When I hauled myself into his cab, the driver was speaking Arabic into a phone mike. The only phrase I could make out was “long term mortgage”. I surmised he was talking to a relative because, whatever the language, only close friends and relations talk in the clipped tones and interrupted sentences that other people would take as rude. Halfway through the ride, he hung up (or whatever you do to slam down the receiver when using this kind of phone equipment). He glanced over his shoulder at me and unburdened himself. “I brought my son over from Egypt, and now he doesn’t even want to go into business with me. All he cares about is his own family.” I felt like saying “Welcome to America” because, of course, that has been the story of any number of immigrant groups. The first generation comes over knowing it may or may not be as successful as it was over there, that they may sacrifice themselves to allow some success to the next generation, as was the case for the Chinese laundryman and his wife on my old block who spoke fluent English and whose daughter became a doctor, and not so much for the Korean grocer on the corner of my old block who never learned English and so could not use his Korean degree in social work, and yet put his kids through Ivy League colleges, never allowing any of them to work in the store, one of his sons, nevertheless, eventually taking over the store.
There is, indeed, something magical about America. Its streets are paved with gold; it is indeed the gold mountain. The chances of doing well over the generations are big, though children may go through a time when they are embarrassed by the fact that their parents seem so quaint and unknowing, but that happens with all American children, no matter how many generations their families have been here. What explains the ambitions of the immigrants and the relative success of their children?
The most Darwinian explanation is that the ambitious ones are the ones who immigrate in the first place, and so they are the ones who will thrive as well as survive. The dullards stay home, unwilling to risk the voyage over. There is something to be said for this explanation. My wife’s grandmother left her entire family in Odessa, knowing she would never see them again, to join her husband who had come over earlier (not an unusual pattern). She lived out her life here, at first in a cold water flat on the Lower East Side, the wife of a tailor, and then as someone who lived in the homes of her children. She was a most formidable woman, even when I met her late in her life, when she was refusing to go off to a nursing home, knowing she was being sent there because her children couldn’t cope with her needs. She finally gave in, even though it was not what she wanted to do, because it was best for the family as a whole. She sat in the kitchen the afternoon before she was to leave and told me about the distinctively mixed motives of each one of her daughters, having more in common with her granddaughter and her new son-in-law than she did with her daughters because she shared with the second generation after hers a sense of circumstances working their will, while her daughters tried to put a good face on things, telling her it was all for the best, and asking one another how they would each feel about it when it was done. Grandma lasted about a year in the nursing home; we visited every week, and could not make the care good enough to keep her from falling out of bed or deteriorating because her age was catching up with her.
Immigrants are also said to thrive because the economic structure of the United States, which is government regulated market capitalism, allows immigrants to take advantage of opportunities they would not find back in their own countries, where there are ethnic and class barriers to mobility, and where every initiative requires massive bribes and government contacts and where there are insufficient social and physical infrastructures to sustain rational business enterprise. A businessman can’t control all of his externals, such as crime or unreliable electricity or police knocking down his door, and so will go under. Russia still hasn’t advanced to the level of social organization where capitalism can take off, and so it supports itself as best it can, by allowing foreign oil companies to develop and export its main resource, never mind that a talented tenth (or some such percentage) of its population is extremely well educated. America is the place to be, at least until the thought police and the law gets in the way of scientific and commercial endeavor, businesses figuring out how to sell lingerie and biotechnology. These businesses satisfy our material needs, which also happen to be our spiritual needs. There is a link between sex and love and people need bodies dependable enough to sustain thinking about higher things.
A third explanation for immigrant advancement is that the impulse towards achievement is short lived. It lasts while the immigrant generation is still alive, the offspring wanting to be Americans rather than like their parents, and so using personal achievement as a way of both satisfying their familial obligations and thumbing their noses at the indignities of having been raised by such ignorant people. The old idea was that the second generation was secular, only the generation afterwards finding that their spiritual yearnings are not satisfied no matter how many sets of tennis they play, decide to rediscover their roots, which also means becoming religious. The third generation returns to religion, though my own view is that while religion may beat tennis, there is more to the secular world than tennis.
It seems more accurate to me to say that the second generation, the children of those who come here, is the one that wants to assimilate. It suffers not from a lack of roots but a self-inflicted amnesia about its roots. Why hinge on Japanese culture when the Nisei can hear Frank Sinatra? Why worry about the fates of the relatives left behind when there is law school to think about? It isn’t so much that you want to date an uptown girl; you want to date an American girl (or boy). Popular culture is important not because it suppresses the past but because it floods the imagination with materialist yearnings that are almost always also spiritual: how to forge an individual identity, how to regard romance as personal and extraordinary, how to overcome ignorance and superstition and provinciality in the name of a global culture. You don’t have to be a secularist to know that immigrant churches are the crypts old people inhabit, just another reminder of the way the world was rather than the way it can be.
There are, of course, different routes whereby people arrive at assimilation, which is a kind of stability, everyone having found a way back to that new thing, the American religion of self help, whether that is housed in mega-churches or suburban parishes. Assimilated American believers take pride in their middle class habit of becoming expert on a variety of consumer products: automobiles, smart phones, computers, home mortgages, eco-friendly foods, and also religious denominations that cater to just their kind and degree of spirituality. There are Protestants rising out of Southern poverty who sense themselves as the embattled defenders of true American values against the values imposed upon them by American culture, sometimes characterized as Hollywood and New York. Jews, for their part, are a singular immigration in that they had no place to go back to, and so became fully American, more committed to the American project than even those who rail most in its favor, except that they also make contributions to Israel, token money for the disappointment of the Zionist dream that all Jews, even those in the English speaking countries, would gather themselves in Israel, the reestablished homeland. And African Americans, of course, have their own special story. Very few of their ancestors who had come here in chains would have wanted to return to Africa, even when only a generation or two into slavery, so successful were they in understanding that their fates were here, in overcoming a slave identity, rather than in restoring themselves to a pre-slave identity. All of the ethnicities known to American history, including even the Papists and the Mormons, who each attempted to create religious enclaves for their kind alone, have converged upon an America identified with its ideals as those are verbalized in its sacred documents, such as the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address, rather than in blood or custom.
The same is true even of African Americans, who came here as slaves rather than as immigrants.that did not come here as slaves. Counting from 1975, an approximate date for the end of official Jim Crow, African Americans have assimilated very quickly, in two generations. What was revealed as the poverty underbelly of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina was not restricted to African Americans; it is, rather, an endemic problem of the American South, which cannot provide enough modern jobs for its population, and so is still a backward region of the country, powerful only in politics and the products of extraction: cotton and oil and shrimp.
These remarks are worth making in the present re-consideration of what to do about immigration. This time moral outrage is turned upon illegal Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants who are supposed to put too heavy a burden on state-supported health, welfare and educational programs. The argument is even made that they present a problem for national security, though I am pretty sure that none of the 9/11 hijackers came from Mexico. People who came from Cuba are alright because they came for political reasons; Mexicans are not alright because they come to improve their economic situation.
Let’s get the concepts right. First of all, the distinction between political and economic immigration is arbitrary. Remember that the reason many Cubans left when Castro took over was because he was or would have confiscated their property, which is an economic motivation. The men who work in my old apartment building all came from what was once Yugoslavia. They replaced what was once the all Hispanic workforce because the new superintendent was Yugoslav. They don’t want to go back except to visit because there is no work there, just war and winters. They want their children to study hard. Isn’t economic security a kind of political freedom?
Another distinction that needs reformulating is the one between legal and illegal immigration. The men who work in my building don’t care how they get their papers regularized. My mother, to cite another example, wouldn’t have cared except that it would have made her anxious if her papers to come to the United States just before Hitler invaded Poland had been forged or obtained through bribery. Nor does illegal immigration lead to criminal behavior. The Cuban boat people were admitted for political reasons and turned out to include many criminals. Crime rates did go up after the Germans and the Jews and the Italians came to New York City, but have not gone up during the last ten years which has seen the percentage of non-native born New Yorkers at its highest point ever (except, maybe, in old New Amsterdam). Nor is there the political unrest that accompanied earlier waves of immigration. So illegal immigrants can be thought of as illegal, but they should not be thought of as criminal.
Nevertheless, there is a movement on to do something about illegal immigrants, especially those to the American Southwest. The President was vociferous about this when he campaigned, though he talks about it less now that it is clear that Americans and not Mexicans will have to pay for his wall. But it isn’t walls that keep immigrants in or out, even if walls did provide Eastern Europe with a boundary when it was under Communist rule, and walls do keep terrorists from getting into Israel.
The great attraction of America, what draws immigrants here, is not just is affluence; it is its culture, which has a universal appeal. American jeans and American basketball have circled the world. Culture rather than immigration officers define our borders. Immigrant children have always wanted to learn English so as to become part of the secular culture which even Arabs who have never been here regard as their greatest nemesis, the attractive and ultimate Other.
So what to do about illegal immigration? For the most part, just don’t worry about it. There is also more than enough land to triple or quadruple the 320 million people who live within American borders. I suggest that every ten years or so we provide amnesty and permanent residence to those who can show that they have kept their noses clean and supported themselves for five years or more. That is incentive enough to keep the illegal immigrants honest. It is rewarding people for good behavior rather than punishing them for having taken advantage of an opportunity to improve their lives. Eventually, which means within a few generations, there might not even be the need for such a program, as there is no need for such a program for Canadians, because the jobs on the other side of the Rio Grande will make life attractive enough so that those who find a Spanish based culture appealing will have no reason to leave. The answer to significant illegal immigration remains the North American Trade Alliance. Globalization protects rather than destroys local cultures because it allows them to sustain themselves economically.