Friday, June 30, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Welcoming Immigration

Civil Societies: 1:18
“Happy is the man…”

I write this short piece in advance of the national birthdays of Canada on July 1st (150th) and of the United States of America on July 4th (241st). 

“All the lessons of psychiatry, psychology, social work, indeed culture, have taught us over the last hundred years that it is the acceptance of differences, not the search for similarities which enables people to relate to each other in their personal or family lives.”

John Ralston Saul, Canadian philosopher,
Reflections of a Siamese Twin: 
Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century (1997)

During certain periods of economic uncertainty, there is a tendency to turn inward while pointing fingers outward. Someone has to take the blame. This is typically immigrants, foreigners, aliens, who are collectively guilty for a host of problems, including the taking of good jobs, higher crime rates and terrorism. Yet, data in the United States shows that, for example, immigrants commit less crimes than do citizens; they aren’t taking all the jobs or even lowering wages; and they, immigrants, are not a major source of terrorist acts in the nation. (This requires further rational discussion, since much depends on how one defines terrorism, widely or narrowly.)

Rarely discussed in such ideologies, including the current emphasis on “national identity” in places like France, Britain and recently, to a certain degree, in some communities of Canada and the United States of America, is the recognition and acknowledgement that we, humanity, have been down this road before, and with disastrous, inhumane, results. In the 1930s, for example, there was a fear of Jews coming to America, Britain and France. Closed borders had disastrous results for the Jewish people, including my father’s family.

Thus, I am heartened to read that many Jews today, in America, across the religious and political spectrum, are united in their condemnation of  President Trump’s proposed travel ban. Speaking to this point, the ban has no basis in facts, but emanates from old fears of persons who look and act differently and follow a different religion. It also makes persons guilty by association, and in this case guilty by association and adherence to the religion of Islam. It also goes against the fundamental principle inherent in the U.S. Constitution that governments cannot favor or disfavor one religion. The U.S. Supreme Court might rule otherwise, or there are indications this might be the case.

All in all, I am skeptical of grand sweeping narratives that simplify and view history in a certain way, which focus the lens on a particular people, a particular religion, that of the majority culture, often at the expense of others who share the same space, the same geography. The heroic exploits are magnified; the consequences of such “heroics“ minimized so as to make the grandeur greater, washing away the guilt, if it is present at all. This is the view of a single mythology.

Such is the tendency of right-wing ideologies in particular, which promise that things will be better, if only we control our borders and limit immigration. The left scores no points either, since they have “progressed” to the cold embrace of censorship and totalitarianism, surrounded by a culture of perpetual victim-hood and blame. There is very little to cheer about politically. So much for the illiberal left. Old-school liberals who defend democracy and democratic values are rare today, which explains much of our polarization and divisiveness. These are not easy times by any measure of the imagination.

Even so, I can’t see how restricting immigration or placing quotas or effectively closing the borders will make anything better for anyone. When nations turn inward toward a sort of collective identity based on a national narrative, or an ethnocentric or religious identity, they tend to become not only less welcoming, but also less prosperous. In the end, they also make their nations unfriendly and its citizens suspicious of others.

It’s more than the fact, although it’s an important and essential one to make, that at one time, somewhere in one’s family tree can be found an individual who who crossed over the ocean to make a better life in his adopted country. This person was initially an immigrant and eventually became a citizen of his new nation. Many take on the responsibilities of citizenship seriously.

Many immigrants are entrepreneurs in ways big and small. For example, think about all the new restaurants and the different types of food dishes that are now available, chiefly a result of immigrants who brought their culture and cuisine here and opened new restaurants. Many of my favorite restaurants were opened by those born in another country. Many of my entrees into different cultures were done through the palate. This is the kind of diversity that makes everyone happy; and it is good for us that immigrants choose us among all the nations of the world.

This is true of the United States as it is of other nations, including my own, Canada. Both are nations that attract immigrants. In Canada, 20.6 percent of the population is foreign-born, including my wife, by far the highest of the G7 nations and at the top end of all 35 OECD nations. In the U.S., 13.5 percent of the population is foreign-born. For France, Britain and Germany, the percentage of persons foreign-born range between 12.0 percent and 12.8 percent. The percentage for other OECD nations can be found here. This hardly sounds like a tsunami of immigrants flooding our shores; but then again, for some, “none is too many.”

It is far better to be welcoming. The vast majority of immigrants want to succeed in their adopted countries, and they bring knowledge, energy and, yes, diversity, which combined do make nations better and more prosperous. Nations that have long welcomed immigrants, which includes America, Canada, France, Britain and Germany, have prospered as a result. Study after study confirms this as true, but there’s more to the story of success than taking a strictly utilitarian approach. My father was an immigrant (from Poland), as were both my mother’s parents (from Romania). They worked hard, as did all the other parents of my class-mates at school, who like me, were the children of immigrants.

They came from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia, Greece, Italy, Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, Morocco, Tunisia, China, Taiwan, India, Pakistan and Hong Kong, among many others. My first friend was Chinese, a first-generation Canadian, as were a majority of my class-mates in elementary school. Some achieved great success; others more modest. All were likely happy to live in a country like Canada, even if this was not often openly expressed.

I can say that my father often said how lucky he was to live in Canada, a nation with so much opportunity and freedom. My father, who spoke six languages, although not equally well, always found a way to communicate with others, many of whom came from different parts of the world. He learned about many Canadian customs and learned quite a few Canadian idioms, although not always used correctly, which made for some humor in our house.

Immigrants who learn a nation’s culture and language fare better in their adopted homeland. It is also true that they do better when they understand the nation’s political system and embrace the values of democracy. It is also true that some are better at learning languages than others, and as one ages such abilities tend to decline. This includes learning a new language and understanding a new culture.

I suspect that the effort made is in proportion to how welcome newcomers feel, or, perhaps more important, if they deem it necessary (for economic and social reasons) to learn a new language. The more help immigrants get in these areas, the better the chance of success. Those that are successful ought to be commended, not only for their efforts but also for their achievements. Children, understandably, tend to fare better than adults in the areas of culture and second (or in some cases third) language acquisition.

My mother, who compared Canada to a League of Nations, spoke English and French proficiently (as well as Yiddish). The fear of the other diminishes when the other is not “an alien,” but becomes a human being. This is what my mother taught me. She was not highly educated, but she was kind and tolerant. I don’t think that she was wrong.

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