Thursday, August 12, 2010

Birthrates and Immigration

In 1921, a professor from Stanford University testified to a Congressional committee that by the year 2000 a majority of the population of California would be of Japanese heritage. He extrapolated this stunning conclusion from birthrate data, which showed a tremendously higher fertility rate among Japanese than the general population.

Perhaps standards for faculty hiring at Stanford University in its early years were shockingly low. What's more likely is this professor was simply lying with math to reach a preordained conclusion -- that he didn't like Japanese immigration. Obviously, old people don't typically embark on transoceanic emigration voyages, and the birthrate he cited was simply a product of the Japanese population being much younger than the rest.

Demographers at Pew, in releasing their findings that 8% of births in 2008 were by illegal immigrant mothers, dutifully made this point up front. But let's start the clock on how fast immigration opponents start spinning these figures to claim some demographic cataclysm is coming, or to prove that the 14th Amendment really does need revising.

Like internal migration within a country, immigration/emigration is about a search for resources and employment. Sure, some percentage of immigrants in the nation's past were fleeing oppressive regimes in their homelands -- my great-grandfather left Lithuania because the Russians were going to conscript him to fight the Japanese. Especially since the end of the Cold War, however, immigration policy has had little to do with a flight to freedom, which remains the domain of national refugee policy (and vice-versa, when it comes to the differences between Haitian and Cuban refugees, for example.) What we are essentially talking about when we talk about immigration is what to do with a particular, transnational labor pool.

Law professor Bill Ong Hing was totally right last week writing for Slate that the real solution to keeping the largest (Mexican) portion of this labor home is economic development in their home countries. It's what richer EU countries did, he notes, to stem emigration from nations like Greece and Portugal when they joined in the 1990s. And NAFTA's been a disaster for many working and farming Mexicans.

The reason we're still talking about birthrates and the 14th Amendment, though, is the same reason the professor's proposal has not a snowball's chance in hell of going anywhere. If conservatives have a problem giving WIC cards or even public school education to the children of illegal immigrants on the grounds that it's redistributing resources to people who don't deserve it, how are they going to feel about giving away the billions it would take to boost the Mexican economy?

An issue like immigrant birthrate is illuminating because it's fundamentally a visceral one. Those squeamish about the racial diversification of the country imagine "they are making more of them." How far the Republican leadership at the national, state, and local level will want to run with this issue will be telling because of all the angles of attack on the illegal immigration problem, this is the one that closest to outright white supremacy.

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