Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Reflections on immigration

Yesterday's post on immigration drew 200 visitors to the site, eclipsing the old daily record of 140 or so. It also raised some questions that I will attempt to answer now, including "what do you know about immigration, you Minnesotan?" and general attacks on illegal immigrants as being poor, prone to crime, unwilling to learn our language, and retaining excessive affinity for their country of origin -- in short, being unwilling to assimilate.

Setting aside the odd logic of demanding assimiliation from illegal immigrants while simultaneous erecting legal barriers to doing so, here's my answer.

I spent four years living and working in Hudson County, New Jersey. It's right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, but it's worlds apart in many respects. Though areas of it, especially along the waterfront, are upscale, much of the county is poor and crime-ridden. The schools stink, the politicians are corrupt, the infrastructure is crumbling.

Why? Largely because for at least a hundred years it has been a main point of entry for immigrants.

The "old" immigrants were Italian and Polish. Then in the 1960s came the Cubans, followed by Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Then came the Indians, the Bangladeshis, the Pakistanis, the Asians and Filipinos.

I could walk down the street and hear a dozen different languages. I passed people in traditional dress of their home countries. There was an Indian shopping district in Jersey City; Cubans and other Hispanics dominated Union City. Large areas of the county would have qualified as ghettos, where English was scarce and what you heard wafting from windows and doorways was Spanish, Hindu, Urdu, you name it.

Because that is the way it has always worked. Immigrants arrive and seek familiarity in an unfamiliar land. Polish, German and Italian ghettos thrived in major cities at various points in American history. Here in Minnesota, huge swaths of the state were settled by German and Swedish farmers; had you walked through those areas in their heyday you would have been hard pressed to tell what country you were in.

That's because assimilation is a generational effect. The first generation arrives. they are usually poor, and they never fully assimilate. They clump together in cultural groups; they cling to their homeland traditions. Ask any second- or third-generation immigrant and they can probably tell you about their grandmother or aunt who never learned English. Some people just won't.

The second generation is far more American, culturally, and fluent in English. By the third generation, assimilation is complete. This doesn't mean that they abandon their roots, by the way; they incorporate them into the ever-richer fabric of American identity.

Economically, too, it's a generational step. Hudson County is perennially poor because poor immigrants keep showing up and settling there. But look at any given wave and you see the progression. The first generation settles in Hudson County; but their kids and grandkids move up the ladder and out into the suburbs, making room for the next wave of immigrants.

So what people see in some illegal immigrants is exactly what this country has seen from immigrants since its founding. Assimilation probably is a bit easier these days, thanks to the globalization of English and the dominance of American commercial culture. But as always, the first generation will never fully fit in. Their kids will.

As for crime: Crime rates are related to economic situation more than anything else. If you're poor, you're more apt to find yourself in a situation where crime looks better than the alternatives. Illegal immigrants are, obviously, poor. Further, they face all sorts of legal barriers that legal immigrants do not. Ergo, they will have a higher crime rate than average. But that rate will be similar to the crime rate among legal citizens in the same economic bracket.

Illegal immigration needs to be addressed. But we don't help the debate when we fail to understand how assimilation works, or try to impugne the human worth of "them", or seek to hold illegal immigrants to an impossibly high standard that ignores demographics, then point to that failing as evidence that they are undesirables.

Let's address the main issue -- how will we get control of illegal immigration -- and leave off the stereotyping and bad math.

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Blogger Matt Parker said...

You're forgeting the major influx in the 90's of the Hmong into St. Paul in Minnesota. Most of whom came because they had to.

I also suggest reading this post from The Intellectual Activist. My favorite quote from it is:

"If the ability of our culture to induct people into the values of our civilization is in doubt, then what happens to 11 million illegal immigrants is a relatively small problem. What we really ought to be worried about is a group of 75 million people who desperately need to be assimilated into America's culture of individualism, taught the essential facts about America's history, and encouraged to appreciate the virtues of our political system.

I am talking about 75 million people who are, you might say, on an automatic track to citizenship, and all of whom will become newly eligible to vote in the next two decades.

I am speaking of the 75 million Americans under the age of 18."

Have a good trip!



4/19/2006 6:48 AM  

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