We’re going to talk about immigration today, but we’re going to step back from the drama without rushing automatically into those well trodden camps on the left and right sides of virtual reality, ready to attack, and searching for just the right meme to signal our virtue to our respective tribes.
We are so distracted while we argue and insult each other that you could drive a truck between our two camps and no one would notice, even if that truck was loaded with the liberty and prosperity of the nation, which, as it turns out, has indeed been the case for decades. While we have argued and protested and posted, 75% of the nation’s wealth has accumulated in the hands of 10% of our people, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Talking candidly about immigration is difficult at best. The facts are hard to sift, and often discomfiting. Each of our opposing camps is in possession of a few facts that they seem to regard as the whole truth. Few have been willing to cross the divide to share information. Let’s see if we can start to bridge that gap.
To begin with, the numbers are incontrovertible: Without immigration, the US population would be shrinking, and according to most economists, without a growing population, we would suffer economically. If you’re a “bottom line” kind of person, you can start right there. We need younger, working taxpayers to finance the social security of millions entering retirement, and there is no easy or painless solution to our demographic cliff.
The United States is a nation of immigrants and a melting pot of all races and cultures. We have proven throughout our history that no matter a person’s race or nationality, when opportunity exists, all are capable of achieving excellence, no matter what their origins. This truth is at the core of our national identity.
Unfortunately some of the fire has gone out of the furnace and the melting pot has less of the strong alloy and more of the sticky mess. Many have lost or forgotten our unifying principles, and we are divided against ourselves by our own seriously flawed political culture. How can we expect newcomers to assimilate into our culture when we are not sure ourselves just what that should be? When our economy was strongest and our vision clearest, we did not need physical walls to protect us. But we have changed, and the world has changed.
Repeatedly throughout our history we have struggled with the consequences of immigration. But in the generation after WWII we hit our stride, and, empowered in large part by the children and grandchildren of immigrants, the United States experienced a rise in standard of living unprecedented in human history. Accompanying that ascent was a steady increase in life expectancy and interestingly, in IQ scores, fueling even greater prosperity.
But beginning in the 1970’s, IQ scores began to and continue to drop. Last year life expectancy declined for the first time in 25 years. Our students from grade school through high school do not compete well with the students of other industrialized nations.
There are competing theories about why this is happening, but we can all agree that something has changed. Many factors affect intelligence. Multiple studies have shown that malnutrition in early childhood leads to lower IQ scores and antisocial behavior later in life. There are environmental factors as well.
Now here’s where the discussion gets uncomfortable, but we’re going to suspend judgement until our thoughts are complete: Some anthropologists and demographists believe that immigration has been a contributing factor in the decline.
At this point the discussion often goes off the rails when those who suffer from racism attempt to conflate immigration with lowering IQ and increasing crime to conclude that race or nationality is at fault.
Of course they are wrong. Declining IQ scores and increasing crime rates are seen in EVERY race and nationality where people suffer from malnourishment and a degraded environment, and over the last 30 years we have witnessed a significant increase in migration away from just such hardship. Also, many of our immigrants are among the most successful in school and business and score in the highest percentiles on intelligence and achievement tests.
The real challenge at the borders of developed nations is not immigration, but mass migration driven by hardship. The history of the world has many chapters on mass migration, and one people has displaced another many times over.
Today, there are approximately 1.4 billion people living on the African continent. That number is projected to grow to 4.2 billion by 2050. Africa has been plagued since the colonial era by war and famine. Millions of people have fled and are still fleeing repressive regimes, civil war, violence and hunger.
A short distance from the African continent lies Europe, with its relatively small population and low birth rate. It is blessed with stable economies and governments, and is the nearest and most obvious destination for desperate people on the move. Observe closely what is happening there.
Add to the mix the mass migrations precipitated by the destruction of at least 8 nations in the greater middle east over the last 20 years, most recently in Syria, for reasons we still argue. And we’ve barely begun to factor in climate refugees and those fleeing natural disaster, now that we have populated every corner of the globe.
Meanwhile in Latin America, thousands flee failed states, brutality and drug cartels on their way north to the currently most sought after asylum on the planet.
The situation puts us in an awkward position, to say the least. We celebrate our immigrant heritage, but we are haunted by a history of volatility and violence that accompanied the process.
There are no easy answers. We need immigrants, and we like to see ourselves as the compassionate human beings depicted on the Statue of Liberty. But we are ill prepared for mass migration, and frankly, we are ill prepared to accommodate large numbers of people who have values that are the antithesis of our own. If you disagree, consider the history of Austria-Hungary or the failed state of Yugoslavia or even the Soviet Union – all nations where people of significant cultural, religious and social differences were forced to live together.
Consider also the volatility any time or place where the needs of a population exceeded the ability of its economy or resource base to provide for it. We have millions of people already here, many born here, who are living in poverty, malnourished, in polluted environments and unable to participate in the prosperity of their fellow citizens. It is reasonable to question the wisdom of adding too many more to those numbers when they are growing in spite of all our political solutions. Consider Puerto Rico if you believe we have done such a good job taking care of our own.
There are no perfect solutions, and any remedy will have to be based on compassion, but limited by the cold equations of simple math. Sadly, until the world improves, the math will indeed be chilling.