Immigration anxiety is cultural

Navarrette: Immigration anxiety is cultural (by Ruben Navarette Jr., CNN - 5.21.07)

On Thursday, senators announced a rather remarkable bipartisan compromise on immigration reform...The same day, the Census Bureau reported what many Americans already know: The United States is becoming a Hispanic nation.

The stories are connected. Anti-illegal immigration crusaders claim their worries are entirely practical -- tied to border security or the cost of entitlements or the fact that illegal immigrants supposedly depress wages for the low skilled.

As someone who has written about immigration for more than 15 years, and heard from hundreds of thousands of readers along the way, I can tell you that most of the anxiety over illegal immigration is cultural.

People worry about changing demographics, the encroachment of Spanish, the fear that the country is becoming Hispanic-ized, etc. One sociologist called it "cultural displacement" -- the fear that your children will grow up in a world different than the one you grew up in, with fewer advantages, where they will have to work harder for what they accomplish.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5/22/2007

    Dear Mr. Ruben Navarette:

    I read your article on CNN with some dismay. In your article you admonish the low skilled to "grow up. Stop complaining. And go get some skills." If it were so easy for them, wouldn't they?

    You demonstrated an acute insensitivity to the struggle of the modern underclass and would benefit from reading "when work disappears" by William Julius Wilson. This book succinctly summarizes the structural limitations involved in acquiring new skills and locating work that utilizes them.

    Obviously, frustration on the part of the native-born, low-skilled, and non-hispanic is clearly misdirected (at other low-wage and low-skill people, immigrants). However, natives (white, black, and Latino) are right to believe that the domestic-wages for their low-skilled jobs are being depressed by illegal immigrants. Furthermore, a little research into the sociological and economic literatures would quickly illustrate this quantitatively researched point (Edna Bonacich, 1972).

    Additionally, a number of qualitative studies have consistently indicated that employer discrimination acts to favor Hispanics over native-blacks (Mary C. Waters, 1999), white-Latinos over dark-Latinos (Herring, Cedric and Horton, 2004), and the foreign-born over the native-born. Its not simply a matter of poor attitudes on the part of the native-born low-wage workers. There are socio-structural realities (capitalism) that act to exploit inherent differences in the expectations of natives and the foreign-born.

    The foreign-born do not have the American-experience as their reference point. Often, the foreign-born are looking to move the US, looking to make some quick money, are looking to send a part of the money they make "back home," and hope eventually to "return home." On the other hand, natives have a completely different cultural and identity reference point: Natives are much more likely to see themselves as permanently invested in their present and future work-routines. They want safe working conditions (which cuts into the profit of the owners of the means of production). They want health-care. They want reasonable hours. They want the quality of life that has induced the immigrating to leave their own countries and come here.

    On one point you are entirely correct: Low-wage-earning natives don't easily tolerate very poor working conditions, sweatshops, employer exploitations and the incredibly long hours that the foreign born have been self selected (through migration) to endure. When groups of people from around the world choose to come to the US, they constitute a self-selected set of individuals: those that have made the choice to suffer the difficulties associated with migration. As such they are usually self-selected to be highly motivated (more than their compatriots that they've left behind). Migrants are self-selected to be willing to make sacrifices that employers here graciously exploit.

    Low-wage domestic workers find the increased competition difficult. Add in racism, classism, and the general exportation of low-wage work overseas, and the situation is more complicated then "Growing up, ending complaints, and adding more skills."
    You might also try to be a little more compassionate to low-wage workers, even though you are removed from their experience by having two degrees from Harvard. It is good that you feel ethnic ties to the immigrants, but try not let the plight of hispanic-origin latinos' plight blind you to the tyranny of class. The immigrants you feel so strongly about are likely to become, within one generation, the low-wage domestic native-workers you are admonishing to "Grow up. Stop complaining. And go get some skills."


    Salvatore Labaro
    P.S. Just because you've written about immigration for "fifteen years" does not mean you have thought seriously about it, particularly in any way that is decoupled from cultural ideologies. You are dichotomously pitting low-wage natives against immigrants. Why not concentrate on the economic landscape that pit them against each other, instead?.