Immigration and the New Xenophobia: Americans vs. Americans

Prejudice hiding in plain sight, and advanced at the highest levels

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 4, 2020

There is a new xenophobia that has taken root in America. It is insidious and invasive, but like many things that are invasive, it has rooted so slowly but spread so widely that you may have never noticed it. It is a xenophobia by certain Americans against others — fellow citizens whom the former class doesn't know but nonetheless has opinions about, and really doesn't care to understand.

First things first. Merriam-Webster defines "xenophobia" as "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign". It explains:

If you look back to the ancient Greek terms that underlie the word xenophobia, you'll discover that xenophobic individuals are literally "stranger fearing." Xenophobia, that elegant-sounding name for an aversion to persons unfamiliar, ultimately derives from two Greek terms: xenos, which can be translated as either "stranger" or "guest," and phobos, which means either "fear" or "flight."

There have been attempts of late to craft an antonym to xenophobia, describing the fear that certain nationals of a country have toward their fellow nationals. The late British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton coined the phrase "oikophobia", meaning "the repudiation of inheritance and home". He explained that he did so because:

No adequate word exists for this attitude, though its symptoms are instantly recognised: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with 'them' against 'us', and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably 'ours'.

The idea has been taken up by a number of American conservatives, including the Wall Street Journal's incomparable James Taranto ("Oikophobia, Why the liberal elite finds Americans revolting") and Glenn Reynolds ("Oikophobia on the rise after Trump win").

I am no philosopher, let alone a Scruton, Taranto, or even Reynolds, but respectfully, their views fail to take an important factor into account — first and foremost the idea that simply sharing a nationality doesn't keep you from viewing a fellow national as an "other".

In a September 1966 Life Magazine article captioned "Man Is a Territorial Animal", Robert Ardrey, the American playwright, screen writer, and author posited that there are "three beginnings ... which psychologically motivate the behavior of all higher animals, including man ... the needs for identity, for stimulation and security."

He explained: "Think of these in terms of their opposites. We shun anonymity, dread boredom and seek to dispel anxiety." Identity, he asserted, was the most powerful motivator, followed by stimulation and then security (which would normally "be sacrificed for either of the other two."). Ardrey explained that territory provides identity, and that in fact it is an unalienable part of it: "This place is mine, I am of this place."

That said, however, there are internal disputes within the inhabitants of a given territory that go to the heart of identity. Want proof? Why are there two political parties in this country? They share a lot of the same ideas, but it is their differences that gain adherents. And there are tensions within those parties, almost exclusively having to do with their differing views of the national identity.

Nowhere is the political divide within our country more clear than it is with respect to three "hot button issues": reproductive rights, gun rights, and immigration. Of the three, only immigration is directly tied to the national identity, because it is a key tenet of that identity — we are a "nation of immigrants". Aside from a few on the far (far) fringes of politics, there is no real debate as to whether we should admit immigrants in the future, and whether there should be any limits on the admission of those immigrants. The only questions are how many immigrants and what those limits should be.

These questions make for strange political bedfellows. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is generally thought of as being a conservative and Republican institution, while Silicon Valley is generally viewed as a hotbed of Democratic (big-D) liberalism. Both the Chamber and Big Tech support more immigration. The late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan (Texas) was a prominent liberal Democrat (the "liberal" part was a title she somewhat eschewed, but was belied by her voting record), while the former (and future?) Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) is a steadfast conservative Republican. Read my colleague Jerry Kammer's 2016 profile of Rep. Jordan, though, and you will find her views on immigration enforcement are all but indistinguishable from the former senator's.

More importantly, however, the views of some Americans on immigration and immigrants expose the "new xenophobia", wherein they view subsets of their fellow countrymen as "the other" — different and somehow less than they themselves (or others) are. This view is the clearest with respect to Americans with limited work skills and a poor education.

Think about the phrase "jobs Americans won't do". No less than then-President George W. Bush spoke in 2005 about the need for "comprehensive immigration reform" (read: amnesty) with a "new temporary-worker program" (read: the importation of cheap foreign labor) to "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs Americans will not do." (Emphasis added.)

The obvious implication of that statement (and the underlying sentiment) is that there are U.S. citizens who would rather not work instead of working in those occupations. Is that really true, though? What if there were no other options? Would they prefer to starve, or not provide for their children? Receive government benefits? Sponge off of a pliable spouse, malleable parents, the friend who takes pity on them? The very phrase "jobs Americans won't do" suggests that Americans are both lazy and elitist, as compared to some numinous hardworking foreign national, at least. Of course, my colleague Steven Camarota has shown "There Are No Jobs Americans Won't Do", but the sentiment persists.

Well, you might retort, how about complaints like those voiced in an August 2019 NPR article by "Lynn", who owns a restaurant "somewhere in Missouri", whose kitchen is "staffed mainly with unauthorized Latino workers"? She asserted: "You cannot hire an American here that will show up to work. They will not be committed to their job. In America ... restaurant work is not a serious profession." Lynn continues:

"The people that come in and apply to take our jobs will show up for one shift. They will not be clean. They will not probably be sober. They will ask for their money at the end of the shift and then they will not be back for the second shift."

I have washed dishes and bused tables, broken toilets and sinks with a sledgehammer, and even fed livestock. I'm an American (with a passport to prove it). Does that mean that these are jobs that Americans will actually do, or that I'm somehow less (or stupider) than my fellow citizens?

My immigrant ancestors were masons, farmers, dairymen, butchers, and seamstresses. Have Americans, through the passage of time, somehow devolved from the ability to perform those tasks today? Or have Americans rather evolved to the point of uselessness that we cannot do them, on a path to becoming like the Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine?

My first job was in a restaurant, and in addition to getting paid (something like $2.00 an hour plus tips), I learned the life skills that are required to hold down a job: show up on time, clean, and not hungover (let alone drunk). My friends also worked in restaurants, cut grass, picked crops, or got summer jobs in the local beach resort (Ocean City, Md.). How many American teenagers do those jobs anymore?

As my colleague Jessica Vaughan reported in early April, more than 40 percent of all H-2B nonimmigrant guestworker visas have been requested for landscapers and groundskeepers — in many cases the modern equivalent of the teenager cutting grass 30 years ago.

As an aside, I am meticulous, in hiring people to do work for me, to ensure that the company's employees have legal status. One landscaper in particular hired H-2Bs, and the company did a great job. Years later, I needed additional work done, and called the company back. The work force was now exclusively American workers, and the owner of the company had decided that it was not worth the money, hassle, or uncertainty of hiring H-2Bs. Again, those Americans were willing to do the job (they also did great work) — so why don't the potential employers of the landscapers and groundskeepers Vaughan references do the same?

Those beach jobs? Read my colleague Stephen Steinlight's article from November 2011, "What's New on Cape Cod? Seals from Maine, Summer Workers from Europe", where he recounts how the local youth and college students from nearby Boston who previously worked at that tony vacation spot have been replaced by J-1 workers from "East/Central Europe, the Adriatic, and the Balkans".

Will the "some 100,000" J-1s be able to make the trek this year, in light of the current pandemic? Not clear. But every year in the past decade that I have gone to Ocean City, I have encountered the same phenomenon. Lest you think I am jumping to conclusions, I often ask cashiers and waiters if they are J-1s (after I tell them I am an immigration lawyer), and universally and cheerfully they tell me they are.

Camarota noted in July 2018:

The number of U.S.-born teenagers not in the labor force increased from 4.7 million in 1994 to 8.1 million in 2007. It peaked in 2010 at 9.3 million. In the summer of 2017, 9.1 million U.S.-born teenagers were not in the labor force. In 2018, we project it will fall only slightly to nine million.


Immigrants and teenagers often do the same kind of work. In the summer of 2017, in the 25 occupations employing the most U.S.-born teenagers, more than one in five workers was an immigrant. [Emphasis added.]

Comparisons across states in 2017 show that in the 10 states with the largest shares of immigrant workers, just 36 percent of U.S.-born teens were in the summer labor force. In contrast, in the 10 states with the smallest shares of immigrant workers, 49 percent of teens were in the labor force.

Perhaps this is just a situation where correlation does not imply causation, and the privileged American youth who were not working simply studied for the SATs, took internships, or played videogames instead. Probably not, as Camarota explained:

Looking at change over time shows that in the 10 states where immigrants increased the most as a share of workers since 1994, labor force participation of U.S.-born teenagers declined by 26 percentage points. In the 10 states where immigrants increased the least, teen labor force participation declined 19 percentage points.

The most likely reason immigrants displace U.S.-born teenagers is that the vast majority of immigrants are fully developed adults — relatively few people migrate before age 20. This gives immigrants a significant advantage over U.S.-born teenagers who typically have much less work experience. [Emphasis added.]

Oh, and J-1s can start work before Memorial Day and keep working after Labor Day, when American students generally start back to school.

Today's unemployed American teenager is tomorrow's unsuccessful applicant for a job at Lynn's restaurant. I am not saying that the life skills required for employment have to been learned when you are 16 (it helps), but they have to be learned. Unfortunately, we seem to be on a cycle of teenagers being squeezed out of the labor force by immigrants, teenagers who then lack the skills to stick with a job, and who are replaced by immigrants as a consequence.

Note that Lynn is not exactly a sympathetic character (by my lights, at least): she is described as sipping Pinot Grigio as the "cooking crew cleans up" from the lunch rush, and while she may pay "more than the federal minimum wage" ($7.25 per hourLynn claims she pays dishwashers $11.50 an hour, cooks $16), those workers "get no insurance, vacations or sick pay." Meaning you likely pay for their health care.

Not that the educational system is helping. In 2019, "a little more than a third of eighth-graders [we]re proficient in reading and math" nationwide. In my erstwhile hometown of Baltimore, the four-year graduation rate last year was a dismal 70.3 percent, down 1.9 percent from the year before.

One might wonder if even those graduates got much out of the process. In the 2018-2019 Baltimore City School Report Card, only 21.8 percent of students were proficient in math and 32.9 percent were proficient in "English Language Arts", despite the school system spending "$16,184 per pupil", the third-highest rate in the nation. This is not a recipe for preparing young people for future job success.

These statistics in the concrete are likely only of interest to the parents with children in those schools, and possibly taxpayers who may feel they are not getting their money's worth. In the abstract, however, imagine that businesses — from Lynn in Missouri to the "Big Employers" listed in a December 2016 exposé on illegal labor by the Texas Tribune — depended on the students who are being failed by these schools to be their future workers — without the possibility of "utilizing" labor from abroad. Would they allow this unconscionable situation to continue, or would they demand improvement and accountability out of the schools, their administrators, and the teachers' unions?

Here is the problem: Those students, and their parents and guardians, are mostly unseen, as are the vast majority of low-skilled Americans seeking jobs. Not "unseen" in the sense that most do not pass by them on the street and see them standing around (as I often did on my daily commute to Washington). "Unseen" in the sense that most just pass them by, viewing those individuals' personal welfare as a strictly private, government, or family affair, and their failure to succeed as the consequence of their own laziness and poor work ethic.

These are Americans, but to people like Lynn and her ilk, they are the "other" — strangers who might as well be foreigners in the land we share. This is the new xenophobia.

Do we really owe those low-skilled, poorly educated strangers anything, though? Yes. Why are we socially distancing, wearing masks, and shutting down whole sectors of our economy? To protect our fellow Americans (most of whom we do not know and will never meet) by ensuring that we do not overwhelm the limited medical resources they may need. The same is as true when it comes to providing opportunities to access the limited (and increasingly shrinking) number of jobs that are available to those lower-skilled workers.

By the way, those workers are not alone as targets of the new xenophobia. Oddly enough, they are joined by some very different Americans — who have received the benefits of an education, but find themselves on the outside looking in on the American economy. I will discuss those workers in a future post.