More Thoughts About Immigration—and Some Suggestions

As I noted last month, the basic function of government, like the basic function of authority in the family, is to look after the common good of the community being governed. For that reason, policymakers should take very seriously the effect of immigration on their own countries, and commentators should discuss those effects fully and honestly.

This column will attempt to contribute to that effort. In view of the pro-immigration tendency of public discussion, and the impossibility of offering a comprehensive view in a short column, I will once again concentrate on problems that seem important but are often ignored or denied. It’s not surprising that respectable commentators usually avoid some of these problems. Apart from the protected standpoint they share with other well-placed and influential people, a point touched on last month, it seems uncivil to say immigration causes problems, because that suggests immigrants cause problems and it would be better if many of them weren’t here. Even so, the common good requires us to discuss whatever issues actually arise, so I will proceed in the hope that the discussion can be carried on from the standpoint of the common good rather than that of ethnic suspicion and rancor.

The first problem immigration causes, then, is inequality. California, once the epitome of the Golden West and the postwar American Dream, is now the most diverse state, the most unequal state, and the state with the highest poverty rate.

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Economic systems are complicated. In some cases immigration could help almost everyone economically, for example if it mostly brought in people who could do things Americans don’t do well, or freed up people here for more productive activities. If Americans didn’t start businesses, but were otherwise rather skilled, and immigration were our big source of talented entrepreneurs and unskilled laborers, then it would provide economic benefits for almost all of us.

Nothing like that seems to be the case. We have a huge and diverse population suited for all kinds of work, and educational institutions that can provide whatever training is needed to cover shortfalls. Instead of recruiting talent abroad, mutual civic obligation suggests we should develop the talents of our own people. If shortfalls remain, if (for example) there aren’t enough cleaning ladies or construction workers, wages could be increased and methods changed to deal with the situation. We certainly have enough people who could do those things if pay and working conditions were right.

As a practical matter, “immigrants do work Americans won’t do” means “immigrants do work Americans won’t do for the wages employers would like to pay and immigrants are willing to accept.” Why is that a public-spirited reason to promote immigration? It’s considered greedy for business concerns to move operations abroad, where labor is cheaper. It’s not clear why it’s thought progressive to move the cheaper labor here. Instead of hiring fellow citizens and developing their talent as computer programmers Silicon Valley billionaires would rather recruit ready-trained coders in Asia who are accustomed to pay that is quite low by American standards. That’s good for billionaires but not so good for people already here who are trying to enter the field and make a solid living.

Low-skilled workers suffer especially from liberal immigration policies. Apart from reduced wages and increased competition for jobs, to which they are especially vulnerable, they must face competition for social support, since immigrant households are more likely to need support than native-born ones. That problem is especially severe in Europe, where jobs are harder to find, social protections more extensive, and those claiming refugee status much more numerous.

The rich, on the other hand, do quite well. Increasing the supply of immigrant labor makes capital and forms of labor that can’t easily be imported (e.g., that provided by upper management and other experienced and well-connected people) proportionally scarcer. A straightforward application of the principle of supply and demand tells us that the effect will be to make well-placed people and those with capital richer while others become poorer. The people at the top, who will be stable in number, will be at the top of a bigger pyramid, while those at the bottom will have more competitors to struggle against. (For more detail on the effects of immigration on the American worker, including confirmation that it results in a significant transfer of income from poor to rich while providing little net economic benefit to Americans overall, see this review of the academic literature.)

Man, of course, does not live by bread alone. A country is less a business enterprise than a partnership in the common good, which is not limited to material prosperity. So apart from the economic consequences of immigration, we should consider its effects on a country’s ability to discuss, define, and pursue the common good of its citizens.

It seems clear that continuous large-scale immigration from all over the world injures that ability, because it destroys common culture and thus ease of discussion and civic cooperation. It means fewer common habits, attitudes, loyalties, understandings, and assumed standards of behavior. The more divergent those things become the less any of us can expect people to act in ways that seem appropriate to us. That means less social trust, a result liberal sociologists reluctantly confirm.

In the absence of a populace that trusts each other, and is similar enough in loyalties and assumptions to deliberate effectively, government will be carried on by a small minority with little effective public answerability. Worse, it will be easy for the ambitious to advance their careers by provoking fear and suspicion among groups and offering themselves as protectors. Under such circumstances discussion of basic issues regarding the common good will become impossibly fraught, since such issues have cultural and therefore ethnic, sexual, and religious implications. Policy will have to be justified as neutral with respect to every particular ethnic, cultural, and religious view, and the inevitable self-glorification of government will lead to the claim that such an approach leads to the best possible society. The result is that government will idealize and eventually enforce the exclusion of particular religious views and cultural standards from social life as divisive and oppressive to those who don’t share them. Collective pursuit of the common good will then become impossible, and religion and culture replaced by money and bureaucracy as social organizing principles. That’s not the road to a good society, but it’s what we see all around us.

When America was less divided, politics less partisan, and governing elites less insulated and self-seeking, a feeling of mutual obligation and concern for the common good was much more widespread in our political class. At that time, limits on immigration seemed common sense to almost everyone except a few extreme business-oriented libertarians at the Wall Street Journal. Cesar Chavez didn’t want more farmworkers immigrating from Mexico for the obvious reason that it would undercut the position of those already here. Barbara Jordan wanted fewer legal immigrants, more enforcement of laws against illegal immigration, less extensive family reunification rights, and more emphasis on skills, all for the sake of making immigration policy serve the common good. As recently as fifteen years ago, even the New York Times rejected calls for immigration amnesty on the entirely rational and civic-minded grounds that it “would undermine the integrity of the country’s immigration laws and would depress the wages of its lowest-paid native-born workers.”

Such a state of opinion is unthinkable today. As in sexual matters, we’ve undergone a revolution in respectable opinion that professes to benefit the marginalized while in fact entrenching the rich, powerful, and credentialed. Instead of distinct cultural standards and institutions that enable ordinary people to work out a secure and dignified way of life for themselves, we have the unmitigated reign of money, bureaucracy, certified expertise, and careerism. It seems to me Catholics should think long and hard before favoring policies that promote such a result.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared November 2, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.


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