Friday, May 05, 2006

# Posted 8:16 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A COUNTERINTUITIVE APPROACH TO IMMIGRATION: Picking up on Patrick's post below, I thought I'd post some quotations from a recent article on immigration in TNR [subscription required]:
The universally held--but virtually unquestioned--assumption is that illegal immigrants make up a discrete and problematic group, whereas legal immigrants are a benign or even beneficial presence. But this sharp dichotomy is fundamentally misleading...That's because the problems facing us do not stem exclusively from illegal immigration, but from immigration itself...

Tmmigration restrictionists learned to reduce their array of objections to immigration generally to the problem of illegals specifically--a tactic that also enabled them to avoid the charge of racism. The legal-illegal dichotomy thus became a relatively safe framework within which to debate a complicated and volatile issue--and it has stayed that way until today.

When Americans denounce illegal immigrants, they complain about lost jobs, overcrowded schools and emergency rooms, and noisy, dirty neighborhoods where nobody speaks English...Yet, whatever their specific merits, not one of these complaints pertains uniquely to illegal immigrants. If Congress were to grant a general amnesty or augment legal immigration tomorrow, the same concerns would be voiced by Americans. This suggests that something else is bothering the public: the transience and disorder that inevitably accompany mass migration...

Americans want to believe that immigrants come here to stay. It is part of the national mythology that the United States is a beacon, attracting foreigners who long to become part of our noble experiment. That's what President Bush is getting at when he says, "It says something about our country that people around the world are willing to leave their homes and leave their families and risk everything to come to America."

But this is, at best, a half-truth that ignores the fact that immigrants do not typically arrive here intending to settle down..."Left to their own devices, most Mexican immigrants would work in the United States only sporadically and for limited periods of time." [Princeton sociologist Douglas] Massey emphasizes that even those with legal documents don't necessarily intend to stay.

What is bothering Americans most about immigration, legal or illegal, is that it frays--and threatens to rip--the social fabric; it makes them feel that things are out of control...As with old debates over crime, liberal elites condescendingly dismiss such concerns as racist or foolishly reduce them to economic fears. Even sympathetic conservatives are not very responsive, in great part because they, too, have bought into the prevailing legal-illegal dichotomy. Without such elite support, mass discontent remains submerged until it erupts in an angry and inarticulate populist outburst, which of course sends the politicians scurrying for the safety of the entrenched legal-illegal framework.
The editors at TNR love nothing more than an argument that's both counterinuitive and that makes a hash of the usual left-right partisan politics. This article delivers on all front.

Although I don't know much about immigration beyond what I read in the papers, I still wonder whether the article's authors are too quick to erase the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. For example, a police officer in my neighboorhood told me a few months ago that illegal immigrants are often the targets of street crime, since muggers assume that they tend to carry a lot of cash.

That sort of evidence is entirely anecdotal, but it's the kind of thing I'd like to hear more about before accepting that legal-illegal distinction isn't as useful as we think.
(8) opinions -- Add your opinion

while i usually like TNR, let me disagree.

lawfulness matters, quite apart from costs and benefits.

Take taxes as an example. The cost of tax evasion is less money in the treasury. The same could be said about legal tax avoidance. But I insist the govt enforce laws against tax evasion - the proper level of legal tax loopholes is another issue.

That could be applied to a hundred other issues. Yes weighing costs and benefits of laws is a good idea. But its meaningless if we cant enforce the laws we do have.

"Americans want to believe that immigrants come here to stay...

this is, at best, a half-truth that ignores the fact that immigrants do not typically arrive here intending to settle down..."Left to their own devices, most Mexican immigrants would work in the United States only sporadically and for limited periods of time." [Princeton sociologist Douglas] Massey emphasizes that even those with legal documents don't necessarily intend to stay.

While Massey is correct to say that the set of people who don't wish to stay is not a subset of illegal immigrants, I feel fairly confident in asserting that there's a much much higher percentage of illegals who don't wish to stay than there are legals who don't wish to stay.

I'm ignoring F1/H1B visas here because we don't typically refer to them as immigrants because their status is granted on the basis of a deadline when they have to leave (or get a green card, but green cards almost always mean you intend to stay.)

I should also point out that the particular problem with immigrants not wishing to stay in the US means that they have significantly reduced incentive to assimilate thereby exacerbating cultural problems.

In brief, I agree with some of the points in the excerpt (e.g., it's the culture, stupid), but I think the illegal/legal dichotomy is still useful for identifying the immigrants who are most problematic culturally.
I think the author is quite wrong in minimizing the difference between legal and illegal immigrants.

1. The two groups aren't particularly similar. Legal immigrants, esp. those with H-1B visas, presumably have a much higher proportion of skilled, professional workers. This matters in terms of their income, and thus in terms of how much they'll pay in taxes.

2. Illegal immigrants are, pretty much by definition, much more inclined to commit crimes; in fact, the crime rate is 100% among them. It seems likely that their crime rate is far higher for other crimes as well (i.e. not counting the crime of being in the US illegally), especially since legal immigrants are screened, and those who have committed (some/serious) crimes are largely kept out.

3. Illegal immigrants frequently work off the books, so they won't be paying (directly or indirectly, by their employers) taxes to a far greater extent than legal immigrants.

4. Assuming illegal immigrants are less likely to own real estate and to live in poorer conditions than legal immigrants, they will also be paying significantly less in property taxes (which largely fund schools).
Fred, you're an idiot. H1B wokers are expressly, and legally, "NON IMMIGRANT WORKERS"; outside of getting a green card they are not immigrants. Of course some of them overstay their visas, but the only problem with H1B workers in sometimes fraud in their applications (Language technicans for Dunkin Donuts)
Erasing the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants is an almost uniform rhetorical ploy enagaged in by defenders of illegal immigrants. Because they know they can't win the real argument, they try to make it a different argument by obscuring key details.

In this case, the problems facing us do not stem exclusively from illegal immigration, but from the NATURE of the people who illegally immigrate. Wave a magic amnesty wand tomorrow, and they would still represent a pool of people who are less well educated, more criminally inclined, and too large and homogeneous to be readilly assimilated.

Stop illegal immigration, and increase legal immigration quotas by the same number, and we'd be bringing in a rather different mix of people. Better educated, more law abiding, AND, more heterogenous, because they'd be coming from all over the world, instead of just from Mexico.

So, yes, if the exact same people were entering legally, it would present many of the problems they represent as illegal immigrants. But legal immigration wouldn't bring in the same people.
" ... illegal immigrants are often the targets of street crime, since muggers assume that they tend to carry a lot of cash."

Forgive me, I just woke up, but I don't understand how is this an argument in favor of sustaining the legal-illegal distinction. These cases usually are taken to support legalization, the idea being that illegal immigrants would be more likely to report being victimized if they didn't fear the police, that they'd be less likely to be paid in cash and more likely to have access to banks if they were legal, etc. All this is pretty commonplace. Or am I missing the point entirely?
Open borders types are always trying to shimmy the debate away from illegality - where it's a law 'n order and security question - to immigration, where the racist trump card can be played to squelch debate. You can always see where a debater goes by seeing if they actually use the word "illegal" - open-borders types can write entire articles on illegal immigration without ever mentioning the question of law or the word "illegal".
Sure, immigration in itself is always accompanied by problems and challenges. It is also brings oppotunities and clear benefits.

But the contemporary phenomenon of massive illegal immigration from Mexico carries a host of additional problems, of which three predominate:

1.Massive illegal immigration undermines national immigration policy. Our ability as a society to deliberate and legislate rationally about immigration policy has been dangerously compromised by the huge illegal immigrant elephant in the room. Until we get a handle on this particular problem, immigration policy will sputter along. One consequence is that potential immigrants from other countries will be harmed. What happens if there is a crisis abroad that produces a major refugee problem, and calls for more immigration from the affected areas? How sympathetic is the public likely to be when they feel that they have lost control of their ability to regulate immigration?

2.When immigrants mainly enter legally, the society that allows them to enter has voluntarily assumed some degree of ownership of the challenges that immigration always poses. There are always problems of assimilation, nativist backlash, cultural conflict, etc. to deal with. But when the would-be nativist recalls that (i) he voted for certain Senator, Representative and President, and (ii) those people voted for and signed the laws that permitted the immigration, then he is forced to accept some personal responsibility for the challenges. He also recognizes that, whatever his personal opinions, his fellow citizens have chosen to take on the challenges that face them. Not so when the immigrants are illegal.

3. Legal immigrants fall more clearly within the protections afforded by law - especially in the area of labor. When people are forced to live as a quasi-outlaw community, they are subject to various kinds of exploitation. They also are vulnerable to a variety of social problems stemming from their alienation from the law. Meanwhile, the existence of a large body of unregulated labor seriously undermines the ability of American citizens, who are supposed to be a self-governing people, to regulate the relationship between business and labor. These labor regulations represent generations of effort, and progressives should be particularly concerned about undermining them.

So, yes, legal immigration also comes with problems. We should have such problems. It is not helpful to blur the clear distinctions between those ordinary problems and the special problems posed by illegal immigration.
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