The Fear and Nostalgia of the Debate on Immigration

What struck me about George Will’s recent column on immigration reform is how quaint his view of today’s immigration was. Consider this:

Many Republicans say immigration runs counter to U.S. social policies aiming to reduce the number of people with low levels of skill and education, and must further depress the wages of Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder, who are already paying the price for today’s economic anemia. This is true. But so is this: The Congressional Budget Office says an initial slight reduction of low wages (0.1 percent in a decade) will be followed by increased economic growth partly attributable to immigrants. Immigration is the entrepreneurial act of taking the risk of uprooting oneself and plunging into uncertainty. Small wonder, then, that immigrants are about 20 percent of owners of small businesses, and that more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

The emphasis is mine and the highlighted sentence expresses a view of immigration rooted in pure nostalgia. It was true a century ago. Now the other side of the world is a plane ticket and a sixteen hour ride by air. That’s quicker than travelling from New York to Chicago in 1900. In point of time Mumbai is closer to closer to Los Angeles than New York was to Philadelphia at the time of the American Revolution. The children of today’s immigrants frequently return home to spend the summer with Grandma. And only the most secluded and isolated countries in the world have actual uncertainty about the United States. The Cosby Show is shown everywhere. Today’s immigrants might have a rose-colored view of the United States but “uncertainty” is too strong a word. These are not yesterday’s immigrants.


Many Republicans see in immigrants only future Democratic votes.

reflects a different kind of misconception. Democrats who see an unending stream of newly-arrived Mexican immigrant conferring on them a permanent electoral advantage are kidding themselves, too. A minority of the immigrants legalized in the 1980s sought citizenship. Advances in travel and communications (not to mention Mexico’s changing social and economic conditions) will probably reduce that rather than increasing it if there’s a new move towards legalization (whatever it’s called).

I wish that U. S. immigration policy and politics were geared to the realities of today’s immigration rather than the immigration of the imagination. Our agricultural sector needs a guest worker program. We should establish such a system that’s targeted at today’s realities rather than the glow of a nostalgic yesteryear or an imagined present reality.

9 comments… add one
  • jan Link

    A minority of the immigrants legalized in the 1980s sought citizenship.

    Many people, here even for a long time, have dreams of taking their savings and returning to their country of origin. That’s where their loyalty, family/friends and comfort zones are housed. They virtually have no interest in becoming a citizen of this country, using their time here as a monetary vehicle to support family members back home and/or eventually earn enough for themselves to go back ‘home’ for good.

    We should establish such a system that’s targeted at today’s realities rather than the glow of a nostalgic yesteryear or an imagined present reality.

    But, government just doesn’t do that. It likes large comprehensive plans (like the PPACA) for everything, including immigration, where you lump everyone together under a big-picture policy, having little room for personal individuation. Immigration could be handled in steps, dealing separately with the various areas that need improvement: better visa oversight; a more stream-lined bureaucratic process to obtain citizenship; a more fluid guest worker quota system which more accurately addresses current-day agricultural needs; better business monitoring (e-verify implementation) for legal workers; border security satisfaction, and so on.

    However, the polarization of parties is not conducive to consider workable options, only ideological demands. And, that’s what we are seeing on all levels and branches of government today.

  • Ben Wolf Link


    Regarding your previous post on Asian response to Chinese belligerence:

    The Abe administration’s architects of CSD have made it quite clear that they intend to apply collective self defense beyond the one nation with whom Japan currently has a formal alliance relationship, the US.

    The deeper game in “collective self defense” was frankly discussed by its architect, courtesy Bloomberg:

    “Yousuke Isozaki, a special adviser to Abe on security policy, is spearheading the effort on collective self-defense and says the change will deepen security ties with the US and allow Japan [7] to reach out to other allies.

    ‘We want to be able to discuss security with friendly countries other than the US,” he said in a January 17 interview. “If we are bound hand and foot, we cannot talk. We cannot even say we will protect one another if something happens.'”

    In other words, “collective self defense” could be exercised in the aid of future allies, such as India, the Republic of the Philippines, and Vietnam, all of whom are already eager partners in heightened security cooperation with Japan targeting the People’s Republic of China.

    I particularly like the dig at the Obama Administration’s choice of ambassador to Japan earlier in the piece.

  • Obama Administration’s choice of ambassador to Japan

    I think the crack is the consequence of a more general loss of confidence and respect in the administration rather than some particular issue with Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan. One action affects the reaction to the next and, eventually, opinion can deteriorate rather badly.,

  • Mercer Link

    I recently heard an immigration critic on C-Span say there is already a program for unlimited numbers of temporary agriculture workers but that farmers don’t like it because it requires them to provide housing for the workers.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Mercer, the farmers think its too expensive, and they have to plan far in advance for their labor force needs. On the flip side, the Southern Poverty Law Institute complains that foreign labor routinely is deprived of their rights to prevailing wages, housing, meals, transportation, and worker safety because any complaint will almost certainly mean deportation. I think the agricultural needs are overstated, and instead of subsidizing the ability to have a temporary third world labor force in the U.S., the government should subsidize capital improvements like “picking” equipment and greenhouses. I would like to see more emergency construction work visas for hurricanes, etc.

  • The key point is that the number of work visas available to Mexican nationals is absurdly, unrealistically low. So low that it creates incentives for illegal activity, both by workers and employers.

    IMO there’s something between closing the border completely and formally open borders other than the present unacceptable status quo.

  • @PDShaw, take this for what it’s worth, as it’s just an anecdote, but I’ve actually seen significant shortages. I was living at an apartment where fieldhands lived. They were earning $20/hr and overtime and were still asking me if I knew anybody that might be interested (there were signing bonuses, and they were tired of working such long hours).

    Capital improvements might alleviate the situation, though. Can’t speak to that.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Trumwill, without knowing the context, I’ve seen reports that because of the expense of agricultural visas, farmers using the program try to have a mix of domestic and foreign labor, but if the foreign labor departs or the domestic supply doesn’t appear, the farmer is left in a bad position when crops are ready to harvest. The program either takes too long or its too expensive, probably both. From your anecdote its hard to tell the actual source of the shortage.

    I think its hard to create a low-wage program of outsiders that is expensive to the farmer that is not going to have a lot of abuse.

  • PD Shaw Link

    To clarify, I wouldn’t cap agricultural visas, and streamlining bureaucratic functions is always a good idea, but I wouldn’t subsidize the use of foreign labor by cutting wages, exempting it from health and safety protections, or eliminating the employer’s obligation to make sure that the workers in a foreign land have room, shelter and transportation. If that’s not economically viable because of competition from third world countries, then the agricultural project must take a different form that is not so dependent on seasonal labor.

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