From the Publisher: When We Were Immigrants

Arnold G. York

When did immigrants all start becoming the bad guys? Unless you’re a Native American, everyone’s ancestors came from somewhere else. Typically, when they arrived they were poor, usually not very well educated and frequently didn’t speak English. It’s been that way for the last 400 years. There is another thing that hasn’t changed for the last 400 years—the belief that the new guys, the latest group of immigrants, just seems to be a lower quality than our own ancestors. 

Why do we have these periodic bouts of anti-immigration fever and what causes them to suddenly seemingly take hold? To analyze this, you need a bit of a historical view. For example, the massive Irish migration in the 1850s came in no small measure because of major agricultural failures in Ireland—whether weather caused or intentional is still being argued—and a population in near starvation conditions left. You can rest assured that the New England Protestants did not treat the Roman Catholic Irish immigrants lovingly when they arrived. The next big immigration push came between 1880 and 1920 when the Italians and other Mediterraneans came, and then the Northern Europeans and Eastern European Jews, with the same general reception. In the 1920s, the eugenics movement was growing, people wanted to believe that some people were genetically superior to other people, the Klan rose in America and feelings about the need for racial purity were growing. The USA slammed the immigration doors shut and they stayed shut until 1965 or so. In 1965, with the Civil Rights Movement we reopened the country, knocked out a lot of the racial and ethnic restrictions, and took in immigrants from all over the world. The USA flourished and many members of the older, whiter population of course hated it all.

Today, the United States, like all of the developed Western nations, has a population problem. Our population is aging and we don’t have enough young people to fill those jobs, pay those taxes, and pay into Social Security. The fastest growing portion of our population is the over-65 group and that’s not changing. As the population ages, people are living longer, which means they’re collecting Social Security longer and they’re using Medicare longer, so they’re becoming more expensive. If we give them better health care, guess what happens—they, of course, live even longer and need even more health care, which means more retirement homes and assisted living and more expense.

So, here is the dilemma, and you don’t have to be a demographer to see the problem. For example, how many of you have eight or 10 children and 20 or 30 grandchildren? I’ll wager not many of you. Children are expensive and time consuming. Most of the people I know in Malibu—and generally we are a very well educated group—have maybe two or three children, and maybe five or six grandchildren at most. Repeat that over millions of families and we simply don’t have enough young population to keep us running so we have to get them from somewhere. There is no great fund of money stored by the government to pay for Social Security and Medicare. Each generation kicks in to support the next generation or two and the ratio of number of workers to retirees is shrinking—fewer workers and more retirees. (If you want more information on this topic I suggest you read a recent column by Ronald Brownstein on CNN Politics entitled “Why Trump voters need the immigrants they want to turn away.”)

To return to the basic question—what causes this bout of anti-immigration fever? Part of it is that the world is changing for a lot of people, particularly the typical Trump voter. The country is doing well, but it’s the urban areas that are doing well, not so much the suburbs or the rural areas. The coastal areas of the country are prosperous but less in the interior. Look at California, where San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego do fine—but drive up the center of the state on Route 99 through Fresno, Modesto and Stockton or out to San Bernardino, Riverside or Imperial counties and you see an entirely different world. Before, there were a lot of people who worked in plants like aircraft and auto plants. I can remember a GM factory in Van Nuys producing cars, Lockheed in Burbank and Douglas in Santa Monica producing planes. Those high-paying manufacturing jobs are all gone, replaced by new Silicon Valley-type workers, or skilled entertainment industry workers, but not much demand for a high school graduate with minimum skills unless you want to work at McDonalds. Lots of things have done it: Jobs shipped overseas because it’s cheaper to manufacture there; robots and high tech control systems so it takes fewer workers to produce the same products; outsourcing of labor to independent contractors so benefits are reduced; shrinking of the union work force.

Sadly, there are political leaders who are only too willing to scapegoat some groups for what’s happening in our changing world—nothing nåw about that. There are populations that want to believe that what’s happening to them is really caused by someone else. Whether our country will come to its senses in time and not beat itself to death we simply don’t know yet. I’m hopeful because I believe we all need America to work, but we’ll see.