Coming to America

You ain't from around here, are you?

What should America’s policy on immigration be? The debate isn’t simply over raising quotas or varying the mix of immigrants; it’s not, at its heart, about the size, powers, and budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The debate about immigration is as old as our country, and the fundamental question is a simple one: What is America?

Advocates of increased immigration, such as columnist Ben Wattenberg and economist Julian Simon, argue that the United States is a “universal nation,” the one place where achievers from all parts of the earth can live without tribal warfare or the unceasing battle against poverty. Foes of immigration counter that America is a (country founded by Europeans on Anglo-Saxon principles, and that if whites cease to be a majority, North America will become as violent and dangerous as Latin America.

The July issue of Chronicles features writers offering a wide variety of arguments against immigration. Editor Thomas Fleming contends that supporters of immigration also favor homogenizing America and replacing local variety with national sterility. Immigration supporters, says Fleming, favor “the great North American cosmopolis” where all cities are interchangeable and everyone eats the same fast foods, watches the same movies, and vacations at Disney World. “The pressure of immigration,” he adds, has made it impossible for Americans to fight “the centralization of political, economic, and cultural power.”

Chilton Williamson, Chronicles’ book editor, uses environmental arguments to oppose immigration. Increased population, he says, leads to more government. In the high plains of Wyoming where Williamson lives, a man can take as much fish and game as he likes and hunt all day without seeing another person; but in the cramped confines of California, bureaucrats dictate the hours when a man can mow his lawn and decide whether backyard barbecues are permissible. “In the modern age,” says Williamson, “big populations mean big regulation, and big regulations mean big government.”

Lastly, Dallas Morning News columnist Richard Estrada contends that his fellow Hispanics have been harmed by liberalized immigration policies. He argues that competition among Hispanics has ensured that most of them have been unable to climb the economic ladder. Given a shortage of low-wage jobs, Hispanics have been forced to queue for scarce public housing and other welfare benefits. “Current U.S. immigration policy,” says Estrada, “helps to impede assimilation, stymie bootstrapping, nurture welfare dependency, intensify tribalist politics, prolong labor intensiveness, and undermine productivity and competitiveness.”

These are intelligent arguments, and friends of immigration do themselves no service when they attempt to declare their antagonists politically incorrect without answering them. But ultimately, the Chronicles authors aren’t persuasive.

Immigrants make cities more, not less, interesting. Immigrant communities accentuate, not reduce, the pleasure one finds from city life. It’s hard to see Miami without Little Havana, Los Angeles without Little Saigon, Philadelphia without South Philadelphia, or Boston without the North End. Fleming mistakenly invests immigrants with too much clout; governments, not immigrants, are primarily responsible for destroying communities in the name of “urban renewal” and replacing the state created lifeless husks with artificial “festival marketplaces.”

Moreover, the “national culture” Fleming attacks is tenuous and weak. National media grow weaker by the year: Network television’s share of the audience shrinks; the circulations of weekly news magazines decline. Americans may reclaim national pride in time of war, but in peacetime, liberal claims for more government in the name of a “national community” have ensured Democratic defeat in five out of the last six presidential elections.

Williamson’s charge that population pressure ensures the growth of government is misleading. Can he, for example, show how immigrant residents of the East Los Angeles barrio are responsible for the draconian Los Angeles air-pollution regulations or California Gov. Pete Wilson’s massive tax increase?

As Peter Steinhart shows in the May Audubon, environmentalists are more likely to ensure the growth of government than immigrants, for the simple reason that immigrants to America frequently flee their homelands because of state misrule. Immigrants, says Steinhart, are people “whose experience of government is one of oppression. They have little experience of making political institutions work for them.”

The best way to reply to Estrada’s charges that immigrants clog the welfare rolls and steal jobs is to look to the economists. In 1990 the Cato Institute surveyed 38 prominent economists, including past presidents of the American Economics Association, former members of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and seven Nobel laureates in economics. Of these distinguished economists, 70 percent said that illegal immigrants “have a positive economic impact,” and 63 percent supported raising immigration quotas. This pro-immigration consensus didn’t split along traditional lines; both Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith favor liberalized immigration quotas.

In the January Industrial and Labor Relations Review, George J. Borjas, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, and Stephen J. Trejo, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, look at data compiled on immigrant households in the 1970 and 1980 censuses. They discover that while more immigrants were getting welfare than in the past, they were doing so at rates comparable to those of American citizens. In 1970, 5.2 percent of native-born American families headed by someone between 28 and 44 were on welfare; 3.9 percent of comparable immigrant families were on welfare. In 1980, 6.5 percent of all native-born American families were on welfare; 6.9 percent of immigrant families were on welfare.

While welfare costs for immigrants are increasing, Borjas and Trejo say, the trends they discovered “are not necessarily inconsistent with the conjecture that immigrants are a net gain, but they do imply that the size of the gain has been smaller in recent years.” In other words, opinions among economists about the effects of immigration on the economy range from the view that it helps somewhat (Borjas) to the view that it helps a great deal (Julian Simon).

But do immigrants depress wages? No, say Princeton scholars Kristin E Butcher and David Card in the May American Economic Review. They examine data from the 1980 census and the 1985 Current Population Survey. Comparing cities with high immigrant flows (such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami) with cities with relatively few immigrants (Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland), they find that wages in most cities rose about as fast as the Consumer Price Index. But in cities with large numbers of immigrants, the wages of the lowest-earning 10 percent of workers stayed constant-but the wages of the highest-earning 10 percent rose substantially, suggesting that wealthy immigrants improve the economy far more than poor immigrants depress it.

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