Wednesday, November 29, 2006

El nuevo corazón de las tiniebras

»   The conclusion of a two-part series   «

In the first part of this series, a post called Un nuevo nacimiento de la libertad, I promised a defense of this forum's frequent defense of an open immigration policy for the United States. This post fulfills that pledge.

ImmigrantsJohn F. Kennedy famously described the United States as A Nation of Immigrants. Yet the foreign-born population of the United States has never exceeded 15 percent. This 15 percent threshold extends deep into the colonial history of North America; from 1675 onward, the native-born population of this country (or the colonized portion of what would become this country) has consistently remained at 85 percent or higher. In absolute terms, there has never been a question of the capacity of the United States to absorb newcomers. America has done so throughout its history. There can be no reasonable doubt that the United States' openness to newcomers has distinguished it -- almost uniformly for the better -- from every other country.

So why has immigration become such a controversial political topic? Because a very significant portion of immigrants stem from a single region (Latin America) and in particular a single country (Mexico) distinct in language and culture from that of the native-born majority. Because those immigrants are, on balance, poorer and less educated. Because they are perceived as net drains on social services, even though the evidence indicates that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are net fiscal contributors.

David RicardoBut most of all, immigration has become a political flash point because it serves as the repository of all cultural and economic anxiety over globalization. Of the many ideas with which economists and their politically empowered patrons have used to experiment on human populations, one stands as a clear winner. It is free trade. Most economic propositions are contestable. The theory of comparative advantage is not one of them.

The trouble, of course, is that overall gains from free movement in goods, ideas, and persons have not flowed even throughout the economy. Globalization, to put it coarsely, has its losers. In the United States, there is no question who those losers are. They are the least educated, least mobile members of the native-born population. Demagoguing the immigration issue resonates with this group. Or so certain exploiters of fear have concluded. From Lou Dobbs to J.D. Hayworth, there is no shortage of journalists and politicians willing to leverage these fears. If American politics demonstrates anything, it is the proposition that no message, however offensive, goes unexpressed as long as some politician, somewhere, perceives an opportunity for partisan gain:
Yes, Vernon Robinson occupies a lunatic fringe in American politics, but the fact that a major political party allowed a candidate to wage a campaign this vile, in an eminently contestable district (North Carolina 13), during a season that in retrospect may have realigned American politics for years to come, speaks volumes. Had Joseph Conrad adopted Spanish instead of English as his language of choice, that volume might be called El corazón de las tiniebras.

Let me translate this in unequivocal terms. Xenophobia is the last redoubt of openly expressed racism in America. Opposition to immigration by any means and the demonization of immigrants have occupied an emotional vacuum created by the rightful condemnation of other forms of overt racism. Anti-immigration demagoguery exposes America's new heart of darkness.

September 11America's place in the world changed on September 11, 2001. It has arguably changed even more in the ensuing five years, and not for the better. With astonishing speed, the United States has squandered the goodwill of the global community. We Americans are locked in nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the world. It is a familiar contest. For the second half of the continuous 75 Years' War (as future historians undoubtedly will call the military and political conflicts of 1914 through 1989), the United States engaged another superpower in a comparable fight.

Lest we forget, America won the Cold War. As Mary Dudziak (author of the new blog, Legal History), argued in Cold War Civil Rights, the United States desperately needed to set its own legal house in order before it could defeat the Soviet Union with rhetorical, political, and emotional weapons that ultimately proved more effective than its military arsenal. Civil rights at home enabled victory in the Cold War.

Today we stand in a similar battle for the hearts of the world. How we treat individuals who seek nothing but an opportunity to become Americans by choice sends a message to the contested and contestable portions of that world. Por amor de Dios, enviamos el mensaje de bienvenido a todas las naciónes y todos los pueblos del mundo. Porque no podemos perdir la guerra más importante de nuestra edad.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can tell you're passionate about this topic, but it looks to me like your stance is driven mostly by your identification with immigrants, rather than by logic.

You posit that hostility to illegal immigration stems from three sources: (1)most illegal immigrants are from a single culture (Latin American or Mexican); (2) they are, by and large, poor and poorly educated; and (3) their immigration links the US labor market more closely with the global labor market. I think you're right about the reasons, but wrong to think that they're ill-considered.

(1) As to culture, do we really want our culture (particularly our political culture) to move toward that of Mexico? Note that the Mexican immigrants themselves seem to have voted with their feet against this. The government of Mexico has tried to get them to vote in Mexican elections, but the participation rates have been low. It probably wouldn't be too hard to prevent this even with large Mexican immigration After all, most 19th century immigrants came from monarchies and they didn't bring much monarchist sentiment with them. However, the argument for high immigration seems now to be tied with the idea that American political culture is broken, and we need to import political views to correct this.

(2) I cannot believe that anyone considers it a good idea to massively increase the pool of unskilled labor in the US. I've read some arguments on the Becker-Posner blog that the network effects of a large population are positive, and they make sense, but they apply mostly to a *skilled* population. Also, I have searched my memory of history for a country with a large, dense population that has been successful and happy in the long term and cannot think of one.

You wrote "the evidence indicates that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are net fiscal contributors." I don't doubt that legal immigrants are net fiscal contributors. Do you have data showing that illegal immigrants are net contributors, or is it just that the contributions of the legal immigrants outweigh the costs of the illegals? I'd be interested to learn more about this. Overall, if one wished to increase the rate of immigration to the US, it seems hard to believe that it is optimal to select those who have the ability and willingness to evade immigration controls and laws over those who are more law-abiding, or less geographically fortunate.

(3) On globalization, there is a difference between importing low wage products and importing low wage workers. If we import the products, we could at least in theory compensate the displaced domestic workers and still be better off. If we import the workers this is impossible without creating a special entitlement for the native-born, which would be intolerable.

Your strongest argument is that we are fortunate to be US citizens. Since all of the people of the world are our moral equivalents, as individuals, we have a moral duty to share this good fortune with them. I just don't see a way of doing it effectively - it's like giving $1 to the runaway kid begging on the street, likely to be harmful on net.


11/29/2006 4:43 PM  

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