Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     9-15

ABSTRACT:  The issue of immigration is explored in terms of psychological motives, long-term consequences, and various justifications for admitting more or fewer immigrants.

KEY WORDS:  immigration, illegal immigrants, national borders, open borders, acculturation, assimilation

Immigration has often been an important issue for the United States.  All of the Europeans who came to live here were immigrants, of course (willingly or unwillingly), and all of us have immigrant backgrounds (with the exception of those who were already here and their descendants).  Long after the initial settlement, great tides of immigrants came here in response to famine and oppression, and they were for the most part absorbed (acculturated) into our current society, largely because the country was expanding and growing economically and jobs could be had.  The same desire to emigrate continues in our own time, with many people wishing to relocate here from Mexico or Central American countries, while Europe is currently besieged by thousands fleeing violence in the Middle East.

Two main causes of friction when large numbers of immigrants arrive in new places are (1) negative reactions to people who are “different” and (2) the concern of those already here that immigrants are taking away some of what they have (jobs, wealth) so that they will be worse off because of immigration.  The negative response to people who are different is common to all human beings, since part of being comfortable with other people is understanding what they will do in different situations.  If we are in the dark about how someone who is significantly different (skin color, language, customs) is going to act and react around us, we will be suspicious and afraid until we have learned what to expect.  The main value of acculturation is blending in and no longer being seen as different, so that other citizens do not view one as a threat just for being different.  This instinctive response to difference can be moderated by one’s values but never erased completely.  Most immigrant groups have over time blended in, through intermarriage, education, and adopting many of the customs of the new country, but this process is stressful for immigrants also, since many do not wish to “give up” what they love and are familiar with from their countries.  It is relatively easy to enjoy the foods that new groups bring with them, but gender attitudes, religious beliefs, childrearing practices, and political leanings cause more difficulty.

A new problem is emerging in modern times, when so many persons from a given culture emigrate and settle in the same area of the host country.  There is an understandable tendency to congregate (be with those who are like them) and to establish a mini-culture within the host culture.  If opportunities requiring acculturation are great enough and if the congregating group is small enough, acculturation (and assimilation) will gradually occur, but if the congregating group is large enough and the opportunities requiring acculturation are small enough, acculturation will not occur, and the problem of “difference” will continue.  California now has more persons of minority status (which includes many immigrants) than persons of the previous majority status (Caucasian), and this could have profound consequences eventually for those who were previously the majority.  Political changes simply through numbers of voters may occur that could “prove” to America-Firsters that their fears were justified.  Those of the majority group who say that all immigrants should be accepted must also accept that those groups may eventually outvote them and change the country in ways that they do not like, particularly if cultural values have been preserved that are in conflict with what most here have assumed are “American values.”  Few of those preaching tolerance have considered this possible cost to themselves, as it seems unthinkable, but it is already happening in some ways, and host people naturally don’t want to lose their customs either.

This balance of populations is an issue that immigrant advocates seem to ignore.  If we assume that the numbers of immigrants are tiny, then there is not a huge problem to think that it’s nice to welcome anyone who wants to come, but if the numbers become larger, then problems will be more apparent.  Immigrant advocates often sound as if they support the idea of open borders—that anyone in the world should be able to move anywhere they wish to without hindrance.  Again, if the numbers are small, this could even be feasible, but if the numbers are larger, then that policy would mean that all developed countries will eventually become quite different from their current status.  (There are other considerations in our times that will prevent open borders from ever occurring, such as national security, and of course, immigrant advocates who found that their own status was threatened eventually by cultural changes brought about by further immigration might reconsider their stands!)


Immigrant advocates often sound as if they advocate having no laws regarding who can reside in this country, and they seem to advocate that it should be accepted that those who are here illegally can stay without question.  We see heart-breaking vignettes on TV about a father or mother being deported and a family broken up, and this is presented as justifying letting anyone stay who has managed to get here, whether legally or illegally

The United States is terribly ambivalent about immigration.  On the one hand, economic growth requires additional workers, but the path to citizenship, even for those here legally, is so long and frustrating that having additional workers requires using those who are here illegally or establishing a formal work-permit program, which we seem reluctant to do, as if it is more desirable to pretend that no one is here illegally or simply to ignore them, even while hiring them.  Our ambivalence seems to be mostly about changing our cherished belief that we welcome immigrants and that ours is the land of opportunity, while in fact large numbers of illegal immigrants pose significant problems for the country, in terms of rights, welfare support, medical care, driving privileges, etc.


Most immigrants first take lower paying jobs, which can result in the starting pay becoming smaller for those jobs.  (Minimum wage laws apply only to firms of a certain size or larger, so many small businesses are not restricted by such laws, plus the fact that many smaller, less “official” businesses do not follow employment laws on purpose, using only workers who will not complain about how they are treated.)  People who previously held those lower paying, less skilled jobs but who are now displaced so that employers can pay less are understandably upset about it (and insulted by it), and the result is greater unemployment of those host citizens who have been in lower paying jobs, similar to what is happening through the outsourcing of jobs to other countries.  This system also results in more abuse of immigrant workers (requiring unpaid overtime, paying late, poorer working conditions, etc.), since they are less familiar with customs and laws that would mandate better treatment and since those here illegally are in no position to bring official attention to their mistreatment.

Some might argue that it is fine that immigrants essentially take over some types of business (e.g., lawncare in Southern California, cab driving in other places, agricultural field work), but this happens because they are willing to do those things for less money than host citizens were paid.  The result is more unemployment of host citizens.  The “solution” would be for those employers to pay higher wages, so that some unemployed host citizens would once again take those jobs.  This would result in higher prices for those products and services than we now pay, but that would be a more honest way to redistribute the total wealth than to exploit immigrants to do that work, simply because they are willing to do it or can find nothing else.  It would also make it more visible to the middle and upper classes that there is a cost to having more immigrants.

The country expends more money in public services on new immigrants than it receives from them in taxes, although hopefully this situation will reverse itself it they are successful in “moving up the ladder” at all.  The judicial trend seems to be to require that many statuses (drivers’ license, employment laws, basic healthcare, education) be provided for illegal immigrants as well as for citizens and legal immigrants.

Immigrants bring with them ideas about business and services that are new to the host country and may occasionally result in overall improvement in goods and services, but the benefits of  this seems overplayed in the media when immigration is discussed.  If the economy is growing, then absorbing new workers is less disruptive, but in our current state, where the economy is stagnant, adding immigrants simply divides the economic pie into smaller pieces for most people.  (Unless a new source of cheap energy is found (not solar or wind) or unless another frontier to be exploited is found, then it seems that our economic stagnation may become the predominant condition of our economy, which is one reason that Republicans so desperately promote growth.)


Some have attempted to deal with ill feeling toward immigrants by saying that we should “celebrate” their cultures, and sometimes have arranged “festivals” showing off the foods, dress, and dancing of immigrant groups.  There are darker sides to acculturation, though.

Those who welcome immigrants with open arms should decide consciously what levels of conformance to local practices they would require of immigrants.  For immigrant groups who believe in a fair amount of physical discipline of children, will we require them to stop this and raise their children in other ways?  For groups that believe in arranged marriages or child marriages, is that of enough concern to require them to stop those practices, thereby “taking away their culture”?  Those who support accepting immigrants with little screening thereby are agreeing to deal with these and other problems that will come up.

Those who feel—naively in my opinion—that immigrants should not have to acculturate but should be supported in continuing to live by their own cultural practices should consider the implications of allowing Muslim communities who choose to do so to utilize their own culturally-related laws (the most obvious case currently being the infamous Sharia Law) rather than using the regular court system.  Perhaps citizenship should entail more focus on essential values to see if the immigrant really wants to live in this country or sees it as an opportunity to change this country into something more like where he or she came from.  We like to pretend that we don’t have a value system in this country and that everyone can believe anything he or she wants, but like every culture, this one does have definite fundamental values, and those values determine how one lives and how one treats others.

For immigrants who are not refugees (claiming entry due to serious dangers back home), perhaps there should be more “informed consent” utilized prior to entry.  Perhaps non-refugees should be required to learn rudimentary English before admission.  Those who recoil from this or from having an “official language” for the United States should consider the barrier that lack of language is for immigrants trying to work or participate in the larger society and the tendency of those without language skills to stay in enclaves of people speaking their own language rather than acculturate.  Having two large groups of people in a country using different languages for daily life always causes difficulties.  Even in rational and peaceful Canada, having Quebec using French creates expense and conflict for the nation as a whole.  The cost in Los Angeles of printing ballots in at least eighteen different languages is staggering.


The path that immigrants who wish to become citizens (which I believe is a minority of immigrants) must follow is disgracefully long and arduous.  Applicants sometimes wait years for responses to their paperwork at various stages of the process.  The final citizenship test has little to do with functioning as a citizen of the country (even less than most written driving tests have to do with driving), and becoming a citizen has more to do with persistence than it does with commitment to the values and ideals of the country or with readiness to function in the daily life of the country.  The process deserves major revision to be more friendly to applicants, more prompt, and more focused on what is important.


The important idea in this essay is that immigration has both costs and benefits, and it is incumbent on informed citizens to consider both when making decisions about immigration.  Benefits include providing access for more people to a country that still has opportunity, accessing more workers needed for growth of the economy, and to some extent, enriching the cultural fabric of the country through assimilation.  Costs include greater public services costs relative to taxes received from new immigrants, mental upset (even if low level) of host citizens due to greater variety of people and customs in the overall society and to innate human tension reactions to difference in general, more communication difficulties as many first-generation immigrants do not learn English or only enough to function in stores, organizational difficulties as the overall society attempts to incorporate the different needs and customs of immigrants (e.g., women wishing to work wearing the hijab or full burka, people wanting time off work to pray).  This is not to suggest that the costs are so great that immigration should be stopped or limited to only those who already have scarce and essential work skills, but it is unhelpful for those who wish to have more immigration to pretend that there are no costs to the host society.  Generally speaking, forces that support and encourage acculturation will lead to a more harmonious society in a shorter time, and those who think that it is “unfair” for immigrants to “have to” give up their culture should accept the costs that result from that slower or failed acculturation.