Immigration and Integration

I recently read this interesting Lyman Stone post on immigration via a related post on Noahpinion; both are worth a read. Mr. Stone’s article is on the longer side, and does an excellent job of laying out all the arguments surrounding immigration. While I don’t know that I agree 100% with his analysis, I appreciate that he takes a nuanced, data informed position (and has lots of graphs!). The gist of both is that, contra immigration hardliners, the claim that a broad immigration ‘pause’ is necessary is not supported by evidence.

Immigration skeptics, like the President and his advisors, often rely on claims of danger to support their position. Trump actively campaigned with tales of Mexican criminals flowing across the border. Given that there is zero evidence that immigrants, illegal or otherwise, commit more crimes than the average American, I suspect this is often a cover, intentional or not, for something else. What that ‘else’ is, is a fear that immigrants either 1) won’t assimilate to American culture or 2) rather than us assimilating them, they assimilate us.

This fear is, on its face, not wholly unreasonable, especially if you believe that there is truth to the idea of American exceptionalism. Perhaps those values that have made America unique would be diluted and lost if too many ‘different’ people came here. What the posts I linked at the beginning argue is that, even if this were true, that is not the situation we are currently in.

To be clear, another thing immigration skeptics tend to be shy about expressing (but not Trump!) is that most of their fears are directed at Mexican immigration. And that makes sense, because in the last few decades Mexicans have far outnumbered any other group of immigrants; no other single group comes close. But even bigger than this surge was that of Germans and Irish during the mid 19th century (both were close to 5% of the total US population at their max, versus about 4% of foreign born Mexicans today)- and we all know the end of that story. So there’s historical reasons to be optimistic: peoples who were once viewed with suspicion and anxiety were eventually so thoroughly absorbed into American society that nobody would question the Americaness of people of those heritages. It happened before, and it will happen again.

An argument against this might be that the German and Irish were Europeans, and American has a European heritage; what we’re dealing with today is fundamentally different. I just don’t buy that. It’s easy for us today to forget just how vehement the dislike and distrust of Catholics was in 19th century America, even into the 20th; it was still a big deal only 57 years ago for a Catholic to run for president. The Know Nothing party of the 1850s held that German and Irish Catholics were controlled by the Pope and were fundamentally incompatible with republican government. Now we look back on that and think it’s silly. I suspect we’ll look back on this period in much the same way.

Now, Mr. Stone makes the argument that given how difficult that earlier period of integration was, there is a case for limiting Mexican immigration while still encouraging overall immigration. Integration is harder when there is such a large population of your fellow immigrants that you can get by without really interacting with the rest of American society. While I think a deeper look at the exact mechanisms of integration is necessary, it’s an argument that makes sense and could lead to a compromise solution among actors of good faith on both sides of the issue.

One final important point Mr. Stone makes is that nativist backlash against immigration is often spurred not by high levels of immigrants, but high growth rates in the recent past. By this token, since the net rate of Mexican immigration to the United States has been close to zero since the recession, the backlash may  dissipate soon. I can only hope it does so before the current administration puts any extreme immigration policies in place.





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