Monday, May 19, 2008

Various immigration thoughts

At Hit and Run, Kerry Howley posted a quote from Paul Samuelson that got me thinking. Samuelson said:

Finally, let's discuss poverty. Everyone's against it, but hardly anyone admits that most of the increase in the past 15 years reflects immigration -- new immigrants or children of recent immigrants. Unless we stop poor people from coming across our Southern border, legally and illegally, we won't reduce poverty. Period… We need a pragmatic accommodation: assimilate most people now here; shift future immigration to the highly skilled.

As Howley points out, this is a bizarre reason to object to immigration. Samuelson isn’t even trying to claim that immigrants are making things worse for Americans, he’s just objecting to the fact that they’re bringing the average down. It’s like Bill Gates fleeing in terror when I enter the room, because our combined average of our incomes would be much lower than his alone. From the standpoint of human wellbeing- even a purely American nationalist one- this is bizarre, but it’s hardly the first time I’ve heard it. I wonder if part of the objection is simply that immigrants are upsetting to some people.

I’ve often suspected that the backlash against the Industrial Revolution among contemporary intellectuals and artists was caused not so much by the objective facts about worker conditions, but by the fact that unpleasant truths were now being shoved in the faces of upper-class city dwellers. Poor farmers lived wretched lives of disease and backbreaking toil, but the intelligentsia didn’t have to look at them. Then hordes of miserable, impoverished agricultural laborers in the country became hordes of miserable, impoverished industrial laborers in the city, and now the poor had the bad taste to suffer, sicken, and die where sensitive rich people could actually see it.

That’s an uncharitable explanation of why people make arguments like Samuelson’s, but the alternative hypothesis- that they are literally willing to worsen the lives of millions of innocent, desperate people for the purpose of making national poverty statistics look prettier- is even less flattering.

As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that, to the best of my knowledge, Samuelson is correct about the poverty statistics: most of the growth is poor people entering from elsewhere and having kids here, not middle-class Americans falling into poverty. This is important to keep in mind when you’re told about poverty rates, growing numbers of people without insurance, or the like. The problem is not, as the Democratic talking point goes, that hordes of middle-class Americans can longer make ends meet, but that millions of poor people are entering the country and being inhibited in rising out of poverty by economic controls that often fall harder on poor people, and especially on poor people trying to get work without the government’s blessing. In other words, the problem isn’t that the well-off are falling, but that the poor are being stopped from rising. Of course, the way to let the poor rise isn’t going to appeal to many liberals.

Meanwhile, at Rad Geek People’s Daily, Charles Johnson has several horrifying stories of people fleeing to America to escape persecution and brutality in their homelands, only to be deemed insufficiently victimized and forcibly returned to their tormentors by the United States government.

It’s an especially brutal reminder of how ridiculous all the pious rhetoric about how illegal immigrants are awful for not “waiting in line” for “their turn” really is. It’s silly enough when you’re living in horrendous poverty and you’re put on a waiting list that might get you in a decade later, if you’re lucky; it’s utterly ludicrous when you’re fleeing from the people who hacked off pieces of your genitals.

People often say that their own ancestors entered the country legally, and that modern would-be immigrants should do likewise. Of course, if your forerunners came to this country from Ireland or Germany or in the 19th century, it was a hell of a lot easier for your ancestors to get in legally. Even if one were to accept the premise that the state has the right to control peaceful people’s movements as restrictionists demand, pontificating about how people should patiently “wait in line,” as people did centuries ago, is utterly divorced from reality.

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