"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Immigrants–Let ‘Em In!

Herbie, Bruce, and I were best friends growing up in New Brighton, CT.  Bruce was Jewish, and his parents were camp survivors who had come over after having been liberated from Buchenwald.  Herbie’s parents were Swedes who had originally migrated to Minnesota but who made their way east after a particularly brutal and early winter had destroyed their small corn crop, killed their pigs, and wiped out their chickens.  My family had come to America from Southern Italy in the late 1800s, joined their Sorrento paisans in New Haven, and never moved more than thirty miles away.

We were all defined by ‘nationality’.  My mother could could tell where people came from on sight, and my friends’ families were first and foremost Hebes, Bohunks, Polacks, or Blockheads. There was only a smattering of Puerto Ricans in town, not enough to merit an ethnic slur; and blacks were late-comers, arriving only slowly in the early Sixties, so although my mother knew what to call them, she never had any occasion to. 

By the Fifties older and wealthier immigrant families were totally assimilated.  Since everyone was trying their best to expunge the last bits of ethnicity from their food, their clothes, and their language and become real Americans, New Brighton was not so much the bubbling melting pot of garlic, gefilte fish, and stuffed cabbage as it was in the Lower East Side.  My mother refused to cook with garlic just in case anyone came to visit.  We had a parlor, however, and with its Italianate sconces, antimacassars, and ornate marble tables was a dead give-away that Italians lived here.  Nevertheless we lived next to a Norwegian family and across from a Slavic one, and my sister and I went to a public school that was as mixed as any in the city.

The only ethnically uniform group were the Poles who lived on Broad Street, had their own cathedral; stores, restaurants, and beauty parlors; and who only left Little Warsaw to work in the factories on the other part of town.  Actually ‘Little Warsaw’ was a misnomer, since most of the over two million Polish immigrants who came to the United States in the peak period 1879-1914 came from Polish regions of Russia, Austria, and Germany. New Polish immigrants continued to refresh the older stock, and assimilation was slower and more difficult. 

Although my mother never forgot ‘nationality’, we paid no attention to it. Our parents had been successful in expunging the last bits of ethnicity, dressed us in Brooks Bros. and J.Press, set us away to school, and fought as hard as any parent today to get us into Harvard and Yale.  The Ivy League meant even more then, for it did not only provide a premier education and grease the rails to Wall Street, it was the credential of full and complete Americanization.  When I attended Yale, I was one of only a handful of Italians; and Jews were few and far between.  A Yale sticker on our guinea-wagon meant far more than one from UConn, Bridgeport, or Quinnipiac. We weren’t completely accepted into the ranks of the Old Guard, but we had taken a big step forward.

Coming from this background it is very hard to understand the growing hostility to immigration. Mexicans, Central Americans, and Africans want to come here just like the Poles, Italians, and Norwegians of a century ago.  They want a better life, economic promise, and social and religious freedom. The problem is not with immigration per se, but with the number of people who want to come.  If we suddenly opened our borders, half of Africa and all of Central America would be emptied.  Although intellectuals in Mexico City or San Salvador may oppose our wars and condemn our persistent racism, income inequality, and increasingly militant Christianity; everyone else wants to head to El Norte.

The conditions in Chad, Niger, and Equatorial Guinea are miserable.  Entire villages are economically marginalized, politically impotent, and exploited by venal and corrupt politicians. Life is still medieval and without hope.  Where do these villagers want to go? America. Our streets are still paved with gold, everyone is a Hollywood star, and dollar bills still float in the air like snowflakes.  The luster of the shining city on a hill may be tarnished in the eyes of the French intelligentsia, and American exceptionalism dismissed by Putin and the Ayatollah; but not in the eyes of hundreds of millions who would give their eye teeth to come here.

Therein lies the dilemma.  We cannot possibly let in all comers, but there is also no reason for strident, vitriolic, and xenophobic expressions of hatred.

At a dinner in Los Angeles a number of years ago, I heard hateful, derisive, and incontinent attacks on Mexican illegal immigrants. These immigrants were not taking the jobs of the host or his guests, nor threatening to undermine the municipal tax base with their social demands; but providing needed labor – gardeners, construction workers, maids, and fruit-pickers.  The agricultural economy of California would collapse, in fact, if all migrant workers packed up and went home. Hundreds of thousands of service jobs would go unfilled. Perhaps most importantly immigrants work at jobs that Americans don’t want.  They complement our labor, not take it away.

Study after study has shown that at worst the immigration balance sheet is neutral – i.e. immigrants cost as much as they contribute – but at best they are net producers to the American economy.  Illegal immigrants buy things, spend money, generate money, and contribute significantly to local economies.  If it weren’t for Salvadoran nannies, thousands of native-born American women would not be able to rejoin the workforce. If it weren’t for migrant farm workers the price of lettuce would be sky-high.  Moreover their remittances back home provide necessary capital for domestic improvements, provide economic breathing room for poor families waiting patiently for national economic development.

Many critics contend that these are simplistic arguments which ignore economic reality.  If we were to keep all illegal immigrants out, the wages paid to American workers would go up significantly; the price of fruits and vegetables would rise to their real market value; and pressures to the environment would be reduced.

Perhaps, but immigrants are no fools. They work the shit jobs because their wages are worth ten times what they could make in their own countries if they can find employment. They know that in one generation, two at the most, their children and grandchildren will be better off.  In the Washington, DC area, there are more Latino service businesses.  Hispanics, like the Italians in the 40s and 50s who moved from working construction to owning construction, are running landscaping businesses, not just blowing leaves. 

No one is exploiting an illegal immigrant who comes to the United States of his own volition, who willingly accepts wages which he knows are low for Texas but high for San Pedro de Las Cumbres, and who understands that he has no political rights but is treated far better than in his own country.

America needs low-wage immigrant workers just as we always have.  Not only do immigrants contribute to the economy here, they contribute to the one back home, thus doing their part to slow emigration to El Norte.  Immigrants now and in the past refresh the population pool, provide the same entrepreneurial energy that European immigrants did years ago.  There is no difference between the poor, rural Mexican emigrating to the United States and laboring at jobs Americans don’t want and the Pole from Silesia who worked the factory floor in New Brighton, Connecticut.

Immigration is to a large degree self-regulating and subject to market forces. Between 2007-12, the five worst years of the Recession, there was a net out-migration of Mexicans from the US to Mexico.  There were more jobs there than here.  Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans do not come here to get fat on welfare.  They are here to work, and if jobs move south they will follow them.

NAFTA was an important agreement, for it moved significantly towards a regional economic goal of the free movement of goods and services.  While the focus has been on goods, in time it will expand to labor. In the meantime open trade borders plus individual remittances to Mexico have helped both countries.  The US has been, although somewhat reluctantly, in favor of regional trade agreements.  We have fought against protectionism and moved gradually towards mutually beneficial cooperative trade.

In short there is no evidence that illegal immigration is the scourge it is made out to be by the ultra-conservative Right, a xenophobic movement which irrationally fears an erosion if not destruction of ‘The American Way of Life’. Irrational because studies have shown that: a) most Hispanic immigrant families speak English after one generation; b) they are Christian ;and perhaps most importantly, c) they subscribe to the fundamental principle of America – making money.  Our culture is not rooted in a far-distant past of 1000 years ago. It is much easier to understand French resistance to Muslim immigration, for they consider themselves the saviors of Christian Europe who fought off the Muslim hordes at Roncesvalles, kept the Saracens in check in Palestine, and originated the fundamental democratic concept of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. We have no Palais de Versailles, no Rouen, Notre Dame, or Descartes.  We have nothing to preserve if you think about it.

Immigration reform is necessary and important not to figure ways to keep people out, but how to let them in. One recent iteration of the proposed Immigration Act was so punitive and aggressively hostile to those illegals already living here, that it had no chance of passing.  Politicians have been incapable of resisting the xenophobia of the rabid Right and looking objectively and carefully at the balance sheet.  To make a reasoned and intelligent decision, policy-makers must look at supply and demand, balance sheets (economic contributions and liabilities), environmental impact, social and cultural contributions, the value of remittances and regional trade, minimum wage, civil rights, and a whole host of other socio-economic and cultural variables.

Americans are fortunate that they are not facing the divisive, corrosive, and ultimately damaging issue of Muslim immigration to Europe.  Radicalized Muslims from Africa and the Middle East are indeed threatening the liberal democratic ethos of Europe, for they want separatism, not inclusion; and France in particular, because of its deeply-held principle of “We are all French” are having a rough time of responding to legitimate cultural concerns while safeguarding a historical tradition.

The issue of immigration in America, therefore, should not be as contentious as it is in Europe.  Hispanic immigrants are Christian; they subscribe to the bedrock American values of work and family; follow in a long and familiar history of profitable and productive immigration; and are contributing more than they are taking. 

What could be bad?  If we – politicians and citizens – first agree that immigration is good and always has been, we can more rationally and dispassionately address and resolve the complex issues of numbers.

No comments:

Post a Comment