The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Location: Palms - L.A, California

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Songkran, Immigration Reflections & an Imagined Conspiracy vs. Assimilation

Update: Enhanced photo quality, click on individual pictures for even higher resolution. Also click on the headline to visit the official Songkran photo blog.

As Easter, Passover, and Songkran come to a close, this week marks a useful period for reflection for those interested in the immigration debate. And among the many ways and places to do just this – while also getting far, far away from politics – I was lucky enough to happen upon one of the best.

On Sunday, the Swamp had the great privilege of being invited to Wat Thai Washington D.C. to join in the celebration of said Songkran. Besides religious and community functions, Wat Thai is also host to Thai school, where Thai Americans and others can learn Thai language and customs.


(c) Wat Thai Washington DC


And while this was anything but political, the immigration rally on April 10th came to mind on more than one occasion. Songkran was also a festive and eye-opening occasion. The Thai (and also some from the Lao and Cambodian) American community – like the Latino American on that Monday - was out in force. Seeing one particular group gathered in high numbers reminds one not only not of its size but more importantly of how diverse such a group always is.

This is the fact that all xenophobes, racists, nativists and their ilk have to overlook in order to believe their own misguided hyperbole. The diversity is in appearance, class, culture, heritage, parentage, aspirations, occupations etc etc etc. This is no uniform group imposing their own culture, refusing to assimilate, not speaking English, stealing one job or another. This is one group – made up of as individuals – who share two things, a connection to Thailand and an equal, if not greater, one to the U.S.

I speak of reflection, but naturally not everyone has heeded that call. In fact, loudmouths, blowhards and yes, some eminently reasonable folks on all sides of the divide have been positioning themselves ahead of next week – that’s when the Senate reconvenes and the immigration bill is bound to at least be debated. What then comes out of the Congressional grinder is anyone’s guess.


(c) Wat Thai Washington DC

In today’s WP, fence-lover Robert Samuelson once again throws his restrictionist-hat into the fray. Following what must have been a lengthy walk in his own private desert, he appears to be dehydrated and has spotted an oasis. Alas, it is a hallucination that contains just the kind of toxic beverage he tends to crave. Imbibing without pause for breath, hiccups developed. Immigration is different now then it was back in the good ol’ days, and there is a conspiracy against assimilation!

Lord help us! Whatever shall we do? Samuelson writes:

“It's all about assimilation -- or it should be. One of America's glories is that it has assimilated many waves of immigrants. Outsiders have become insiders. But it hasn't been easy. Every new group has struggled: Germans, Irish, Jews and Italians. All have encountered economic hardship, prejudice and discrimination. The story of U.S. immigration is often ugly. If today's wave of immigration does not end in assimilation, it will be a failure. By this standard, I think the major contending sides in the present bitter debate are leading us astray. Their proposals, if adopted, would frustrate assimilation….

We have a conspiracy against assimilation. One side would offend and ostracize much of the Hispanic community. The other would encourage mounting social and economic costs. Either way we get a more polarized society.

On immigration, I am an optimist. We are basically a decent, open and tolerant nation. Americans respect hard work and achievement. That's why assimilation has ultimately triumphed. But I am not a foolish optimist. Assimilation requires time and the right conditions. It cannot succeed if we constantly flood the country with new, poor immigrants or embark on a vendetta against those already here….
(click here to continue reading this piece)


There is much to say about this demagoguery-light. He claims to be pro-immigration but then uses history is a highly selective way to try and curb it. The oldest trick in the book. Nowhere in his piece does he acknowledge – and this is sad for an economist who loves history – that times have changed. First, the notion of identity is more fluid and open-minded. Bilingualism, multiple cultures etc are no longer seen as threats by most people.

Secondly, and more seemingly more important for an economist like Samuelson, you need to acknowledge how the economy has changed, both domestically and internationally. But he looks back at the good ol’ days and draws lessons. And then he after rightly claiming that assimilation takes time and requires patience, he promptly racks up data that show that he has no truck with either. He makes comparisons across eras and assumes conditions are the same. Interesting.

At least he’s forgotten about his own fence fetish, so there’s hope this lil’ diddy will plunge into another valley that time forgot.

Samuelson does raise one issue that merits some consideration, guest workers. As Tamar Jacoby points out in this op-ed, guest workers are the kind of guests that often wind up staying. Calling them guests – treating them less like less than that – can only backfire. It raises the unrealistic expectation that all will leave. And when they don’t there’s backlash.

But as Senator Kyl eloquently put it during the Senate’s floor debate, there is also no reason to assume that everyone wants to come to the U.S. and stay there. Piles of research in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere show that immigrants do tend to stay but what often goes unmentioned is that they have no choice.

OK, you’d be right to call that Swampish hyperbole. Sure, they have often had a choice to leave, but this is not as open as folks would like to think. For one, there is the stigma of returning as a ‘failure’ etc and then there’s the potential danger of a second journey at the hand of the smugglers. But these things aides, for they are hard to assess, there is the little problem of getting back in once you leave.

By this I mean, if you do return to your country of origin what happens if you want to re-migrate again. Many “guest-workers” in Europe decided to stay put when the programs that brought them to Germany, Sweden etc were cancelled. Had they left, they wouldn’t get back in. And since they stayed, they asked their families to migrate…

Similarly, those entering the U.S. via especially the Southern border would hardly wish to try crossing that desert again. Douglas Massey’s research amply demonstrated the calculations involved here. When there is no circular migration (come and go) option available this is what happens. Back in Samuelson’s good ol’ days, returning to the motherland was that much harder and still many did. Another difference that folks forget, those returnees could’ve gone back to Ellis Island a second time, i.e. immigrated ‘legally’ a second time.

So when you think about it, the differences between then and now, especially in the areas of transportation and communication could facilitate return migration. It’s that much easier to take a plane back to the motherland or send an e-mail/make a cheap call to find out how things are there. But the current laws prevent that and compel people to stay even when they don’t necessarily want to.


(c) Wat Thai Washington DC

In an upcoming piece I intend to mention two current guest-worker programs, one here in Maryland and one in Germany, that live up to the name. Naturally, no one ever mentions them as they complicate things. So even Ms. Jacoby’s wrong when she claims to be a bucker of conventional wisdom.

Meanwhile, the Congressional recess is being used by both the left and the right to tear themselves apart. One day, it’s the Republicans who can’t reconcile nativist tendencies, and religious bigotry with the needs of big business and holy compassion. And the next the left panders to minority groups, dishes out its own xenophobia, cuddles up to the unions, embraces some churches and worries about the next elections. In the Center, things aren’t much better. Immigration sure is fun.

The alluded to hand-wringing on the right is well-known – so I’ll just link to two articles, one on the Republican Party and one on Arizona’s two Republican Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, who not only disagree on this but both made Time Magazine’s list of the 10 best Senators.

Instead I wish to briefly highlight the left’s dilemma, which kind of leads into the (radical) center’s own problems. In the oldie online magazine Salon.com, Michelle Goldberg writes about the left splitting over immigration:

“Britt Minshall is a United Church of Christ pastor and a proud member of the religious left…And yet as he watched hundreds of thousands of immigrants march through the streets of America's biggest cities in the past few weeks, he found himself agreeing with some of the most right-wing Republicans. Most liberals are "dead wrong" on immigration, he says, arguing that social justice demands a crackdown on the undocumented. "I'm afraid the Minutemen have a point here," he says.
Most liberals have celebrated the recent pro-immigration marches, seeing in them a new kind of civil rights movement. They've supported calls to legalize many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Many have delighted in the fissures opening up on the right, where nativists are pitted against laissez-faire business interests hungry for cheap labor. Yet there are fault lines on the left as well…As people like Minshall illustrate, the liberal debate over immigration isn't simply one between the left and the center. It cuts across ideologies. There are conservative Democrats, civil rights activists and leftist multiculturalists calling for legalizing undocumented immigrant workers, while figures including antiwar Air America radio host Thom Hartmann, writer Michael Lind and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., are urging much tougher restrictions…”

(click here to read the whole piece, you’ll need to watch a brief commercial)


Ms. Goldberg lines up some of the usual suspects like Harvard economist George Borjas who claim to have the numbers backing up claims for restrictive legislation. But as she points out David Card has different numbers and many including former head of INS, now at MPI, Doris Meissner dispute that immigration leads to less opportunity for poor native-born Americans.

Speaking of Senator Dorgan, the Swamp called his bluff after seeing him in action. And speaking of Michael Lind, he has recently opined about this with my fellow blogger Steve Clemons. Departing somewhat from the harsher rhetoric in “The Radical Center” the book Lind wrote with Ted Halstead, Steve and he argue that the focus needs to be shifted to the high-skilled, both workers and students, from the low-skilled usually meant in debates on undocumented workers.

More on this interesting aside later, especially the politics of Michael Lind.

For now, my mind travels back to Wat Thai on that lovely Sunday. For those who would go there and couldn't see this as the quintessential American scene, I say this. Adjust your clocks, it’s 2006 and counting.


(c) Wat Thai Washington DC

jo

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4 Comments:

Blogger Erin said...

Great pictures and an interesting tie-in to the current immigration debate! Wish I could have been there, it is one of my favorite DC-area festivals.
-ET

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece and of course, very timely!

12:28 PM  
Blogger Package said...

Great post as usual JO. You need a wider forum on this issue. So much more lucid than the current sources. Should I contact some agents? -TP

12:55 PM  
Blogger Give 'em enough rope said...

To put things in context, I should probably mention that I am someone who believes that all borders are a violation of human rights and that nationalities are but figments of our imagination. Even so, I don’t think you need to share my ultra-liberal views to agree that the notion of the “guest worker” has got to be one of the most suspicious ideas in this whole context.

I know you did touch on this in your post, though I can’t quite pin down your opinion (not for the first time, I might add – ever the diplomat, eh ;-)). But to me, the concept of borrowing labour from another country in the form of guest workers seems to overlook the fact that human beings can’t be reduced to being merely “workers”. (Any notion that they could inevitably makes me think of slavery.)

The human identity is, of course, more complex than that. Most importantly (to me, for obvious reasons, and perhaps this is the bit I feel you may be overlooking in your analysis) humans have a tendency to procreate. And while adults might be able to function as rationally as the guest worker concept assumes (though I doubt it, in most cases), children most definitely can’t.

I know what I’m talking about – I have the surreal pleasure of meeting two Americans in my kitchen every morning, even though I’m sure that when we moved here last year they were both British. :-)

11:11 PM  

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