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Immigrants Provide a Net Gain to the US

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to prominent British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah.
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Statue of Liberty, New York City © Andrey Bayda / Shutterstock

January 16, 2020 14:13 EDT

The coming to power of Donald Trump has reignited the debate on immigration and multiculturalism in the United States. His stringent policies and the efforts to slash both legal and illegal immigration to the US have been at the forefront of controversy since he took office in January 2017, leading some to assert that Trump is heading “the most immigration-restrictive administration since the 1920s.”

Immigration and race relations are expected to be major areas of focus in the 2020 election, once again highlighting a longstanding challenge the United States has been grappling with. In September 2019, the State Department announced that the US will only admit up to 18,000 refugees in the next fiscal year, marking a historic low after the 2019 cap of 30,000 refugees, which was itself the lowest level since 1980.

Although an anti-immigration stance has become a hallmark of the Trump administration, reflecting the president’s desires to appeal to his nationalist base, it is beyond doubt that the United States has historically benefited from immigration. Research by the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests, for example, that US counties that admitted more immigrants between 1850 and 1920 enjoy higher average incomes, less poverty and lower employment today. The findings show that the “long-run benefits of immigration can be large, and need not come at high social cost.”

According to the testimony by the Center for American Progress to a congressional budget committee last year, in 2017 immigrants made up almost 30% of all new entrepreneurs despite representing just 13.7% percent of the US population, being the backbone of the small-business sector and propping up communities across the country. The testimony also cites the New American Economy fund figures showing that of the Fortune 500 companies in 2018, 44% were started by children of immigrants, which altogether added $5.5 trillion to the US economy in 2017.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a prominent British-Ghanaian intellectual, cultural theorist and professor of philosophy and law at New York University. In October 2018, the University of Edinburgh awarded an honorary doctorate to Professor Appiah in recognition of his global influence on philosophy and politics. His latest book, “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity,” was released in 2018.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Kwame Anthony Appiah about immigration, race relations in 21st-century America, the rise of white nationalism, and how we can build trust in a diverse society.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: After President Trump assumed power, an extensive debate emerged over the alleged harm immigrants bring to the United States and the exigency of tackling immigration. The president introduced his controversial Muslim ban, and Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities have been constantly vilified in the right-wing media and by the president himself. Do you think it is the immigrants who are undermining cohesion and security in the United States?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Obviously not! Immigrants, wherever they come from, provide, on average, a net gain to the United States economy. And there surely wouldn’t be so many of us if we didn’t. Low-skill migrants often accept jobs that native-born Americans don’t really want to do at wages many natives wouldn’t accept. High-skilled migrants give us human capital that we haven’t been able to produce here. Both are more law-abiding than natives on average and make a positive social contribution in other ways, not just to the economy.

There are indeed some, especially low-skilled natives, who lose their jobs to immigrants, though it’s worth pointing out [that] low-skills migrants also create jobs because natives are better placed to help manage people unfamiliar with our customs. But many more are losing their jobs to robots and to the transfer of tasks to cheaper labor markets elsewhere. So, the fact that immigration is a net plus doesn’t mean that there aren’t native-born Americans who have been disadvantaged by it. Something can be a huge net plus and also have significant downsides for particular people.

This is a problem we should care about as their fellow citizens, of course. Well, I say “of course,” but the small-government types may not think this is as obvious as I do. But the net gains from migration to the US and the world would make it foolish to deal with this problem by stopping immigration rather than by helping those people get new training and new opportunities.

Lots of things in the US would be much more expensive if we slowed migration, or abandoned robots or global trade, for that matter. So, most of us benefit from immigrants as consumers as well as benefiting from the general increase in wealth created by a successful global economy. And that’s not to mention the obligation we have to do our fair share to look after legitimate asylum-seekers.

The largest domestic threats to security — if by that you mean acts of terrorism — at the moment come, as the FBI has recently insisted, from right-wing white nationalists. We have not been subjected to much terror by immigrants, Muslim or otherwise — 9/11 was not carried out by immigrants, and the largest threats to cohesion come from their non-violent sympathizers. Societies that are diverse face challenges, particularly in the realm of trust, but we can manage them, and, as I say, the benefits to the US of relatively large immigrant flows far outweigh these and other costs.

It’s perhaps worth saying, too, that the deepest divisions in the United States today seem to me to be partisan: between devoted Republicans and committed Democrats. While some of these divides are associated with different views about immigration, they are not caused by immigration.

Ziabari: Different US presidents in the past, including Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have referred to the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” In sharp contrast to his predecessors, President Trump has railed against immigrants, pejoratively calling them “rapists,” “killers” and “invaders.” Where does this animosity toward immigrants come from? Is this sort of discourse he is promoting something that appeals to his base?

Appiah: President Trump’s very evident racism and Islamophobia are representative, as we well know, of a part of the US population. And these attitudes are present all around the world. There are interesting psychological theories about what sort of personality traits conduce to bigotry, and some of them, I suppose, might help explain the president’s attitudes. But it’s a long-standing racist culture that provides the largest explanation, I think, not the individual traits of the specific people who turn out to be racists. And the president’s significant personal moral deficiencies wouldn’t matter much if his views didn’t receive an echoing reflection from a part — mostly a white part — of the population.

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So, yes, the racist nonsense evidently appeals to some of those who voted for him. Still, let’s remember, it has alienated others, including both some — like Congressman [Joe] Walsh — who are on the right, and many moderate Republicans toward the center, like Governor [Bill] Weld.

This sort of rallying of the nation against foreigners and their domestic allies — the un-American Americans — is a feature of populism in many places: Hungary, Italy, Britain, India. It’s a cheap and irresponsible way to get support by appealing to sentiments that are always present below the surface and can easily be brought into the light by demagoguery. Responsible leaders — of whom we have a distressing dearth at the moment — don’t do it.

So, I think it’s more important to give a political account of the rewards of demagoguery than to speculate about the president’s psychology. We are just unfortunate that Mr. Trump’s pathological narcissism means we cannot appeal to his better nature: He doesn’t have one. He appears to care about almost nothing but short-term advantage for himself. But that doesn’t mean that’s true of all his followers, so I wouldn’t give up on all of them as I have on the president.

Ziabari: Critics of President Trump believe his rhetoric and policies have emboldened white nationalists and alt-right extremists, whose nefarious ideology has been manifested in incidents like the El Paso shooting, which claimed 20 lives. President Trump offered thoughts and prayers, and described the perpetrator as a person with a serious mental illness. I imagine his response would have been totally different if a Muslim American or an Arab immigrant was behind such an atrocity. What is your take on that?

Appiah: We don’t have to speculate about that. His response to both the San Bernardino and the Orlando nightclub murders, which were carried out by people who were Muslim, did not mention the evidence that the murderer in the latter case was mentally unbalanced. People have noticed — as part of the evidence that the president is a bigot — that he responds differently to acts of terror committed by people from groups he is hostile to. That’s not very surprising, of course.

Ziabari: You once said in an interview that all forms of nationalism, including American nationalism, tend to “blind people into willed ignorance about the dark side of the national story.” I assume nationalism goes against patriotism in this context. Do you agree with the argument that successive US administrations in the modern time have fomented blind nationalism, and this is what has made the many wars initiated by the United States across the world palatable and easy to sell to the American public?

Appiah: I don’t know that this is a helpful way of putting things. Because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with nationalism when it’s regulated by morality. My father was a Ghanaian nationalist and contributed to the struggle against British colonialism as such. Nothing wrong with that. True, he called himself a patriot, too, in the title of his autobiography, “The Autobiography of an African Patriot,” but the movement he joined was a nationalist one. You could keep the word “patriotism” for good nationalism, I suppose, but that will just defer the question of which forms of nationalism are good.

I don’t think you have to be a “blind” nationalist to support a war. I would have supported entering World War II, but I don’t think my American nationalism is blind. The thing that’s dangerous in the lead-up to war is the demonization of the potential enemy; it’s not the caring for your own country that does the damage. Our many wars in this 21st century have largely been morally disastrous. They have wasted blood — American and even more foreign blood, and treasure — ours and other people’s, again, and they haven’t made us much safer — arguably less safe, while at the same time they’ve contributed to the ruined lives of millions of Iraqis, Libyans and Afghans, just to pick the worst cases.

Ziabari: Are the mainstream media in the United States deliberately stifling debate on race relations and the plague of racism in American society? Or do you see adequate coverage of these topics in the US media?

Appiah: There’s lots of coverage of racism in the mainstream media. The New York Times just ran a special issue in its 1619 Project, exploring the legacies of racial slavery. Depressingly, instead of recognizing the long shadow of racial slavery and granting that we need to do something about it, a bunch of conservatives declared this was left-wing propaganda. We shouldn’t measure American media by looking at Fox News.

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Ziabari: How have US policies toward the Muslim world, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, influenced the Muslim nations’ perceptions of the United States and their feelings about America? Do you think the US needs a thorough restructuring of its relations with the Muslim world?

Appiah: Well, since 9/11, the United States has gone out into the world with its allies and devastated a bunch of countries in the Muslim world. It’s not surprising that there’s a feeling in many Muslim quarters that Americans are indifferent to Muslim suffering. Of course, at the same time, we have had relatively good relations with the Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf area, and also with Indonesia and Malaysia in the east, and Morocco — our oldest ally — in the west. So, the picture is complex.

But the real problem is that when Muslims conclude that many Americans are Islamophobic, they’re not wrong. We need to get rid of a whole raft of false ideas about Muslims and to build a better understanding of the vastly diverse world of Islam. That’s the place to start and it will take a lot of hard work.

Ziabari: You have written about the moral obligations of individuals and communities, and the responsibilities we all have toward our fellow citizens in detail, particularly in your 2005 book, “The Ethics of Identity.” Do you agree that the difficulties societies experience nowadays — including poverty, illiteracy, food insecurity, conflict and racial discrimination — originate from the apathy of those in power who fail to understand and fulfill their moral obligations properly?

Appiah: Well, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Those leaders, in many countries, are voted in by the people. If ordinary citizens cared more about these things, at least in the democracies, their leaders might do more. Of course, it’s part of the responsibility of leaders to recognize these duties and persuade people to support action on them. But it’s a two-way street.

Ziabari: You talk about cosmopolitanism and conversation, and why meaningful, erudite dialogue between people with varied identities is needed and important. We live in a world where people with different religious, racial and national backgrounds are pitted against each other and divided across ideological and political lines. How is it possible to facilitate the dialogue that brings the divided populations together and helps them understand each other better?

Appiah: It’s hard. But it’s also intensely rewarding. I’ve learned so much in recent years about philosophy — my professional field — by opening up to Muslim and to Confucian traditions in ethics, for example. And it’s essential. We face so many global problems — climate, health, economic inequality — that can’t be solved without transnational collaborations and global agreements.

One starting point, I think, is with the great cross-national identities, like Islam and Christianity, which already draw people into interactions with people in other societies. But we have to begin at home, too, by recognizing how essential it is to get to know our fellow citizens, the people with whom we share the responsibility of running the republic. I tried, in my book, “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,”to talk about some of the ways in which the arts can contribute to understanding across groups as well.

Sports is another place where we can spend time with people of diverse identities and build the kind of trust that can then be taken into political collaboration. We have to start by doing things together, getting used to one another. That’s the trick.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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