Immigration and the Borderless Economy

Nobody seems quite sure what the immigrant-returning immigrant ratio might be today, but I suspect it is higher than most people might think. Labor is following the lead of capitalit is fickle, it follows the market, and it is decidedly unsentimental. To cite just one example: thousands of Irish immigrants who came to America in the 1980s are going back to Ireland to share in their native lands astonishing prosperity. Few would begrudge them, or perhaps it would be better to say that few should begrudge them. After all, we are bombarded with New Economy propaganda asserting the virtues of borderless capitalism, by which the propagandists generally mean the free movement of money from nation to nation and market to market.

If we applaud those smart enough to move their money and investments from nation to nation in pursuit of double-digit returns, well, why shouldnt we admire those who move themselves and their families in pursuit of riches? Should they be rigidly loyal to one nation, one home, while the market celebrates the shifting loyalty known as pure self-interest? Is not immigration simply labors way of contributing to our new, borderless century?

Immigration is about to become a hot-button issue again, for two reasons. First, the economy is destined to plunge into recession (notwithstanding Alan Greenspans dramatic interest-rate cut earlier this month), meaning that those glittering unemployment figures of the mid- and late 1990s are about to lose their shine. If the jobless rate begins to approach 8 or 9 percent, a backlash against immigrants is, sadly, inevitable. The argument will be distressingly familiar. Immigrants, it will be said, are taking jobs that ought to go to real Americans; immigrants are driving down salaries because they are happy to work for less money than real Americans.

Second, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that there are some 281 million of us, an increase of 13 percent over 1990. Some parts of the country, especially California, have grown by 20 percent or more. States with more modest growth rates, like poor old New York with its 5 percent increase, find themselves losing U.S. Representativesand thus political cloutbecause their growth hasnt kept up with other states. Population experts reckon that the U.S. population will double in the next 70 years. This means that there will more than a half-billion of us within the lifetime of todays elementary-school students.

Immigrants are to blame for this startling increase, and thus our ever-sprawling sprawl, our crowded highways, our teeming urban neighborhoods, our standing-room-only public schools. So say an increasing number of gate-shutters, who have begun to use the census figures as evidence of immigrations dire effect on all that we hold dear: pristine woodlands, clean drinking water and the occasional parking spot.

Wishing for a reasonable debate over immigration would seem akin to insisting that Republicans and Democrats stop playing partisan games and instead work for the common good. Its a nice thought, but not terribly realistic. Still, this generally pro-immigration observer is prepared to concede that some immigration critics can, and do, make salient points, and this without resorting to the racially charged language that seems so much a part of this debate. For example, some anti-immigration commentators rightly insist that pro-immigrants must do more than simply cite the open door of the 19th century to justify immigration policies in the 21st century. When Ellis Island was open for business, America still had vast open spaces in the plains and the West. The nations population in 1880 was only 50 million, and America was still very much in the process of nation-building. The frontier had not yet closed.

Twenty-five million immigrants came here between 1880 and 1925, when new restrictions were imposed. Another 25 million have come since the immigration reforms of 1965. The time has come, say several respected commentators, to take a page from the 1920s. They would impose new restrictions while we assimilate the millions we have taken in over the last 35 years.

Thats an honorable argument (although the citation of the racist immigration restrictions of the 1920s is not the best tactic in the world). Still, it does not provide a satisfactory answer to the ultimate new economy question: If capital can move, indeed, if it is encouraged to move from market to market, why cant labor? Or is this new borderless economy designed only for money, not for people?

I suspect that the anti-immigration forces will dominate the debate over the next few years, and their seemingly reasonable arguments will strike many native-born Americans, and perhaps even a few immigrants, as acceptable and even in keeping with the American tradition of immigrant ebb and flow.

Ultimately, though, these rational, nonideological arguments have to be squared with our much-celebrated dogma of free trade, open markets and borderless capitalism. And that will be no easy assignment.

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