Before our faith collapsed and with it tender civilization, it was not uncommon that I found myself whizzing along America’s highways and byways. I grew up itinerant, a son of the military. That changed little following my own enlistment into the Navy and into its deadliest of all submarine fleets. As a younger man, all I demanded of myself was a full tank of gas, a few bucks in my wallet, and a transmission in decent shape. These days, five years on from the Great Slough (I’m still not sure what to call it), the petroleum has rotted in the tanks, no longer even remotely fit to power an internal combustion engine. The only power left accessible to me is found either in muscle or wind. Sailboats work poorly on land, so I hoof it on those few occasions I’m obliged to stray from the fickle sea.
On foot, it pays to travel in packs. A pack can deter banditry, can stand its ground against raids, and if need be, can scatter to the wind in a way that a lone backpacker cannot. And when the threat consists of armed thugs, I find that being overly selective about the company I keep is a luxury I cannot easily afford. So it was that I teamed up with an old Dixie dirt farmer by the name of Alan, a former yoga instructor named Brenda, and Chad, a guy who was half a semester from finishing up his BA in Urban Studies when the lights went out in America.
Naturally, our road banter turned to the topic of immigration.
Alan: You know what? Say what you will about the end of the world, but at least it finally did something about all the dang border jumping.
Brenda: Border jumping? Are you talking about all those poor Latin American families who just wanted a shot at making a better life for themselves?
Alan: Them’s the ones. My great-great-[mumble]-grandpappy came over on the boat from Ireland during the tater famine. He waited in line just like my old neighbor Carlos. If you follow the law of the land, I welcome you to this great country of opportunity with open arms. If you don’t, you ain’t any better than a thief in a drugstore.
A plume of dust swirled in the road as he spoke, so I can’t be sure if he was overcome with sentiment at this point or if he had to squint to protect his corneas.
Alan: We’re a nation of laws. Well, we were anyhow. If you disrespect the law, you disrespect the nation and spit on everyone who was willing to follow the rules, wait in line like you’re supposed to.
Chad: I’ll buy that America was once a nation of laws, but the laws we had about immigration were unjust, man. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get a work visa? How would you have liked to wait ten years for a less than ten percent chance you’d get approved? An old H2B visa was literally on a lottery system. Your best bet was to be a college student and hope for a J1 so you could score a summer gig somewhere and just hope that your wages would be enough to cover the headhunter that got you the work and your travel expenses. All those folks who ended up crossing illegally had no job prospects in their home countries. Imagine if you had a family to feed and no way to do it.
Alan: If you don’t like the law, change the law. We got a Congress you know. We used to. Anyway, what’s the alternative? Just let any old Tom, Dick, and Jane in here? That’s nuts.
Brenda: Why not let anyone come who wants to? Why not open the borders up? You’ve always been free to move between Tulsa and Atlanta, so why shouldn’t you be just as free to move between Nogales and Chicago?
Alan: Open the borders? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. Tell me something. Did you also used to leave your house unlocked when you were at work?
It was at this point I chimed in. I’ve heard the house analogy before, and I’ve always found it a little puzzling. It would never have naturally occurred to me to use a family home as a metaphor for a nation-state, since immigration quotas aren’t so much as me locking the door to my own house as me locking the door to all my neighbor’s houses. In my two score years on earth, this is a habit I’ve seen exercised exactly zero times.
Me: Alan, would you mind expanding on that a little bit? I’m curious. What do you suppose the purpose of locking the door to your house is?
Alan: You messin’ with me, boy?
My eyes involuntarily widened. It has been… well, it’s been a long time since anyone’s had the temerity to call me “boy.” I decided to take it as evidence that the sea salt had been kinder to me than I’d reckoned.
Alan: You lock your doors to keep the riff-raff out. Maybe you didn’t have anything worth stealing, but I had a family to protect, heirlooms to safeguard. Same goes for America. You open the borders, you may as well just tell every hard-working American that their job ain’t worth squat, that they have to live next to a bunch of diseased, pinko criminals lookin’ to mooch off welfare and vote themselves bigger and bigger checks cut from the IRS. And if that ain’t bad enough, they’re out to wreck everything that made this country great in the first place.
An inhumanly large globule of tobacco spit emerged from between his lips to spatter on the remnants of I-10, punctuating his deep disgust at this line of questioning, obvious as it is to all right-thinking people that national borders serve a vital purpose not merely for the global political order, but for the purposes of everyday citizens who have constituted the government to serve their collective interests. A walking, talking John Locke, this Alan. And not the one from the ill-fated TV show that, come to think of it, was never actually made in this alternate timeline.
Me: So your claims are these. 1) Foreigners take jobs that rightfully belong to Americans. 2) Wages will be depressed for domestic labor 3) Other countries are a disease vector. 4) Immigrants favor left-leaning politics. 5) Low-earning immigrant households are a tax burden that will only get worse if they get political clout. 6) In the parlance of economics, I think you’re also claiming that immigration has negative cultural externalities. Is that correct?
Alan: Yeah. That’s about right. It ain’t that I got anything against foreigners, but if you just let anyone in, how are you gonna vet anyone? A drug kingpin can waltz in just the same as a respectable computer programmer. That’s how Rome was brought down. You wouldn’t want the Last American President to play the fiddle as DC burns would you?
I stifled my instinctual response. Before I could reply properly, Chad piped up.
Chad: You know that there’s pretty extensive literature on most of that stuff, right? For the economic stuff, any wage depression is pretty short-lived, and with enough time, the evidence shows that more immigration usually expands the economic capacity of the receiving country. And it’s a complete myth that immigrants are lefties. If anything their specific policies are on average more right-leaning than the typical American, and by the time you get to the third generation, there’s no difference at all. They might identify with the Democratic party in greater numbers, but that’s probably just because the Republicans are… well, were I suppose… so hostile to them.
Alan: Is that so? Well, even if that’s true, what about tuberculosis and measles showing back up? What about ebola? America has just about completely eradicated serious communicable disease. And what about what Sam said about wrecking the culture?
Chad: Okay, I’ll cop to the disease problem. There probably should be checkpoints to put sick people in quarantine, but that’s an argument against a quota system.
Brenda: What? How so?
Chad: Who’s easier to check for influenza infection, someone in the back of a smuggler’s truck or someone lined up at an organized border crossing? Quotas mean that desperate people start looking for desperate measures. If I knew I had the sniffles and I could still get in after getting a clean bill of health, why would I risk my life trying to sneak through the desert in the dark of night?
Alan: Okay, fair point, but you still haven’t talked about the culture.
Me: What if I told you that the assimilation that happens with political beliefs and values also happens with cultural beliefs and values?
Alan: What, you got more of your pointy-headed academic research to back that up too?
Me: Not yet. Working on it. But my preliminary regressions show that, contrary to what even I expected, immigrants’ support of First Amendment jurisprudence is, if anything, stronger than that of native-born Americans, well at least for their grandkids. Then again, first-gen immigrants are more likely to oppose capital punishment, less likely to keep a firearm in the home, and their kids are more likely to favor making English the official language of the US. But like with the straight political questions, differences vanish by the third generation.
Brenda: Did I hear you right? Third-generation immigrants are more likely to support the First Amendment?
Me: It’s pretty embarrassing, but yeah. A Pearson’s chi-square test using a variable I constructed from eight separate GSS questions related to censoring either speech or literature shows that 58.9% of third generation immigrants are willing to censor either speech or writing for at least one reason. 68.4% of fourth-gen or greater Americans will do the same. Only the library book part of that comes up statistically significant at 95% confidence, but a 10 percentage point split is still probably something to worry about, especially at such high rates. The last I checked, a strong dedication to freedom of speech and of the press was a pretty big part of what counted as “American exceptionalism.” Maybe I was wrong about that.
Everyone fell silent after that. The shuffling of our feet against the old blacktop roused the crickets to pause their merry song as we trudged westward towards orchard country.
Previous posts in this series
The Truth Shall Set You Free
It’s Better to Regret Something You Have Done Than to Regret Something You Haven’t Done