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One Nation, Inhospitable?

Round One -- Response
Posted November 6, 1996


I'd like to see more exploration of what Professor Borjas refers to as the "potentially explosive tension between immigration and affirmative-action quotas," not least because I'm not sure what he has in mind. But for the moment, allow me a few reflections on the relation of immigration and affirmative action. There is, to be sure, a palpable tension between our belief in equality on the one hand and the unavoidably discriminatory character of affirmative action on the other. But that is a systemic, generic tension, without any special reference to immigration. Why should there be tension between immigration and affirmative action? As I view it, in practice there has been not so much a competition between immigration and affirmative action as there has been an embrace of affirmative-action by various immigrant groups for their own benefit. As I've said elsewhere, there is much irony in the utilization of affirmative-action programs by immigrant groups -- particularly those with little or no historic presence in the United States -- since the original affirmative-action policies of the 1960s were justified on the grounds of compensating for prior discrimination. The case for affirmative action on the basis of past discrimination is harder to sustain for groups that have, effectively, no past to speak of in this country. And yet, if we relax the assumption that affirmative action must be justified solely on historical principles, or even on the grounds of overt discrimination, one might argue that affirmative action could be legitimated to the extent that it proved an effective policy tool for speeding the upward social mobility and assimilation of various groups in the society -- including immigrants. From that perspective, though affirmative action remains a philosophically dubious challenge to the robust equality princple, we might conclude that its practical social effects justify its existence, at least for some (perhaps long) transitional period during which it buys social peace, albeit at the price of bending some first principles (e.g., our constitutional commitment to equality). In the specific case of the already large and settled Latino community, especially in the Southwest, we might well conclude that a generation or two of prudently applied affirmative-action programs is a bargain price to pay for social integration and comity, especially when one considers that the alternative might be to allow the evolution of a more or less permanently separatist ethos in that community. In any case, on this point I would like to see Professor Borjas dilate on the alleged "tension" between immigration and affirmative action.

I'm less confident than Mr. Brimelow that there is no imaginable case for the economic necessity of immigration. Most historical migrations have been principally driven by market forces -- supply, demand, and pricing in the labor markets, to be precise -- and those forces come as close to constituting a "necessity" as anything that economics has to offer. In the contemporary American case, it may well be, in fact, that we have a real economic need not simply for current or comparable numbers of migrants, but, even more to the point, for the kinds of workers whose lack of skill worries both Mr. Brimelow and Professor Borjas. That has surely been the case with other countries -- Germany, for example, or Sweden -- whose native populations were sufficiently educated that it made excellent economic sense to import immigrant workers for the less-skilled tasks that apparently refuse to disappear, even in high-tech venues (even Silicon Valley needs its garbage collected and its dishes washed). To the extent that economic need shapes an immigrant stream with those characteristics, however, the social and political issues associated with a chronically disadvantaged immigrant population are exacerbated. These thoughts lead naturally to the speculation that perhaps we would be best served by a "guest-worker" program on the German model (or one might take the "Bracero" program of the Second World War [i.d. IK] and post-war decades as a home-grown model), though that kind of policy, fostering a permanently transient class forever debarred from citizenship and stable settlement, is hardly in accord with our own historic traditions, nor is it particularly well recommended by the history of the German and Swedish cases.

Forum Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted November 6, 1996

Round Two -- Posted November 20, 1996

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