Monday, August 7, 2017

The Immigration Quagmire

We are, as we have been taught to say over and over, a "nation of immigrants." So you would think, given our national experience as a "nation of immigrants," that we would be well positioned to get immigration policy right. There is, alas, plenty of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, it seems to be one of the harder issues for us to resolve - rendered, if anything, even more so by our present political dysfunction. Even so, our actual national experience should serve to illuminate for us a better path to follow. I say better path, rather than best, because our experience also teaches us that there is no one obviously best solution, that any policy has its pluses and its minuses, and that any policy inevitably benefits some people more than others.

Immigration has been part of the human story from its beginning. In elementary school, when we studied the fall of the Roman Empire, it was largely portrayed as the result of ... immigration! There was some oversimplification in that account, but it reminds us that the Europe we are now so familiar with is itself the result of long-ago population movements. But in Europe that process has resulted in states which are now largely national in composition, in which common ancestry, common language, and common religion have largely formed those societies' common bonds. Such states can and do assimilate outsiders, but often awkwardly, sometimes with great difficulty, and most easily in smaller numbers - as the contemporary divisions in Europe over immigration have reminded us.

Somewhat differently, our American history has produced a more multi-ethnic society which has relied on a common civic (rather than ethnic or religious) culture as the glue to hold itself together, while our unofficial but de facto common language has over time helped to serve as one of the instruments of assimilation. Yet immigration in the United States has never been without its difficulties. Newcomers - especially newcomers in large numbers and newcomers from newer places - have often been seen as a challenge to American society's capacity (and willingness) to assimilate them. Still, over the long-term, immigration has been a success. The public school system deserves a special word of praise for its role in forming a common civic identity, which over time different ethnic and linguistic groups have found it possible to identify with and assimilate to.

Like so many baby boomers, I am among the grateful 3rd-generation beneficiaries of the great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. There can be little doubt that our country is significantly better off for having received so many new immigrants from so many new places during that period. There can also be no doubt that at the time it put some strain on American social cohesion and national self-understanding, and so was not universally well received. One result was the restrictive immigration system put in place in the 1920s and that remained in effect until 1965. That national origins quota system obviously kept many out who would have benefited from coming to America and from whose contributions America would in turn have greatly benefited. Certainly, in trying to freeze the ethnic map of the country it was manifestly unjust to southern and eastern Europeans (among others). On the other hand, that 40-year immigration pause perhaps eased the process of assimilation for the many immigrants who had already arrived and for their 2nd generation. In the process, it may have helped stabilize society in a way that served the country well during the cataclysmic crises of  the Depression and World War II. So, again, the lesson is that every actual arrangement has its individual winners and its individual losers and its overall benefits and overall challenges for society as a whole. By the 1960s, it had become increasingly evident that the disadvantages of the national origins quota system now obviously outweighed any of its benefits, and American society was again ready for a change.

Not unlike the situation a century ago, recent decades have brought many more newcomers to our shores. This has, on balance been an overwhelming benefit, but it has also been a challenge. The Immigration issue is not unlike free trade, which brings great benefits for many, but suffering for some. Elites who have benefited from globalization largely favor free trade. Those left behind by it have reacted differently. Hence, the current "populist" resurgence both in the United States and in Europe.

Like free trade, immigration has its winners and its losers. Besides the immigrants themselves and their families, large-scale immigration of lower-skilled workers may be better for global elites but perhaps more challenging for some of those less well off. A "Canadian" style system that favors skills over family unification might modestly reverse that calculus of advantage and disadvantage. Neither is an argument either for or against immigration, but rather a case for honest analysis and for working together across our polarized cultural divide to produce a marginally better system. (At some point, American workers will also need to recognize that robots will likely be a bigger threat to their jobs than immigrants, but that is yet another issue which we as a society seem as yet unable adequately to confront!)

David Goodhart, the British author of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. distinguishes between "Anywheres" and "Somewheres." The "Anywheres" (who he estimates are roughly a quarter of the UK's population) are more highly educated, more mobile, predominantly urban, socially liberal, globalists. The "Somewheres" .(who he estimates are roughly half of the UK's population) are generally less well educated, rooted in their families and local communities. more socially conservative, and more committed to and invested in family, locality, and nation.

That is, I think, likewise a good description of much of the class and cultural divide in the United States, which already preceded the last election but which that "Make America White Again" election so dramatically highlighted. On the immigration issue, both American "Anywheres" and American "Somewheres" may have valuable insights into the relative advantages and disadvantages of alternative approaches to future immigration. Somehow, they have to find a way to listen to each other and incorporate each other's insights - and specific group interests - in a comprehensive solution that goes beyond unrealistic, ultra-left-wing sloganeering about totally open borders and narrowly chauvinistic, right-wing sloganeering about building walls.

Our current incapacity even to attempt this is, of course, yet one more illustration of how completely dysfunctional our polarized politics has become.

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