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Letter to a Liberal The Left Returns to Sacrifice

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The Big Picture on Immigration

by Christopher Chantrill
January 10, 2004 at 7:00 pm


IF YOU STOP your tour bus by a rice paddy in China, you will soon be surrounded by people.  But if you stop your rental car along a county road in Iowa, you will see no-one.  The countryside in the U.S. is deserted, for everyone has gone to live in the city.

The peoples of the Earth are living through the climactic stage of a Great Transformation.  It is, perhaps, the greatest transformation that humans have ever experienced.  Five hundred years ago, almost everyone lived on the land and grew their own food.  A hundred years from now, almost nobody will. 

The British moved to the city throughout the nineteenth century, and the North Americans in the second half.  The Germans moved in a rush at the end of the nineteenth century, and the French moved after World War II.  But now the transformation has reached the great watered plains of Asia.  The Han people are moving to the city in their hundreds of millions, and the South Asians are not far behind.

The southern border of the United States is engaged in this transformation, for it lies on the migration route of Mexicans who are moving from the country to the city.

Why are they migrating?  The reason is surprising.  When Johan Norberg asked a Nike worker in Vietnam what was the most important thing about working for Nike, her reply surprised him.  It was not the handsome wages, but getting to work indoors and sending her children to school.  For the average Mexican villager, of course, the road to indoor work leads across the border from Mexico in the United States.

For those already citified, the newly arriving immigrants are a problem.  In 1850, the Irish crowding into New York and Boston utterly lacked city skills, and were regarded as sub-human, but by 1900 they were becoming policemen and teachers.  In 1900, the immigrant Jews lacked intelligence, they said, but by the 1920s they were crowding WASPs aside in the Ivy League universities.  In 1950, the blacks moved out of the South to crowd into the industrial cities of the North.  Half a century later, they are moving strongly into the middle class.  In the second half of the twentieth century, as millions of Mexicans arrived in the United States with few skills but a willingness to work, the old fears have returned.

What should the government do about the current wave of immigration?  Should it ignore it?  Should it declare an emergency, as Al Gore did for global warming in Earth in the Balance?  Or should it try to muddle along as President Bush proposes, “doing something,” but not much, to bring order to the chaos of illegal immigration?

The best response is probably “not much.”  Everyone wants an end to illegal immigration, but nobody turns away the illegal that wants a job.  Conservatives rail about queue jumping; union members rail about low wage competition.  But business wants a supply of cheap labor; Democrats scent a supply of immigrant votes, and practical Republican politicians want their share too.  And who dares to dam the great tide of migration, one that is merely a local eddy of the global flood flowing from country to city.

Viewed from 30,000 feet, the Mexican immigration across the southern border is a sideshow in the global drama of transformation.  Michael Barone in The New Americans has shown how it will end.  The Mexican-Americans will assimilate.  Conservatives will rail about an invasion; liberals will try to turn them into dutiful dependents in the liberal plantation.  But businessmen will give them jobs, and the Mexican-Americans will find an honorable place in the American family.

More tantalizing is the future impact of the Indian and Chinese immigrants coming in at the top, educated and talented people who are already wielding influence as technology CEOs, university professors, and cultural content providers.  Will they assimilate to the native American Brahmin caste of risk-avoiding liberals and help build neo-Europe?  Will they become more American than heartland Americans?  Or will they build a prototype global elite founded on a fusion of east and west that transcends the American vision?

And what of the big picture?  What will China be like when the remaining 700 million peasants have migrated to the city?  What about a billion Indians freed from the straitjacket of the License Raj?  As Ronald Reagan said: you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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