Commentary Magazine


Immigration and the Golden State

I am delighted that my friend Peter Robinson has spent time pondering my latest piece for COMMENTARY, “California, There It Went.” I am immensely gratified by his kind words. He poses a series of questions on immigration and asks whether immigration, illegal immigration more specifically, isn’t a significant factor in California’s woeful condition.

I’ll start by summarizing where I stand on the more general topic: I am unabashedly pro-immigration. As Peter eloquently argued, the spiritual and economic life of America and its reputation as a beacon of freedom and opportunity depend on an influx of new immigrants to revitalize and replenish ourselves. (As Dan Senor and Saul Singer observe in Start Up Nation, immigrants are risk takers, entrepreneurial by their nature. A dynamic, modern society wants such people.)

Tamar Jacoby wrote during the height of the immigration-reform debate that “immigrants don’t just keep the economy going, they grow it, making us all richer and more productive.” She explained that “if there’d been no immigrants in the past decade, the U.S. economy would have grown by less than half as much as it did. Think about it: half as many new houses built, half as many businesses opened, half as many new jobs created, half as much new tax revenue collected—and much less economic vitality.”

In “Higher Immigration, Lower Crime” from the December 2009 issue of COMMENTARY, CATO’s Daniel Griswold wrote that immigrants are looking for a good job, not a drug deal. That said, the problem of illegal immigration and the burden it imposes on states like California is real. In Griswold’s earlier work on the subject, he explained that anti-immigration activists have exaggerated and distorted the burdens immigrants place on state governments:

The 1997 National Research Council study found that, although the fiscal impact of a typical immigrant and his or her descendants is strongly positive at the federal level, it is negative at the state and local level.

State and local fiscal costs, while real, must be weighed against the equally real and positive effect of immigration on the overall economy. Low-skilled immigrants allow important sectors of the U.S. economy, such as retail, cleaning, food preparation, construction, and other services, to expand to meet the needs of their customers. They help the economy produce a wider array of more affordably priced goods and services, raising the real wages of most Americans. By filling gaps in the U.S. labor market, such immigrants create investment opportunities and employment for native-born Americans. Immigrants are also consumers, increasing demand for American-made goods and services.

Griswold cites two studies, which “found that the increased economic activity created by lower-skilled, mostly Hispanic immigrants far exceeds the costs to state and local governments.” A 2006 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found Hispanics “many of them undocumented immigrants, had indeed imposed a net cost on the state government of $61 million, but… had increased the state’s economy by $9 billion.” A Texas study concluded its 1.4 million undocumented immigrants imposed $504 million in costs to state and local governments in 2005 but “was dwarfed by the estimated positive impact on the state’s economy of $17.7 billion.”

Although I start, therefore, from the premise that immigrants are a net positive, that doesn’t mean there are not serious issues, especially for California. Peter smartly zeroes in on them. I’ll address the first here and the next two in a subsequent post. Peter asks:

No less a figure than  Harvard professor Samuel Huntington suggested that the Southwestern United  States, including, of course, southern California, runs the danger of  becoming culturally and linguistically more Mexican than American.   With Mexicans moving into the state while whites leave California for the interior of the country, is Huntington’s fear being borne out?

California isn’t there yet. California has the highest number of illegal immigrants in the country. But that still amounts to just 6.9 percent of the population. We are a very, very long way from seeing the culture become “more Mexican than American.” The schools, as rotten as they are, teach some facsimile of American history, American literature, etc., as the mainstays of their curriculum. (And to its credit, California was among the first to take a stab at doing away with bilingual education.) Pop culture, much of which emanates from California, is “American.” With 93 percent of the population made up of legal immigrants and citizens by birth, we’re not in any danger of getting “swamped” culturally.

This does, however, touch on a pet peeve of mine. Some of the concern that is referenced by Huntington relates to the impact of legal immigrants and those Hispanics born here. And that raises the question: what does “American” culture mean? Many anti-immigration activists assume American culture is fixed and that new immigrants will make us into something we aren’t. But that has never been what America is about. America wasn’t “fixed” in 1776, nor after the surge of immigration in the mid-1800s. It wasn’t set in stone after the huge influx of immigrants from Europe at the turn of the century. We evolve, we absorb, and we grow richer with each wave of immigrants.

However – and it’s a big “however” – we need to get real about assimilation. The reason immigration has been a positive factor is that each generation of immigrants learned English and learned to operate within, not apart, from American society. Tamar Jacoby, again: “We need more English classes. We need to guide newcomers toward becoming citizens. We need to help them help themselves – navigating the system, putting down roots, getting their kids to college, getting ahead.” (She also points to statistics indicating we’re doing better by objective measures of assimilation than many think.)

To answer Huntington, then, I’d rather improve our assimilation efforts than exclude and/or remove immigrants. That means not letting the leftist elites and professional ethnic-grievance mongers (both of whom encourage ethnic separatism) run the show. It means rejecting the argument that efforts to maintain our common language are “racist.”

But that’s only part of my answer. In Part 2, I’ll argue that the real answer to this and other concerns is comprehensive immigration reform.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.