One thing that the two political parties chose to showcase at the national conventions is the so-called American immigration success story. The Republican “keynote” speaker was Sen. Marco Rubio, who defines himself as the son of immigrants. To him the U.S. is a great country because he has thrived here. The implication is that immigration is good, and we need more of it. I found it interesting that he did not expressly say this. He is no doubt aware that immigration is a controversial political topic and that there is merit to the restrictionist point of view. Nevertheless, the Republican party decided Rubio’s pro-immigrant story had more political upside than downside.
Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, told the same story as the Democratic Convention “keynoter.” Though as I note below, his mother is quite different from Rubio’s parents in outlook. I am thoroughly disgusted with these political speeches. (Disclosure I am the product of the great wave of 1880-1920 immigration.) What do these stories prove? That Americans should welcome more immigrants regardless of the high unemployment rate? We can stipulate that the U.S. has admitted tens of millions of immigrants, the bulk of them between 1880-1920 when the nation was transformed from an agrarian/merchant society to an industrial powerhouse. We did not have sufficient workers to staff the enormous plants that were built, to construct vast canals, railroads, and cities. So the country invited in workers, and they came. This does not mean those workers are morally superior to the earlier Americans who came primarily for religious liberty, such as the Puritans and the Pilgrims or simply to colonize the New World for their countries. Yet in discussing immigration, we inevitably end up with the former group that came over for unskilled labor.
But we need to keep in mind after the huge wave of immigration the country changed course. In 1921 immigration was cut by 90% and national quotas were imposed so that future immigrants would primarily come from western Europe. There was tremendous concern that we had overdone it with immigration and that we needed to preserve the basic socio-ethnic make up of the country. Thus, we passed from an era of welcoming immigration for employment to an era of selective immigration primarily for family reunification. Since then each new immigrant has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis taking into account their family ties and ability to find gainful employment higher up the socio-economic ladder. The government has long ago acknowledged that our economy no longer needs unskilled workers, and allowing more of them into the country harms American citizens with high school educations.
We all know that the great wave of 1880-1920 immigration produced millions of success stories. Those immigrants immediately found employment, were loyal to the U.S., and had families who were better off. This is a chapter in American history which is closed. One could hold up Cotton Mather and John Winthrop as examples of the first wave of American settlers whose success here followed their expulsion of non-believers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Arguably they had more influence in shaping the nation by defeating competing European powers with different designs for how society should be run (the French, Dutch and Spanish) and enabling the colonies to unite as an English- speaking nation governed by the English common law. Why do we honor them only on July 4th?
For some reason though, American political discourse is mired in the 1880-1920 period. It’s as if we’re looking at old news reels from that period or watching films like the The Jazz Singer with Al Jolsen. Immigration today is not only unnecessary but is counterproductive. How can policy makers justify a million legal immigrants a year when 8% of American citizens cannot find employment? In Marco Rubio’s case, his parents were only allowed into the country because they were fleeing Cuba, and in the Cold War, we welcomed them. Rubio’s father, a bartender, added nothing to the U.S. labor market. We did not have a shortage of bartenders in the 1950′s. We can take pride in the fact that his son became a U.S. Senator and has made a modest contribution to the nation. But that is not a justification for going back to the 1880′s and allowing a tidal wave of unskilled immigrants into the depressed labor market today. So why bring it up? We already know about this generation. Senator Rubio should not become a political leader becausue his father was a bartender or that he is Hispanic. His speech said little else, and the implication of it is that we we need more immigrants. One can categorize it as reactionary and nostalgic.
More recent immigrants often seem to live as dual citizens, not really renouncing their loyalties to their native nations, despite oaths to the contrary. I have met hundreds of legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala in the course of my work suing employers who hire them. A majority of these people return to their home countries regularly, and often maintain businesses in their native communities. They send back remittances, money which is not spent in the U.S. and does not increase demand for Amercian goods and services, a justification for greater immigration. Their attitudes toward this country are ambivalent. Do they really regard themselves as Americans? Or are they multi-cultural and biligual? Mayor Castro, the Democratic keynoter, introduced his mother, Maria “Rosie” Castro, during his speech. She is active in a group called “La Raza,” which in English means “the race.” Which race? The Hispanic race. LaRaza is a pressure group favoring increased Hispanic immigration to the U.S. and provides social services to illegal immigrants here. She has made her ambivalence about this country known in stark terms, stating about the Alamo, “I can truly say I hate that place and everything it stands for.” What the Alamo stands for is the American conquest of forces loyal to Mexico. Apparently she resents a great deal about this country. I don’t know if her son shares this view, but he made a point of defining himself as her son, highlighting the immigrant aspect of his biography for political advantage while glossing over the fact that his mother is a radical ethnocentric anti-assimilationist.
Rather than Rubio and Castro, I would rather have seen a speech by an American citizen who has invented something, a product or idea, which has succeeded and become a social benefit against the odds. Bill Gates comes to mind. His story is more relevant and compelling to us today. I would also like to hear the stories of high school graduates who cannot find jobs. They would tell us that wages are so low they cannot survive on one job, that some employers prefer illegal immigrants to citizens, that college tuition is unaffordable and less attractive to them anyway because college graduates seem to be unemployed as well. They are the people the parties should be trying to help. Their stories are worth examining on the national stage, and their implicit message is anti-immigration.