Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Immigration and community

   Is it possible to be concerned about the communitarian consequences of immigration and not appear to be racist?  Many liberals are struggling to do so. 
   One argument is that immigrants increase the supply of those desiring to work at low-wage jobs, as Nicholas Kristof has written, citing a 2005 study by economists at Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research.  Thus curbing immigration might help raise the wages of low-income American workers.   
   Another argument is that our current policy mishmash makes little sense:  We make it difficult to enter the United States legally and stay, yet we do not spend the resources necessary to control the border or to crack down on those in the country illegally.  It would be more coherent either to take the steps necessary to enforce the current laws or to accept a policy of open borders.
   A third argument is environmental.  Increased population means increased pollution and increased pressures on habitat and natural resources.  Thus one can point to the environment as a justification for controlling both legal and illegal immigration.   
   The most problematic argument for a liberally minded thinker is the social consequences of immigration.  After all, the xenophobic complaints about a flood of immigrants from Latin America appear to echo the complaints made 100 years ago about immigrants from eastern and southern Europe -– an migration that now is viewed as American as apple pie.  So, is it foolish to be concerned over the social implications of today’s immigration?
   I maintain that one can be concerned and not be racist.  One difference is that 100 years ago we had a policy of assimilation; in particular, new immigrants were encouraged to learn English and nearly all did so.  This assimilation was helped by the fact that we had immigrants speaking so many different languages.  Today, the majority of immigrants speak Spanish and it is much easier to live almost entirely within a Spanish-speaking culture in cities such as Los Angeles.  It is not racist to be concerned over the potential creation of two distinct cultures in the United States that do not speak the same language.  There are very few examples in world history of nations with two separate linguistic cultures that did not suffer from cultural strife. Consider modern examples of the now-split Yugoslavia, the now-split Czechoslovakia, and even modern Spain, where tension still exists among Castilians, Catalans, and Basques. (Switzerland may be the best counterexample, but nearly everyone there is educated in more than one language.)  Unless we adopt a national policy that results in all new immigrants learning English, I believe there is a serious ground for concern over immigration.    

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