January 13, 2004

Bush immigration proposal and the question of assimilation

President Bush's recently announced temporary worker program is interesting for many reasons. Briefly, the program establishes a temporary legal status for undocumented foreign workers. It requires that they be employed (or have been offered a job), and that the employer serve as the worker's sponsor for the application process.

The effects of this proposal are hotly debated. My only contribution on this point comes from a conversation with my dad, who suggested that it might get a whole lot of new wage-earners on the payroll tax rolls. Our great nation is increasingly reliant on payroll taxes to generate revenue, and President Bush has cut taxes of every kind except for payroll taxes. Given the dizzyingly huge deficits that prompted expressions of concern even from the IMF, it makes sense that this administration would try to broaden the payroll tax base, and this immigration proposal seems to attempt just that.

Apart from the nuts-and-bolts effects of this proposal, it has pushed to the fore a debate about immigrants and their role in America. One concept that's being brought up fairly frequently is "assimilation."

Conservatives and liberals differ, unsurprisingly, about what "assimilation" means. This is unsurprising, because conservatives and liberals disagree about what makes America a unique and praiseworthy nation.

Liberals are more likely to see diversity itself as a strength of American culture. We are the nation that is made up of many different cultures, each respecting the others. For the liberal, "assimilation" means that you agree to live with people of other cultures without asserting that your own culture deserves somehow to be the dominant one.

Conservatives, on the other hand, see assimilation as a check upon diversity. America can thrive, they claim, only if everyone signs on to a more or less extensive "core" of fundamental American values, and limits diversity to ethnic restaurants and cultural holidays.

Both positions have merit but, of course, they also have weaknesses. The liberal view of multiculturalism too often descends into a simplistic and knee-jerk identity politics, which almost always generates more heat than light.

The conservative position often ignores the fact that American values are contested, most obviously by the right and the left. Conservative paeans to assimilation too often parrot only the list of conservative values under the name of "American" values, and so come off as overly parochial and willfully blind to the real diversity of America.

The truth, if any, is probably somewhere in the middle. Damn. How dull.

Posted by Carey at January 13, 2004 10:54 PM

great title. good to find other fans of the golden haired one. great blog also. cheers.

Posted by: superstring at January 14, 2004 10:51 AM

My problems with Bush's proposal are many and varied, but I'll hit the highlights. First, people who spend three years here as guest-workers are not likely to return home at the end of their tenure. They will establish lives here, have children, and will either become citizens by virtue of the 14th amendment, or will simply stay on illegally. So what's the problem with more citizens? Well, you have to accept that there is a limit to the number of humans that our finite space can or should support. More humans in the end spells doom for the Grizzly, Cerulean Warbler, and on and on. If you feel any affinity for the non-human species in the US, this proposal should trouble you. Population growth in this country is driven almost entirely by immigrants and their descendants, the native population is at or slightly below the steady state. Second, there is a valid issue of culture at stake. I cling to the antiquated notion that there should be a dominant cluture that absorbs immigrants. The multiculturalist's dream of a Balkanized america where little Mexico and little Brazil neighbor little Armenia is profoundly unstable and dangerous. I would point you to the actual Balkans - when the economy was stable and a powerful personality ruled, things went along smoothly, as the economy faltered and a power vaccum arose things went to hell. As the incredibly prophetic Ed Abbey said "who in the end would rather live in the Latin American version of civilization than in the European version" (or something along those lines), and that truly is the fundamental question. A demographic sea-change is happening under our noses and we should be as coldly realistic about the outcome as is possible.

Posted by: Nick at January 14, 2004 11:32 AM

Nick, the children of guest workers will not become citizens of the U.S. by virtue of the 14th amendment. Their children will, but then again, over the years many children of foreign nationals have become U.S. citizens by virtue of the 14th amendment. Ever heard of an actor named Bruce Lee?

Posted by: Len Cleavelin at January 14, 2004 12:49 PM

Nicely analyzed! As you say, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. Someday I'm going to post about the importance of moderatism as a political movement, but not today.

Posted by: Mark Ashton at January 14, 2004 01:09 PM

I had something important to say. Then I forgot it. But I started typing anyways. It ended up being something about chickens. I'm really really sorry, and you should shoot me.

Posted by: Heidi at January 14, 2004 03:57 PM

Remembered it!

As to the demographic shift--look, we realize that numbers are increasing. But let's think about non-humans everywhere not just those that we are attached to for reasons of xenophobia. The problem is not that people are immigrating to the US; the problem is that population is increasing. How much better would it be if they converted rainforest to desert?

The problem of efficient land management is not one that we'll solve by cracking down on immigration, of all things. How about not building sprawling suburbs? How about working to reduce overpopulation? How about trying to build up other nations so that America becomes less relatively attractive? How about caring about the world as a whole, and not the US as a part?

As for their being a dominant culture--la la la--which one is that? There's a dominating culture, yes. But that's not quite the same thing. There's as much danger in uniformity as in diversity. As in all things, if you're trying to maximize two functions, either extreme pretty much sucks.

Posted by: Heidi at January 14, 2004 04:01 PM

1) The Latino population in the US is growing.
2) This is a population that by and large votes Democrat.
3) There is little that the Bush administration can do about this immigration (There is too much of a desire for cheap labor among his Republican buddies)
4) Karl Rove is aware of all of this.
This is a very thinly veiled way to get the Latino vote. The growing Latino population will give the Democrats dominance within a decade. This is Bush's attempt to try to stem this tide. Hopefully it won't work. Bush is trying the same thing to get the "science nerd" vote with this new space initiative. Again, hopefully it won't work.

Posted by: Larry at January 14, 2004 07:16 PM

The Latino population is an interesting voting bloc b/c, while they vote Democratic, they are also more inclined to religious/conservative positions on social and family matters. Though this does vary greatly depending on the origin of the particular Latino.

The guest worker act is also interesting b/c its essentially a form of indentured servitude. To stay in the program you need to have a job; lose it and you're expelled. It essentially puts the workers at the mercy of the employer. And it creates more competition in the US labor market, keeping wages low. Basically it has all the problems of the H1-B visas, but moreso.

I find it hugely ironic that the area of the country most likely to be adversely affected, the South b/c of geographic proximity and the structure of the economy, is also Bush's strongest supporter. And they'll still vote for him b/c he's a "good" guy.

Posted by: James at January 15, 2004 09:42 PM

Bravo Heidi. Best post I've seen on this blog, ever, period. I'm glad I'm not the only one that doesn't see U.S. borders as some kind of opaque ecological barrier, where domestic policy can make or break the state of the natural world as a whole.

Posted by: Brian at January 16, 2004 12:23 PM