Politics & Policy

Immigration Is Mainly about Values, Not Economics

New Yorkers dine on pizza in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016. (Reuters photo: Stephanie Keith)
Many things can go right or wrong when a large group of newcomers enters a country.

Here’s a story. Long before immigration from Mexico was an issue in America, immigration from America was an issue in Mexico. The question in the 1820s was over Mexico’s very sparsely populated northeastern borderlands. It was dangerous to leave the brushy territory undeveloped, since there was no effective way of defending the vast frontier from Native Americans and hostile foreign powers without a substantial native population. Meanwhile, the eastern states of America were filling up: Land prices were rising and speculators and entrepreneurs were heading west by the thousands.

The solution seemed obvious, and in 1824 Mexico passed the General Colonization Law, which allowed settlers to immigrate and claim land under very favorable terms. Things didn’t work out as expected. The American immigrants rapidly outnumbered the native population, living in their own towns, failing both to learn Spanish and to convert to Catholicism, and bringing slaves with them from the American South. In 1830, Mexico closed the border, but it was too late. With such an established American population, illegal immigration replaced legal immigration. Relations between the northeastern part of the country and Mexico City deteriorated rapidly, and in 1836 a separatist movement pushed Mexican forces out of the settled region entirely.

And that is how Mexico lost Texas.

Here’s another story. Sweden spent decades weaning itself off of low-skilled service labor, in part because it felt that those jobs were antithetical to the broader Swedish vision of social equality. The country has the highest effective minimum wages in the OECD as a percentage of the average wage, as well as the most compressed wage distribution. (The United States has the lowest minimum wages and the most dispersed wage distribution.) This is largely a result of Sweden’s collective-bargaining practices, which are among the most expansive in the world and ensure that the wage compression occurs not merely between low-paying jobs and high-paying jobs, but also between junior and senior employees within a company. This collective-bargaining practice is a cornerstone of the Swedish system so cherished by liberals abroad and by the Swedes themselves.

Over roughly the same period that the neoliberal, social-democratic Swedish model came into being, something else was happening. In 1970, Sweden was not enormously diverse — it was about 97 percent Scandinavian. And then the country began accepting refugees. At first, the transformation was subtle: 8,000 Chileans over the next decade; 11,000 Turks, mainly Kurds. In 1980, Sweden was still 97 percent Scandinavian. But over time, the flow of refugees increased: from Kurdistan and Ethiopia in the 1980s; then from the Balkans in the 1990s; then from Iraq; most recently, and most substantially, from Syria. Now Sweden is only 85 percent Scandinavian.

The problem is that Sweden’s economy was not built for this surge in unskilled labor. Having the highest entry wages in Europe was great for well-educated Swedes, but it was a catastrophe for unskilled Bosnians, Iraqis, and Syrians; who would hire them, after all? Sweden’s gap in employment between the native- and foreign-born is now among the worst in the developed world — and widening — even though foreign-born Swedes are considerably less likely to be unskilled than are immigrants in the United States. And so Sweden will have to make a choice. It can keep its highly generous system of labor protections and face a permanent immigrant underclass, or it can integrate immigrants into the labor market at the cost of its unique and beloved labor model.

But here’s yet another story. In 1950, Toronto was a more or less homogeneously Canadian city with a metro area of approximately 1.2 million people. This made it slightly larger, and slightly more interesting, than nearby Buffalo, N.Y., with a metropolitan population of about 900,000. But starting in the 1950s, immigrants began to stream into Toronto: Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Ukrainians in the ’50s and ’60s; Chinese, Caribbeans, and Portuguese in the ’70s; Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and more East Asians from the ’80s onward. The city is now arguably the most diverse in the world; a slightly larger share of Miami is foreign-born, but Toronto’s foreign-born population is much more diverse than Miami’s. It is, by any measure, an enormously successful place, with famously low crime rates, about 40 million tourists a year, and one of the best culinary scenes in North America. It is a global city today, culturally unidentifiable with the mid-sized Ontario city that it was in 1950.

Still another story: The following immigrants have all either won or been one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction since 2000: Viet Thanh Nguyen (born in Vietnam), Laila Lailami (born in Morocco), Chang-Rae Lee (Korea), Daniyal Mueenuddin (grew up in Pakistan), Junot Díaz (the Dominican Republic), Lore Segal (Austria), Ha Jin (China), Jhumpa Lahiri (born in London to Bengali immigrants). Virtually any survey of top modern British writers would include Kazuo Ishiguro (born in Nagasaki), V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad), and Salman Rushdie (Bombay). The British national dish is sometimes said to be chicken tikka masala, which was first cooked either in Punjab or in a Punjabi restaurant in Glasgow, and a Food Network survey suggests that the average British adult will eat twice as many “international dishes” over their lifetime as “traditional British meals.” The city I currently live in is most associated with pizza (brought to America by southern Italians) and bagels (Polish Jews).

One could go on. There are a million narratives about immigration — immigrant communities that have done famously well and become a crucial part of native society (British Indians) and communities that have ghettoized catastrophically (British Pakistanis); immigrant communities that have radically altered domestic politics (Chinese Indonesians) and immigrant communities that have flown under the radar politically (Chinese Americans). There are immigrant communities that have become ingrained in native cultures, such as Italians in America, and then there are immigrant communities that have simply become absorbed, such as Italians in France. On every relevant question of culture and politics, the human experience with immigration runs the gamut, from the immigration policy that inadvertently gave us Texas, to the humanitarian attitude toward refugees that threatens the Swedish welfare system, to the great cultural flourishing of certain immigrant groups in New York and London.

What a colossal failure of imagination it is, then, to treat immigration as primarily a question of GDP and wages, as so many are primed to do, particularly on the left. Do such things matter? Yes, absolutely. But think of the brightest successes and the darkest failures of global immigration. How many have to do, first and foremost, with the first-order economic effects of immigration? If you’re an immigration restrictionist, your mind probably turns gravely to the question of European Muslims when you think of immigration. How much your views change if it turned out that these immigrants modestly increased local GDP? If you’re an open-borders advocate, you probably think of the great, successful cosmopolitan centers of the modern world. How much would your views change if it turned out that these immigrants slightly depressed native wages?

At its heart, immigration is a complex network of values questions mixed up in an enormously difficult act of prognostication. We can be sure that large-scale immigration has the potential to change society dramatically — but whether it is for the better or the worse depends both on what exactly happens and on what we believe better and worse mean. If you’re a progressive humanitarian who is uncomfortable with the notion of policy based on a national interest, then the effect of immigration on native wages probably doesn’t matter to you. But the question of whether immigration is compatible with a welfare state or a highly regulated labor market very well might. If you’re a certain type of conservative nationalist, you probably aren’t likely to be convinced that ethnic food is a good argument for low-skilled immigration; if your cultural views lean you toward seeing diversity as a good in itself, you might see cuisine as a sort of cultural resource that is worth investing in. For some, the coexistence of multiple discrete cultures in a pluralist society is a type of societal flourishing, but for others it’s a worrying omen of national disunity.

These aren’t debates that can be resolved by saying over and over again that immigrants are good for the economy or that immigrants are bad for wages.

These are values questions, but that doesn’t mean that they are unresolvable. Values change, after all, and some visions of the good society are more compelling than others. I would argue that open-borders humanitarianism is intrinsically fantastical, too at odds with the course of human history to be worth taking seriously. I would also argue that returning America to the immigration levels of the 1950s or 1960s would starve our society of much of the richness it has acquired over the last 60 years. These are debates I could either win or lose — I could convince people or I could fail to do so.

But these aren’t debates that can be resolved by saying over and over again that immigrants are good for the economy or that immigrants are bad for wages. These are, again, important questions, and such arguments will convince some people at the margin. But they can’t be dispositive, because they don’t address the overall values questions — such as how pressing humanitarian considerations should be, or how much to weight economic factors relative to cultural factors.

The success of immigration depends on many factors besides its economic impact. For instance, Chinese immigrants have done incredibly well in Malaysia and Indonesia — so well that they’ve become the target of bloody riots in Indonesia and an official policy of affirmative action for Malays in Malaysia. Is this a success? Alternatively, if some group of immigrants to the United States ended up supplying the English language with some of its best literature and music, might that not be a success even if their economic impact was poor or middling?

These questions hint at the breadth of the challenge before us — a challenge that is worth taking seriously.


Immigration Cuts Would Restore Legitimacy in our Politics

Immigration Reform: Focus on Illegal Immigrants First

What Would Less Immigration Look Like?

— Max Bloom is a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago and an editorial intern at National Review.

Max BloomMax Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago.


The Latest