The Myth of Political Cost-Free Immigration, Pt. 1

By Stanley Renshon on July 8, 2014

The myth of economic cost-free immigration has its political counterpart.

It is the view that massively increasing immigration by tens of millions of new legal immigrants, as proposed in the Senate bill and by its advocates, is simply and unequivocally positive for the United States, its culture, and democracy. To assume or suggest anything less is to immediately open yourself to the charge that you are "anti-immigrant" or worse.

Nonetheless, while I am personally in favor of substantial legal immigration, and familiar with the many ways that immigrants have helped to build this country, and still do, it is foolish, and bad policy, to simply assume that there are no limits to the number of immigrants the country can successfully integrate into its national culture in any year, or decade for that matter.

That word, "successfully" requires a explanation. Mostly the term that is used is "assimilation", which is generally measured by such standard markers as English acquisition, educational attainment, economic advancement, and to a somewhat lesser extent political integration, defined as gaining citizenship. This is what most academics and commentators mean when they analyze and debate whether new immigrants are successfully "assimilating".

New immigrants are measured against the general population (which in recent decades includes many who were immigrants), and the question is asked: How closely do the new immigrants approximate the "natives", that is, the general population. To the extent that these numbers are in rough parity, new immigrants are said to be assimilating. To the extent that there are large gaps, assimilation is said to be lagging.

These measures are useful and important.

Of course, it matters a great deal if new immigrants master English because that is the language of America's cultural, economic, and political life. If you don't speak, read, and write it, it is hard to be a part of the country — to be integrated into it.

And work is the foundation of improvement in immigrants' economic circumstances, compared to what they were able to realize in their counties of origin. It is, still, in this country, both a reflection of and an essential element of our national culture of personal responsibility, self-reliance, industriousness, and ambition. And education is key to immigrant advancement, both their own, where that is possible, and certainly for their children.

Deciding to become a citizen does represent a step in commitment, as well as providing the opportunity to have one's voice, through the vote, to be part of the county's political deliberations.

As important as each of these elements may be, they all suffer from one major drawback. They are essentially instrumental and self-interested. English acquisition, more education, and employment are all part of the web of opportunities that draw immigrants to the United States. The United States has a deep interest in having immigrants to this country succeed.

Yet it is obviously in immigrants' self-interest to do so. After all, that is why they endured the emotional and cultural dislocation involved in emigrating from their home countries.

So when we measure immigrants' economic development — their home ownership or education levels, or their workforce participation — we are measuring how well they have succeeded in taking advantage of the United States' many opportunities. We are at the same time measuring how well they have satisfied their own motivation and self-interest in coming here.

In a term, we are measuring instrumental assimilation.

However, these instrumental measures don't really get to assimilation's essence — emotional attachment.

Next: The Myth of Political Cost-Free Immigration, Pt. 2