The Limits of the Melting Pot

Email Print


In "Open
Minds, Closed Borders," Ken Schooland, a university professor
in economics and political science, offers the textbook libertarian
case for open immigration. It is part of the freedom to move. In
utopia he would be right, but in this particular world he is wrong.

He starts
off by comparing immigrants to runaway slaves from the antebellum
South, and asks: would a libertarian, transported back in time,
bar such slaves? I hate to admit it, but it might depend on how
many there were; in any case, an immigrant from China or Mexico
is not a slave. Most are not coming for political reasons, but for
economic ones.

Is it in
our economic interest to let them in? My answer is: some. Immigrants
may pick our apples, slaughter our cattle, drive our taxis, do our
laundry and staff our 7-Eleven stores. They may also write our software
and start our dot-coms. Without immigrants, non-immigrants would
do some of those things, and others would not get done. There would
be fewer assembly lines, fewer 24-hour stores, and some industries,
like hand-picked fruit, might go away. And there might be fewer

The current
system of limited immigration favors the educated and prosperous
because it requires following rules, filling out forms and, usually,
knowing people in the United States. It also gives an edge to foreigners
attending U.S. universities. A system of no restrictions would let
in the unlettered and ignorant. Perhaps if immigration were open,
whole new industries would spring up — perhaps a rebirth of personal
service. We already have the nanny, which is a kind of a servant.
I do not argue, as many do, that with open borders there would be
permanent mass unemployment. Jobs would be created. But they would
look different from the kind of jobs we have today — the kind appropriate
to folks who used to travel steerage-class.

writes, "I suspect that the reason for rejecting people from
some countries has more to do with snobbish attitudes about ethnicity,
status and wealth than it does with economics." No kidding.
And then he goes on to talk about economics.

The fact
is, foreigners are sometimes different in ways that Americans find
disturbing. Over the centuries, we have dealt with that by assimilation.
We have discovered that the melting pot works pretty well, provided
the immigrant group is not too large, and too lumpy, to melt. That
means rationing their entrance, and making sure the immigrants are
not all of one flavor.

Does this
interfere with foreigners' right of movement? Yes, it does. But
all countries do that. In a world in which everyone does that, and
in which you are the richest and most desirable nation, you're
crazy to be the only one with an open gate, and no one to keep count.

makes a comparison of immigration with emigration. America, he says,
is the only country that allows its citizens the unlimited right
to emigrate. I have never heard such a thing, and seriously doubt
it, but I let it pass. Several million Americans do go abroad to
work, he says, and they are seen by their host countries as an economic
benefit. "Why doesn't the same logic apply to immigrants from
other countries?" Schooland asks.

Americans are not welcomed everywhere as workers. Try it and see.

Americans are rich. When they go to a poor country, they bring wealth
with them.

Americans are not immigrants. They are expatriates, who return

gives an example of Hong Kong as a place in which many people crowd
together and support themselves. That is true; yet Hong Kong has
not had an open border with China for decades, and still doesn't,
even though it is part of China. It may have 120,000 Filipino
maids, but it does not let them stay when their contracts expire.
It did not welcome 50,000 refugees from Vietnam. It has not limited
the several tens of thousands of Americans, but if an American can't
make a living in Hong Kong at an American standard, the American
will go home.

That is
the difference.

quotes libertarians saying that they'd be for open immigration if
there were no welfare. He attacks this position, arguing that welfare
is not that important. I agree. If we abolished welfare tomorrow,
we would still have to control immigration. America is too enticing;
our standard of living is ten times that of China. Not only is America
rich, but the people in countries like China and India are better
off, too — better off enough to buy tickets to come here.

compares states of the union, arguing that the more generous the
welfare a state has, the more people leave that state. He says the
states with the highest welfare benefits, like New York and Hawaii,
have net out-migration, and states with low welfare benefits, like
Nevada, have in-migration. This is because welfare raises taxes,
and taxes destroy jobs.

That may
all be true. But high welfare benefits may still be attracting dependants,
even if five times the number of workers are leaving. It is not
emigration statistics Schooland should be looking at, but welfare
rolls. I don't believe welfare benefits are the main driver of immigration,
but they are a driver. In particular, there is a problem
of immigrants bringing their elderly parents and signing them up
for Social Security's Supplemental Security Income.

I have
criticized Schooland for bringing up ethnicity and then talking
economics, and now I see that I have done it myself. It is difficult
to talk about ethnicity. Americans have the idea of the melting
pot, that foreigners can come here and embrace the American idea
of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, of religious and
political tolerance, and that by the second generation, they will
speak English as a native and have roughly American social and political
attitudes. And that has generally been true. But it has not been
true in every other country. Talk to a German; any one will tell
you the Turks cannot be assimilated. The Germans say it is the religion.
I don't know; maybe the Germans are going about it wrong. But I
do believe, from common sense, that the amount of absorptive power
of a nation, even this nation, is limited; that if it is overwhelmed,
the nation changes irreversibly. The key is not race but culture.
I don't want the American nation to change so fast, and I don't
think someone who puts great stock in the traditional American idea
of liberty would want anything different. Liberty, too, can be diluted
even more than it already is.

Look at
America's ethnic politics. It is bad enough as it is; imagine it
worse. If you create several more large ethnic groups, the difference
between the Democrats and the Republicans could be entirely skin
color. I shudder to think of it.

That doesn't
mean I'm against immigration. I'm married to an immigrant. I've
helped immigrants get green cards. I think it is wonderful that
people abroad yearn to become Americans, and that we let them do
so. But we have to manage it. The immigrants I know had to wait
several years in line, because the quota was full. They had to go
to the consulate and fill out forms. They had to have an American
resident vouch for them, and guarantee to support them if they couldn't
make a living. As a matter of fact, they have paid their way – fully.
They are citizens. And they are becoming more American every year.

The question
is not immigrants or no immigrants, but how many immigrants,
and under what rules.

There is a
story about Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who visited the United
States in 1979. He met President Carter, who had been in frustrating
negotiations with the Russians about the right of Russian Jews to
emigrate. Carter began speaking to Deng. The world's door was opening
to China, Carter said, but China, like Russia, would have to observe
the fundamental human right to emigrate.

looked up, surprised. "How many do you want?" he said.

not my point, Carter said –

can give you ten million. You want twenty? Thirty?"

This article
is reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Liberty.
Send editorial comments to
All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless
otherwise indicated.

16, 2006

Ramsey [send him mail]
is a journalist in Seattle and editor of Insatiable
, Ex
America: The 50th Anniversary of The People's Pottage
America First
, and Salvos
Against the New Deal.

Email Print