Immigration--A Thorny Subject

Stephen H. Unger
August 2, 2016

According to conventional wisdom, immigration to the US has always been a good thing for all concerned. It is said that the influx of people from diverse nations and backgrounds has been a very positive factor. Many victims of persecution in their homelands have found refuge in the US. Of course, with the exception of full-blooded American Indians, and descendants of people brought here as slaves, all Americans are, or are descended from, immigrants. My serious doubts about the conventional wisdom on this subject, are presented below.

The problem

Prior to the formation of the UN, with its agency charged with assisting people persecuted by the governments of their countries [1], there was no significant organized help for such people. In many cases, the best they could do was flee to another country. Often, the US was their best hope. Accepting relatively small numbers of people fleeing serious, imminent danger is reasonable. In the days when the US population was a fraction of what it is today, the environmental consequences were relatively small. But, today, allowing something like a million people to come to the US annually [2], in order to better their economic situations, is an ongoing disaster, with the principal victims being poor Americans at the bottom of the heap. The flood of people from impoverished countries is one of the principal causes of unemployment, and poverty-level wages for poor Americans, who must compete for jobs with people accustomed to living on minuscule incomes. (Other important factors damaging American workers are the export of American factories to low wage countries, the importing of manufactured goods from such countries, automation, and the virtual disappearance of effective labor unions, other than those representing government employees, such as teachers. The manipulation of foreign exchange rates is another pertinent issue [3]).

More generally, starting at least with the European invasion of the western hemisphere and the subsequent genocidal assault on the American Indians, immigration has almost always been detrimental, both for most people at the receiving end, and for most of the immigrants. Americans have always been told how wonderful immigration is for all concerned. We hear about the great people who arrived as immigrants, or whose parents did so. That is because these successful people become well known. But they are among the small minority of immigrants who indeed did succeed here (or whose children did). We don't hear about the much larger population of people who came here and led miserable lives. We also don't hear from the Americans whose lives were worsened by immigration as a result of jobs being taken, wages depressed, working conditions worsened. The reason is that the losers were poor, and did not become well educated, and thereby able to understand, and to tell others about, what happened to them.

I believe immigration has almost always been bad for most people in the receiving countries. In particular, each subsequent wave helped keep down wages for the existing US population. It was a disaster for the indigenous population of Palestine. European invasions of Africa, Latin America, and Asia (India, China, Vietnam) were bad for all the indigenous populations. It is currently causing many problems in Europe.

A great American myth is that of the melting pot, whereby people from many countries, with differing habits and tastes, speaking different languages, come here and soon become assimilated. Their varied backgrounds enrich our culture, goes this story, and we all get along beautifully. There are real-life examples that can be presented to bolster this account. But, overall, the effects of this diversity are generally negative. People coming here with different backgrounds, speaking different languages, do not find it easy to cooperate with Americans of longer standing, or with immigrants from other countries. Where there is a large influx of people speaking a particular language, there is a natural tendency to socialize within one's language group. Whereas children from another country can learn English rapidly if the great majority of the other children in their school are English speakers, their progress in this regard will be very slow if most of their classmates speak the language of their native land.

In the past, a crucial part of the process whereby immigrants became US citizens was ensuring that they had a working knowledge of our language, including the ability to read English. Unfortunately, over the past four or five decades, that requirement has been watered down to the point where it has little practical effect. Naturalized citizens are no longer expected to be able to converse in, read, and write in, English. Where substantial numbers of naturalized citizens reside, translators are provided, and election material is supplied in the native languages of the immigrants [4]. This has serious consequences in terms of integrating newcomers into the community. It denigrates the electoral process, as debating and campaigning in a multiplicity of languages is an awkward, expensive process. Imagine how hard it would be for congressional candidates to debate one another before an audience consisting of people, most of whom did not have a working knowledge of English, and who spoke one of two or three different foreign languages.

My concerns about immigration are not based on such matters as nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. There is ample evidence that individuals varying widely in these respects can become good American citizens. The issue is numbers. This point is highlighted by the name of a major organization advocating a sharp reduction in immigration: "Numbers USA"[5]. The large flow of people across our borders, in addition to depressing wages and working conditions, also aggravates the various problems associated with overpopulation. The detrimental environmental effect of population increase today is far greater than it was when our population was less than a third of what it is now. It doesn't matter where they come from. A million people from England would do the same damage as the same number from Mexico.

What can be done?

A far more sensible policy, that could really help people in other countries without hurting already downtrodden Americans, would have several components. One would be the termination of our brutal and futile military actions that have, in their most recent manifestations, devastated portions of the Middle and Far East, killing and displacing millions of people in a half dozen countries. The US has on many occasions initiated or supported coups against democratically elected governments in the Western hemisphere, most recently in Honduras [6]. Simply ending such vicious behavior would greatly reduce the problem at its root.

At the same time, part of the savings in military expenses should be devoted to expanding programs to assist war victims in their own countries, a more humane policy that would also be a great deal less costly per capita than would moving them to the US.

Foreign aid programs, now consisting largely of the distribution of lethal weapons all over the world, should be expanded and designed to help needy people better their lives in their own countries. Some good work along these lines has been done by the Peace Corps, but only on a very small scale.

Terminating our longtime support for the worst ruling elements in other countries, especially in the Americas, would go a long way toward helping needy people, and relieving the pressure on our borders.

We should also address the problem of illegal immigrants now in our country. The most practical approach is to pressure them into leaving by enforcing existing laws designed to penalize those who employ illegals. A valuable tool for this purpose is the computer data base, E-Verify [7], an effective means that employers can use to determine if a job applicant is legally employable.

I have written several other articles on the topic of immigration, elaborating on some of the themes presented here. [8][9][10][11].


[1] United Nations, "UNHCR-United Nations Refugee Agency"

[2] Office of Immigration Statistics, "2014 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics" See p. 5

[3] Stephen H. Unger, "Selling out America: Transnational Trade", Ends and Means, December 10, 2014

[4] Stephen H. Unger, "The Case For One American Language", Ends and Means, December 20, 2012

[5]Numbers USA , "Numbers USA"

[6] Dana Frank, "In Honduras, a Mess Made in the U.S.", NY Times, Jan. 26, 2012

[7] Department of Homeland Security, "E-Verify", Internet-based system

[8] Stephen H. Unger, "Children Crossing Borders", Ends and Means, July 30, 2014

[9] Stephen H. Unger, "The Immigration Issue: Good Folks on the Wrong Side", Ends and Means, October 19, 2011

[10] Stephen H. Unger, "The Immigration Struggle: Defending Arizona", Ends and Means, May 16, 2010

[11] Stephen H. Unger, "Immigration: Who wins? Who Loses?", Ends and Means, February 27, 2010

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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