Note: Here is Part 14
The costs immigrants impose on the host society are easier to assess than the benefits they bring it. The confusion of much American public opinion on the left also paradoxically interferes with this assessment. It you welcome immigrants because you have a good heart, it’s kind of crass even to wonder what benefits they bring you.
Immigrants often improve and enrich the host society and especially its culture, broadly defined. This is not to deny the possibility of cultural dilution (or erosion), with which I deal later. But how can anyone disbelieve, for example, that the influx of Italians at the end of the 19th century improved the general quality of food in America? I mean that after that group’s immigration, Americans in general gained access to better food without a corresponding rise in prices, another change that is equivalent to a pay raise. And how did a version of Mexican food become so quickly the national American eating-out everyday food? Did not its quick adoption suggest that it filled a need that was left unattended before then? Doesn’t the simple exercise of consumer preference answer this question? (I am not a food critic but a social scientist – loosely defined!) Often, immigrants improve the host society in ways that don’t lend themselves to measurement, or even easily to description. It does not mean that they don’t exist. Take my case, that of an immigrant from France making my home in the US since 1963.
I landed for good at age 21, without connections, skills, or even a real high school diploma. I brought with me nothing of value, save my potential. I attended university in the US for eight years total, although none of my relatives had contributed to the creation or maintenance of American universities. I am unable to estimate in current dollars the costs incurred, discontinuously, between 1963 and 1974. (If I had to guess, I would answer this: [community college: $10,000 x 2] + [Stanford undergraduate tuition: $30,000 X 2] + [Stanford graduate tuition: $20,000 x 4] = $160,000. Graduate tuition may seem low. I estimated it down, because hardly anyone pays it; doctoral students live on fellowships.) The figures I use would have been approximately correct two thirds of the way into my academic career. (Stanford undergraduate tuition today is $36,400 annually.) These costs ought to be mentally applied against whatever benefits I claim to have brought American society. My favorite critic – Stephen Cox – points out that all the time I was going to school, I was also using roads and other common equipment. That is true but I was working and paying some taxes during much of this time. I addition, like other adult immigrants, I brought with me a fully functioning adult – myself – the production of whom had cost American society nothing. I think the numbers I give above are good enough for my limited purpose.
After more than 50 years, my acculturation is still incomplete; always will be. I don’t understand the rules of baseball, for example. I never bothered to learn, because the game seems boring. I have never attacked baseball in any way, but it could be argued that my body occupies the space that would otherwise be held by a diamond fan. All the same, I must be conversant with a lot of American culture, just for having acquired my professional credentials in the US, and even more so, for navigating everyday life in my society of adoption. I accomplished all this without losing my ability to make an original contribution squarely based on my national, foreign origins.
In discussing this, I want to emphasize the often ignored point, that the acquisition of another culture does not entail a one-for-one exchange, like changing clothes, for example. Much, indeed most of what the immigrant brings with him, he retains. When I was learning American culture, I was not leaving French knowledge behind with the hat-check lady (“check person”). The first thing kept by those who, like me, immigrate as adults is fluency in their native language. It’s true that one can become rusty in a language one does not use often. The quality of self-expression in the mother tongue may deteriorate during time spent abroad. Yet it’s very unlikely that a literate immigrant will lose the ability to watch the news in his native language, or to read a newspaper. So, I follow the news in English, of course, but also in French, on most days. The reporting of the same events in the two languages overlaps only imperfectly. There is a net gain in reading both. It’s like using the kind binoculars that provide somewhat three-dimensional vision.
I am thus routinely learning things I probably would not learn if I knew no French. Here is an example. Tired of the repetitiveness of American television news channels, idly, I switch to TV5, the French language channel. In a weekly show of which I think well, Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal is being interviewed. He is a native Arabic speaker and a Muslim by birth who writes in French. For a half hour I learn things about violent jihadism I would never have encountered in my English-only haunts, at least not without effort, at least, not casually. Thanks to the French language, I am understanding issues I might not otherwise understand. It’s difficult to assess how much of an advantage this is but an advantage, it is.
That’s in addition to carrying in my head much disorderly factual information imported from my society of origin, some of which turns out to be useful at unpredictable intervals. In my former job as a teacher and as a scholar, I was thus routinely able to draw on broader information than did my native-born colleagues – well, a little broader. I wouldn’t say (although I am tempted) that I had twice as large a store of information at my fingertips as they did, but I definitely had more than they. Additionally, having two sets of data on the same events sets the stage for forming a real perspective, a critical one. Keep in mind again, as I make these claims, that I had to overcome the same obstacles, waged the same battles, and traveled on the same roads as they, my American-born colleagues. There is no affirmative action in academia for white, male Europeans! (Unless they are Marxists, post-structuralists, or other poseurs, a good friend of mine, also an academic, adds. Well, I am none of the above.)
So, my additional cultural contribution – such as it was – came at little or no cost to my society of adoption apart from the expense of my university education. This contribution would have been a pure, unconstrained bonus except that some or all of it can be considered reimbursement for the loan of eight years of university education, as described above. I am arguing, in fact and with little embarrassment, that I must have been a better teacher and scholar for 30 years than most (not all, by any means) of my native-born colleagues with similar credentials; this, by virtue of being an immigrant.(And please, don’t try to factor in the advantage of a purportedly superior European education I would have brought in my baggage with me; I am a French high school dropout.)
Estimating 100 students per year for 30 years of teaching, the cost of my American university education could have been spread at the rate of $50 to $60 of today’s money per student. My, my, that’s the price of a thin-ish boring textbook many buyers won’t even open! Also, please, note in passing that foreign students are not the only ones receiving free or reduced tuition from the kind of private university I attended.
Some features of my remaining foreignness enriched American culture for 50 years, I think. But this was not just prettifying as people who hear my French accent tend (insultingly) to assume! Whatever university professors do (admittedly a task not easy to define), I had superior productivity in some of it. (In real universities, faculty are supposed to produce something called “scholarship” that is published in specialized journals. Those published articles in turn are read and often cited by other scholars. The sum of such citations provide a convenient metric of scholarly influence. By this metric, I am nowhere near the top of the relevant scholarly disciplines but I place comfortable well above the average. Note that the influence of scholarly articles often continues long after the scholar is gone. (There are other valid methods of estimating scholarship that I need not go into here because it’s not my errand but that, I think, would confirm the quality of my life-long production.)
The fact that measuring and rewarding accordingly such extra-productivity is often seen as a challenge does not change the basic fact: Immigrants often bring with them something useful that the native-born cannot supply. This kind of immigrants’ contribution is usually taken for granted when it is perceived at all. (For more of this kind of tripe, see my: “Why Immigrants are Superior”)
The corresponding free gifts from conventionally low-qualified immigrants may be even more difficult to perceive, but there are usually some. In my area, Mexican immigrants and, surprisingly, also their American educated children, are re-rehabilitating old fashioned good manners and automatic respect for elders: Yes, Sir; No, Madam; May I help you with this package? It’s not much, but that too is a gift to American society. Contrast with what I heard recently from an Anglo contractor painting my house: “I don’t give a fuck what I put in writing!” (Would I make this up? Do I even have the talent?) And yes, it’s true, in my area, some children of Mexican immigrants form criminal gangs. They don’t add much attractiveness to the local culture but I think they mostly kill one another. Incidentally, when I ask my Mexican friends why some of their children go bad, the retort, “Here, we are not allowed to beat them.”
Digression: Curiously, many of the children of North African immigrants in France do the same. I have heard of several other cases, always involving the so-called “second generation.” This is not – to my knowledge – a well studied phenomenon but it certainly should be considered a cost of immigration.
The proposal would be difficult to implement but, ideally, assessing the net effects of immigrants on the host society should take two steps. First, concerns should be voiced in the most concrete way possible about the wage compression and the cultural and other destruction for which immigrants are responsible, even by means of their mere presence. Second, their contributions should be deducted (mentally) from their unfavorable effects. Among those, one should try to include the salutary influence of new immigrants’ competitive pressure on the likes of my Anglo painting contractor above. This simple exercise, incidentally, places the despised “diversity lottery,” discussed elsewhere, in a different light. It brings in cultural ferment at little cost, I would say.
Of course, the cultural pluses and minuses of a given immigrant group are not always immediately obvious. Their assessment is unavoidably subjective to some extent. As Vinay Kolhatkar reminds us: “The gravest danger to the West has come from the import of postmodernist European intellectuals, not hardworking Latino farmhands or conscientious Chinese engineers.” (The Savvy Street, February 15, 2018)