I have talked about immigration and immigrants before. Listening to the section on that subject in the audio version of Thomas Sowell’s Applied Economics has given me additional things to think about. And this ended up going in a somewhat different direction from where I thought when I started. Oh well, these things happen.
First off, let me get one thing straight. Some folk, reading what I’m about to say are going to scream “racist!” No. Race isn’t culture. Culture is not genetically determined. Even if a particular culture is found mostly, or even exclusively, in a particular race (however you define race, my own position is “human” and that’s it) it is still not racism to discuss, even critically, the culture as culture.
Other people will start screaming about multi-culturalism and how we can’t “judge” other cultures. (Funny how those people never seem to have any trouble judging mine.) Back when I took Cultural Anthropology in college, after all, the book discussed “cultural relativism” which pretty much every student in the class immediately misinterpreted. The text said right there that it did not mean that all cultures were equally “worthy” or “good” but rather that one cannot understand a culture without looking at it from the perspective of its own assumptions to see how actions that might seem irrational to us “make sense” from within that culture and those assumptions. Case in point, the Aztecs did not slaughter sacrifices in job lots simply because they were sadistic monsters. They may well have been sadistic monsters. But one of their internal assumptions was that they needed those numbers of sacrifices to strengthen the sun god and keep the sun from going out. From that starting assumption it simply makes sense that they sacrifice as many people as they can. You don’t want the sun to go out destroying everything, do you? Of course not. We can understand their culture from the perspective of looking at it from their assumptions and still consider it monstrous, vile, and, yes, evil.
Okay, that out of the way, going back to the title. The title is actually ironic because there is no “immigration generally” because immigration and immigrants are entirely too variable. Cultures vary. Economic levels vary. Education levels vary. The cultures in which they immigrate vary even within a single country. The existence or lack thereof of “enclaves” of people of similar culture, economic level, and education within their new home vary, whether they come to stay or mean to return. All of that affects both the immigrants and the effect they have on the population at large. And all of these things can change over time.
Very early immigration into the United States was driven by cargo trade across the Atlantic. Ships from the US, mostly carrying agricultural products, would sail to northern and western Europe. They would bring back manufactured goods in return. Now, the manufactured goods take up much less space than the agricultural products traded for them so the ships would be returning with a lot of empty space. The people running those ships could make some extra money by carrying passengers back in the extra space. Thus, most of the early immigration in the US came from northern and western Europe from people both having enough money to afford passage, yet being poor enough that the prospect of making a better life in the Americas appealed. In many cases the people making those trips had their passage paid by others already in the Americas making that better life themselves. But since they were tied to the cargo runs, they ended up where the cargo ships sailed: Boston, New York, Baltimore, and the like. So the immigrant communities tended to be huddled around those areas spreading slowly from them.
Later, the rise of steam changed the game a little bit. First, by increasing the speed and reducing the cost of overseas travel, they made the dedicated passenger ship economically viable. This decoupled immigration from the cargo trade and so we started getting more immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. And they were less tied to the big port cities and larger immigrant communities started popping up in more widely separated area.
In the Western states we had immigrants coming from Asia because, well, where else where they going to come from given that until the rise of the railroad it was easier to sail across the Pacific than it was to cross the country?
The rise of air travel in the 20th century changed patterns still more. By this time, the US had started putting more controls on immigration–after all a growing country with large areas of frontier could absorb all the immigrants the travel technology of the time could deliver while a country that was running out of frontier had sharper limits on what it could absorb and assimilate.
Here’s one example of the economic implications of changing immigration patterns. In the 60’s immigrant men in the US averaged higher incomes than native born men. A part of this was that most immigrants came from more educated backgrounds. Changes of immigration law in the 60’s however, caused a substantial shift in the demographics of immigrants. The average education level of the incoming immigrants dropped–and please note that “education level” is not a euphemism for “intelligence” as a lot of this was driven by more people coming from places where they simply did not have the opportunity for education. One of the results of this was that the average income of immigrants started to shift downward.
Don’t think that this is a matter of suddenly we stopped getting highly educated immigrants and started getting entirely
But another change happened along about that time. In times past, it was considered that there was an overall general culture of the US and immigrants were expected to assimilate into it. Those that did, found better job opportunities and other advantages over those that did not. This did not mean that they had no influence on the larger culture. Many of the things that made up that larger culture were brought over by immigrants, absorbed into the larger culture and became part of the norm. You know, the old “melting pot” idea.
This was not a universal idea by any stretch of the imagination. Latin America, as just one example, was quite used to the idea of individual ethnic enclaves retaining their cultural identity and getting along (for certain values of “getting along”) with others.
Along around the sixties or seventies this started changing. I know I started hearing “salad bowl” in place of “melting pot” about that time. The rising idea of multiculturalism, culminating in the modern criticism of “cultural appropriation” attempted to move the US toward a model more like that which Latin America has long held.
I look at the history of Latin America vs. that of the United States and wonder: Is that such a good idea?
I have said before that I think America should be for Americans, but that what I meant by that was people–wherever they were born, whatever the color of their skin, or hair texture or eye or lip shape, or whatever purely physical features they possess–for whom the unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are considered “self evident,” people who can read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights and think “well…yeah.”
Not everybody who comes to the US is going to be that kind of American. That’s okay. They can learn. And even if some of them don’t learn, that’s okay too. But it really needs to be an advantage for people to assimilate, for people to either hold those ideals or come to accept those ideals as they live here. To not only allow, but to celebrate the kind of mixed enclaves of not only different, but actively antithetical and mutually hostile cultures and allow them to act out their hostility because “it’s their culture” is to encourage unrest and violence. We can deal with these thing so long as they are an exception, so long as they’re outliers and the great majority accept and at least try to live by America’s founding ideals. (Yes, I’m aware that the founders of the nation did not always live up to those ideals either. But that’s the point of ideals. They’re something to strive for even if you don’t always meet them.)
But to advocate that kind of thing as a new norm is not only to eschew those founding ideals, but to participate in the slow (or not so slow) suicide of the American Ideal.