The 5 platitudes and mindless slogans that should be banned from the immigration debate
(Opinion) The world’s most deliberative body, as the U.S. Senate likes to call itself, held a weeklong debate on the contentious issue of immigration — and the public is no better informed for it.
That’s because pro-amnesty senators routinely did the same thing that other supporters of mass immigration do — spout empty platitudes and meaningless slogans as a substitute for actually engaging on the issue.
America desperately needs a real debate on this issue, one that illuminates and acknowledges the various tradeoffs that come with any policy. Immigration is not all good or all bad. There are pros and cons, winners and losers. The sooner we admit that, the sooner we can try to reach a consensus, instead of simply dismissing opponents as racist and xenophobic.
With that in mind, here are the five platitudes that should be banned from future immigration debates:
— “We are a nation of immigrants.”
This is, of course, factually accurate yet irrelevant. It suggests that because most Americans can trace their family trees to foreign lands, it means we have no right to limit new immigration or give preference to some newcomers over others.
That notion is absurd. All countries have the sovereign right to determine the most basic component of nationhood — its citizens.
The United States always has limited immigration in some way and has gone through periods of high immigration and low immigration. Currently, there are 24-year waiting lists for certain immigration categories. Still, America awards more than 1 million green cards every single year. What is the proper number? Whether you think it’s greater or fewer, there is a good bet you favor some restriction.
Each year, the United States admits about 50,000 foreigners chosen randomly from a lottery intended to diversify the immigrant pool. In 2015, 14.4 million applied. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to overall potential demand. A Gallup poll last year found that 147 million foreigners would move to America if they could. Unless you think the U.S. should take all of them, then you also believe in limits. Now, we’re just haggling over the numbers.
Nearly 44 million U.S residents, legal and illegal, were born abroad. That is the highest number ever. The foreign-born share of the population is 13.5 percent. The last time it was that high was in 1910 when it was 14.7 percent. In a few years, the foreign-born share of the population will be at an all-time high.
In other words, we are in unchartered territory.
After the great immigration wave in the late 19th and early 20th century, we put the brakes on immigration. Congress passed a law in 1924 dramatically reducing immigration. It is not a model we likely would want to follow. It was explicitly racist, barring immigration from certain countries. But as Harvard University economist George Borjas notes in his 2016 book, “We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative,” it did give the “melting pot” breathing space to absorb all those newcomers.
Even then, Borjas notes, it took about a century for the assimilation machine to work. The gap in the economic performance of different ethnicities among immigrants who came in the early 20th century narrowed but did not disappear in the second generation and persisted into the third.
And that was during a time when we more or less had a national consensus as to what we wanted assimilation to look like. We no longer have that – or even an agreement as to whether assimilation even is desirable.
— “Diversity is our strength.”
Another favorite aphorism of mass immigration advocates. They repeat it so frequently that many people start to nod their heads in agreement.
The reality is much much more complicated. There are obvious benefits. Drawing people from different backgrounds, if done right, adds new vitality and different skills. People from other cultures bring exotic food and culture that make life more interesting.
Diversity is far from an unmitigated good, however. Adding hundreds of thousands of people who speak different languages makes life harder in many ways. This is particularly true when it is not just one foreign language, but many.
According to the Census Bureau, more than 63 million people 5 and older speak a language other than English at home. Seven different languages are spoken at home by more than 1 million people. It makes it much harder for schools to educate children when students are speaking so many different languages.
But it is more than just linguistics. Having so many people from different cultures living together frays social cohesion. Research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — who wrote the landmark book “Bowling Alone” in 2000 — found that when diversity increases in a neighborhood, charitable giving, volunteerism and time spent on community projects declines. People trust their neighbors less — and not just from different ethnic groups but within ethnic groups. Whites trust other whites less, blacks trust other blacks less, etc.
In fact, the study — based on almost 30,000 interviews — found nearly all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse communities.
It could be that the benefits of diversity outweigh the drawbacks. But that ought to be a determination made after open debate, not a truism that is accepted without even acknowledging the downsides.
— “Immigrants do jobs Americans won’t do.”
Whenever I hear that, I always add — to myself — the words, “for that wage.”
Our immigration system disproportionately adds low-skill, low-income workers who compete with the most vulnerable Americans for low-end jobs on the bottom rungs of the economy. If we acknowledge that basic laws of supply and demand explain lower prices when the supply of commodities spikes, it stands to reason those laws would apply to labor, as well.
If we had fewer immigrants, maybe employers would have to pay more to fill those positions. That would not necessarily be a bad thing, and it undoubtedly would be a good thing for poorly educated Americans trying to make ends meet and gain a foothold in the economy.
Borjas offers a real-world example in his book. Immigration authorities raided a chicken processing plant in Georgia a decade ago and found three-quarters of the employees were illegal immigrants. The company suddenly had a need for new workers, and to attract them, it ran ads trumpeting higher salaries. Hundreds of African-Americans filled the vacancies.
Beyond those considerations, though, the “jobs Americans won’t do” phrase simply isn’t true. Americans make up a clear majority of the workforce in every occupation except agriculture and maids/housekeepers, where the split is roughly 50-50. That means there are an awful lot of Americans working as janitors, construction laborers, lawn groundskeepers and many other jobs Americans supposedly won’t do.
It is true that in places with high numbers of immigrants, the foreign-born dominate certain occupations. But somehow places with few immigrants manage to fill their positions. This is why the majority of dishwashers in New York City are immigrants but not in Birmingham.
— Immigrants grow the economy
This undoubtedly is true. No reputable economist disputes it. More people and more workers equal a bigger economy.
The overall size of the economy is a very poor measure of the desirability of a country. Most of the benefits from low-skill immigration flow to business owners and wealthy people who can get nannies and lawn care services cheaper.
That does not necessarily benefit the country as a whole.
If gross domestic product were all that mattered, then Mexico would be more desirable than Switzerland. Mexico’s economy is bigger. But where is the standard of living higher? The per capita income is more than three times higher in Switzerland, according to the CIA World Factbook.
— “The Statue of Liberty says ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”
Supporters of mass immigration cite this like it were the Constitution. In fact, it is a poem by Emma Lazarus added to the statue’s pedestal 17 years later.
The statue itself, a gift from France, was intended as a beacon of liberty throughout the world. According to the National Park Service, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was inspired by French law professor and politician Édouard René de Laboulaye. Laboulaye wished to honor the United States for abolishing slavery and hoped that calling attention to that would inspire the French people to call for their own democracy in the face of a French monarchy.
It wasn’t intended as an immigration symbol.
In any case, citing a poem written at a time when the United States needed large numbers of workers to fuel the industrial revolution is not actually an argument for maintaining the immigration status quo for the 21st century.