Alexander Steffler: From Salad Bowl to Pressure Cooker?


Do we really know where we are in the immigration debate? We sure haven’t figured out the economic dimensions yet, as John Tierney pointed out yesterday in discussing border security’s relationship with opportunities for legal migration.
As it turns out, we don’t know much about the cultural or ethnic facets of immigration to the United States, either. In her 2002 book World on Fire, Yale Law professor Amy Chua points out that free-market democracies often have the unintended consequence of encouraging sectarian strife when small minorities exercise economic domination over much larger majorities (i.e. the United States vis-a-vis the rest of the world). Her point exists in a larger sense: the movement of people has an under-examined cultural/ethnic component to it, too.
What Bush is doing with an insistence on a guest-worker program is implicitly relegating a very large and, as we saw during the April 10 immigration rallies, increasingly influential group of people to second-class citizenship. Germany tried it, and what that country now has is strong tensions with its Turkish immigrants, who were originally guest-workers.
Still, it’s better than the House’s rhetoric, whose divisive, anti-American xenophobia does no one any good.
What I’m afraid of in all of this, whether it’s in the short-term from such rhetoric or the long-term when the “guest-workers” start demanding more equal rights, is that we come across as greedy and intolerant. The United States has consistently been sending the message that we are happy to have cheap labor move in with us, but we don’t want anything beyond that. We can’t have it both ways: if we want the economic prosperity that cheap labor brings us, we have to be able to accept the cultural implications of that as well, without telling immigrants to renounce their culture when they come to the United States.
Still, we are progressing in generally the right direction in all of this. What is left to do is hammer out the contradictions by allowing people from other countries, particularly Mexico, to come, live, and work without obstacle. We’ve already seen how this benefits the U.S. Anything less risks increased tensions with the rest of the Americas and cementing the inequalities that are already a problem with current “illegal” immigration.
Alexander Steffler is a student at the George Washington University. He is currently in Argentina researching Paraguayan immigration to Buenos Aires.