Rethinking Immigration: Intent Must Shape Policy

Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and an international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business in Los Angeles

In many ways, the debate over the "Save Our State" initiative could better be described as the "Same Old Stuff." Although the share of foreigners in the total U.S. population is only half of what it was at the turn of the century, the Draconian initiative demonstrates that, in times of economic stress, immigrants still serve as convenient scapegoats.

Yet, advocates of legal immigration should not neglect the legitimate issues raised by SOS. To that end, they need to determine the intent of new immigrants and how that affects their adopted communities. Short of that, the immigration debate will continue to be waged in a rhetorical fog.

From a policy point of view, the question of intent divides immigrants into two classes. The first, and probably the vast majority, seeks to become citizens and integrate into the mainstream of American society. The second, mostly illegal, consists of temporary sojourners whose interest is to make enough money here to return home in improved circumstances.

The question of intent transcends the current, virtually actuarial debate over the economic effects of illegal immigration. After all, studies on both sides can argue, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, the relative dollars-and-cents merits of this generation of illegal immigrants. Instead, the focus should be on the probable long-term consequences of large numbers of undocumented, unassimilated people in the midst of an already highly charged multiracial society.

This means addressing forthrightly the issue of legality. Most immigration advocates seem reluctant to do this. To a large extent, their reticence is a response to the broad-brush attacks of nativists. Not surprisingly, a New York Times/CBS News poll last summer revealed that 68% of all Americans thought most immigrants were here illegally. In truth, there is only about one illegal immigrant for every three permanent legal newcomers.

Equally disappointing is the immigration activists' failure to acknowledge the critical differences between potential citizens and sojourners. Accepting illegality as a quasi-permanent and legitimate condition is tantamount to tolerating the creation of a "parallel society," in which immigrants stay, usually for economic reasons, for a prolonged period without ever being expected to become full-fledged members of the larger society.

The embryo of such a "parallel society" exists in Europe, where large numbers of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East live in a kind of non-citizen nether world. Considered virtually unassimilable by many Europeans, they are a source of growing urban unrest as well as easy targets for far-right groups.

To many Americans, large populations of illegal immigrants and growing separatist tendencies among ethnic minorities presage a similar scenario here. Their anxieties are stoked when the legitimacy of citizenship is challenged by immigrant advocates who suggest that states such as California are little more than "stolen" provinces from Mexico and thus have no moral claim to control their borders.

Stressing cultural separateness rather than the traditional integrationist model also contributes to the rise of an parallel society. This is most evident in attempts to institutionalize publicly funded bilingual education. Initially designed to accelerate the learning of English, bilingual education is increasingly used as an agent of "reinforcing ethnic identity," according to one education official in New York.

The final step toward creation of a parallel society is the contention that voting rights should be extended to immigrants on issues that most directly affect them, such as who runs the school board. This approach dramatically departs from a tradition that has worked remarkably well over the generations: Most private ethnic, cultural and religious organizations have defined their primary mission not as promoting "group rights" but as easing the entry of newcomers into the broader linguistic, political and economic mainstream.

Particularly important in this regard is public education. In the past, public schools were not expected to serve as incubators of ethnic identity but as training grounds to prepare youngsters for a successful life within the predominant, English-speaking society. During the last great wave of immigration, public education did yeoman's work in helping the children and grandchildren of Calabrian paisanos or refugees from Eastern European shtetls match and then overcome students whose families had been resident here for centuries.

Although today's realities are different in many respects, most available evidence suggests that the bulk of immigrants are willing and eager to become assimilated. This is especially true of children. More than two-thirds of immigrant children living in San Diego, and greater than four-fifths of them in South Florida, prefer English to their parental or any other foreign language, according to a recent study of census data by sociologists Ruben Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes. More than 90% of them possess "very high" knowledge of English. Generally speaking, their survey revealed that most immigrant children want to succeed in mainstream society, with three-quarters aspiring to careers as professionals or business people.

When intent is factored in, the differences in academic performance can be startling. Asian immigrants, including Indochinese, have an extraordinarily high propensity to become citizens and integrate into the mainstream society. Their children routinely outperform native-born students, often by wide margins, and spend more time on homework. By contrast, many Latinos, whether from Central America, the Caribbean or Mexico, often see themselves more as sojourners than future Americans and look forward to returning to their countries of origin. Their children's academic records tend to be average to below average.

These kinds of differences underscore the need for the immigration debate to become more sensitive to the intentions of immigrants as a key factor in shaping policy. In short, newcomers who ultimately seek to become citizens should be treated differently from those who plan to eventually return to their homes.

In this regard, perhaps the most vexing and difficult changes in policy would involve access to public services. Expansion of welfare benefits to newly naturalized Americans represents one of the most potent issues in the quiver of nativists, who seek to parley newcomer dependency on welfare into closed borders, even to legal migrants.

Tightening legal immigrants' eligibility for welfare and social benefits is one way to deal with this problem. Or, to take another case, the citizen sponsors of parents and relatives who wish to come here would have to agree to assume some responsibility for their care.

In the case of sojourners, restrictions on access to public services should be more severe. As essentially "guest workers," their residency should be exclusively tied to their employment status and their employers made responsible for their medical as well as education needs. This would encourage the migration of younger workers--if there is a demonstrated need--and discourage that of workers whose contributions are minimal.

Under such reforms, the picture of the border would change. For one thing, strict enforcement, such as is now in place in El Paso, would be a prerequisite. But, more important, the expansion of a kind of "guest worker" program would leave prospective illegal migrants a legal, and respectable, alternative in finding work inside the U.S. economy.

Making such distinctions between sojourners and long-term immigrants with ambitions to become citizens will not be easy or particularly pleasant. But if those who believe in immigration do not soon gain the courage to make such distinctions, we can expect an ever less sympathetic public response to the addition of newcomers to our society.*

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