Those of us crusading for immigration sanity (i.e. an end to illegal immigration, departure of all illegal aliens, and severe throttling of legal immigration) routinely come up against the thought-stopping—and thoughtless—slogan that we're a "nation of immigrants." (Oh? And a native Chicagoan such as myself could "return" to which country?)
Next we're lectured about the "Statue of Liberty" and the promises it supposedly makes to "huddled masses" of immigrants, "yearning to breathe free." (The statue's actual name is "Liberty Enlightening the World," and it has nothing to do with immigration.)
Finally, we're castigated: "All these nasty things were said about immigration during the 1880-1924 Great Wave, yet look how well things turned out. Don't worry, be happy, you racist xenophobe."
But most of those who look back so nostalgically on the Great Wave probably don't know that a large fraction of the Wave couldn't hack it here, so they returned home. (The country wasn't a welfare state back then.)
Recently, Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute (and senior editor of the Institutes's flagship City Journal) made this point quite memorably when he took part in an authors' discussion of the Institute's new book, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today's, by Malanga, Heather Mac Donald, and Victor Davis Hanson.
(Unfortunately, Malanga is still hooked on the "nation of immigrants" mantra—with a leavening twist, though; see below — but he's new to the fray and coming along.)
Here's Malanga on the Great Wave's returnees:
"Now, I said who stayed here. That's important to understand because the majority of them didn't stay here, and very few people understand this. In the first great immigration, America did not have a social safety net; we did not have welfare, we did not have Medicare, Medicaid, we did not have school lunch programs. We did not have any of those things. If you couldn't make it here, you went back. And in fact, it's estimated that more than half, we don't know exactly how many, but more than half of all immigrants during the first great immigration went back. There have been some studies of individual ethnic groups, Italian Americans, it's estimated 65 percent of all Italian-American immigrants went back, either because they never intended to stay in the first place or because they couldn't make it here, or they got lonely or whatever.
"So when we say we're a nation of immigrants, what we really mean is we're a nation of the immigrants who stayed. Now, that sounds obvious, except that we forget how great remigration was during the first great immigration. What that means is that one of the reasons, another one of the reasons why those immigrants succeeded, then, not only were they on par with the workforce at the time, but also they were the self-selected group. They were the ones who were best able to adapt to America. They were the ones who were the most entrepreneurial."
(Malanga's 65% figure for homebound Italians is spectacular; I'd never heard such a high number before. Note that I'm not disparaging Italians—as a physicist, my greatest hero is Enrico Fermi, the last physicist who could do it all.)
Remember Malanga's facts, please, when you're confronted with the "Don't worry, be happy" argument for limitless immigration — throw them in your tormentors' faces! (Malanga doesn't source these facts in the linked discussion, but I assume he does in his chapter of the three-author book.)
However, the Manhattan Institute and City Journal are recognizably conservative. Do you dare quote them to your skeptical liberal friends?
Fortunately, you won't have to! Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article [Brazilians Giving Up Their American Dream, by Nina Bernstein and Elizabeth Dwoskin, December 4, 2007) containing the casual observation, "And like Italian immigrants early in the 20th century, who typically planned to return to Italy - half of them eventually doing so - many Brazilians arrived with the intention of going back as soon as they met their financial goals." [emphasis added]
Thus you're ready to take on anyone who springs the "It'll work out great, again" slogan on you. Your rejoinder: We're a welfare state now, so hardly any immigrants go back. Except there are starting to be real pressures for illegal aliens to go back. The New York Times piece is also useful as another contemporary example showing that we won't need to cram twelve million (Twenty million? See here and here.) deportables onto buses. Instead, make living with their illegal status uncomfortable enough — the strategy known as "attrition through enforcement"—and people will buy their own tickets home:
"Faced with diminishing rewards and rising expenses in the United States, long separated from aging relatives in Brazil, 'people say, "Is this worth it, being illegal, being scared?"' said Maxine L. Margolis, a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has written extensively on Brazilians in the United States.
"There are regional variations, but the pattern is consistent. In South Florida, the expiration of a driver's license is often a turning point for families already caught short by the slump in housing construction, said Sister Judi Clemens, a pastoral assistant with Our Lady Aparecida Mission, which serves five different Brazilian communities in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami. She noted that until seven years ago, Brazilians with tourist visas could get Florida licenses valid for eight years, but they are all expiring now and cannot be renewed.
"There's no public transportation here in Florida, so people drive to work in fear and trembling,' worried that a traffic stop could mean months in immigration detention, she said. 'A lot of people have just simply said, "I've had enough." "