Bryan Caplan  

Assimilation and Immigration Restriction

If Politicians are Evil, What ... Everything is back to being th...
Opponents of immigration normally argue rapid assimilation is wishful thinking.  If we admit culturally alien immigrants, they won't "go native."  They'll hew to their dysfunctional ways and pass them on to their children generation after generation.

I was struck, then, to read Mark Krikorian's Congressional testimony on Syria refugees, because he says precisely the opposite:
While the UN doesn't track the statistic, the likelihood that refugees who've been resettled on the other side of the world will ever move back is small. It's not just that the physical distance is greater, though that is a factor. In addition, the acclimation to developed-world standards of living and norms of behavior and the assimilation of children into a new and radically different society make it vanishingly unlikely that those brought here, as opposed to those given succor in their own region, will ever choose to go home.
I think he's right.  Syrian refugees and their children will assimilate to their new and radically different society.  But why on Earth would he make this concession?  Because in our strange political context, it bolsters his case against immigration.  As I explain in "Misanthropy By Numbers":
The ideal approach, though, is to twist positives into negatives.  If the maligned group is hard-working, call them "coolies" or "helots."  If they're respectful, call them "slavish" or "docile."  If they're frugal, call them "greedy" or "cheap."  If they raise property values, say "They're making housing unaffordable."  This makes lazy listeners feel like you've covered all your bases, and deprives your opponents of their best arguments.
Frustrating, but there is a silver lining.  Mark's claims about immigrant assimilation are now on the record.  If he ever complains about immigrants' failure to assimilate, we can quote his own words back to him - and ask him to explain the discrepancy.  Immigrant assimilation can't be low when high assimilation strengthens the case for immigration AND high when low assimilation strengthens the case for immigration.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Bostonian writes:

Immigrants may assimilate in terms of getting used to a higher standard of living but not assimilate in terms of developing the skills needed to get good jobs in advanced economies. Caplan knows average IQ is not the same worldwide. A mismatch between aspirations and abilities causes dissatisfaction.

A S writes:

Ugh. It's bad enough that Caplan takes this ridiculously statist, anti-liberty, Big Gov position that the bureaucrats own all of the land in the US, and also the borders to that land; but this argument even seems dishonest. Let me explain why:

It's clear that "the acclimation to developed-world standards of living and norms of behavior" does NOT mean that the parents are "assimilating." IT means that they would rather enjoy "developed-world standards of living and norms of behavior." They could very easily keep their own behavior while enjoying the positive externalities of the culture they live amongst.

If Caplan had just said that the children will assimilate, well, that could be a fair reading of the statement in question. It goes against the evidence (in that the most radicalized are usually the children), but it's a defensible interpretation.

And you won't hear a bunch of Gertruding from me on this.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

According to this paper, Norwegian IQ's have gone up 5 points since 1938. Good thing since I have Norwegian ancestry from ~1900, I bet they were really dumb then...

Nathan W writes:

Hmm... interesting point. I'd never really noticed that bit about twisting positives into negatives, and I like to think that I tend to notice things like that.

Bostonian - IQ diverge for a lot of reasons. Some of them have to do with differences in education. Some of them have to do with differences in who cares about actually trying when administered some stupid test that has nothing to do with anything. Some of them have to do with issues like taking a test in a second language, or because some cultures systematically evaluate certain types of things in different ways (considering the spatial reasoning parts). AFTER these and many other issues are fixed, come back to us and talk about differences in IQ.

KevinDC writes:

Nathan W,

There's at least one common method of spinning any outcome to be negative with respect to immigration which I'm sure you've noticed, at least tacitly.

Objection #1: Immigrants are lazy. They're just coming here to sponge off our welfare and live large off the work of honest Americans.

Objection #2: Immigrants are hardworking. So hardworking, in fact, that they are willing to do unpleasant jobs at wages lower than American's are accustomed, so allowing more immigration means immigrants stealing American jobs.

Or, in combination - we don't want immigrants to come to America if they aren't going to work, and we don't want immigrants to come to America if they are going to work. Also, heads I win, tails you lose.

Anthony writes:

1. Low-skilled, first-generation immigrants work hard. They are willing to work for lower wages/in worse conditions than Americans are. This likely has some effect in terms of displacing non-immigrants.

2. In subsequent generation, labor force participation goes down. This isn't some special issue having to do with being a second- or third-generation American: rather, it just represents assimilation to the norms of low-skill Americans. It is possible for them to work intermittently and still get by, although not well, and the work options available to them are not particularly attractive. Because they are eligible for government programs, they participate in them - just like other Americans of similar income-earning-potential.

These are not contradictory, nor would I expect it be particularly confusing.

KevinDC writes:


The 1 and 2 you mention aren't contradictory or confusing, but they're different from the two scenarios I was addressing, so I'm not sure how to make sense of what you said as a response to what I said.

You're changing the goal post. There are of course a number of things people can say about immigration - but what you're saying now isn't an argument I was addressing. I didn't say anything about people concerned about multi-generational effects - I was purely addressing different ways people object to first generation immigrants. Oftentimes the same people will be opposed to first generation immigrants because they believe such immigrants won't work, and also be opposed to first generation immigrants when they believe those immigrants will work.

So what I was criticizing was people who maintain both:

Generation 1 won't work, so we don't want them, and Generation 1 will work, so we don't want them.

Your scenario of "Generation 1 will work but generation 2 or 3 will start to become lazy" is a different discussion altogether. I don't find it compelling as an argument against immigration, and I'm skeptical about its historical veracity. The research I'm aware of shows that second or third generation Americans tend to rise substantially above the economic status of their immigrant fore-bearers. But in any case, it's not relevant to my original point.

Anthony writes:

You are correct that two arguments for immigration restriction are that low-skill immigration leads to more competition with low-skill American workers, and also that it leads to more government dependency/lower rates of working.

The weakest possible version of that argument is "immigrants are too hard-working and also too lazy." I have never heard anyone actually say that, but I wouldn't rule it out. In a big movement, you can certainly find people saying dumb things. It is also possible that when you hear some version of those arguments, you are choosing to interpret them in the least charitable way possible. I wished to offer another version of that argument that would lead to the same general conclusion - that low-skill immigration presents a problem both in terms of competition and in terms of lower rates of working.

Jeff writes:

Is assimilation always a positive? There are a lot of subcultures in the US it would be detrimental for immigrants of any stripe to assimilate into, both for them and for us. See David Frum's recent piece in the Atlantic here:

AlexR writes:

Poor post, Bryan. You've let your drive to win a debating point cloud judgment. Krikorian's assertion is not about the degree of assimilation per se, but about assimilation having a substantial negative effect on reverse migration. This claim is silly, yet you say you agree with him. If it weren't for moral hazard, I'd wager that you don't agree! Would you infer from the poor assimilation of Muslims into French society that their reverse migration rates are likely to be relatively high? If data were collected across the world on reverse migration rates and a measure of assimilation, I'd predict the former to be universally low and to have low correlation with the latter. I suspect that on reflection you'd agree with this, and not with Krikorian.

David Condon writes:

"Frustrating, but there is a silver lining. Mark's claims about immigrant assimilation are now on the record. If he ever complains about immigrants' failure to assimilate, we can quote his own words back to him - and ask him to explain the discrepancy."

And of course right after posting this you post on how presidential candidates lie all the time and mostly get away with it. Great silver lining.

jon writes:


Objection #1: Immigrants are lazy.
Objection #2: Immigrants are hardworking.

Given that we have millions of immigrants, there is no reason to think that both of these are not true.
And more importantly, if either is true, that has bad consequences for the rest of us.

jon writes:
Is assimilation always a positive? There are a lot of subcultures in the US it would be detrimental for immigrants of any stripe to assimilate into, both for them and for us.

I'm pretty sure that when people talk about "assimilation" they are not talking about assimilating into subcultures. In fact, that might be the definition of not assimilating.

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