders are effectively open.
Completely open borders, however desirable in theory, can pose dangers for developed nations. Mexico is the place of origin of most illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Our neighbor to the south possesses cultural traditions that I find quite beautiful.  Unfortunately, Mexico also currently suffers from social disorder and violence. While these problems have so far spilled over into the United States only sporadically, there is a real danger of their conflicts contributing to our own as the distinctions between the two countries diminish.
Large-scale movement across the border, in addition, means that many residents will identify with a foreign nation or retain citizenship in a foreign nation. George Friedman’s work of prognostication, The Next Hundred Years, may have included a number of speculations that will turn out to be untrue, but his prediction that Mexico will in the future claim a version of extraterritoriality for Mexican-origin people in the United States seems to me plausible. No two sovereign nations ever completely share national interests, and extensive dual loyalties can create problems.
However virtuous cultural diversity may sound, it can have negative sides. The political scientist Robert Putnam, much to his own dismay, found that ethnic and racial diversity in communities is associated with low levels of trust, cooperation, charity, and voluntarism.  Immigration is a major source of diversity. If we encourage free movement across borders, we may be moving toward Balkanization, even while we improve the quality and variety of our restaurants. While this observation may be politically incorrect, it is also realistic.  Americans may not need to share ancestries, but we do need to be common cultural descendents of the American political tradition for this nation to function.
I’m detailing these issues to describe my own reservations about open immigration policy in general and about amnesty in particular. On the whole, I’m inclined, for reasons given in the first paragraph, to cautiously favor some version of amnesty as the best among bad options, but this would take us in a perilous direction.

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