Friday, May 19, 2006

does proximity breed comfort or distrust?

This is interesting: Bryan Caplan finds that the more immigrants there are in a given area, the more favorably non-immigrants there view the impact of immigration on the economy.

On average, high-immigration states like California are unusually PRO-immigrant.
. . .
The simplest interpretation of this result is that people who rarely see an immigrant can easily scapegoat them for everything wrong in the world. Personal experience doesn't get in the way of fantasy. But people who actually see immigrants have trouble escaping the fact that immigrants do hard, dirty jobs that few Americans want - at a realistic wage, anyway.

This result held even after removing the effects of immigrants themselves answering the survey.

To me, this makes sense. If you see immigrants every day working hard, treating customers and coworkers courteously, and generally living their lives, you begin to see them as people more like yourself. But I don't think the causes for these results are as simple as Caplan implies, especially since far-flung places are seeing large numbers of new immigrants in recent years. As immigrants settle in every corner of the U.S., anti-immigrant sentiment has reached new heights, which seems to contradict the premise that as people come into greater contact with immigrants, they become more comfortable with the idea of immigration. Paul Glastris references Peter Laufer's work here:
Instead of staying in a handful of big cities and border states, as they used to do, immigrants in recent years have been spreading out, to cities and towns that five years ago seldom if ever saw a Latino face. This is true of the western suburbs of St. Louis, where I grew up. When I go back home I get an earful from people in this strongly-Republican area who are shocked at all the burrito places opening up on Manchester Road and all the Spanish-speaking Mexicans they see shopping at Target. As Laufer's piece shows, this shock is especially keen in the GOP-controlled South. And I suspect it's that shock that is being reflected now in Washington.

I think there's an explanation that can reconcile these two accounts. In areas with a history of immigration like New York and L.A. and Texas, as 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants reap the benefits of their parents' and grandparents' hard work and achieve higher and higher levels of education, descendants of immigrants become fully integrated into mainstream society. At this point, more established members of that society (who may be 4th or 5th generation immigrants themselves, and are part of families who went through this same process in the not-so-distant past) feel more comfortable with newly-arrived immigrants, since people very much like those new immigrants are now their neighbors, friends, and coworkers. And new immigrants often settle in places where their family or friends have settled already. For these reasons, existing centers for immigration attract more immigrants, and produce public sentiment that is generally amenable to immigrants. It's no accident that Bush grew up in Texas and is generally pro-immigrant.

(Sidenote: This is one reason I couldn't stand the movie Crash. It seemed to defy everything I knew about the reality of living in a major U.S. city. Perhaps I see immigration/race relations through rose-colored glasses, or perhaps L.A. really is a racist hellhole. But I think the more optimistic view of contemporary urban life is empirically closer to the truth. And will be even more truthful the more that people come to share that view.)

In places that don't have a history of immigration and are more culturally homogenous, increasing numbers of new brown faces cause great alarm. You would think that, were there something substantive to be feared from immigrants, the people living in places with the most immigrants would express those fears most vocally. But the opposite is true.

It's kind of like the War on Terror—those under the greatest risk of terrorist attack, city-dwellers, are the least supportive of the War on Terror. Now, direction of causality is a bitch with these things—do people who are generally pro-immigrant and anti-war move to the cities because there is a welcoming environment for them there (and conversely, as anti-immigrant, pro-war people move out), or do people living in cities take a look at these issues and decide that immigrants and terrorists aren't going to turn America into a poverty-ridden moral wasteland? As you can see by my awkwardly-framed question, I don't think it's easily explained. However, if Caplan's results hold up to scrutiny, they show that, on average, those with the most personal experience with immigrants, those who are most directly competing with immigrants for jobs and directly receiving community services from and providing community services to immigrants, are the people who are most favorably disposed to immigrants. This suggests to me that fear of the unknown is largely driving our national immigration debate. And judging by the overwhelmingly negative comments to Caplan's post, this is going to be a divisive issue for years to come.

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