Immigrants enrich US culture
Can you imagine a man clever enough to make the devil jealous? In an Irish legend, “Stingy Jack” earned that distinction.
Jack caught the devil’s attention from his reputation as a drunkard with a silver-tongue. One dark night in the countryside, the devil appeared in front of Jack on his walk to the pub to take his soul to Hell. Buying time, Jack invited the devil to join him for his last drink.
The devil and Stingy Jack sat down at the pub and ran up the tab. It was, after all, Jack’s last chance. But when it was time to go, Jack’s wallet was empty. Jack had an idea. He told the devil to turn into a silver coin that they could pay with. Jack would settle the bill and then wait for the devil outside. The devil could jump out of the till as soon as the barman was satisfied that Jack wasn’t drinking-and-dashing. The devil — always up for pulling one over on those making an honest living — obliged and turned into a silver coin in Jack’s hand.
And with that, Jack had fooled the devil. He took off his crucifix and pressed it against the silver coin, robbing the devil of his powers so that he couldn’t turn back into himself. As the legend goes, Jack agreed to let the furious devil go, but only if he agreed to never take his soul into Hell. When the devil agreed, Jack paid the bill with the coin and left, never to be bothered by the devil again.
Years later, when Jack passed away, he found himself in front of Saint Peter at the pearly gates. Yet Peter was wiser than the devil. He knew about Jack’s deal with the devil and that he had not earned a place in Heaven. And so Peter banished him from Heaven and sent him on his way.
With no other choice, Jack walked down the path to Hell. When he arrived, the devil, like Peter, turned him away. Their agreement was that he would never take Jack’s soul into Hell, and the devil intended to keep his word.
Instead of opening the gates for Jack, he handed him a single burning coal straight from the fires of Hell and told him to be on his way. Jack was trapped by his own cleverness to forever wander between Heaven and Hell. To light his way, he put the coal into a carved pumpkin that he carried with him, making the first jack-o’-lantern.
For years, Irish people carved their own jack-o’-lanterns around when we celebrate Halloween today. The first were carved out of turnips or other vegetables, but all were meant to ward off Stingy Jack and other evil spirits.
When Irish immigrants came to the United States, they brought the jack-o’-lantern with them. We owe the Halloween tradition of Jack-o’lanterns to Irish immigrants. The legend of Stingy Jack is meant to teach a moral lesson. But its lesson today is about the power of American culture to integrate new ideas and grow from them.
Just as with jack-o’-lanterns, immigration renews culture and vigor in American life. And as American culture takes in new ideas, it makes outside ideas its own. When they first arrived in the US, the Irish were discriminated against because of their Catholicism. Today we’ve incorporated their culture into American traditions like Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. Rather than worrying that immigrants will destroy American culture, we should take the long view by recognizing that immigration promotes the development and growth of culture.
Cultures must live and breathe freely to thrive
As with the Irish in the 1840s, tight controls on immigration today are defended as a way to preserve American culture and values. Immigration, according to this view, should only be allowed to those who assimilate. It’s an appealing position in part because American culture is so important in the country’s economic and social success. But the question is much more difficult when the rubber hits the road. Efforts to protect American culture often betray the values that they seek to protect.
Political philosopher Chandran Kukathas writes about this tension between culture and immigration. The crux of the problem is, how do cultures that celebrate individualism survive a system of rigid immigration control without losing themselves? His conclusion is that, like grasping sand tightly in your hand, tight controls on immigration may jeopardize the values that you meant to preserve in the first place.
As Kukathas writes, “immigration control is the danger to freedom. It’s not immigration that’s the worry, it’s the control.” Why? Because immigration control is ultimately about controlling citizens. The obvious example is that immigration rules preventing employers from hiring immigrants without proper documentation interfere with what citizens can do. But it goes deeper. Immigration controls affect who people can marry as well as creating hurdles for immigrants interested in starting a business. Or they just frustrate interactions by introducing additional friction. For example, in the United Kingdom, landlords have to verify that anyone that they rent to is in the country legally.
All of these immigration rules require enforcement. That enforcement requires surveillance. Kukathas notes that the rules bring “a culture of surveillance, a practice of surveillance.” And it is the citizens who are surveilled.
There is an inescapable tension between basic American values, like equality and freedom, and immigration controls. Immigration restrictions motivated by an effort to protect American culture often violate American ideals. America’s history of discrimination against Chinese immigrants is an example of this problem for two reasons. First, that history of discrimination violates the American value of nondiscrimination on the basis of race. Second, it requires telling some citizens that their cultural contributions are not valuable enough to preserve (or should even be eliminated). The 1881 cartoon, “A Statue for Our Harbor,” depicts the racism directed at Chinese immigrants. It clearly reveals the cultural fears that immigration raised and that motivated the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882.
America’s moral failures with the Chinese Exclusion Act exemplify how the cultural argument against immigration is self-defeating. In an attempt to protect cultural values through strict immigration controls, the act of enforcement betrays what it meant to preserve so that it is lost. In this case, the Chinese Exclusion Act treats Americans of Chinese descent as less important to America than those of Western European descent — A clear case of racial discrimination just 17 years after the end of the Civil War.
Instead of these attempts at cultural preservation, we should recognize a simple truth: We are better together.
We’re better together
If you don’t take a long view on immigration policy, you’ll miss an important theme that borders on the cliché. Yesterday’s immigrants are praised, and today’s are condemned. The argument is startling in its repetition, no matter the time period. The refrains go that “Immigrants don’t fit in. They don’t assimilate!” But this refrain has been wrong as often as it has been said.
The Irish are one example, but another is Scandinavian immigrants. Between 1840 and 1914, Scandinavians coming to the US were decried as bad immigrants who did not assimilate. But as economists Paul Sharp and Nina Boberg-Fazlić show in a CGO working paper, those same immigrants are notable for two reasons. First, despite not having extensive education or great wealth, they powered the US dairy industry by bringing new technological innovations that made the industry more productive. Second, the Scandinavians, among others, were later cited as examples of hard-working immigrants.
Sharp and Boberg-Fazlić point to a 1925 report by an economist reporting his findings from working for the Immigration Commission from 1907 to 1910. The report refers to the Scandinavians as exemplary immigrants mainly as a way to warn against the new immigrants of that day, Mexicans. The 1925 report warns against allowing more immigration by poor, rural migrants, raising concerns that they would not assimilate or that they would drive down living standards in the areas that they migrated to. But that position ignores the fact that such policies would have prevented the Scandinavians from migrating to the US in the first place!
The concerns about immigration’s effect on culture are important. Yet far from endangering or erasing American culture, immigrants enrich that culture. Yes, there are changes and frictions when cultures collide. But there would be cultural evolutions without immigrants as well. Attempting to prevent cultural exchange by restricting immigration would mean losing the values that restrictions were meant to protect.
Culture is a stream, not a stagnant pond. That’s a good thing too — stagnant ponds do not thrive. To protect American culture the best strategy is to let immigration flow. The next wave of immigrants won’t bring jack-o’-lanterns as the Irish did, but their contribution to America’s traditions will ultimately become as indispensable in their own ways.