Immigration & Turbulence
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Uncle Jimbo has raised the flag of the immigration debate. Since BlackFive suggested I might cross-post things while he was on vacation, for your reading pleasure, I'm going to put a post I wrote for Grim's Hall in the extended entry.
It treats these questions:
* When we think about immigration in America, we think about the historic immigration from Ireland and Germany. American education normally suggests that opposition to such immigration was simple fear, or even racism. But what conditions were the opponents of immigration responding to with the cartoons and speeches we all encountered in social studies class? How bad did the turmoil sparked by that immigration really get?
* Can immigration really threaten an established culture?
* What is to be done, in the particular case of Mexico? What are the problems facing us, and what solutions are available?
It's a survey of the topic, but may offer you a perspective or two you haven't encountered before. If you like, it's in the extended entry.
The Garden of Turbulence:
If you had the standard American social studies classes as I did, there came a point at which you were introduced to the problem of immigration. The textbook contained a few paragraphs on the massive Irish and German immigration of the 19th century, and probably a few nasty political cartoons from the day showing the racist contempt Americans had for the new arrivals. There was a sentence or two recognizing that there was some social turmoil, but wound up pointing out that the two groups eventually became part of our vibrant American stream, enriching it greatly.
The teacher then always said -- I swear, it must have been in the instructions in the teachers' version of these texts -- "Of course, some people feel the same way about immigrants today."
Well, some do, I suppose. But if you're going to make the analogy -- and it is such a standard part of the American public education, that we're all stuck with the analogy -- you ought to present the opposing case fairly. In other words, how serious was the turmoil to which they were reacting? What kind of "turmoil" are we talking about? The emphasis is added in all blockquotes below.
It ends in the apocalypse of the July 1863 Draft Riots, the bloodiest urban insurrection in US history, with regiments recalled from Gettysburg firing grapeshot point blank at mobs of Irish slumdwellers....
While Irish and 'American' gangs were bloodying each other in the alleys of the Bowery, the Irish labour leader James McGuire, the German Communist Albert Komp and the native radical Ira B Davis were organising thousands of the unemployed into a militant American Workers' League. When the bourgeois press begged the militia 'to shoot down any quantity of Irish or Germans' as necessary to break the movement, native workers defiantly stood shoulder to shoulder with immigrants in Tompkins Square....
Two groups resisted assimilation into this solution. One was the radical wing of the labour movement, solidly rooted amongst the Red 48s [veterans of Germany's 1848 revolution] and socialists of Kleindeutschland, whose strategic goal was an independent labour party. Many of them were both abolitionists and anti-capitalists. The other was the Irish poor--the day labourers and sweatshop workers--whose appalling misery (brilliantly depicted by Scorsese) was now compounded by wartime inflation and inflamed by the terrific losses of Irish regiments in Virginia. The Irish were also alarmed by pro-Confederate propaganda that warned of a tidal wave of freed slaves in Northern labour markets if the Union won.
These two groups--the labour vanguard and the slum poor--played contrasting roles in the 1863 insurrection. The draft lottery that July was universally scorned by Northern workmen as an institutionalisation of class privilege, since the well-heeled could buy exemptions for $300. Accordingly, the massive demonstration and strike on Monday morning of 13 July was largely led by uptown Irish and German industrial workers, supported by volunteer fire companies.
By early evening, however, the trade unions had lost leadership to street gangs and Confederate sympathisers who directed the wrath of the Irish poor against both the mansions of the rich and the hovels of African-Americans. The Coloured Orphans Asylum was burnt to the ground and blacks were hounded down and hideously murdered....
The hysterical upper classes, meanwhile, demanded a retaliatory bloodbath in the slums. Six thousand federal troops, many of them Irish New Yorkers, dutifuly cleared the streets with cannonfire and bayonets. The heroes of Gettysburg became the butchers of New York. In scenes which foreign observers compared to the June 1848 masssacres in Paris, scores of rag-clad Irish women and children were cut down alongside their menfolk.
Was that the end of it? No, not by half. After the war, Tammany Hall became the leadership of the Irish immigrants in New York, and likewise their chief exploiter. Twenty-five thousand Irish veterans of the Civil War created themselves into a declared sovereign state and invaded Canada to seize land and found a new Ireland, planning to move on from their to take the old Ireland by sea.
Regiments of a self-styled "army of liberation" crossed an international border and fought British subjects in behalf of the Irish Republic....
Organized for the purpose of winning Ireland's independence by physical force, the Fenians revealed Irish-American nationalism in its finest flowering and full ambiguity. Rooted more in the hard life of the immigrant than in his Irish origin or his religion, the Fenian Brotherhood created its own sustaining myths and founded its own government within the United States. A member of Commons rightly called the Brotherhood, "a new Irish nation on the other side of the Atlantic, recast in the mould of Democracy, watching for an opportunity to strike a blow at the heart of the British Empire." It is the only organization in US history which armed and drilled publicly, and invaded Canada for the purpose of using seized land as a stepping-stone for the invasion and liberation of Ireland.
They called themselves The Irish Republican Army. Border raids into Canada continued for four years, before the Fenians withdrew their headquarters from New York City, and their most devoted remaining supporters shipped back to Ireland to wage war against the British.
Riots, insurrections, declarations of sovereign states within the United States, independent armies waging private war against our neighbors, massacres: add all these things together, and those political cartoons look a little bit different, don't they? They stop looking racist, and start looking like -- well, somewhat like the recent Muhammad cartoons.
I mention all this, of course, because of the recent marches. These assemblies, purely peaceful, are nevertheless on such a scale that they demand attention -- indeed, wanting our attention was why they marched. Well, they have it now: let us think about them.
MilBlogger Doc Russia, himself the husband of an immigrant and indeed a refugee, has some thoughts on them. I have some others.
Yet, so deep is the current of 'anti-anti-immigrant' thought in public education, it seems necessary to preface any thoughts about the need to restrict immigration with the above. Only when you take a moment to look at the true scale of the social turmoil from the last period can you get past the idea that the sentiment itself is dishonorable. It is not dishonorable, nor is it irrational, to raise the concern that open immigration can cause some pretty severe problems -- problems which we could avoid by handling immigration differently.
1) Though massive, the displays so far are peaceful. The spread of gang culture among Latin American immigrants parallels, but is less severe than, the spread among Irish immigrants in the 19th century. For now, I think we ought to bear in mind that the situation is largely as the rallies describe it: a case of people who are "criminal" only insofar as they have broken our immigration laws, but are otherwise honest people seeking a better life.
2) Mexicans have a sensibility about this issue which is different from ours. The Mexican constitution, like our own, includes certain enumerated rights. Among these rights is the right of Mexican citizens to enter and leave their country whenever they wish. That right is restricted as a matter of practical law -- even Mexican law requires them to make use of a proper port of entry, and therefore Mexicans who immigrate illegally to the US are breaking their law as well as ours.
Still, our own freedom of speech is also restricted by practical law -- against slander, for example, and 'dangerous speech' such as yelling fire in a theatre. We nevertheless believe it to be a fundamental right, because from birth we are raised to think of it that way. They likewise are raised to believe they have a right to free transit, and our attempts to stop them -- most especially threats to build a wall, to keep them out -- they honestly feel to be an infringement on a basic human right.
2.1) Addendum to the above: While the US system does not and never has recognized an international right to free travel, we do recognize it for US citizens moving among the several states. Our experience with it demonstrates that it really is a right that increases human freedom and happiness: as I've often said, in belaboring the importance of Federalism, the freedom to move from a state that has laws you find oppressive to a state with laws you find just is a powerful thing. Americans don't always agree, and the freedom to move from (say) New Jersey to Texas, or vice versa, greatly increases our individual opportunities to live according to our own lights.
You can imagine how we would react to New Jersey telling its citizens that they could not leave: that Texas was unavailable to them. You can imagine how we would react to Texas and New Jersey making a compact to prevent their citizens from moving back and forth. That's how the Mexicans feel about our laws: not that they aren't laws, but that they are so manifestly unjust that it is right and proper to ignore them.
They may be wrong about that, but it is an understandable moral drive. Particularly when your family is starving, but even when it isn't: I'll bet most readers can think of at least one class of law they consider so unjust that they would not only work to change it, but defy it openly until change could be effected.
If you can't, you're not a free man except by accident.
3) Even granting that most immigrants are morally upright in spite of the illegality, peaceful of intent and desiring only to move freely to find a better life, massive immigration can destroy a culture. I know it can, because I have seen it myself.
Yet I have seen the culture I grew up in pass away. My father's work brought us to a rural county in the North Georgia mountains when I was quite young. It had been largely unchanged since the 1830s: the same families who won the land lottery in the early days of Georgia's settlement of the mountains were still there. It was in its way a complete culture, with its own ideas about religion and ethics and your place in the world, who was important and what it meant to be rich.
Most of the kids I went to school with had no real interest in education, as they believed they would do what their fathers had done, which was what their grandfathers had done, and their great grandfather's: take over the family farm or business, and keep up the family's place in the community. They knew who they would probably marry from a young age, at least to five or six alternates, because they knew all the local girls and could tell which families were close enough to their own in status to be acceptable to each other.
The boom of the Sunbelt brought a flood of immigrants from other regions of the country, though, and they needed places to live. Eventually, Atlanta's expansion pushed into the county, and many cattle pastures started being bought up for subdivisions, new schools, new businesses. With that came rising property values and property taxes, higher taxes for the building and maintenance of the schools, the construction of new roads.
Between the flooding of the county with new people who didn't share the culture, and the fact that the rising tax rates forced so many of the people out, the entire culture collapsed. The poorest were forced to leave, the upper-middle class was suddenly poor and scrambling to survive among their new neighbors, and even the folks who had been the upper class were now only middle-class. A new kind of "rich" appeared, and began laying claim to the structures of power.
The newcomers also brought a different politics -- they all voted Republican, whereas the existing local politics had been Southern Democrat. They brought a different perspective too: they were from many different places, and looked back to those places and abroad to others where they might yet go. They also brought a demand for not just more schools, but better ones: their children would be equally rootless and mobile, and would need educational capital they could carry with them from job to job and place to place, as there would be no family farm or business on which to rely.
Nor, of course, were there those things for the folks who had grown up expecting them: what they had been counting on their whole lives was swept away, by forces totally beyond their control.
It was a small revolution, and not violent, but it destroyed the culture as fully and completely as the Norman conquest did for the Anglo-Saxons.
The broader American culture continues to exist, of course: and those of us who survived the destruction, like castaways, seek other places in which we can root and build anew. Nor was it, as I said, all bad: when I find a place to root, I won't try to put things back just the way they were. The pursuit of education, which the newcomers brought as a different kind of capital but which I have come to love for itself, is a genuine improvement. The immigrant enrichment of our vibrant American stream is real, and to be treasured.
All the same, even when immigration is entirely peaceful and lawful, if it passes a certain level it can completely rend the social fabric. That is a real danger that has to be managed as best as it can.
4) Note that the newcomers I reference above were not Mexicans, but other Americans; and indeed, other Red State Americans. We also had Mexican immigrants, in fact lots of them. They wore cowboy hats and cowboy boots; they got drunk on Friday and Saturday, went to church on Sunday, and work on Monday. In other words, except that they spoke Spanish and flew Mexican flags instead of Confederate ones, they fit right in. They did not cause problems greater than what the local population caused itself, and in a generation or so were assimiliated and so similar to the older population as to be almost indistinguishable. One of my sister's bridesmaids was a second-generation immigrant of this type, named Diaz, who was no different from anyone else.
The concerns about immigration, in other words, are neither racist nor ideological -- they are simply concerns about avoiding the extraordinary turmoil that comes with mass movement. In that turmoil, bad things flourish like plants in a garden where the soil has been painstakingly made right for them. Sometimes these are criminal gangs, whether the Irish Fenians or the MS-13; sometimes it is political corruption, like Tammany Hall or the wave of "Republicans" who were elected in the wake of the immigration in Forsyth County. Many of these new officials were scoundrels who we'd kept out of office for decades because of their corruption -- but the incoming folks didn't know them like we did. They only knew that they voted Republican, come election day.
There is a tipping point beyond which the social fabric tears. Up to that point, immigration does no harm and much good. Beyond it, even when the 'immigrants' are other Americans from different subcultures, the destruction is total.
5) I think, then, several things:
A) A wall is a bad idea. Mexico is one of our most important trading partners: we get more oil from them than from any Arabian state; almost all of our winter fruits come right across that border. Walling them off, given their understanding of the human right of free movement, is going to be taken as a tremendous insult. It will cause us problems we don't need, both in terms of access to oil supply, and in the ability to handle the problems that afflict both nations which are best addressed by cooperation. These include the weakness of the Mexican economy, made worse by its corrupt political structure, which is the chief generator of the waves of heavy immigration.
B) I have seen it suggested -- in the comments to Doc's post, for one place -- that we consider annexing Mexico and making it a territory, bringing it slowly into statehood. I can't imagine, given what I know about Mexico's culture, that such a suggestion could work. Just as we are taught from birth that immigration is a good thing, and fears about immigration simple racism, so they are taught that America is an evil, domineering neighbor that seeks to control them. The whole history of Mexico is taught in Mexican public schools as one American plot to steal their sovereignity after another. (A good overview of the problem is given by former US Ambassador to Mexico Jeffery Davidow in his book.)
It may be that someday there will be the kind of political comity that could make them want to become Americans, but it isn't there now. What is there is a belief that we have always wanted to dominate them and steal their sovereignity, and this would only play into that sentiment.
Pity, because it really would be the best solution -- if they were willing.
C) The 'guest worker' program is something I'm still considering. I do agree with Kaus, though: we need to lock down the existing border before we can do it. I have said I don't think we should build a wall, and I don't; but we should do much more with mobile patrols, and improved technology.
D) In general, we need to address the immigration that does occur by dispersing it. Half a million people in Los Angeles is -- even if they are wonderful people -- too many new immigrants for one place. Its culture and politics will tip increasingly, until LA is no longer America. Half a million people spread out among two-hundred-fifty million Americans, and there's no problem: indeed, given the many good qualities of the Mexican culture, and I think there are large parts of America that would be improved by the addition. I liked what the Mexicans did for Forsyth County: they largely fit in, and to the degree that they changed anything, it was only to broaden the local culture (and especially the cuisine; nothing against Southern Fried Chicken, but I do love a good salsa).
They have a lot to offer. We just need to ensure that the immigration that occurs happens in a way that encourages integration of their culture into ours, rather than the creation of two separate and opposing cultures.
E) How can we control flow when they have the option of making an illegal entry across such a huge border? It's not as hard as you might think: there are relatively easy points to cross, particularly the California corridor; there are also very hard places to cross, particularly in Arizona and New Mexico.
We have increased border enforcement on the easy points to the degree that it has driven much of the flow out into the desert. This is a deadly business. While I certainly don't agree with the ACLU's take on it, I will borrow their statistics: a 600% increase in deaths since the new policy was adopted.
If we did adopt a guest worker program -- I reiterate that I have not decided if I think it is wise -- we could manage flow to a large degree by opening a few of the easier crossings. From there, we could offer transportation to work sites across the country. By only offering transport to places where the population of immigrants did not seem to be approaching the tipping point, we could control a lot of the harmful effects of immigration while still enjoying the benefits.
F) Insofar as we wish to diminish immigration, the best way is to improve the Mexican economy and political system. Because Mexico has created a population susupicious of US interference, the most direct ways in which we could offer our help are closed. We should encourage them, however, to continue to improve their democracy -- it is only this most recent President, Fox, who does not come from the PRI, the political party which held power for eighty years in spite of 'elections.' Elections are becoming increasingly real and meaningful, and that's good.
We should encourage them to stop carrying on about the evils of America. It's not in our interests, certainly; but insofar as they might really benefit from our help, it's not in theirs either.
We can probably do more to slow or stop immigration by investing in Mexico than we can in any other way. Is that expensive? Consider Doc's issue: the health care situation. We're paying out tons either way. At least this way, by making investments now that may pay off increasingly as they mature, we can get ahead of the game. I think it would be less expensive in the long run, and as Mexico is one of our biggest trading partners, it would pay off for our economy as well.
Immigration poses a real challenge, and if it is not checked or managed it can create powerful social disruption -- even in the best case, where immigrants are almost all moral and hardworking. Nevertheless, these people are not an enemy, and we ought not to treat them as such. We have a lot to gain from each other, and should think about the issue in those terms. Yet we must also keep our minds fixed on the turmoils of the 1800s, as a warning of what can happen if we do not consider the matter carefully; and as a warning against those who want to try to batter any restraints, restrictions, or management of immigration as if it were simple hate. It is not; these concerns are real, and we have every right to prepare against them.