A reader writes:

I have thought a lot recently about what you have had to say about the caravan and what the responsibilities of Americans vs. those coming to America should be.

I heard something at work the other day that made me think really about what we are dealing with. I work in the office portion of a manufacturing plant, and there is a sort of division between office staff (who are almost all white) and production and sanitation staff (who are almost all Hispanic, many of whom are recent immigrants). Not a contentious division, mind you, but a language barrier. Anyways, the sanitation staff comes into the office most days and replaces trash cans and the like, and yesterday, I overheard a conversation between our marketing manager (a 30-something woman pregnant with her first child), and one of the Hispanic sanitation workers. Apparently, this woman (who looks like she might be late 20s at most), has 7 children, and her boyfriend/fiance also works at the plant in production. I can say for certain that they are not making very much money, and they have 7 children to support. I don’t see how this can be done, and I can’t help but feel sorry for kids growing up in that kind of situation, with parents who work long hours in an exhausting job not taking home much money.

But in the back of my mind, I recognized some nasty tropes brewing and I felt guilty about it immediately. Stereotypes about fertility and invasions and the like started up, with me comparing our friendly marketing manager and having her first child after living 10 years as a double income, no kids professional, versus a likely poor immigrant woman with 7 children and very much likely subject to some form of public assistance. I have to wonder about this in the sub context of inequality. It is inevitable that inequality is only going to skyrocket with these two very different cultural ideas about child rearing, and that the issue is almost certainly not going to improve no matter what happens. Is it possible that this topic is so taboo that it just cannot be touched,  and that the only people who will be discussing this are hard core racists? Or is this something we can discuss in the context of immigration debates?

I’m just not sure that I’m willing to look too much into this, and perhaps this is just purely anecdotal. But I do remember reading Ann Coulter’s book on immigration a few years ago and found it to be shocking, if pungent, in some of the anecdotes it brought up about the truth of the deeply radical and unsettling changes coming from large scale immigration. I tried to convince myself that she was either incorrect, or exaggerating, and maybe those things are true, but what if she was right? What if we really are dealing with an issue that goes beyond the economics of low skill labor market shocks and something that is more cultural in nature?

Thoughts, readers?

I think of this also in the context of cultural change, though this is something I’m far more concerned about with Europe than with the US, whose culture is much more fluid.

People are not interchangeable. The things that we identify as French (for example), and value as French, are cultural artifacts and expressions of a particular people living in a particular place at a particular time. France without the French would not be France — not in a cultural sense, anyway. Americans have a very difficult time thinking about this, because our culture is so fluid, and our idea of national identity is legalistic. If you become an American citizen, then you are an American — and that’s about as far as most of us will take it. If you become a French citizen, I understand that your Frenchness is pretty much nominal in the eyes of the French. The state as a legal and political entity is not the same thing as the nation.

I’d say that this strikes most Americans as fundamentally unjust, because we have been acculturated by the “nation of immigrants” idea. Certainly if I moved to France and became a French citizen, I would chafe under the idea that native-born Frenchmen didn’t see me as “really” French. I’m a citizen! I love this country! Who are you to tell me that I’m not French?!

It’s simply true, though, that my individual memories and my cultural memories, and therefore my identity, is not French, and cannot be. This is not a moral fault, but it’s still a reality. If 10 million Francophilic Americans like me moved to France and were given citizenship, we would change the country, and make it much less French, at least as French people understand Frenchness. It seems arrogant to me that outsiders (as we hypothetical American immigrants would be) would hold it against the people who are already living in France that they would prefer to keep the culture that they have, and have been handed down by their ancestors.

I’ve said that America is a different nation, one that regards American-ness in a different way than most nations regard their own discrete national identities. Nevertheless, we are not entirely liquid. At what point do Americans who live here already — white, black, Asian, Latino, et alia — have the right to say, “We want to keep the culture we have now, and therefore don’t want more immigrants?” I say that any nation and every nation has the right to ask that question. If a people cannot decide who from the outside they want to allow to live within their borders, then nationhood means nothing. The question is, on what morally licit grounds can one say “no” to immigrants?

These are very dicey things to talk about in public. But people are going to talk about it, one way or the other.

You know how they say that you can have a welfare state, or you can have open borders, but you cannot have both? Maybe there’s a corollary about children, immigration, and a modern economy. If a native population doesn’t produce the children to staff the means of production, where will the workers come from? If you don’t have children, and you want to maintain your standard of living, then you must have immigration. Right?

On the other hand, automation is going to eliminate a lot of jobs, so maybe a shrinking population will be sufficient for the economic needs of Europe and America.

My knee-jerk sympathies are with the immigrants who work in the readers factory, because they see children as a primary good — this, versus the DINK workers. And the truth is, given how well assimilation works in this country, those seven Hispanic migrant kids will likely grow up to have the same low fertility rate as Americans. On the other hand, isn’t it wrong to feel that the people who already live here should be “punished” for not having children?

Or maybe my feelings and your feelings have nothing to do with it. Maybe the future belongs to those who show up for it, and that’s just the way it is.