Continuing sort of on the theme of, oh let’s call it ‘America’s strategic reorientation’; I suppose it’s time to touch on the topic of the day. Immigration. A friend of mine recently asked “What do you think?” because for him, as well as for me, it’s a bit of a “conundrum”.
There certainly is a lot of outrage on this topic, isn’t there? I refer back to Patrick Deenan’s viral essay. “My students are know-nothings,” Dennan writes. But this ignorance is “not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.”
In the context of immigration, what does that ignorance look like? The “know-nothings” would like us all to believe that America has been a borderless, cultureless fluid entity – admitting people willy-nilly as they ran from here and there and from near and far. “We are a nation of immigrants” says every politician on the campaign trail. Doesn’t even the plaque beneath Lady Liberty read “Give us your tired (…) your huddled masses”? And isn’t that beautiful – and isn’t it what made America what she has become?
And all that ended last Friday when Donald J. Trump slammed shut the doors of America, right?
Needless to say, this “know-nothing” version of America’s immigration ‘problem’ could certainly use some context. Now, to be sure America is indeed a nation of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean that the first arrivals have ever made it easy for the latest arrivals. The first wave of ‘western’ immigration to the United States was in the 1600s, famous for the Pilgrims and those seeking a new world to worship as they saw fit (estimated 20,000). This gave way in the 18th and 19th centuries to immigrants seeking greater economic opportunity – although the price for the fares were expensive which resulted in 50% of all European immigrants in those times arriving as indentured servants – white slaves, the “know-nothings” never knew about these. Isn’t slavery only black? White people can’t be the victims of injustice, can they? There was also massive African immigration in the form of slavery (estimated 650,000), which ended (the immigration part did) in 1807 – with slavery itself lasting another sixty years or so. In the 19th century five million Germans came over fleeing misery mostly. To this day, more Americans claim German ancestry than any other – did you know that? The “know-nothings” don’t. During the Gold Rush a lot of Chinese came over. And during the troubles of Eastern Europe a lot of Jews came, fleeing the pogroms and the like (watch ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ – for the “know-nothings”, it’s an old movie. No, it doesn’t star Brad Pitt). In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, hundreds of thousands (more than a million?) Cubans were admitted into the United States and given legal status via the “wet-foot, dry foot policy” which lasted until Florida voted against Hillary Clinton and President Obama cancelled that policy. Evidently voting isn’t the only ‘best revenge’. The first modern wave (modern meaning post-federal government involvement. Up until the 1892 opening of Ellis Island the states regulated their own immigration) started in the late 1800s and led through the 1920s. The biggest immigration year in American history was 1907, when 1.5 million immigrants were admitted. The second great wave started in the 1970s and led through – well it would seem up until President Trump, but it’s still too early for the historians to weigh in although the “know-nothings” already have. During the first great modern wave foreign-born residents of the United States reached 15% of the population. Right now, it’s about 13.5%. To say nothing of illegal immigration which has reached perhaps 12 million people.
Of course all of these waves were met with resistance. The first immigrants, who had arrived a long time before over a previously existing land bridge, fought the new immigrants with bows and arrows. Immigration of Africans was ended on ‘moral’ grounds in 1807 via the “Slave Trade Act”. In the 1850s the American-born protestants organized to try and keep out the 4.5 million Irish Catholics (fleeing famine); they even ran a presidential candidate Millard Fillmore on an anti-Catholic platform (he won the presidency two decades later, no longer an anti-catholic). The first federal law banning immigrants was the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882”. The “Immigration Act of 1924” (or the Johnson-Reed Act) created a quota system which admitted entrance to the United States of only 2% of any nationality already represented (i.e. if there were 100 Micronesians in the U.S., only two Micronesian immigrants would be admitted each year). Carter banned Iranians and Shiites; Obama banned Iraqis. It’s all very confusing.
Through all of this – the problem was of course assimilation. America doesn’t want to end up like Europe, with pockets of languages and nationalities hating each other until they finally go to war. We want folks to assimilate, adopt our values and learn our language and integrate. My classical liberal economist friends would remind me here that this can’t happen at the point of a gun; and that immigration is actually not a political issue, it’s a market one to be solved not by legislation but by the laws of supply and demand. That’s really the problem in Europe, all these folks fleeing war to countries where there are no jobs (like Spain, with 45% youth unemployment). When they finally arrive, they sit around and become bitter and start plotting against their hosts and imagining how with the help of the Caliphate they will exact their revenge for being born poor. And it isn’t even the immigrants themselves – they are usually quite happy to have gotten the hell out of Dodge and very grateful to whoever received them. It’s their kids, growing up in limbo, who begin to conspire. Without jobs – without opportunity. Without identity, old or new.
All of this is politically charged – especially when different sides try to take the moral high ground from each other and try to pretend that they care more than the other and that they are the most compassionate and that the other side is the devil. The progressives decry Trump for not letting in 60,000,000 refugees; the other side reminds them that there are 5,000,000 Syrian refugees in part because of Obama’s incompetence at dealing with the Arab Spring, and that the US is already at carrying capacity after eight years of ‘growth’ that never reached 2% and a federal debt of $20,000,000,000,000.
It’s all very stressful too, isn’t it? Everybody is a narcissist at heart and wants to be heard because they believe they know best – even the “know-nothings”. What is the solution? Admitting every refugee into the United States? We long since reached the point of diminishing returns, as Publius Decius Mus has said. What we need to do is help figure out how to end the wars and build prosperity abroad. How very neo-con of me? There’s an old adage, “If we don’t fight them there, we fight them here.” There’s a certain amount of truth to that – not just jihadis but poverty and injustice and violence and oppression. Yes, Americans have constitutional guarantees others don’t – a legacy of our forefathers who the “know-nothings” would have us not read. But all humans have natural rights – life, liberty, property. Rights laid out first by God on tablets of stone at the top of a mountain.
Which brings me to Part 2.