Last week the Obama administration issued a directive which made anywhere from 800,000 to 1.4 million children of illegal immigrants eligible for work permits, and freed them from the fear of deportation. David Frum strongly disagreed with the policy, and advised us to heed the warning found in this classic piece by David Goodhart in which he explains the so-called "progressive dilemma": As the level of cultural and ethnic diversity increases in a developed society, social solidarity decreases, which undermines the basis for agreement about the redistributive welfare state. So two progressive ideals—more diversity and more redistribution—may not be able to coexist. Goodhart writes:
It was the Conservative politician David Willetts who drew my attention to the "progressive dilemma". Speaking at a roundtable on welfare reform, he said: "The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties that they themselves could face. If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state…."
This is an astute point and one that rings intuitively true: we all know one reason that Sweden has a larger and stronger social welfare system is because it’s a much more ethnically homogenous society, which makes it easier to come to agreement on issues of distributional justice. Meanwhile, in fragmented, multicolored America, ethnically-panicked white people tend to disapprove of means-based welfare programs because they view such programs as benefiting black people and other groups they perceive as "not like themselves."
There is a similar lack of solidarity or ethnic chauvinism at work with regards to hispanic immigration. This emphatically is not the only reason why people might disapprove of liberalizing immigration laws, but it’s certainly a major effect. People don’t perceive the prospective newcomers as being "like themselves" and so they don’t want to grant them membership in the private club that is America.
The scholarship on who benefits and who loses from immigration is complex, ever-evolving, and contentious. There are two main views that seem to be dominant. Some believe that the main benefits of immigration accrue only to the immigrants themselves (who clearly are bettering their life circumstances in immeasurable ways), and also to higher income Americans whose purchasing power is increased from the new influx of abundant and lower-wage labor; the losers in this view are working class and lower-skilled Americans whose wages and opportunities both decline due to the new competition. Low-skilled immigration on net therefore increases inequality and undermines the very group such policy should be designed to help—the native working class.
However, there is another scholarly view which suggests a near-total positive sum experience for everybody. The same benefits as above for the immigrants themselves and for higher-income Americans. But in this view low-skilled immigrants do not compete with or depress the wages of native low-skilled workers, but rather, their skills are complementary. Any American worker with fluent English skills and native cultural familiarity is not in economic competition with someone who lacks such skills. It’s why there are basically no Americans who work as agricultural day laborers or at similar purely physical work. However low-skilled you are (well, to a point), if you have language skills then you have better options. In this view, the only group that seems to lose out from an influx of new immigrants is recently-arrived immigrants, who share the same skills and deficiencies.
Whichever view is correct, it’s still a fact that many people remain and will continue to remain highly suspect of immigrants and strongly opposed to any liberalization of our immigration laws, irrespective of the empirical economic reality (whichever way it comes down).
But back to the "progressive dilemma" and the fear that Americans might sour on the welfare/entitlement stuff if we let in too many "other-looking" immigrants. Certainly, not everybody abandons their sense of social solidarity when someone "not like them" comes into view. So who is most apt to be aggrieved by all this unchecked diversity? Well, all manner of nativists and chauvinists and racists, that’s who.
So my problem is: doesn’t paying heed to the progressive dilemma cede way too much ground to this unseemly cohort? Beware the fragile psyches of identity-obsessed white people, lest they decide to undermine social cohesion with their ethnic and cultural panic? It seems as silly as saying, "Let’s not integrate black people into an equal rights framework too quickly, because it will exacerbate tensions with all the racists out there and make things worse for everyone." The instinctual response to this is to say, "Well stop being so racist and there won’t be such tension!" Likewise, to the people worried about the incompatibility between social solidarity and out-group animus, one just wants to say, "Well if they stopped having out-group animus there wouldn’t be a solidarity problem!"
The solution may lie in the fact that our definition of who belongs to the out-group changes over time. I don’t know if we get less nativist overall, but we do shift our ideas about who is sufficiently "like us" to merit our sense of solidarity and fellow-feeling, and gain membership in Club America. This induction and assimilation process has happened to many ethnic immigrant groups in our history Here’s the Italian story, for instance:
“At the turn of the century, the Italians were seen as a stigmatized minority group that could not be assimilated into the American mainstream.” It was common to describe Italians as “dark,” “swarthy,” and—in language that also has characterized African Americans—prone to crime and poverty. But as Italians rose out of working-class professions and joined a burgeoning middle class, they and other “nonwhite” immigrants assimilated. Eventually, the New Deal, along with unions, service in World War II, and the G.I. Bill, brought Italians fully into American life.
We have never had a stable conception of race in this country, and the same cohort that was seen as unacceptably "different" in 1900 represented monotonous white homogeneity by 1950. One hopes and expects that Latinos will undergo a similar trajectory, and anti-Hispanic sentiment will come to seem as anachronistic and silly as anti-Irish or anti-Italian sentiment. Though, incorrigible tribal creatures as we are, we’ll likely just shift our animus and anxiety onto a new disfavored group. But take heart, future pariahs of America, we’ll come around eventually! U.S.A! U.S.A!