Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Immigration Meditation

One of the fringe benefits of having a retired, tech-savvy professor for a father is you get lots of interesting articles and commentaries electronically pushed your way. One of the best pieces my dad sent me recently was a column by Fareed Zakaria in Monday's Washington Post, which provides a rather unique and refreshingly trope-free perspective on the immigration brouhaha that is gripping the country right now.

Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and former green card holder, eschews the minutia of the policy fight going on in Congress for a far broader and philosophical discussion. In doing so, he warns against the folly of falling for Europe's alienating approach to immigration, as many American critics have done, making the case that the U.S. is handling the integration challenge far better than our nattering nabobs of nativism suggest.

Guest workers, penalties, sanctions and deportation are all a part of Europe's mode of dealing with immigrants. The results of this approach have been on display recently in France, where rioting migrant youths again burned cars last week. Across Europe one sees disaffected, alienated immigrants, ripe for radicalism. The immigrant communities deserve their fair share of blame for this, but there's a cycle at work. European societies exclude the immigrants, who become alienated and reject their societies.

One puzzle about post-Sept. 11 America is that it has not had a subsequent terror attack -- not even a small backpack bomb in a movie theater -- while there have been dozens in Europe. My own explanation is that American immigrant communities, even Arab and Muslim ones, are not very radicalized. (Even if such an attack does take place, the fact that 4 1/2 years have gone by without one provides some proof of this contention.) Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?

We can huff and puff all we want about tightening border security, Zakaria suggests, but that won't change the irrevocable laws of supply and demand. As Stanford historian David Kennedy points out, "The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world," and that disparity is producing massive demand in the U.S. for cheap labor and massive supply of it from our southern neighbor. "Whenever governments try to come between these two forces -- think of drugs -- simply increasing enforcement does not work."

But ultimately, Zakaria argues, there is an issue here that transcends economics and defines America -- to itself, to its immigrants and to the world.

How do we want to treat those who are already in this country, working and living with us? How do we want to treat those who come in on visas or guest permits? These people must have some hope, some reasonable path to becoming Americans. Otherwise we are sending a signal that there are groups of people who are somehow unfit to be Americans, that these newcomers are not really welcome and that what we want are workers, not potential citizens. And we will end up with immigrants who have similarly cold feelings about America.

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