About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

On immigration

I've meant to write on immigration for some time, but never quite got around to expressing my thoughts carefully and completely enough to make sense. But today's news is that the latest US Census figures show growth in the number of immigrants (duh!), and everybody is talking about what it means and how we should “deal” with it. So, here we go, my two and a half cents...

I see immigration and immigration laws much the same way I see languages and dictionaries. You see, people tend to think of dictionaries in one of two ways: either as prescriptive or as descriptive. In the prescriptive mode, a dictionary tells us how we ought to use and spell words, it is the language police, in a sense, keeping languages from degenerating into meaningless chaos. In the descriptive mode, however, dictionaries simply record word usage and spelling, and as such they change over time to reflect how living languages evolve.

In reality, dictionaries should be seen as performing both roles, but on different time scales. In the short run it does make sense to point out that such and such usage or spelling is wrong, meaning that society at large – at the moment – is using a certain word (spelled in a particular way) with certain meanings, and to scoff at it and say “that's what you say, but it's all a matter of convention” is silly. Languages may be largely about conventions, but without such conventions we wouldn't be able to understand each other.

By the same token, however, in the long term dictionaries should be considered descriptive tools. Languages evolve, and it is simply useless to cling to old spellings or meanings while the rest of society has moved on. Once again, the overarching goal is to maintain continuity in our ability to communicate, and as lovely as Shakespearian English may be, it simply won't do to walk around uttering “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven” (from All's Well that Ends Well, the very title of it being another example of outmoded language!).

What does all of this have to do with immigration? It seems to me that immigration is similar to languages in the sense that in the long term it is an unavoidable feature of human societies, while in the short term it ought to be limited or otherwise regulated, in order to minimize the likelihood of social chaos, or at least of great stress. Immigration laws should be set up accordingly, with the aim of regulating and legalizing the process in the short term, but not with the futile objective of maintaining racial, ethnic or cultural “purity,” whatever that means.

In practice, therefore, I tend to be rather unsympathetic to illegal immigrants (remember that I am an immigrant myself, though I did go through the various hoops set up by the US government to get into this country). Yes, they are motivated by awful situations at home and by the general human desire of finding a better life for oneself and for one's children. Yes, of course they should be treated humanely and given medical assistance when needed. But no, it wouldn't make sense for any country to simply open its borders, cultural, social, and economic consequences be damned. After all, one of the duties of a government is to protect its citizens and afford them the best possible opportunities. In the US, the education and health system, for example, are already strained (largely because of political myopia, but that's another issue), and simply to suddenly make them accessible to millions of illegal immigrants makes very little sense for the people who are already here and struggling not to fall further behind. (In a very close parallel, that's why I'm against unrestrained immediate globalization, despite its obvious long term benefits and likely historical inevitability.)

There is another connection between immigration and languages, this one more obvious and direct, as well as particularly controversial. I have little sympathy for people who come into a country and avoid learning the dominant language, even having their children be taught in public schools in their ancestral tongue (at the public's expense, of course). This doesn't mean that one should abandon one's heritage and become completely assimilated either. I have always been disturbed by the metaphor of America as a “melting pot,” with its implication of loss of individuality. I rather think of the US at its best as a tossed salad, where the bits retain their unique characteristics, and the ensemble tastes good precisely because, not in spite of, the variety. However, nurturing one's heritage (and hence language) is a matter for parents to pursue at home, not for schools or governments to adjust to or impose. Just as teaching kids your own brand of religion (or lack thereof) is up to you, not to public schools or legislative action. Religion, after all, is as continuously evolving as languages are.


  1. I am pretty much in agreement.

    My wife is an immigrant, and she too went through the various hoops, both those set by the Canadian government, and those set by corrupt functionaries and expediters at home. It does not always sit well with such legal immigrants when somebody simply steps off a plane and decides to stay. Of course, neither my wife nor I would begrudge someone whose life was in danger at home.

    At the same time, as you say, there always has been, always will be, movements of people. Sometimes it takes a lot of balls to pull up stakes, brave prejudice and novel conditions, to establish oneself in a different country. Then to listen to people crab when you take the job that no one ever wanted in the first place. To the victor goes the spoils!

  2. The short-term problem with illegal immigration is complicated by the role of Mexico's government, a factor often played down in the media. Illegal immigration will never be effectively stemmed without the full cooperation of Mexico--which is not going to be forthcoming since immigration serves as a useful social safety valve against social unrest, and a ready source of hard currency. The long-term solution, of course, would be for Mexico to develop a vital economy, which would serve as an incentive for Mexicans to stay home. Of course, that begs the question of why, after centuries of independence, Mexico has been unable to pull itself out of its chronic third-world economic status.
    gary l. day

  3. Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven

    Although, I know what you were trying to accomplish with the Shakespear quote, I just wanted to note that in the passage above all those words are still in the Dictionary and with the same meaning. ("oft" is the most borderline case)

    So perhaps a better example would have been this:

    "Who is so deafe or so blinde as is hee
    That wilfully will neither heare nor see?" -- Thomas Haywood 1497-1580

    Which is also a good quote in reference to that very frequently discussed topic here which along with politics should not be brought up at a dinner party.

  4. All people in the US are immigrants. The idea that Max is worthier than a Mexican to live and work on that particular patch of land stolen rfom the native Americans is abhorrent. The ultimate goal is to eliminate all nation states and other unnecessary political boundaries to true human cohesiveness, and create a one-world, secular government, as the only way in whcih all people are truly equal. As such let all the "illegal" immigrants in. Let all people live wherever they like. Just ask yourself, why are so many desperate to reach the US? Could it have anything to do with inequitable distribution of wealth, perchance?
    Such jingoism is unworthy of you, Max. Ultimately, we are all born in the same location: planet Earth, and global policies should reflect that. If you want America truly to go it alone, then you must stop polluting other countries as a consequence of your actions. If you had to suffer all the pollution you make yourselves, then you'd appreciate how hard it is for Mexican farmers. Let all people everywhere live where they like, and thus fulfill their potential. Away with nation states. As Thomas Paine wrote, "My country is the world". Time we recognised that fact.

  5. Good stuff, I agree completely. Don't even have anything to add.. except that I just came back from Russia and am damn glad that I emigrated from that place :)

  6. Although I do live in the US right now, I'm not an immigrant - I'm what they call a "temporary alien resident" or something like that. Like almost all scientists in our lab, by the way. So our lunch time conversations frequently veer to this subject, and Massimo's general take is the most common. No suprise, given the amount of time, patience, paperwork and money we had to spend to be able to study or work here, and how unfair it is to see people sidestepping all that. Considering American science would come to a halt without foreigners, we should probably be given an easier time...

    Anyway, I myself agree with Kimpatsu, although I do recognize such ideals as completely out of reach in our primitive evolutionary state, as I wrote in another post the other day. We're are still too close to our ape cousins nature to give up tribal feelings, even if that would be the rational thing to do.

    Regarding the language issue, I couldn't care less. Of course, I think it would be ridiculous to offer every single service in all languages people ask for. But as languages, societies also evolve, obviously. But being a "free market" (square those quotations) there is no way to stop this evolution without making up a law forbiding the use of anything but English (by the way, the USA does NOT even have an official language, by what I've heard). And even that would have questionable results, I think. In a few decades, the majority might speak Spanish as native language, then we'll see what will happen. Right now, so many places I go in the US have the English version followed by the Spanish translation. Will it be reversed still in my life time?

    Affirmative action to help integrate the WASP who do not speak Spanish and do not like soccer or Mexican food, anyone? :O)

    (on vacation in Brazil's sunny, 85F winter)

  7. kimpatsu's assessment is certainly idealistic, but it's also unrealistic in the extreme. While it would be really nice if humanity could evolve past the tribalism of the nation-state, it's not going to happen any time in the forseeable future. To act "as if" on this issue ignores the reality of what is, nor does it move us towards what should be.

    kim's unrealism is evident also in his/her take on the economic issues which are at the heart of our current problem with illegal immigration. Now, I'm a good, old-fashioned progressive liberal who firmly believes in striving towards equality of economic opportunity. And as I said in my previous response, the long-term solution to this problem would be for the countries who are the primary sources of illegal immigration to pull themselves up out of the economic basement they've been stuck in, like, forever. What is it that's stopping these poor countries from developing more robust economies? That is certainly a subject that merits some serious discussion.
    gary l. day

  8. Kimpatsu,

    I sympathize with your idealism, but frankly I don't think your suggestions would work.

    The fact that this country was built on massive extermination of the natives is obviously true, but that is more or less the history of every nation in the world, so there is no point in making it a special case. Trust me, native Americans simply ain't gonna get back the land, at most they'll be allowed to build a few more casinos.

    Second, you can't simply let people live wherever they wish because a sudden, completely unrestricted and unregulated movement would quickly eliminate the advantages (social, economic, etc.) of the "desirable" places, not to mention often lead to violence between previous occupants and newcomers.

    As for the fact that most immigrants come to the US because of inequities, of course that's true, and if you read this blog, you'l agree that I'm certainly not a right-winger who thinks this country was built by god for white people.

    Nonetheless, a better world could be achieved by international efforts to address such inequalities, not by simply moving people where the gold is at the moment, only to turn the place into a trash heap.

  9. I was against illegal immigration for a while. That was until my friend said, "Does it really hurt Americans".

    I looked and I looked and I looked, I could find not one document that showed an aggregate adverse action on Americans or opportunity for Americans. I could even find credible papers on how the immigrants have been crucial to keeping the economy going due to the slowdown in "American" births.

    I do still believe that something needs to be done, but right now it wont. Democrats will never admit to the benefit to America ( protecting jobs ) and the republicans are trying to protect "American" culture and language. Until the public realizes that they are not a threat this ignorance will continue.

    If the status quo is good then we need to formalize the situation. Illegal worker are workers at risk. It also penalizes school districts that are forced to teach the children and hospitals that take the ER patients without proper documentation or compensation.

  10. I constantly hear that immigrants should LEARN THE LANGUAGE, even Massimo alludes to that and I agree to a point.

    The first generation, with some exceptions will probably NEVER learn English well. My wife's grandparents came from Japan as adults (first generation, known as Issei) in the very early 1900s and never learned to speak English with any degree of fluency. They understood some but were never able to express themselves beyond the very elementary level. This is understandably immigrants tend to cluster together.

    My in-laws (Nisei) speak, read and write both English and Japanese fluently. My wife (Sansei) who spoke primarily Japanese until she started school has lost almost all ability to speak it now (we are in our sixties), with the exception of a few words that have no literal translation to English, that she uses when speaking to her family.

    Our children speak no Japanese except for the names of some of their favorite foods.

    I think this progression is pretty much representative now, even as it was 90-100 years ago.

    I think children should be taught English from the start in school and not be taught the solid subjects in Spanish, Russian, or whatever. However there should be some speakers of the foreign language to help out when a teacher or a student comes up against an inpenetrable wall.

    Massimo, as a non-native speaker of English could you comment on this. I realize that you probably either spoke English or had a fair knowledge of it before you arrived here.

    I'm also in favor of a strong foreign language program in all of our public schools, so that we can speak to others in their languages. This I feel is a important icebreaker when dealing with non-English speakers. While traveling in French Canada I found that a few words of French, even when poorly spoken, was appreciated and opened up many doors that otherwise would have been unavailable.

  11. I didn't say it was going to happen in my lifetime, but if we don't actively work towards building such a society, we are not behaving in a just fashion. (Mind you, I didn't think we'd see the Berlin Wall fall in my lifetime, either.) The bottom line is whether you appreciate people for the content of their character, or for the accident of geography in their birth. As I am clearly more worthy than any criminal to live where I like, how about I move to the USA, and you throw out a criminal? Dubya might be a good place to start...

  12. Massimo,

    I have only started reading your blog recently and really enjoy it. Unfortunately, I only discovered it after Evolution 2006 (I had a poster there), otherwise I would have approached you in person to say as much. Anyway, I have never posted before, but I felt I should take issue with some of your points, if for no other reason than to clarify my own thinking by writing it down. I’ll just go point by point:

    1) “In the US, the education and health system, for example, are already strained (largely because of political myopia, but that's another issue), and simply to suddenly make them accessible to millions of illegal immigrants makes very little sense for the people who are already here and struggling not to fall further behind.”

    Are additional immigrants really a burden to school and health systems? If so, one would predict that areas with higher immigration ought to have more strainted systems. Anecdotally, I can think of many counterexamples. This is not to say your suggestion is wrong, but that the issue is more complicated and that immigration, in fact, may be a relatively minor part of the problem. Besides, mightn’t defering billions of tax dollars to enforcing immigration laws exacerbate the problems with other public services (assuming the current administration isn’t going to cut money for defense of corporate subsidies first).

    2) “In a very close parallel, that's why I'm against unrestrained immediate globalization”

    Globalization is a nebulous term (most economists stay away from it for that reason), so I am not exactly sure what you mean here. If you mean free trade: domestic (lack of) laws that permit corruption by foreign companies also permit corruption by domestic companies. Being against lowering barriers to foreign trade, you are favoring domestic abuse over foreign abuse (as if one was a priori better than the other) while denying the potential benefits of comparative advantage. If by globalization you instead mean monetary integration, then that is a whole ‘nother can of worms!

    3) “I have little sympathy for people who come into a country and avoid learning the dominant language, even having their children be taught in public schools in their ancestral tongue (at the public's expense, of course)”

    As my main interest is biology, I am not quite sure of specific policy measures you are alluding to here. But I will say that, in general, I disagree. First, it is anyone’s prerogative to learn the native language (just as they may chose to learn or not learn anything), so long as they are willing to face the consequences (alienation from the dominant culture, limited employment, etc.). Second, (a minor point), english is not the national language of the USA (there is none), so using other languages in some public schools does not contradict any ‘higher’ statutes. Finally, is the inclusion of second language classes (to some extent) a bad idea? I would say that a curriculum which makes no attempt to teach english is a bad idea because it does not prepare students with a valuable skill. However, teaching only in english because everyone ought to learn english is also bad. It is like saying that because you think everyone should earn their own money that unemployment insurance is bad. In fact, temporary unemployment insurance and retraining help those people to get new jobs. Likewise, transitional spanish classes might actually facilitate education, including learning english.

    4) Tossed salad or melthing pot?

    Somewhere in between. Immigrants, especially second generation ones, retain part of their ancestral culture, while they inherit their new one. Meanwhile, WASP’s like myself (though I am Protestant in heritage only) adopt the foods, music, etc. that immigrants bring. Not a complete melting pot, but a blending of some variety.

    5) My alternative opinion? I agree with others that the best way to curtail immigration is to improve living conditions internationally. Is the best way to do that to restrict immigration today? Doubtfully. In fact, though I have no quantitative data in support of this, remittances from legal and illegal immigrants may do a lot to aid economic development there (big maybe on that one though). In any case, USA faced many similar issues in the beginning of the last century as well. Fortunately, we opted not to close our doors too much, and have not suffered for it. Though I am open to data suggesting otherwise, it seems that current immigration patterns do not pose a threat to our country and that the status quo may be just fine.

  13. chris,

    You mention you are a biologist, so I assume you are not this chris muir?


  14. alan,

    haha, no, I am not.

  15. Wow. That was impressive.

    I'm guessing you are not a regular reader of this blog and yet you responded to the previous comment in less than an hour.

    It is like you have the "Eye of Sauron" -- or its like you are one of those Sci-fi mind-entities with your tentacles controlling the entire matrix (Internet/ blogosphere in this case, of course).

    I like your strip. As an independent who leans libertarian-ish (note small "l"), I find there is a lot I agree with, particularly the anti-PC bits. Of course, I also find a lot I disagree with, but that's what makes it interesting.

    By the way, I'm a regular Obsidian Wings reader (though I rarely comment) where your strip got some attention recently as you know. If you want another perspective on "Kantian Nihilism", you might note that Massimo Pigliucci (the blog host) aside from being a professional biologist is also quite qualified in the field of Philosophy.

    I myself, unlike Hilzoy, am vastly under qualified to make any remarks on the subject.

    Not trying to be snarky (hope it doesn't read that way)....

  16. I figured I should chime in mainly because I find although I disagree with many of M's opinions, I agree on his take on immagration. Its nice to have some common ground. This is another good example of a subject that doesn't have to be viewed as Conservative or Liberal.
    I used to work at a small factory called "NEW CAN CO"(approx 70 employees),where most of the emloyees were Cape Verdian immigrants. Not only were these people some of the hardest working people I have ever met, they were willing to work for a wage that perhaps many natives would not. I dont think New Can would have survived without them (or vice versa, since many did not speak english, many other jobs were not available to them). So economically speaking, I think America needs a steady flow of immigrants.
    I also agree with your take on language. The immigrants that did speak English always got the better positions at New Can. So it is just as benificial to them to learn the language. I can't imagine moving to Italy and not speaking Italian. Why would anyone put themselves through that?

  17. Eric asks "how does it hurt Americans?" There are at least two answers, one a little more hypothetical.

    First, the abuse of illegal immigrants results in wages being depressed for Americans too. A landscaper who could have bought a backhoe and increased his productivity will instead hire a number of underpaid illegals. An employer who should be paying 8 to 10 dollars an hour will pay 5 or 6 to illegals. Walmart had a big scandal a couple of years ago about their cleaning crews being illegals, but to me the issue was the fact that they had worked 30 days or more in a row without a day off. Abuses such as these make it easier for emplyers to abuse everybody else.

    The second more hypothetical possibility is that if we have control over population growth, chlid welfare issues (health and immunizations, for instance) etc, and let an unregulated stream of people into the country, we become a sink for excess population from other countries. Like my father told me some time ago, you can't have just one person in a family on a budget.

  18. I agree with the idea that illegals are too much of a burden on our society, but I don't see how we can stem the tide.

    I think everyone who works should pay taxes, legal or illegal.

    Everyone uses society's services. The ERs in LA have been reduced dramatically when all comers where required by the State to be taken care of, with or without insurance. So hospitals stopped having ER services. There are fewer hsopitals with ERs, and when I have my heart attack and the firemen take me to the crowded ER I won't get as good of care as I should, even with insurance.

    And I pay for the unisured with tax money here in LA at public hospitals entirely paid for by the County.

    there's a tremendous financial burden from illegal workers/immigrants which far outweighs the cheep labor. It's hidden, but it's there.

    There's no free ride.

    So, should we litmit or stop illegal immigration? Impossible.

    We should harness the finances from them as workers, whether they are legal or illegal. Our roads and hospitals need it, i.e. we all need it.

  19. I agree it is a problem, but...

    there's a tremendous financial burden from illegal workers/immigrants which far outweighs the cheep labor. It's hidden, but it's there.

    I wonder if you've seen any hard numbers on this, or if it's just your "impression". Because I think that's what it is. And although I also do not know the hard numbers off the top of my head, I kinda remember a report on Time a while ago showing that a very substantial amount of businesses would disapear in certain areas of the country without the cheap labor of illegals.

    And let's remember that even if not paying the "direct taxes" (income, medicare, etc.), everybody pays "indirect taxes" (sales taxes are the most visible, but there are others hidden in most things we do, buy, etc.). So it is a half-truth (therefore a half-lie) to say illegals do not pay any taxes. Specially if you consider the wage difference as a kind of informal taxation too...


  20. As far as a taxes concerning an employee that is not on the books (illegal immigrant). If a company does not claim that they paid an employee then they must claim it as profit and an actual higher tax rate would be collected from that moneys. Money made by a company is either spent on expenses (employee salary) or claimed as income. I am not making any point here other than illegal immagrants dont take money from tax revenue, in some ways they can actually increase it.

  21. J:

    I suspect that those businesses which claim they would fold without illegal workers would go back to doing what they did before they could get underpaid labor- pay better wages. I just don't believe all the crying about "but if we have to do that we'll go out of business." That's what the auto industry said about seatbelts and airbags.

    And to Jim Fisher,

    I'm sure they can find some way to launder their money so as not to pay taxes on it. I wouldn't be surprised if it's easier to hide profits than to reduce payroll taxes.

  22. j krehbeil,
    I am not approving of illegal immigrants working in the U.S. My take is that America should have a steady flow of legal immigration which can help economically. It helps in keeping U.S. diverse, but all the masses should be counted.

    As far as companys laundering their money? What is it with liberals and free commerce? My point was only that illegal immigrants may not lower overall tax collection. Whats your point, that if they don't hire payroll then they are going to hide the money to avoid paying taxes, thats a load of crap. If a company finds a way to do that and is morally inclined to do so, I am sure it doesn't matter what their payroll is they will do it anyway.

  23. All right, here is my take on this.

    Immigration in its current magnitude needs time and control in order to keep up with the demographic transition. So, on a macro scale I understand the arguments for control of immigration.

    However, being an immigrant to the U.S. myself (although living in Hong Kong currently) I understand the mentality of immigrants. Although it is illegal, I would not hesitate for a second, not one second, to jump the border to put food on the table for my family. I doubt anyone would think differently. Because I feel that way, it is hard for me to condemn other people doing what I would do in their shoes. It is the fundamentals of morality, before you condemn illegal immigrants, ask yourself if you would do the same if you were in their situation

    - Flemming

  24. Flemming,
    I don't fault you for a second for wanting to put food on the table for your family, nor would anyone else I suppose. We can't fault illegal immigrants for wanting and trying to come to the U.S. I think the issue is more about controlling immigration so that the standard of living does not decrease as a result. If we just opened the gates, eventually it would throw our lower and middle class into poverty (worse than already). Thus, if we allowed any and all immigration without watch, then the U.S. would not be any better than Mexico or other countries, and it would not be a place for you to feed your family any more than your(figurative) current situation.

  25. Jim,

    Could you back that up with actual warranted arguments? As far as I see the influx of immigrants shifts the Aggregate Supply down and to the left because of reduced costs which is the best thing you can imagine for an economy and to some extent balances out the excessive consumption by American citizens.

    Besides, let's stop saying people are bad because they do illegal things and focus on whether their actions are moral or immoral.

    - Flemming

  26. EDIT: That would be down and to the right of course.

    - Flemming


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