Monday, July 2, 2007

Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints

Context of this rather rushed review is that I noticed this library book as I was browsing for something else, but I want to write a quite review before returning it. The topic has been much in the news of late, and for the usual set of bad reasons.

Review of Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints edited by Teresa O'Neill

This is a book of historical background information, obviously intended for a college history course on the topic. It's actually part of a series of topical books, and for each topic, they apparently collect excerpts from various prominent spokesmen. In this book, the most prominent contributors are probably Senators such as Henry Cabot Lodge and George F. Hoar. Or perhaps pride of place should go to Israel Zangwill, the London-born Jewish immigrant who coined the famous expression "the melting pot" to describe the immigrant experience in America? There are also spokesmen from prominent pro- and anti-immigration organizations, leaders from organized labor, religious leaders, professors such as John Bodnar, and various others. Most of the pieces are a only a few pages long, but there are some shorter snippets inserted into longer ones. The editor has added a bit of contextual information to introduce each of the authors. The time of the selections spans well over a hundred years. Even though there's some perspective here because of the long time since many of these pieces were written, the editor doesn't offer any conclusions, but is apparently making a sincere effort to just stay out of the battles. There is a chronology of historical events included in the end matter, but basically it's just food for thought.

The main thing that struck me as a read the book was the historical consistency. Basically the same issues are rehashed over and over again, right up to the present day. The big changes are the labels of what sort of immigrants have become undesirable. Usually they are racial labels like Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Russians, Poles, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and most recently Mexicans. I'm sure I've left out some of the nationalities that were targeted at various times... Amusingly enough, or perhaps it's simple hypocrisy, but quite often the loudest critics are descended from 'races' that were previously on the list of 'bad' immigrants. Other times the undesirable immigrants are characterized more on the basis of their beliefs, skills (or lack thereof) or other non-racial traits, starting most prominently with Catholics, but including lots of other groups such as laborers, mental defectives or others who might become a burden on the state, illiterates, morally deficient people (but especially women of loose morals), communists or anarchists, transient farm laborers, and most recently Moslems. Again, I'm sure I've missed some of the target groups, but the details don't seem to matter much.

At this point it seems I need to clarify my own biases, because I ultimately conclude that they limit my ability to fully understand the anti-immigration perspectives. The most important bias is just that I think freedom is a good thing, including the freedom to live where you want to. The only 'restriction' I'd put on it is that there should be sufficient accurate information available so that the person who wants to move to a new country can make a reasoned decision. Yes, there'd be a certain amount of disruption, but things would balance out in the end--and it even seems rather inevitable to me as the costs of migration continue to decline. To me, the significant issue is not really addressed in this book: Is it a zero-sum game, or can things get better for every one. If you believe it's a zero-sum game, then letting a immigrant have some of your pie is a loss for you and it makes sense to be greedy as long as you have sufficient force to protect your pie. However, if you think the pie is getting bigger and better all the time, then the best thing to do is make that happen as quickly as possible. To me, looking at the big historical perspective, that seems to be very clearly what has been happening for thousands of years, and it's going to continue. It's the growth of science and technology and modern economies, including immigration. Fighting against the tide is always a losing proposition. Putting it in concrete terms, I think it would be better to let Chinese workers migrate to America to sustain the strength of America's industry rather than to allow the strength of America's industries to continue migrating to China. Actually, now it seems quite possible to me that the real strength of America was tightly linked to the freedom to migrate within such a large region, and that may be the real reason for the increasing strength of the EU. (Another point of personal bias, since I've invested in Euros? Which reminds me to note that I'm an immigrant to Japan and the grandchild of immigrants to America.)

Where does that lead me as regards the book I'm supposed to be reviewing here? Well, mostly the anti-immigration perspectives don't seem very substantive to me. In some cases they seem intellectually dishonest or obviously mistaken. I suppose the most clear example is the table on page 216, which was supposed to demonstrate how the literacy test would work to exclude "Undesirables". The table listed the illiteracy of various nationalities of immigrants--and then averages the averages to draw conclusions. Excuse me, but that is incorrect math. If each of the immigrant groups was exactly the same size, then it would make sense. Or if each component of a grouping had the same exact illiteracy then it would also make sense. However, neither condition holds here, so it's simply bad math that proves nothing. (There's another point of what might be personal bias here, in that Hebrew is reported as having around 30% illiteracy (in a group with an average over 40%) whereas they are generally regarded as being more educated and literate than average.) This is an especially clear example, but most of the anti-immigration positions seem to be on similarly shaky ground. They keep focusing on imminent economic disasters that never happened. Some of them also worry about racial purity, again without any evidence, then or in hindsight. To really make their case, they would need to consider how America has changed over the decades, they would need to establish that some of those changes were bad, and finally they would need to prove that some immigrants were linked to those bad changes. I read the book closely, and didn't find any of that here.

TImes up, so I'm going to wrap by just saying it's an interesting read, but mostly an example of "The less things change the more they stay the same." The immigration issue has basically been going in circles for a long time.

No comments: