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American Ambivalence about Immigration 7 April 2006

Posted by Todd in Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Race & Ethnicity, Social Sciences.

The only good thing to come out of the current insanity in Congress—the battle over the Senate and House versions of immigration reform, the former a somewhat reasonable proposal, the latter a throw-back to 1920s style nativism[1]—is that it happens to fall right when my course on inequality in the United States is covering the issue of immigration, so I have something meaty and immediate to throw to my students for debate.

Immigration has been an issue for centuries, dating back to the fear of German immigrants in the 18th century. But Americans as a whole have always been ambivalent in their feelings in general, and their governmental policies always end up stradling various ethical, legal, and historical issues. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center demonstrates amply America's ambivalence about immigration.

Where Mexico is concerned, Americans' feelings about immigration are even more murky. Some point to the fact that the U.S. Southwest was once northern Mexico, but more salient is the fact that even during the bracero program of the 1930s, the border with Mexico has always been a de facto open border. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883, California farmers needed to replace the labor force they lost, and turned to Mexico. Mexican (and Canadian) workers were exempted in the draconian 1924 Immigration Act and moved freely back and forth across the border. It was not until the 1965 Immigration Act put limits on Mexican immigration that the issue of "illegal immgrants" from Mexico was even an issue. (That is not to say that there weren't cultural and social tensions between Anglos and Mexican-Americans prior to 1965, just that their legal status was not at the center of the conflict.) The Mexican economy, decimated by NAFTA during the 1990s, has produced a horde of unemployed people living at or near absolute poverty; southern Mexicans have been displaced into northern Mexico, and more and more Mexicans need to come north to feed their families.

Current debates about immigration cross party boundaries and make strange bedfellows, because the values that drive individuals' and groups' evaluation of the issue are contradictory and overlapping. Often people on both sides of the American political dyad find themselves both for and against immigration and immigration reform at the same time. It seems that these attitudes fall into four quadrants of sorts, as I've tried to illustrate in very bad HTML Table below (if anyone knows why a giant space is appearing before the table, please email me so I can fix that).

Ideology or Values (Left) Believers (Left) Believers (Right) Ideology or Values (Right)
For: Multiculturalism, diversity, etc. Educators, immigrant advocates, immigrants, etc. Business owners, farmers, PMC who hire immigrant day-labor and domestic help, etc. For: Capitalist production, free market, etc.
Against: Job protection, labor rights, etc. Working class, labor activists, etc. national security wonks, those who don't directly benefit from migrant labor, middle class and working class who fear cultural "denationalization", etc. Against: Nationalism, "American identity"

Of course, this is an oversimplified rubric (many labor activists are pro-immigration, and many business owners are against, etc.). What I am trying to illustrate, here, is the general outline of the competing values that drive peoples reactions, emotions, their policy decisions regarding immigration, and ultimately their ambivalence. Surely, sociologically, immigration is not a neutral social phenomenon; it can cause real upheaval and turmoil to a society, depending on how it occurs, its scale and scope, and the perceptions of society's members. And just as surely for the migrants themselves, according to many studies, the "context of reception" is the single greatest factor in determining their mental health and emotional adjustment to a new cultural home after migration.[2]

To be continued when I know where I'm going with this…

[1] Democracy Now had an interesting debate over the Senate proposal last week, between Aarti Shahani of Families for Freedom and Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute. Although I am at odds with the Manhattan Institute on many issues—especially their economic policy—Ms. Jacoby's arguments made sense to me, given what I've been studying recently about the history of immigration policy and Americans' responses to immigrants over the past 10 years. Listen to the debate online.
[2] See Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, Second Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 155-186.



1. mattblack - 10 April 2006

I wonder if you have any thoughts about demographic trends and the diminishing labor force this country faces in the coming years. I understand the U.S. (as well as Japan and Europe) has a demographic crisis of sorts coming down the pipes where a smaller and smaller native workforce shoulders more and more responsibility for economic output (not to mention supporting retiring workers). I’m not sure I understand the ins and outs of this phenomenon but I don’t hear anyone talking about it and it seems like it could be an important factor in the debate on immigration.

2. J. Todd Ormsbee - 11 April 2006

Well, because of immigration, the United States isn’t having the demographic problems that are most deeply felt in Scandinavia, Germany, and Japan. But the native-born population of the U.S. tends to at least reproduce the population (although the birth rate has been dropping significantly since 2000). What’s most irritating is that American version of capitalist labor market seems to require poor immigrants to function, and any effort to pay a living wage to native-born laborers meets with harsh resistance.

My sense is that immigration or no, as globalization progresses, economists are going to have to think of a new rationale for the capitalist market. As it is, profits require “growth”, but the social and environmental costs of “growth” can’t be borne forever. Maybe not in my lifetime, but soon the global market will have no where left to grow. It could, I suppose, create a permanent underclass and continue to squeeze middle class workers to make profits…but I just can’t see that being a working economy for long.

I’m not apocalyptic about the future of capitalism per se, but I do think there are real problems on the horizon and that the way capitalism is structured right now it will require significant restructuring of the economy to account for dwindling resources, booming populations, and shrinking markets.

3. Mysticusque - 13 April 2006

To be continued when I know where I’m going with this…

That could be a tagline for all of the United States, vis-a-vis immigration 🙂

It’s true, this issue is so complex that it makes everyone contradict themselves. Anti-globalization leftists, who have seen exploitation in the offshoring to India, China, Mexico, and Southeast Asia, now argue for amnesty for illegal workers, who should seem to a protectionist to be a direct threat to the protection of our own middle and working class. (I am such a leftist.)

Believers in liberal (free market) economics, on the other hand, who should be against restrictions on the free movement of labor forces, just as they’re against any borders, favor strict border control. Meanwhile, they favor no border control at all when offshoring every job to a foreign service worker by telecommute; when relocating every factory to Mexico, or importing from Chinese factories; or on the movement of capital between nations. So, capital, goods, factories and services may move freely between now non-existent borders, but only people are restricted. Why?

Or, some other free-market conservatives favor the status quo, so that they can have local low-wage bidders, to drive wages even lower, as well as the offshore Asian workers. These conservatives are more consistent than the two groups mentioned above. Oops, just one thing: their status quo rests on both them and their workers continually breaking the law as a matter of everyday business.

Also, it’s utterly ridiculous that while the European Union united in a free-trade zone, and the member countries allowed their citizens to live and work in each other’s countries without restriction, we make a free-trade zone with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA), and proceed to enact get-tough laws to make such migration a felony. What is that? It’s not liberal economics, I don’t think.

I think the answer is this: we need some protectionism. It’s a dirty word among economists, but if nothing needed protection, we’d have no hothouses, and we need hothouses. But it may be that the American middle and working classes don’t need protection from the world’s poor, as much as from the rich.

This should be backed up with statistics (oh, for an Economics degree). But if I’m wrong, and we need our workforce artificially kept tidy of low-wage migrant workers, then it’s obviously ridiculous to close the door to Mexicans, while leaving the window wide open to offshoring. Regulate them all, or regulate none; if we try to do both, we’ll do neither effectively.

(Sorry, I know this post is as long as your initial post…)

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