Send Me Your Poor…

In many ways, I find that I wear the label “conservative” rather well, both by temperament and according to where the political and moral needs of our current time drive me. However one area in which I find myself at odds with much of the conservative movement is in immigration policy, though in this particular area I seem to be at odds with most people.

Being descended from Irish and Mexican immigrants who entered the country more than a hundred years ago, when there were no limits on immigration other than a basic health exam, I feel strongly that those trapped in socially, politically and economically backward countries should have the opportunity to come to the US and see if they can create a better life for themselves. So I have little to no sympathy with the “seal the borders and keep those damn foreigners out” approach. We were all foreigners once.

At the same time, I find myself profoundly out of sympathy with the de facto open boarders approach of many immigration advocates who, knowing that open boarders is a difficult political sell, instead demand that people who have entered the country illegally be given drivers licenses and even allowed to vote.

This is a country of laws, and encouraging people enter the country illegally and then trying to get them the benefits of legal residency sends entirely the wrong message.

But here, really, is the elephant in the living room which no one really wants to deal with: In the peak days of immigration, when the phrase <em>”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”</em> meant something, we welcomed to our shore exactly that: the poor and huddled masses of the world.

Both my Irish and Mexican ancestor suffered, in different ways, the prejudice that often awaited immigrants when they reached our shores. Moreover, they suffered the grinding poverty and poor working conditions that were offered them. When immigrants arrive with nothing but their willingness to work, there are not as yet any economic resources for them. It is only with time (and a certain amount of luck) that they can create the economic resources that will lift them out of poverty.

Put very basically, work creates wealth, but the amount of wealth in the country at any given moment is the product of the current number of workers. When you bring in new workers, you bring in the capacity to create new wealth. But that takes time, in the meantime, the resources available to the new immigrant are scant.

However, for all it’s self indulgence, our modern society hates to see poverty before its eyes. We don’t want the immigrant slums that characterized the big cities circa 1900. We don’t want to see people working the long hours for low wages that were decried even in the early 1900s as a disgusting result of capitalism run wild. (And it did run wild, employers have a human obligation not to expose their workers to unnecessary danger, nor to pay them less than they are able to.)

Instead, we hide the low wage slums that produce our affordable consumer products, importing them from China instead of making them ourselves. It is thus China that will succeed in lifting millions of low wage workers gradually out of poverty, while the US tries to stem the tide of immigration, keeping the poor out in order to keep poverty out.

I’m all for open boarders, but this country would need to understand that when you open the doors to the poor, poverty comes with them, at least initially. We simply would not have the resources to provide each immigrant family with a new condo, two cars, a game cube, cable television, a cell phone and Levis — all the things that make life worth living in our consumerist worldview. Even if we were determined to engage in full scale wealth redistribution, we could not get enough resources to provide each immigrant (from the start) with an “American” lifestyle. Economic development takes time, and if we were to open our borders to tens of millions of immigrants from the third world, we would have to accept that (despite all efforts by those of good will to make sure they were not inordinately put at risk or taken advantage of) for a while we would have tens of millions of immigrants living in what would be very close to third world conditions. And yet, given time, opportunity and education, these immigrants, like our ancestors would pull themselves out of poverty, and add another few hundred billion to our country’s GNP in the process.

However, in spite of this, those who advocate opening our boarders are almost invariably the same people who advocate raising the minimum wage, or mandating “living wage laws”. Their slogan seems to be: “Send me your poor… but no poverty, please.”

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  1. The fear with immigration seems, to me at least, to be rooted in the notion that if we don’t limit immigration, then we will pluck the tree bare of fruit and not have any left for planting. All the hidden costs that illegal immigrants bring suggest there is some reason for concern there. A surplus of labor tends to depress wages, which isn’t necessarily the end of the world, unless someone out there is mandating unreasonably high minimum wages. But the fact that so many of these immigrants have no problem finding people who will hire them–coupled with the fact the US has had for years a very low unemployment rate–states this isn’t as large a problem as people think. Personally, I’m all for finding all the illegal immigrants and at the very least handing them green cards (or whatever the permission-to-work tag is now).

    Culture is another matter, as well. The problem with the Hispanic wave of illegal immigrants is that they tend to be isolated from the rest of the nation. What I don’t know is whether that is the fault of the Hispanics–wanting to come, pluck the tree bare, and then hurry home without being tainting by US culture–or us–so prejudiced against the immigrant, legal or not, that we isolate them. Regardless of which case it is, we still could do a better job of reaching out to our immigrant communities and help them more.

  2. Why is the standard a condo, two cars, a game cube, a cell phone, and Levis what makes “life worth living”. I understand that you did not actually promote this as the standard, but I think it is worth discussing. Who actually has this standard?

    I think the problem is this is what we demand, not for them but for us. People aren’t affraid of having neighbors that are poor. People are affraid of being poor, or as you put it, not living the “American Lifestyle”. Thats why we don’t want to have the kind of redistribution it takes to provide for things like healthcare to immigrants, because we need to live our “American Lifestyle”.

  3. Ryan,

    I’d agree in finding culture and education more troubling than economics in many ways. Though to a great extent, that’s part of a larger part of breakdown in education and culture in the US. I’m not clear that we’re doing any better inculcating education and American culture in native born poor children than we are with the children of immigrants.


    Why is the standard a condo, two cars, a game cube, a cell phone, and Levis what makes “life worth living”. I understand that you did not actually promote this as the standard, but I think it is worth discussing. Who actually has this standard?

    What I was thinking of (though expressing it in a slightly satiric way) is that we have a standard of what constitutes “poverty” in the US which is based on our own standards resulting from living in the US: a family should be able to afford its own, stand alone home; you should be able to afford a good working car; your house or apartment should be at least a certain size; etc.

    Obviously, even a very working class lifestyle in the US is very, very well off by the standards of many countries in the world. So given the chance, you might find a three generation family with eight people living in a one bedroom apartment in the US — four adults earning minimum wage pooling their resources to make expenses — and yet compared to their life in Guatamala two years before they might feel like they’re doing very well.

    Now my approach to the above situation would be to say, “They’re getting the chance they want to create wealth and work their way out of poverty into a US lifestyle.” However, I think we often hear people say, “It’s horrible that we allow immigrants to be treated this way, why don’t we pay them a decent wage?”

    At a basic supply/demand level, though, I don’t see how we could both guarantee that they’d make a wage much higher than the current US minimum wage; allow nearly unlimitted immigration; and avoid having high unemployment.

    And so, since even at current low wage levels an immigrant to the US is often making 5-10x what he or she would have been making back home in an undeveloped or semi-developed country — I’d tend to support opening up legal immigration a lot and allowing there to be lots of low wage labor which gradually creates wealth and lifts itself out of poverty.

    However, I think the two forces pushing back against that idea (probably far to strongly for us to ever adopt such a policy) are:

    1) Low skill/low education workers in the US who don’t want to see their wages go down because there is a large supply of immigrant labor willing to do the same work for less.

    2) Well intentioned people across the political spectrum but especially on the left don’t want to see immigrant families be poor — and so would rather either keep immigrants out or provide so much support in terms of either minimum wage hikes or social services that lots of immigration results in high unemployment and/or unsustainable needs for social services spending.

  4. The old “lump of labor” fallacy always gets rolled out in tough times. It’s still a fallacy, though. Immigration actually leads to economic growth; it doesn’t steal jobs from domestic workers.

  5. Mark,

    I didn’t see where anyone said that Hispanic culture is inferior to American culture. But more generally, do you have a problem passing judgment on a culture? Even if, say, that culture practiced infanticide or virgin sacrifices as part of its way of life? It’s people who are created equal, not the attributes of their culture…

  6. j.


    But I guess I have this quetion? why do we have the intense focus on insuring/insisting that Hispanics are thoroughly assimilated into ‘Amercan culture.? And what in God’s name is American culture, that is seemingly so said to be a threatened by unassimilated, outside influences?

    I look back at the educational endeavors of the 1920s and see some of the untrue, terrible things that were simply assumed about Jews, Italians, the Poles etc.

    Is not the concern coming from the same ignorance and/or prejudice?.

  7. -I’m all for open boarders,-

    I spent eighteen months after college as a full-time volunteer in shelters that aided illegal immigrants (actually, about half that time was on the Mexican side working with the homeless and running a women’s shelter). So, I don’t share the fear or hatred of the immigrant. Actually, I like Spanish and Latin culture more than I do American, and I only speak Spanish in the home, so I am quite comfortable with immigration.

    However, I could never agree with some of my fellow volunteers that we should have open borders. That seems reckless. What has always annoyed me about the immigration situation is the way it is set up. The truth is that for many years we had nearly non-existent unemployment and these workers were not taking jobs from people (I never lost a teaching job to an illegal immigrant and I never wanted the job in the orchard busting my ass for minimum wage). Basically, we needed these people but we made them go through hell to get here (Pragmatically, the border enforcement is a good idea: it generally only allows the strong and young to get through and then we exploit them for labor. Obviously, that is an inhumane practice and, to cover it up, that is why the immigrants are always painted as a problem rather than the solution to our need for cheap physical labor).

    I just wish that our policy could be more honest. Admit we need a certain amount of people and recruit them!

    It always amuses me when people say, “Why don’t they just come legally?” They think that it is just as simple as dropping into the US consulate and getting papers. It took me over two years (and the frequent assistance of Senator Jon Kyl’s office) to immigrate my wife and my own children, and I am a natural-born US citizen. Can you imagine how hard it is for Jose the orchard worker from Nicaragua? It is impossible, actually. You have to meet income and property requirements that are unreachable for your typical Latin American worker. They have little choice but to come illegally.

  8. Rob,

    I think you bring up an important and (outside of those who’ve actually had to deal with the current immigration regulations) little known point: Whatever the right approach is, the status quo of immigration regulation is just plain disfunctional. It’s very, very difficult and time consuming to immigrate legally (coming in on a student visa and then getting an employer to sponsor you for a work visa is probably the easiest route) and the combination of a very difficult immigration process with occasionally lax enforcement is that we end up actively selecting for people who are willing to ignore the law and sneak in. (Which in turn leaves them most open to being exploited.)

    As for open boarders — I personally think that it would be most just to allow anyone without a criminal record or a serious communicable disease in (19th century style) but I don’t know if I’d actually support the policy if there was a vote on it tomorrow in that I don’t think the US is open to dealing with the consequences of really huge immigration. Realistically in the short term, I think we need to expand the quotas and simplify the process, and enforce what laws that we do have.


    Someone please argue how Hispanic culture is inferior to American culture…
    But I guess I have this quetion? why do we have the intense focus on insuring/insisting that Hispanics are thoroughly assimilated into ‘Amercan culture.? And what in God’s name is American culture, that is seemingly so said to be a threatened by unassimilated, outside influences?

    While I don’t think it’s impossible to say that in certain cases one culture is inferior to another (not all cultures are equal) I don’t think that “Hispanic culture” (whatever that means — “Hispanics” being a very broad and diverse group) is inferior to US culture.

    However, I think society is generally only healthy and free of strife when people share a common culture. That doesn’t mean they can’t have differences based on their culture of origin, but it’s important that they be able to speak to each other (shared language) and that they share certain common knowledge and archetypes derived from their nation’s history, political philosophy and literature.

    This isn’t something unique to the US. It seems to me that if one was going to emmigrate to Japan, one would owe it to one’s new country to learn at least some Japanese and develop an understanding of Japanese history and literature as it applies to modern Japanese culture. Similarly, if you moved to France, you’d owe it to them to learn some French and learn enough of their history and culture to understand “Frenchness” as your new fellow countryment would.

    In the same sense, if our own country is to resist becoming a Balkanized federation of unassimilated cultures which don’t have any interest in each other, it’s important that US citizens learn English in school and develop an understanding of American history and literature (including American political archetypes.) That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t retain an appreciation of their own culture of origin as well — but there needs to be a sharing in real culture — not just consumer MTV culture that you pick up from the television and radio.

    Which is why I think it’s essential that our schools do a massively better job than they have in recent decades.

  9. DC,

    I forgot to make my point! LOL

    I was going to say, even with my background, I think that any country has the right, really a duty, to defend it’s borders, even seal them off. So an “open” border would just be reckless. But our present kookoo pokicy is essentially an open border, since the difficulty of legal immigration encourages people to cross the border anywhere but at a legal checkpoint.

    However, I atke issue with your concern about Balkanization. This country has always been on the verge of Balkanizaton and has always survived. Common language? There are still (small) places where French and German are spoken first in this country. 100 years ago, upstate New York and much of New England were French speaking (and Cajun in Louisiana). Lots os Pennsylvanians were German speakers (the first World War convinced them to change that, though!). These were not people who learned foreign languages as a hobby. They spoke “foreign” languages at home and in business! Now, though, those areas are practically museums, little Williamsburgs. The same will happen in the Southwest. It behooves people to learn English. The ones that aren’t learning English are the parents (I dare you to pick up a foreign language after a childhood of little or no education and having six kids to support!). But their kids, the ones born here, are native English speakers just like you and I. I know. I taught these kids for ten years.

    If there is anything I am worried about, it is that they WILL assimilate into our sick culture. I find it hard to relax when I see the ease with which the kids of simple, earnest, Catholic immigrants become drug-using, abortion-seeking, “good Americans”.

  10. Rob,

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you much on the assimilation question. I don’t have a problem with Spanish newspapers and radio stations and some of the stores I go into being primarily Spanish speaking — that’s just a matter of serving the people who are local. (Back in Los Angeles our neighborhood supermarket went through stages of being mostly in Spanish, then Russian and later Arabic and Turkish.)

    What did worry me a good bit with the California schools was that because they got paid more for “ESL” students than English-speaking students, they’d often shunt kids off into classes that were mostly taught in Spanish for all eight years of their elementary education. However, they didn’t cover Spanish grammar very well, so the Spanish spoken was often low quality, and for “Hispanic culture” there was a lot of messing around about “Aztec culture” because they felt uncomfortable discussing anything that was Catholic in a public school setting.

    So you’d end up with kids who sounded uneducated in both Spanish and English and didn’t have a real grasp of either culture — though they were definitely fluent in the trashy pop-culture which pours out of American TV sets every day.

    Though I should say: Although the ESL classes tended to cover less math and writing than they should have (and thus hurt kids in the long run) — I don’t think that the “normal” classes in most of our public schools do a very good job of instilling American and Western Culture. So the problem is certainly wider than just dealing with immigration.

  11. -there was a lot of messing around about “Aztec culture” because they felt uncomfortable discussing anything that was Catholic in a public school setting. –

    LOL Aren’t liberals a riot? Yeah, because the average Mexican kid really identifies with the ancient Aztecs more than he does with Christianity. Gimme a break.

    -I don’t think that the “normal” classes in most of our public schools do a very good job of instilling American and Western Culture.-

    But they do. They just don’t instill the culture we want them to instill. George Washington? Naaah. Bill of Rights? Plymouth Rock? In God We Trust? Naaaah! Instead, they teach the permissive, nebulous and totally unidentifiable blob-culture that is the new America. By “blob”, I mean that most people no longer stand for anything or try to even say anything, because all viewpoints are equally offensive, so the solution is to make everything “okay”. The new culture is non-culture…

    Ah, what am I doing? I’m preaching to the choir, right?

  12. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and…you shall love your neighbor as yourself’.

    There are no liberals, conservatives, Mexicans or Americans. There are only children of God. There are no British, Canadians, Brazilians, black-white-or-brown.

    National pride, saluted flags and hoarded money are idols when revered in greater sanctity than the greatest commandments of our Lord.

    Would Christ turn away a desperate immigrant? Would Christ tell someone to speak the right language? Would Christ turn away a person who is not Christian? Would Christ care that you would not share for fear you may lose a piece of your fortune?

    We should put our fears aside and trust in the Lord.

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