Friday, July 5, 2013

Commentary on discrimination and the semi-open border

I have a new post up at Open Borders: The Case. Broadly, it's about the relationship between discrimination and immigration restrictions. It comes in two more or less orthogonal parts (I'd considered splitting it up into two separate posts). I'm fairly confident in the first part, about how racism has been an integral part of immigration restrictions in the US from the get-go.
Though I view it as strategically unwise--not to mention unfair and not altogether honest--to denounce immigration restrictions as inherently racist, it's also unwise to ignore the blatantly racist history of American immigration policies. Chris Hendrix has blogged about the first major restrictionist legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but even before this, naturalization (as opposed to immigration) was restricted on explicitly racist grounds. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to "free white persons" of "good moral character". This may not be surprising for a nation that allowed legal slavery of Africans and those of African descent for nearly a century, but this racial requirement was the law of the land until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Immigration isn't the same as citizenship, yet this unpalatable history is clearly relevant to today's discussions of immigrant assimilation (citizen or otherwise). 
[...] Explicit racism in immigration restrictions persisted after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 formally severed the concepts "American" and "white". In a curious collusion of Mexican emigration restrictionists and American immigration restrictionists, "Operation Wetback" was launched in 1954 to deport illegal Mexican immigrants and limit further Mexican immigration. The dangers, of course, are that a long history of racist justifications for immigration restrictions doesn't just disappear down the memory hole when the law is officially changed and that explicit racism in American immigration policy has merely been replaced by implicit racism. One place to start looking for such implicit discrimination would be in the federal Secure Communities program, which has been criticized for encouraging racial profiling.
I was on more unfamiliar ground in the second part of the post, where I started talking about class-based discrimination and how the distinction between low-skilled and high-skilled immigration is a manifestation of this kind of discrimination. I cheated a little bit because I don't think that the reluctance of folks to accept low-skilled immigrants always comes from the kind of politics of disgust I describe. There are legitimate differences in the economic cases for the two (or more) classes of immigrants and it's fair enough that people may be skeptical about some nontrivial welfare state economic effects without me impugning their motives. And yet, for me, mistrust of the foreigner, in immigration and other matters, is fundamentally about not recognizing the full and equal humanity of some Other, which is the same dynamic underpinning racism, classism, sexism, etc.
Another, more subtle kind of discrimination is at play in the modern immigration debate, even in more enlightened quarters: discrimination against lower classes. A recent incarnation of this is the moralized evocation and denunciation of a "moocher class" composed of the lazy poor who take handouts from the government and give nothing back to society in return. The reality is somewhat different, with many upper class individuals failing to realize when they have benefited from government programs. As with racial discrimination, discrimination by socioeconomic class makes generalizations about large groups of individuals and judges them to be somehow worth just a little less than the dominant group.
[...] The low-skilled migration restrictionists do not seem to be concerned with removing poverty so much as with removing poverty from view. I suspect the distinction between low- and high-skilled immigrants is really a euphemism for discriminating against poor and lower class immigrants. High-skilled immigrants, regardless of absolute wealth levels, are usually richer than low-skilled immigrants and they are certainly more educated. High-skilled immigrants have grown up in families that would be considered culturally elite or at least middle class in their countries of origin (this is how they attained the human capital to qualify as "skilled"). As such, high-skilled workers will more easily fit into "nice" parts of the rich world, like suburbs and medical schools. And they will do the host country the benefit of adding diversity to these institutions, making them appear more inclusive while still keeping out the riff-raff. They will not need to live in dense slums many-to-a-room in living conditions middle class natives find distasteful.
I would love to read more about this dynamic. The idea that middle- and upper-class people don't even realize they're the beneficiaries of government programs is telling, and I wonder how often policies benefiting the more comfortable classes are cloaked to prevent their recognition as transfer programs while policies aimed at the poor are kept nakedly apparent as wealth transfers. This is certainly the case with things like the mortgage interest rate deduction. As a (comfortably middle-class) buddy put it. "I should have to stand in line at a run down public building to get a mortgage tax rebate check. And they should drug test me too. Otherwise I might just spend it on crack."

Anyway, read the whole thing at the Open Borders blog and tell me what you think.

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