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Can a Catholic oppose mass immigration?

Here’s an edited version of a usenet discussion I had on immigration in a Catholic newsgroup:

Ille: In the US the government is discussing new rules on how to keep THEM out of the US.

Ego: What’s with the “THEM”? Disagreement on immigration does not mean stupidity and malice.

Ille: The THEM is any group that is not ourselves. They can be from Bangla Desh or they can be from New Orleans.

Ego: Do you think there’s something wrong with distinguishing “us” from “them,” and looking after our interests more than theirs? To my mind it’s the same issue as private property. In some grand sense everybody’s responsible for everything, but to have a system that works you have to divide things up so that individuals and groups have something definite to look after.

Ille: I tend to consider private property rights as a different issue than the right to live in a country, which is more of a public right. I don’t think it is equivalent enough to be a good example for the case at hand.

Ego: I think private property rights are an excellent example. They’re not that private. Most law is about property rights. For that matter, Microsoft is based on private property rights. Public and private have infinite gradations. There’s me in my room (private), universal humanity (public), and a thousand things in between—family, kinship and friendship networks, business enterprises, civic institutions, ethnic and cultural groups, nations, civilizational groupings, and so on.

Ille: The general issue is many people are upset because too many of THEM are coming into the US. Usually they come to the US, both legally and illegally to take jobs that few of US would accept.

Ego: Well, yes, if there are lots of poor immigrants then there will be lots of employers offering jobs on terms only a poor immigrant would accept. You end up with rich people on top and lots of poor people down below many of whom don’t even speak the same language and so end up socially isolated and resentful. Not everybody thinks that’s a good idea.

Ille: I find the whole thing interesting. I wonder if those coming into the US looked and talked like the rest of the people in the US would they be so feared and hated?

Ego: What reason do you have to think opposition to mass immigration has to do with fear and hatred? It means people think things would go better if there were less immigration. “Fear and hatred” is an odd way to talk about that kind of judgment.

I’d imagine that if somebody proposed abolishing private property some people who opposed the change would say self-centered things. “You can’t use my car because it’s MY CAR.” It wouldn’t follow that the abolition of private property is a good idea.

Anyway, public issues should be decided by reference to the best arguments not the worst. So if somebody gives bad arguments the best thing is to ignore them and ask what the good arguments are. There are good reasons for wanting to restrict immigration. Do you think there should be no restrictions on immigration at all? If you do you should be ready for the poorer half of the population of Bangla Desh to move here. Would that be a good thing?

Ille: It may well be, IMO

Ego: Is a social structure like Brazil desirable?

Ille: I don’t know enough about the social structure of Brazil to say.

Ego: There’s huge distance between top and bottom, with masses of people at the bottom. Most people think that’s bad politically and socially.

Ille: But who decides (should decide) that it is a good idea? Is the the US or the THEM?

Ego: That’s the same issue that comes up in connection with use of property. The Americans possess America, it’s their country, which means that they are responsible for what happens there, the well-being of the people there, how its resources get used and so on. So it’s up to them who moves there. It’s up to foreigners of course whether they want to have anything to do with America or Americans.

Ille: You state as a given that the primary responsibility of a government is to its own people. I don’t accept it as a given. I would accept that it is usually practiced that way, but why does it have to be that way and should it be that way?

Ego: You’re asking whether it’s OK for humanity to be divided into a variety of groups of various sorts, each of which looks after its own concerns and interests more than those of others. I say yes. Some considerations:

  1. What’s the principle that says we shouldn’t? Would that pply to family life, so the father of a family should show no more concern for his own wife and children than for anyone else? To economic life, so the management of a company should show no more concern for its own shareholders, employees and customers than for anyone else?
  2. The reasons pursuit of group interest is legitimate include the following:
    • Knowledge. The world is complex. I don’t know much about your problems, how they came about, or how they can be solved. I can know much more about my problems and the problems of people with whom I have long-term cooperative relationships. Therefore it makes much more sense to take them as my special concern.
    • Organization. Simply wanting some good thing doesn’t do anything. Some definite organization is needed that people get attached to and the goals of which they view as their own. It’s a lot easier for that sort of thing to grow up and establish itself locally than universally. One of the ways institutions capable of doing things grow up is by “give a little get a little”—you stand by it and it stands by you and yours. If that doesn’t apply then people won’t have much loyalty to the organization and it won’t go anywhere. It won’t apply though unless the organization is more concerned with the interests of its members than those of other people.
    • Motivation. People are motivated more to solve their own problems and those of people to whom they have a continuing connection than those of people to whom they have no connection except common humanity. Social organization has to accept universal human tendencies or it won’t work.

Ille: I wonder how many of the people objecting to these people have grandparents who came to the US with few skills and poor English and faced some of the same attitudes? (My grandparents did.)

Ego: There’s no reason the pluses and minuses couldn’t sort out differently at different times. When there’s cheap land, a need for unskilled labor, and basically no welfare system then immigration likely has benefits on both sides. Otherwise perhaps otherwise.

Besides, it’s not obvious that the whole of my family history must have been a good thing. If World War II had never occurred I would never have come into existence. If my ancestors had never been able to come to America ditto. That doesn’t prove either was a good thing.

Ille: I wonder if the Native Americans felt the same way about the foreigners who could not speak their languages or could not grow crops over here?

Ego: I’m sure a lot of them didn’t like it. And in fact on the whole it didn’t turn out that well for them. If a Sioux Indian didn’t like the white men moving in and killing all the buffalo, and thought it would be a good idea to build a fence to keep them out, would that prove (assuming a fence would have been practical) that he was bad or stupid?

Ille: I wonder how many of the the religious right are backing these new laws and I wonder how many Catholics and how many of both groups have stopped to ask themselves what God would want?

Ego: I suppose God thinks it’s OK to consider points like these:

  1. Political self-government requires trust and mutual understandings and relationships that take time to build. Those depend on common hopes, loyalties, memories and so on. You aren’t likely to find much of that in a demographically unstable and multicultural society. So if political self-government and general social friendship are good then borders and stability of populations are probably OK.

    [Ille: Frankly I believe you will find a great deal of exactly that from immigrants. They may lack some experience, but from those I have spoken to, they make up for it with enthusiasm.]

    [Ego: I live in New York and don’t see that. Individuals can be enthusiastic and public spirited but that’s true with or without immigrants. In government how groups act is also important and groups don’t trust each other when background, habits, attitudes etc. are quite different. Politics becomes a matter of group payoffs and trying to defuse group conflicts. When that happens the public interest becomes harder to agree on and the situation becomes easier to manipulate.

    Immigration has never been good for self-government. Cities with lots of immigrants weren’t noted for good government. There’s the basic problem that the new people don’t trust the old, and they find it hard to cooperate because they don’t have habits of cooperating with each other so the way they do things doesn’t mesh. If you don’t like politics to be based on ethnic suspicion and conflict then ethnic instability of the sort mass immigration creates is something to avoid.]

  2. Lack of self-government has some specific bad consequences. Multiculturalism means we have too many groups with too little in common morally so we can’t be ruled in accordance with any particular moral tradition. Experts, administrators, judges, bureaucrats etc. step in and say “Well we have Muslims and Buddhists and Voodooists as well as Christians and a few Jews here. That means that if we let any sort of reference to religion or any particular moral tradition into public life that will be unjust and cause disputes. So we’ll insist on total public godlessness and we’ll insist on basing the moral aspects of public life on the idea of the individual who is subject to no moral tradition at all but just does what he feels like doing within limits of public order that we will set because we’re experts. And then we’ll train everyone to believe that’s the best possible moral outlook.” The result is that if you’re a Catholic who’s worried about abortion or mandatory training for schoolchildren in gay safe sex techniques too bad. You’re just trying to enforce your particular values on a multicultural society.

    [Ego: I should add: minorities support rule by experts like judges and bureaucrats—they vote for the liberal parties—because they don’t trust the native majority. The more immigrants (California, Toronto, New York, Boston) the more support you get for the rules now prescribed to us no matter how wonderfully Catholic and devoted to family values the immigrants are. If you want I could dig out a reference to studies (by an Italian immigrant) of the politics of Italian communities in Toronto. All the Catholic patriarchal family values immigrants from Italian villages vote for antireligious feminist pro-abortion multicultural parties because they think those parties will represent their interests over against those of the native English Canadians.]

  3. Immigration isn’t necessarily that good for immigrants and their children. Their inherited culture no longer gets public support and what they pick up are the most easily learned and so crudest aspects of American pop culture. That’s nothing to live by. You might look up the statistics for things like health, family stability and illegitimacy among children of Hispanic immigrants.

    [Ille: I am going to assume you did not mean it this way, but that argument I have heard many times before. 50 years ago people used that same kind of argument and others trying to tell African Americans that they did not want to live in white neighborhoods.]

    [Ego: Very likely some of the people presenting the argument were well-intentioned. It’s a mistake to assume that people who disagree with you on some basic social issue are simply bad people with bad motivations.

    You should look at statistics on the status and well-being of African Americans. The post-60s period has not in fact been good for them. They were making faster economic progress before the 60s. The long-term drop in their poverty rate for example came to an end in the late 60s. Crime, illegitimacy, imprisonment etc. rates shot up enormously. I think their illegitimacy rate is something like 80% today, and there are more young black men in prison than in college. As to general culture, I think jazz and even the Detroit sound show a much healthier outlook and way of life than rap and hip hop.

    I don’t think Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell outweigh all that. How ordinary black people end up matters. So maybe there was something to what those people 50 years ago were saying. Man is a social animal, which means that he lives better if he lives in a definite community. You can’t form a community arbitrarily though, just by saying you want one to exist. To a very large extent you have to work with what you have.

    I should add: if you care about the well-being of African Americans and other people who often have trouble making a go of it and often rely on jobs that are not so high on the ladder, you might hesitate before you import tens of millions of competitors for those same jobs.]

  4. Mass immigration to the US is not necessarily that good for immigrants’ home countries either. The most capable and energetic people leave. People go elsewhere and send back remittances instead of solving their problems at home and developing what’s there.

Ille: I find diversity means more ideas, good ones, fresh approaches, wider choices.

Ego: Some diversity of some kinds in some situations means that. For things to work though you also need coherence. Anyway, “diversity” doesn’t just mean “immigration.” People have different family, regional, educational and class backgrounds. They have different abilities and native tendencies. Those differences mean different perspectives that are often quite productive. I doubt that immigration at least on any large scale really adds to that. Europe for example was much more creative culturally and no doubt in other respects pre-60s when there really hadn’t been that much immigration there since the 800s. And I don’t see how mass immigration has helped American creativity. We had more creativity before the 60s. On the whole mass immigration and multiculturalism suppress thought and discussion. To the extent immigration promotes productive diversity a little seems to go a long way.