In March of last year Science published a research report by Georges Vernez and David Ronfeldt on Mexican immigration. The evidence in the report shows that recent immigrants are those who feel the greatest economic impact from still more recent immigrants. And because Mexican immigrants tend to be young and to have large families, they consume more in public services, especially educational ones, than they pay for. The researchers say that both the absolute size of the Mexican-immigrant population and its relative concentration in Los Angeles and several other western cities are growing.
Vernez and Ronfeldt also argue that "heavy immigration into California... let many low-wage industries continue expanding while their counterparts nationwide were contracting in the face of foreign competition." Their data show that in California "manufacturing grew five times the national average whereas wages grew 12 percent more slowly in the state, and 15 percent more slowly in Los Angeles." The implications for labor are clear: either manufacturing is exported to take advantage of cheap foreign labor, or cheap foreign labor is imported in numbers large enough to depress wages here. Open borders create a free trade in labor, and America's southern border, though not open by law, has been open enough in practice to move the Los Angeles labor market sharply away from the American mean.
Do we like it this way?
The short answer might be yes if we want more riots, no if we don't.
In his book Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, David Rieff charges that white Los Angeles has grown addicted to the ministrations ofa Latino "servitor class," and there is something to his charge. In 1985 my wife and I paid $ 65 a week to a licensed, well-educated, decidedly middle-class Peruvian couple who cared beautifully for several infants and toddlers in a home they owned. Our newborn daughter was typically with them from 7:30 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. five days a week. My younger sister, who lives in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, found this at the time an incredible bargain, and so it has seemed to New Yorkers and Washingtonians as well. Thus I no doubt fit Rieff's definition of white Angeleno indulgence myself.
The larger beneficiaries of cheap labor, however, seem to me to be the larger employers. Ricky's sisters Dolores and Graciela worked in a sweatshop assembling those little gadgets—two plastic eyelets joined by a length of cord—that tennis players use to keep their eyeglasses on. There were huge spools of the cord and barrels of the eyelets in the private home (of an Italian married to a Costa Rican) where they worked. And the profits from that little operation were surely peanuts compared with those made on the luxury condos where Ricky did his dry-wall work.
Obviously, Los Angeles should want to maintain a manufacturing base, large and small. But if the price is systematically depressed wages, and if the price of that depression is further riots, then the price is too high.
JUST DAYS BEFORE THE RIOT, THE ROPER ORGANIZAtion conducted a major poll of American attitudes toward immigration for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). On every single question for which the California response was broken out, the level of concern in California was higher—often strikingly higher—than the American average. Thus 76 percent of Californians answering the question "How do you feel about the number of immigrants who come to your state each year?" answered "Too high," as against 42 percent of all respondents giving the same answer. Answering the question "In your opinion, has immigration become a financial burden on your state, or has the state been able to handle the immigration with no financial problems?" 78 percent of Californians, as against 43 percent of all respondents, chose "financial burden." Eighty percent of Californians think that steps should be taken now to limit the population of the state (a question that Roper put only to Californians).
FAIR has an agenda, of course, and polls by people with an agenda are always suspect. However, the Roper Organization is reputable, and the questions are more or less those that anyone interested in the subject would ask, phrased in acceptably neutral language. Thus, "Currently, immigration levels are not limited in any way to our country's unemployment rate. Do you think immigration levels shouldor shouldnot be related to our level of unemployment?" Fifty-eight percent of respondents chose "Should be related." (Roper did not indicate whether any respondents corrected "limited" to "linked.")
FAIR is anathema to some, but better a clearly framed agenda, however debatable, than free-range nativism.
Some days after the riot I caught a fragment of televised debate between a handsome blond man of unsmiling, quasi-military demeanor, a proponent of a return to the pro-European quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924, and a Mexican-American activist of the Aztlan persuasion. Responding to the claim that the Southwest "was once ours," the young Aryan said, "Yes, and we took it from you in the manly, honorable way, by force of arms." A writer in the July, 1992, issue of the Rockford Institute's Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture laments the intrusion of immigrants who "have no more intention of shucking the Third World they've lugged across the border than they have of going back after they make their millions. Once here, they're here for good, disrupting our institutions, like public schools, with foreign languages, pagan religions, and oddly spiced foods."
FAIR holds no brief for manliness, Christianity, or bland food. Nor, for that matter, does it oppose immigration. What it does call for is a three year moratorium, or however long it takes to:
1) substantially eliminate illegal immigration;
2) implement and improve a national documents protocol to verify work eligibility;
3) revise immigration laws to substantially reduce overall numbers (to around 300,000 annually); and
4) complete a comprehensive analysis of the longterm demographic, environmental resource, urban resource, cultural and employment/economic effects of future immigration and population growth.
Ultimately, this question must be answered: What should the purpose of immigration be, now and in the future?
I link FAIR's question with the phrase of Vernon Briggs's that so struck me: "the chosen alternative." There are choices to be made. If we do not make them as a nation, through a national debate, then others inside or outside the nation will make them for us. My strong suspicion is that if FAIR succeeds in launching this debate, it will begin on the right (immigration was the cover story in the June 22 issue of National Review) but quickly be seized by the left. The labels "left" and "right," however, are particularly misleading here.
If the right opposes immigration, it is likely to do so for the reasons hinted at in the quotation from Chronicles and on display as well in the National Review article, by Peter Brimelow: namely, because it wishes the United States to remain a culturally European and even English nation. The free-market right wing, however—the right that has favored a free-trade agreement with Mexico—ought to favor open borders as the logical extension of the open shop. This is indeed the declared position of The WallStreet Journal. Such a position may be more ideologically consistent than politically feasible, but it is not without its supporters. Too many business interests have been served by cheap immigrant labor for any Buchananesque, shoot-to-kill sealing of our southern border to gain much Republican support. In short, between cultural conservatism and economic conservatism there is a certain tension on this question; but, as noted above, the situation is equally messy for liberals. If you marched with Amnesty International in Los Angeles on June 27, denouncing the border excesses of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then do you positively—pro-actively, as they say—favor immigration? FAIR would admit 300,000 immigrants a year. How many would you admit? And if blacks get hurt, whose side are you on?
The traditional alliances grow particularly shaky in a climate of budget crisis like the current one in California. As I write, if California public education receives what Governor Pete Wilson budgeted for it last January, and if current revenue projections remain unchanged, then all other government services will have to shrink drastically. Mayor Bradley has warned of a total shutdown of the Los Angeles Public Library. Few believe that will happen, but if all ordinary deals are off, then some unlikely deals may be on.
FAIR has proposed, for example, a $ 2.00 border-crossing fee to finance strengthened border security. According to the Roper poll, 72 percent of Californians favor that measure, and I am not surprised. Against them stand those who favor lax border security and some who go further and call for a borderless, European Community-like arrangement. The fee proposal could at least bring the issue to a head. Senator John Seymour has proposed a bill by which the federal government would be riscally responsible for some or all of the legal costs incurred by illegal aliens, including public defense and incarceration. I'm not so sure that liberals wouldn't back that idea if they thought it would free up some California money for the beleaguered university. Representative Elton Gallegly, a Republican from Simi Valley, has proposed that American citizenship be denied to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. I doubt that many Americans, liberal or conservative, have stopped to consider that not every country establishes citizenship as we do—that is, by place of birth rather than by descent. Perhaps the biggest bombshell would be the imposition of a citizenship requirement for elementary and high school education. I am not aware that anyone has proposed this. But the Los Angeles Unified School District, faced with a $ 400 million cutback in its state funding for the coming fiscal year, notified its teachers in late July that their pay would be cut by 14 percent, and despite the severity of the economies, the district could conceivably go into receivership-as the Richmond District, near San Francisco, did last year. When such a thing happens, Sacramento is stuck both with a cash bailout and with the task of direct administration—all but impossible in the case of a system with 600,000 students. In such an unthinkable crisis unthinkable remedies might suddenly be thought of.
On June 23 Tim W. Ferguson published a column on immigration in The Wall Street Journal, under the title "The Sleeper Issue of the 1990s Awakens." He is right to summarize the issue thus, and in this sense, at least, I would agree with those who have called the Rodney King riot "a wake-up call." But what may quite possibly happen if the country hears this call is the revival of another sleeper issue—namely, labor. If you want to keep up with labor news in Los Angeles, the way to do it is to read La Opinion, the city's major Spanish-language newspaper. The GAO report I mentioned earlier says that during the 1980s the downtown force of hotel workers went from being almost 100 percent black, and organized, to 100 percent immigrant, and nonunion. That report has been overtaken by events during the past five years. The unions are finding that the same Americanization, the same "Where's mine?" impatience, that turned Latinos into rioters can also turn them into strikers. A remarkable shot across the civic bow came when Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union produced and distributed to convention planners an "attack video" linking a grim portrayal of the dangers of life in Los Angeles to declining wages and deteriorating living conditions for the poor. As Frank Clifford, a Times writer, put it: "The message of the video is that the city won't be a nice place for tourists until the tourism business is nicer to its workers." A much improved contract followed with rare speed.
WHETHER OR NOT THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE becomes a labor debate, America may not have the luxury of treating it as a merely national issue. Race relations were once the quintessentially domestic American problem—"an American dilemma," as Gunnar Myrdal called it. Immigration, too, a fact everywhere, was a boast here. What other nation had a major monument inscribed "Give me your tired, your poor .... "? But these points of view have now changed. Because the world has shrunk, emigrants don't have to cut all ties to home and east their cultural and economic lot with us as they once did. If it is possible for an American businessman to have a vacation home in France, it may be possible for a Korean businessman to have a "work home" or a "school home" in America. And if resolving the American dilemma—in other words, instituting a "blacks first" poliey—creates a problem for such immigrants, the result may be an international incident, if not a long-running diplomatic problem.
South Korea's government sent a delegation to Los Angeles to request reparations for the burned-out merchants of Koreatown. The presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung came too, and though he spoke of compensation rather than reparation, his visit, like that of the government delegation, served notice that South Korea needs these merchants and still regards them as its own. Mexico made no comparable gesture, but it is worth noting that of Mexicans who entered the United States during the 1960s, only 21 percent had become citizens by 1980. This kind of statistic is usually cited to explain why Latinos have so little clout in American politics. But the same statistic, given an increase in cross-border tension, could explain why some future Carlos Salinas de Gortari or Cuauhtemoc Cardenas could become a factor in U.S. domestic affairs as the powerful extraterritorial leader of millions of noncitizen residents of the United States. Any attempt in the interests of American blacks to seal the U.S.-Mexican border and seal in all of Mexico's unemployed would deprive Mexico of a desperately needed safety valve and could foster the rise in that country of a terrorist movement like Peru's Shining Path. In short, America is no longer quite free to address the needs of its own underclass in isolation from similar needs elsewhere in the world.
Last spring saw both the riot in Los Angeles and the debacle (for the United States) of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—the Earth Summit—in Rio de Janeiro. U.S. coverage focused on the environmental half of "Environment and Development." The delegates, however, were at least equally interested in the developmental half, and therefore in the enormous disparity of wealth between the First World and the Third World. It was the reluctance of a Republican Administration to submit to a sociopolitical agenda dictated from afar that caused all the difficulty. President Bush sent William K. Reilly, of the Environmental Protection Agency. By rights, he could have sent both Reilly and Jack Kemp, of Housing and Urban Development.
FAIR has an ally of sorts in the United Nations Development Program, where much of the developmental half of the Rio agenda was hatched. Aldo Ajello, the assistant administrator of the program, who visited Los Angeles a month after the riot, is, in his own highly nuanced way, an opponent of immigration. The immigration of selected, well-prepared people can be good both for them and for the country that receives them, he says, but mass immigration of unskilled, unprepared people simply adds the problems of culture shock and maladjustment to the problems the immigrants are fleeing. From the standpoint of a developed country, opening markets to products from a neighboring underdeveloped country that otherwise might be reduced to exporting desperate, surplus people makes good economic sense. So does investing in such a country—for the same reason. Given a choice between exporting jobs and importing people, Ajello urges exporting jobs as the less disruptive alternative.
Because that alternative is not being chosen, he says, and because the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade actually governs (and frees) only a small fraction of world trade, enormous pressure is building for mass migration-the largest, he thinks, that the world has seen since antiquity. When I pointed out to him that the U.S.Mexican border is the only land border between a First and a Third World country, he countered that Italy has a long, undefended coastline, that crossing from Morocco to Spain (or from Tunisia to Sicily) by boat may be easier than crossing from Haiti to Florida by boat, and that the land border between Western Europe and the former Soviet bloc is in some ways comparable to the U.S.-Mexican border. In the long run, he believes, global development will require open borders as well as truly free trade. As for the short run, "your choice is Marshall Plan or martial law." Absent the most severe countermeasures, the increasing disparity of wealth will tend to move people across borders as irresistibly as a low-pressure-high-pressure system moves clouds. The top 20 percent of the world population had thirty times the wealth of the bottom 20 percent in 1960. Today it has 150 times the wealth of the bottom 20 percent. Equalization can come about in only two ways: by immigration or by development; by moving people from the Third World to the First, or by moving capital from the First World to the Third. An American moratorium on immigration might be a defensible temporary expedient, but only if it was accompanied by a compensating increase in investment.
American discussions of immigration tend to focus on pull rather than on push—that is, on those aspects of American life which pull immigrants in rather than on those aspects of life in their native countries which push them out. FAIR might put in place quite an assortment of American disincentives—changes in the pull—without addressing the Third World distress that creates the push. At that point, having declined the Marshall Plan alternative, we might be forced into the martial-law one, and into a particularly severe form of it along our southern border. President Bush was less than eager to visit Los Angeles, and he was particularly loath to dignify the Rio conference with a personal appearance. In the end he could avoid neither, and he was, in effect, visiting two ends of the same globally disruptive process.
THE SAME COLLEAGUE WHO REMEMBERED THE sack of Rome as we left the Times building, its windows still boarded up, the streets not yet patrolled by the National Guard, had earlier lent me his videotaped copy of the PBS Civil War series. Midway through the writing of this article I concluded my viewing of the series and heard an actor reading Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. There is a strange, deep similarity between the logic of angry blacks who called the Rodney King riot understandable and inevitable-and, indeed, barely stopped short of calling it justifiable—and the logic of the man who wrote,
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
My deepest, least argued or arguable hunch is that everything in America begins with that old and still unpaid debt. An America in which it was finally paid, in which blacks were no longer afraid and no one was any longer afraid of blacks—what could such a country not attempt? But if, to quote an ex-slave, all God's dangers ain't the white man, all God's dangers ain't the black man either. The earth, as the century ends, has many wretched, and we are living in their house.