That group is, of course, the Amish, and many of the same people complaining that Mexicans won’t assimilate flock to Lancaster to take pictures of women in funny hats vending sticky-sweet food and overpriced handwork [sic]. Can someone explain this in terms that don’t devolve into “But the Mexicans are brown“?

Can someone explain this in terms that don’t devolve into “But the Mexicans are brown”? ~Megan McArdle

Yes, I believe the regular paleo bus to eastern Pennsylvania leaves later this evening, and I would be on it if it weren’t for my Arabic classes this week.  In fact, the people who go to Amish country go there because they like to enjoy the quaintness of traditional, pietistic German communities without having to put up with the inconveniences of living in traditional, pietistic German communities.  For their part, the Amish have preserved an example of Old World immigrants from another era, and their example has probably helped to reinforce the mythic images of the hardworking, religious, socially conservative yeomen whom certain libertarians and conservatives believe are settling in California and Arizona in large numbers.  If anyone has a strange affection for the Amish and what they represent, it would almost certainly have to be those who see few, if any, problems with mass immigration. 

Of course, Indian reservations are an alternative example of people living apart from the rest of the country and maintaining a traditional culture, but even more than the Amish–who actually have their own share of some modern social ills–they also have significant social problems with alcoholism and drug abuse, considerable poverty and dependency on government.  (Admittedly, the Amish do lack casinos.)  However, fashionable tourists buy pottery on these reservations and eat fry bread on the sides of New Mexican state highways, so I guess that means these problems are all figments of racist imagination.  I suppose if you have been invited into a kiva at some point, as I have, you should simply stop complaining about immigration and accept the wonders of the American “fruit salad.”   

It occurs to me that someone who thinks the Amish represent a powerful counterexample to the mass immigration and considerable non-assimilation of millions of people from the neighbouring country must be having everyone on, but as I look at it again I see that Ms. McArdle is quite serious.  Very well, then.  I’ll give her question a shot.

There are at least four factors that drive the concern  about immigration, and particularly about modern Mexican and Latin American immigration.  The first is geography: the proximity of the country of origin for the vast majority of the current wave of immigrants is much greater than it was/is for groups from countries on the opposite sides of the oceans, which weakens the incentives for full assimilation (this is particularly true of those who continue to participate in Mexican elections), and the concentration of a large proportion of these immigrants in one region, which tends to make anything resembling assimilation to the culture of the rest of the country much less likely.  Granting that the children of these immigrants may acquire English language proficiency, this does not guarantee any depth of assimilation to what Huntington would call the common core culture.  There are lots of people in this country who do not accept that there is or ever has been such a culture, so they may find this idea mystifying, but it has existed and it is on account of the non-assimilation of these immigrants to it that many Americans are quite agitated.  Further, the ideas of our political and media classes about what assimilation means have changed, and whether it is because of multiculti preciousness or “proposition nation” ideology or both the old efforts to actively Americanise immigrants have weakened considerably.  The only way that the “melting pot” idea makes any sense is if there is sufficient heat and pressure, so to speak, to actually dissolve the constituent elements into the present mixture.  Without those things, full assimilation will not take place to the ultimate detriment of our national political life. 

The second factor is political culture: like virtually all immigrant groups, Mexican and Latin American immigrants are coming from a political culture that has extremely low institutional trust combined with an activist state and traditions of demagogic and authoritarian populism, and it is extremely likely that the immigrants who come to America will often have supported the leftmost politics in their home countries.  The problem here is that even if there is some real degree of assimilation and participation in the political process, the vast influx of such voters into the system will drive our politics in an even more statist, unfree, anti-constitutionalist direction (just as, historically, most every major wave of immigration has helped to do).  This is the objection that should be most significant for libertarians, but it never seems to bother a lot of them.

The third factor is social: along with all the workers doing the jobs that supposedly no one here wants to do (it is true that no one, not even the immigrants, really wants to do them for slave wages, for what it’s worth) come a certain number of criminals, an increase in the numbers of people living in relative poverty and many unstable or disintegrating families that, in turn, raise up (or rather fail to raise) a new generation that is more prone to all of the costly, destructive behaviours that impose a number of costs on the rest of the society through crime, dependency, etc.  In addition to importing the political pathologies of other countries, this situation brings with it social pathologies of its own. 

The fourth factor is more directly fiscal and economic.  That is, the demand placed on state services by immigrant populations–and here we are speaking more specifically about illegal immigrants–and the downward pressure that the influx of new labourers has on wages combine to make the voters who pay for those services and hold wage-earning jobs rather annoyed.  This seems to be the point that everyone understands or can at least acknowledge to be a reason why opponents of mass immigration are so opposed. 

Finally, it might be worth noting that Ms. McArdle’s question seems to take for granted that there is absolutely no qualitative difference between, say, the Russian programmer or the Indian engineer who comes here and the poorly educated or possibly even illiterate Mexican labourer from Michoacan.  The only reason why restrictionists would object to Mexican immigration, as Ms. McArdle tells it, is that it keeps coming back to their race, but this assumes that all restrictionists who are extremely concerned about mass Mexican immigration are similarly strongly opposed to non-white immigration as such.  If that were so (it isn’t), it would need to be demonstrated.  Naturally, this is the reason for the recourse to the Amish example, since it seems to me that pro-immigration advocates, stuck as they may be in the 18th or 19th century (because of their apparent conviction that our country is some sort of vast, empty territory in need of more people), are nonetheless convinced that their opponents are deeply reactionary and might be sympathetic to more immigration if it promised the creation of people living as if it were still the 17th century.  The idea that you might even want immigration policy that brings in the most productive, well-educated immigrants who contribute to the economy and society in a more substantial way than menial labour in the current generation (rather than waiting for some promised payoff 30 or 60 years hence) seems to be quite alien.

That brings us to another factor, that of education, and it may be the most significant factor of them all in a certain sense.  For immigrants and the children of immigrants to be competitive in this society, and for them not to get trapped in an underclass, it is imperative that they either have or are able to acquire quickly education comparable to that of their native peers.  Bringing in large numbers of poorly educated people is likely to ensure that their descendants remain fairly far behind for multiple generations.  Combined with the potential for cultural ghettoisation, this could easily create the kind of disaffected, unassimilated underclass that has created serious problems in places such as France and Britain. 

These are all real concerns grounded in observable facts, and we can go round and round with differing interpretations of which evidence is significant and which isn’t, but the habit of writing off the debate as inherently absurd because it must be driven by racial animus is an extremely bad one and one that hardly encourages a willingness among restrictionists to take pro-immigration voices seriously.  If there is more to the pro-immigration position than moral posturing, hand waving, accusations of racism, weak comparisons and extremely selective historical memory, I have yet to see it.