The Occasional Re-Thinking About Immigration

Wednesday’s news included an actual policy proposal, for a change, and for another change we found ourselves siding with President Donald Trump. The issue is a Trump-backed Senate bill that would significantly alter America’s legal immigration policies, so despite our support it’s likely to be controversial.
The Senate bill would halve the million green cards that grant permanent residency rights to immigrants every year, award the remaining number on a “points system” that rewards English proficiency and high levels of education and marketable skills, tightens the rules regarding family members following, as well as restricting immigration from certain countries almost altogether. There are strong arguments to be made for all of it, without any appeal to nativist or xenophobic passions, and for the most part Trump made them well enough during a Wednesday speech.
The un-repealable laws of economics dictate that expanding the labor supply faster than demand for it lowers the price it is paid, and Trump rightly and shrewdly noted that black and hispanic workers are proportionally even more affected by than white and Asian workers. We’ll leave it to our privately-schooled readers to calculate what small percentage a mere one million green cards annually makes on a population of 325 million Americans, but even our publicly-educated selves know that after 50 years of it there are now some 50 million foreign-born residents in the country, and you don’t have to be a Trump enthusiast to worry how it affects the broader culture, which Trump wisely didn’t go on about it.
We’ve never shared the left’s opinion that the white working class is a bunch of a knuckle-dragging racists who’ve been itching since the Civil Rights Acts of ’65 for some Republican demagogue’s dog-whistle to start lynching all the darker folk, but neither have we ever accepted their assurances that you can annually bring millions of non-English-speaking and low-skilled and rootless people from very different cultures into the Trump precincts without some unpleasant social disruptions. Our weekly commerce includes very pleasant interactions with a family of Laotian immigrants who sell the cheapest beer in town, Mexican immigrants who bake the city’s best and most reasonably-price doughnuts, some Chinese immigrants who sell drive-through Kung Pao Chicken at a price so low we’re almost embarrassed to pay it, and our social circle of friends includes a charming Bolivian playboy and a delightfully bawdy English wench who are now fellow American citizens, but immigration has been an undeniably mixed bag of results.
Economics is almost as complicated as culture, however, and the bill’s opponents also make some credible arguments. For better or worse America as we know it today began with a wave of European immigrants who wound up disrupting not only the lives of the natives but also the European powers they rebelled against, and the country’s economic and cultural fortunes were greatly enhanced by massive immigration waves prior to the Civil War and the First World War, and that the third wave which began just prior to the Vietnam War has for the most part proved a similar boon. By now foreigners are as American as apple pie, and the left is trotting out that tear-jerking Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty and all the old black-and-white-movie success stories about plucky immigrants, and we’ll have to see how Trump counters all that corny Americana without appeal to nativist and xenophobic passions.
One of the most un-repealable laws of economics is that things change, though, so those past success stories about immigration require some reexamination. The first wave of mass legal immigration came at a time when the American economy was shifting from an agrarian to an industrial model and needed to fill a rapidly-expanding economy’s demand for unskilled labor, and needed to find soldiers to fight the agrarian and slave-holding states of the rebellious south in a bloody Civil War. The second wave came just as the country was approaching both economic and cultural preeminence among the industrialized powers, and could make use of all the unskilled labor and genius physicists and future black-and-white movie moguls and other creative types who were pouring in. The third wave has persisted through the past 50 years of ups and downs in the economy, probably having something to do with both swings, and it’s made undeniable contributions the country’s culture and our weekly commerce, but has also caused some social undeniable social disruptions.
At this point the country is quite rapidly shifting from an industrial model to some sort of high-tech and talking-robot post-industrial economy and a starkly post-modern kind of culture, so it seems reasonable to re-think the nation’s legal immigration policies accordingly. The Senate bill favors the Albert Einsteins and Nikolai Teslas and Andrew Carnegies whose exceedingly high skills did so much to enrich America during the previous waves of mass immigration, restricts the entrance of the workers in the lower-skilled ranks that have not seen any economic gains for most of the past 50 years, and offers benefits to such a diverse group of people that it really doesn’t require any appeals to nativist or xenophobic passions.
There’s no telling what great and transformative ideas the Senate bill might wind up excluding from the American culture, of course, but at this point the country could probably survive a brief respite in its economic and cultural evolution. The first two waves of mass legal immigration were followed by a pause to to get all the economic and social disruptions settled, and there’s a case to be made we could use another one after the past 50 years of the third. The left celebrates those first two waves even as they grouse that it was almost entirely white folks from European countries with certain ethnic and religious and cultural similarities to native-born Americans, and they rightly note that the Asian minorities who trickled in on the second wave and poured in on the third have mostly proved model citizens, but things change.
In the first and second and even third waves the immigrants were cut off from their ancestral cultures, forced to assimilate to some functional degree with the broader culture, but the current wave remains connected by wire-exchange and the internet and the permission of the cultural left to the cultural values of their homeland. By now some of those immigrants are coming from cultures where most people are openly hostile to the values of America and the broader West, and you don’t have to be at all nativist or xenophobic to worry about that. All in all, the Senate bill has some strong arguments.
We wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Trump and the rest of the Republicans lose that argument, though. Even the Rust Belt’s Democrats and the ones from the most nativist and xenophobic black districts won’t sign on, and the business lobby with its preference for an ever-expanding labor supply still holds enough sway in the Republican party to peel off at least a few congressional votes, and we can easily imagine Trump resorting to some dog-whistled appeal to nativist and xenophobic passions that puts it beyond the pale of polite discussion. Trump’s lately claiming credit for  such a booming economy that a low-skilled labor shortage seems imminent, too, which further complicates the discussion.
The left will also rightly note that the Senate bill leaves intact the low-skilled visa program that Trump’s still-wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago resort relies on for maid and janitorial services, and that Trump has long relied on immigrants to build his buildings and be his wife, and that he can’t credibly claim to be not all nativistic or xenophobic. That doesn’t reflect on the Senate’s bill and is no way to make policy decisions, of course, but here we are.

— Bud Norman

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