What’s the purpose of immigration?

What’s the purpose of immigration? September 2, 2016

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEllis_island_1902.jpg; See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

that is, in the year 2016, why do we allow strangers into our country?

Is it in order to enrich our country and its citizens?

Or is it as a form of charity, a work of mercy, “welcoming the stranger” and providing a sort of foreign aid right here in our own country?

I write this after having just read an article in the Tribune today, “No more nation of immigrants: Trump plan calls for a major, long-lasting cut in legal entries” (viewable online at the LA Times), in which the author seems truly surprised at Trump’s proposals:

If Trump is elected, the shift he advocates would greatly reduce immigration overall and move the U.S. from an immigration philosophy of allowing strivers from around the world to take advantage of American opportunities to one focused on bringing in people who already have money and job skills. . . .

After four decades of high levels of immigration, Trump said, the country needs to “control future immigration” to “ensure assimilation.”

The model, he said, should be what the U.S. did after “previous immigration waves” — a reference to the restrictionist legislation passed under President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s that remained in place until 1965.

The goal should be “to keep immigration levels, measured by population share, within historic norms,” he said. Groups that call for a return to “historic norms” often point to the 1960s and 1970s, when the foreign-born share of the U.S. population fell to about one out of every 20 people, rather than one in eight as it is today.

I’m not sure what to make of this reporting, which takes as it viewpoint that it’s “natural” and “normal” to have unrestricted immigration, and that the period from 1920 to 1965 (the latter half of which coincided with the progressives’ “Golden Age” of middle-class prosperity) was an aberration.

And the subsequent reporting makes it clear that the reporter views Trump’s position as “nativist” and wrong-headed, citing experts who say that we need immigrants to continue to grow our labor force and maintain a strong economy.  The article also reports that prior proposals to bring in more skilled immigrants were always in the context of net increases in the number of immigrants, by maintaining the existing immigration of the unskilled as well.

Now, I could speak at length of my skepticism of the idea that human beings are interchangeable, and that all we need, to keep our economy strong, are bodies, of whatever kind.  You cannot replace a retiring engineer or accountant or even tool and dye maker with a barely literate landscaper and keep the economy humming solely by inertia.  And culture is not interchangeable.  You cannot swap out an individual raised to value hard work, education and achievement, and to value the equal rights of women, and the importance of delaying parenthood ’til after marriage and the equal role of fathers in raising their children, for an individual without those values.  (Here’s an old post on the subject:  “Killing the goose that laid the golden egg, or, Culture Matters,” about the situation in Germany.)

But let’s focus on that first sentence of the quote:  the author seems to express an “occupy” sentiment in the context of immigration.  Do you favor the 1% — those who have education and job skills?  That’s bad.  Do you favor the 99% — the “strivers”?  Good for you!

Do we, as Americans, have a moral responsibility to give preference in admission into the U.S. those who are most needy?  Remember, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem; “Give me your poor” is not an article in the constitution.  For that matter, the Works of Mercy are a religious belief — and aren’t we hearing repeatedly that the government shouldn’t be implementing anyone’s religion?

But if we do agree, as a nation, that admitting into the U.S. unskilled individuals is a meritorious thing to do, either legally or de facto via illegal immigration without enforcement, regardless of their cost to the public treasury, then how do we assess the right numbers of needy?  We could do a calculation:  X unskilled immigrants times Y cost per immigrant — but there is no consensus on the cost of increasing the proportion of unskilled workers in the country.

And, of course, the situation a century, or a century and a half ago, when the country’s cities teemed with poor, who eventually assimilated and became a part of the mainstream American economy and culture, isn’t something we can import today — since cities teeming with the desperately poor are not something we’re willing to shrug off today.

Your thoughts as we head into the weekend?


image:  Arrivals at Ellis Island, from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEllis_island_1902.jpg; See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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