Immigration or the Welfare State?

Immigration or the Welfare State?, by Ron Unz
Which Is Our Real Enemy?
Policy Review, Fall 1994

Immigration has recently become a lightning rod for America’s deepest fears of social chaos and national decline. Millions worry that immigration is rapidly transforming America into a third-world country, with crowded, violent cities, under-educated and low-skilled labor, and an ethnic spoils system replacing America’s tradition of constitutionalism and individual rights. Concerns are rising that immigrants are abusing the generosity of our welfare state, and will become an enormous burden on taxpayers. And because a large number of immigrants are Spanish-speaking, many Americans fear that continued immigration, especially from south of the border, will result in the balkanization of our country into different language and ethnic groups, ultimately leading to the sort of social tensions afflicting countries from Canada to Ukraine to, in the worst case, Bosnia.

These are legitimate concerns, but the problems that Americans rightly fear are not due to immigration itself, but to the wrong-minded social policies of our government. State-sponsored affirmative action, bilingual education, and multiculturalism are promoting dangerous levels of ethnic group tensions and conflict. And our welfare system is breeding pathological levels of crime and dependency–not primarily among immigrants but among native-born whites and blacks.

A country in which 22 percent of white children and 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock need not look to immigrants as the source of social breakdown. The underlying problems are government policies whose emphasis on group rights promote ethnic tensions and a welfare state that encourages individuals to destroy their own families.

Immigrant Blessing

With proper government policies, immigrants are a blessing. We saw this with earlier waves of immigration, as America absorbed and assimilated tens of millions of foreign immigrants of every language, religion, and ethnicity. By 1900, some 20 percent of America’s total population was foreign-born, and an additional 10 percent arrived in the following decade. Today’s immigration rate is only a fraction of this level. Millions of impoverished, poorly educated Jews, Slavs, and Italians became proud and productive Americans through a public school system that emphasized English language skills and American culture, and a society that provided economic opportunity rather than government entitlement. The Ellis Island tradition was harsh but fair: Immigrants with illnesses, or who were otherwise likely to become a burden on society were excluded, while those with willing hands were allowed through the Golden Door. This is the tradition to which America should return.

Even today, despite government policies that foster dependency, the immigration of the last three decades has still been a strong net positive for the American economy. Anyone walking the streets of New York City or most other major urban centers sees that the majority of the shops are owned and operated by immigrant entrepreneurs, often in ethnically defined categories–Korean grocers, Indian newsstands, Chinese restaurants. It is obvious that most of these shops would simply not exist without immigrant families willing to put in long hours of poorly paid labor to maintain and expand them, in the process improving our cities. In Los Angeles, the vast majority of hotel and restaurant employees are hard-working Hispanic immigrants, most here illegally, and anyone who believes that these unpleasant jobs would otherwise be filled by either native-born blacks or whites is living in a fantasy world.

The same applies to nearly all of the traditional lower-rung working-class jobs in Southern California, including the nannies and gardeners whose widespread employment occasionally embarrasses the upper-middle-class Zoe Bairds of this world, even as it enables their professional careers by freeing them from domestic chores. The only means of making a job as a restaurant busboy even remotely attractive to a native-born American would be to raise the wage to $10 or $12 per hour, at which level the job would cease to exist–this is Economics 101.

Though immigrants are frequently blamed for the severity of California’s current economic problems, there is no connection whatsoever between the two. Massive numbers of jobs have been lost because of the wind-down of the defense aerospace industry, the bursting of the 1980s real estate bubble, and the enormous costs of environmental and work-place regulations, none of which have any obvious connection to immigration. Furthermore, immigration levels (both legal and illegal) reached new heights during California’s sustained economic boom of the past decade.

Since most newcomers tend to be on the lower end of the wage scale, and many have children in public schools, they initially do tend to cost local governments more in services, mostly education costs, than they pay in sales and income taxes. This is the source of Governor Pete Wilson’s current lawsuit against the federal government to recover the “costs” to California of illegal immigration. The same could probably be said, however, for all members of the working class having young children. The real culprit is our outrageously inefficient public school system, which spends much and delivers little. Furthermore, Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute has shown that because of their age profile, even working-class immigrants generally pay much more in federal taxes (primarily Social Security withholding) than they receive in federal benefits, so we might well say that immigrants are helping us balance our federal budget deficit, as well as allowing our low-end service industries to survive.

Professional Necessity

But immigrants are crucial not just to industries reliant on cheap, low-skilled labor. Silicon Valley, home to my own software company, is absolutely dependent upon immigrant professionals to maintain its technological edge. A third of all the engineers and microchip designers here are foreign born, and if they left or if their future inflow were cut off, America’s computer industry would probably go with them. In fact, many of the largest and most important technology companies of the 1980s in California and elsewhere were created by immigrants, including Sun Microsystems, AST, ALR, Applied Materials, Everex, and Gupta. Borland International, a premier software company worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was founded by Philippe Kahn, an illegal immigrant. These immigrant companies have generated hundreds of thousands of good jobs in California for native Americans and have provided billions of dollars in tax revenues. Without immigrants, America’s tremendous and growing dominance in the industries of the future, such as computer hardware and software, telecommunications, and biotechnology would be lost.

Ironically, while several of the most parasitic sectors of American society–politicians, government bureaucrats, and trial lawyers–are almost entirely filled with native-born Americans, each year a third to a half of the student winners of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search–America’s most prestigious high school science competition–come from immigrant families, often quite impoverished. America’s elite universities have student bodies that may be 20 percent Asian these days, and crucial fields like science and engineering are often half or more immigrant.

No Cause for Alarm

Obviously not all immigrants are scientists and entrepreneurs; many are welfare recipients and criminals. Large numbers of Americans are worried that recent immigrants contribute disproportionately to crime, welfare dependency, and social decay, and that their non-European origins will exacerbate America’s growing ethnic strife, eventually leading perhaps to separatist ethnic nationalism.

These concerns are frequently overstated. A recent National Review editorial made much of the statistic that 20 percent of California’s prison inmates are immigrants, but this is hardly surprising in a state where 20 percent of the general population are immigrants. Similarly, even George Borjas, an economist opposed to current immigration, has admitted that the national welfare dependency rate among non-refugee immigrants is nearly the same as that of the general population, 7.8 percent versus 7.4 percent, despite the often poor education and relative poverty of many newcomers. A recent University of Texas study focusing on all forms of public assistance found that 20 percent of immigrant households in California were recipients compared with 26 percent of native-born households; for Mexican immigrants and non-immigrant Anglos, the numbers were 18 percent and 19 percent respectively. None of this data on immigrants seems cause for great alarm.

Contrasting signs of immigrant advancement and assimilation are quite widespread. Just recently, a top high school valedictorian from San Diego was discovered to have immigrated illegally from Mexico as a child. This followed a similar case of a Mexican illegal who graduated as a valedictorian in San Francisco. In California the 10 most common names of recent home-buyers include Martinez, Rodriguez, Garcia, Nguyen, Lee, and Wong, with the Nguyens outnumbering the Smiths two to one in affluent, conservative Orange County.

In fact, nearly half of California’s native-born Asians and Hispanics marry into other ethnic groups, the strongest possible evidence of assimilation at work. These intermarriage rates are actually far higher than were those of Jews, Italians, or Poles as recently as the 1950s.

Exaggerated Danger

Or consider those places in America where the deepest unspoken fears have already been realized, and white Americans of European origin (“Anglos”) have already become a minority of the population. San Jose, California–the 11th largest city in the nation–is one such example. It has a white population of less than 50 percent, and contains mostly Asian and Hispanic immigrants–comprising some 20 percent and 30 percent respectively–including large numbers of impoverished illegal immigrants. San Jose has a flourishing economy, the lowest murder and robbery rates of any major city in America–less than one-fifth the rates in Dallas for example–and virtually no significant ethnic conflict.

Similarly, El Paso, Texas is the most heavily Hispanic (70 percent) of any of America’s largest 50 cities, but also has one of the lowest rates of serious crime or murder, with a robbery rate just half that of Seattle, an overwhelmingly white city of similar size. The American state with the lowest percentage of whites in the population–about one third–is Hawaii, hardly notorious as a boiling cauldron of ethnic conflict and racial hostility between whites and non-whites. And the statistics show that despite its heavy urbanization, Hawaii has among the lowest serious crime rates of any state in the nation.

Hispanic involvement in recent urban riots and disturbances has been greatly exaggerated by the media. For example, the 1991 Mount Pleasant riot in a Hispanic neighborhood of Washington D.C. has regularly been cited as an example of Hispanic immigrant volatility, even though on-the-scene observers have pointed out that the rioters were primarily black. Similarly, in Los Angeles, nearly all the rioting was by native-born blacks, although Central American immigrants joined in some of the later looting. Heavily Mexican-American East Los Angeles was nearly the only part of the city untouched by any significant rioting or looting.

Threat and Opportunity

For conservatives, the immigration debate should be viewed both as a major threat and a major opportunity, each rooted in simple demographics and voting strength. For example, 30 percent of California’s current population is Hispanic and 10 percent is Asian, with the vast majority being from immigrant families of the last two decades. Add in other immigrant groups such as Iranians and Armenians, and the total comes to nearly half the general population, and with enormous demographic momentum (half of all children born each year are Hispanic alone). Although current immigrant voter registration is very low–Asians and Hispanics total just 10 percent in most elections–this will change, and even if all immigration, both legal and illegal, ended tomorrow, immigrants and their children would soon dominate California politically. The demographics of states like New York, Florida, and Texas are moving in similar directions. Furthermore, the dramatic economic success of Asian immigrants should soon make them a major source of political funding both in California and nationwide.

This is potentially a very good thing for conservatives. Most Hispanics are classic blue-collar Reagan Democrats, with the same social and economic profile as Italian-Americans or Slavic-Americans. They are largely working-class, family-oriented, and socially conservative, with a strong commitment to traditional religion, either Catholic or, increasingly, Evangelical Protestant. Hispanics might well have remained John Kennedy or Scoop Jackson Democrats, but the party of George McGovern and Bill Clinton has little attraction for them.

Asians, similarly, are much like Jews in their professional and socio-economic profile, but without liberal guilt. The socialist legacy of Eastern European intellectuals and the Roosevelt New Deal has made Jews a bedrock base of the Democratic Party, and is very different from the anti-liberal Confucianist tradition found in most Asian cultures. The small-business background and hostility to affirmative action of Asians leaves them a natural constituency for conservatives as well.

This analysis is not the mere wishful thinking with which Republicans periodically discuss raising their dismal percentages of the black or Jewish vote. Although nearly all of California’s prominent Asian or Hispanic political figures are liberal Democrats, ordinary Asians and Hispanics have regularly given the Republicans 40 to 50 percent of their vote. For example, in 1992, George Bush received a higher fraction of the Asian vote (40 percent) than he did of the Anglo (“white”) vote (33 percent), while Bruce Herschensohn, a very conservative Republican senatorial candidate, won 44 percent of Asian voters and 40 percent of Hispanic voters in his race against Barbara Boxer. Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1993 with similar shares of the Asian and Hispanic vote, despite running against Michael Woo, Los Angeles’s leading Asian-American politician. And Governor Pete Wilson won his tight 1990 race against Dianne Feinstein because of the high percentages he received from Asians (58 percent) and Hispanics (47 percent), as well as whites (53 percent). By contrast, the black vote for each of these Republican candidates was in the 10 to 15 percent range.

Nearly every significant Republican victory of the past decade in California has depended on immigrant votes, and these totals have been achieved despite the fact that the California Republican Party has rarely, if ever, nominated an Asian or Hispanic for statewide office. So long as the Republican Party does not throw away its opportunity by turning anti-immigrant, these percentages should rise substantially as immigrants grow in affluence and younger Asians and Hispanics rise through the ranks to become Republican leaders. Matt Fong, a Chinese-American and this year’s Republican nominee for state treasurer, is one example.

Pushed into the GOP

Furthermore, there is a high likelihood that the Democratic Party will do its own part in pushing immigrants into the Republican camp. The three most anti-immigrant constituencies in America are blacks, union-members, and environmentalists, and these are core elements of the Democratic Party, especially its liberal wing.

The rise of black xenophobia and the criminal pathology in many black neighborhoods, along with black proximity to immigrant areas, has led to repeated ethnic violence. It culminated in the Los Angeles riots, which were actually anti-immigrant pogroms more than anything else, with whites being merely a secondary target of the rioters. Even prior to the riots, the death rate of Korean shopkeepers in black neighborhoods was as high as that of American soldiers in the Vietnam war, and popular rap songs have focused on subjects like burning down all the Korean shops in black neighborhoods. The media has consistently failed to report or emphasize the large numbers of rapes and murders committed by blacks against Asians, many of which look suspiciously like so-called “hate crimes.”

Similarly, black-Hispanic tensions in California have risen enormously since the Los Angeles riots, during which Hispanic families with small children were attacked and brutalized by black mobs; also, a substantial percentage of the shops destroyed were Hispanic-owned. Since such conflict between “minority” groups does not conform to the dominant liberal paradigm, it is largely ignored in the mainstream media, but perfectly well recognized by the Asian and Hispanic press.


On the policy level, important environmentalist groups such as Zero Population Growth and the Carrying Capacity Network have adopted a strong anti-immigration line, and the most prominent anti-immigration organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), has its origins in the environmentalist movement. Such hostility to immigration is rooted in the role that immigration plays in increasing America’s population and birth rate, and generating economic and industrial growth, all anathema to fervent environmentalists. Since most immigrants hail from crowded Third World nations in Latin America and Asia, one might also suspect that a mental image of immigrants turning the empty expanses of America’s natural beauty into another densely populated Hong Kong is also at the back of environmentalist concerns.

Then, too, there exists an obvious incompatibility between immigration and an extensive social welfare state, in which low-skilled newcomers are mouths to feed rather than hands to work. Even the most stubborn liberal Democrats must realize that extending America’s generous welfare benefits to all Third World inhabitants who cross our borders would quickly bankrupt any economy, and cause the collapse of the modern welfare state. Witness the recent Democratic proposal to fund national health care by eliminating various social benefits for legal immigrants, a position maintained despite the outrage of Hispanic and Asian Democrats. It is no coincidence that immigration is a much more dramatic political issue in California, which has an extensive welfare state, than in Texas, which does not.

These facts underlie the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Senator Barbara Boxer, Representative Tony Beilenson, and other prominent California liberal Democrats. Boxer has advocated such measures as building a defensive wall across the Mexican border, to be patrolled by the National Guard, while Beilenson has proposed amending the Constitution to deny the right of U.S. citizenship to immigrant children born in America. Proposals that the media only recently used to demonize as nativist the Buchananite right wing of the Republican Party have now become the common currency of the left wing of the Democratic Party. All of these forces are inevitably driving the Democratic Party toward an anti-immigration stance, and there is no policy change that can avert this conclusion. It is no coincidence that Governor Pete Wilson, a leading anti-immigrant figure in the Republican Party, is a very liberal Republican, being both a strong environmentalist and a firm believer in the social welfare state.

Thus, if used properly, immigration could serve as the issue that breaks the Democratic Party and forges a new and dominant conservative/Republican governing coalition. Certain major segments of the Democratic Party, aside from the Asians and Hispanics, are pro-immigrant or at least cosmopolitan, including Jews, academic and media elites, and top business executives. But they have neither the numbers or the fervor of the anti-immigrant elements, and, just as in the related issue of the Democratic Party’s gradual reversal of its historic support for free trade, they will eventually be pushed aside.

Furthermore, although many in these pro-immigrant Democratic groups have long recognized the failure of welfare policies, and the harms inflicted by bilingual education and affirmative action, they have usually been unwilling to attack these programs directly. Once it becomes absolutely clear that these policies inevitably provoke widespread anti-immigrant sentiment and simply cannot be reconciled with America’s traditional openness to immigrants, these Democratic groups will split into pro-welfare state and pro-immigrant wings, with the pro-immigrant wing being drawn toward a pro-immigrant Republican Party.

Sacrificing the future

Under the right circumstances, this can be the issue that sparks a massive rollback of the welfare state and the ethnic group policies of the past 20 or 30 years, with these dramatic changes being backed by a dominant political alliance of Asians, Hispanics, and conservative Anglos.

Yet many Republican politicians are riding what they misperceive as an irresistible tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and attempting to move the party in a strongly restrictionist direction. Such individuals are sacrificing the long-term future of their party–and of America itself–for momentary political gain, and working to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Republican support for reasonable levels of legal immigration and for a well-funded Immigration and Naturalization Service to deter illegal entry is perfectly appropriate: All sovereign nations control their borders. But for a country facing so many real problems–a disastrous welfare system and the urban underclass that it has fostered, horrifying levels of crime, and an outrageously expensive system of civil litigation–to grow hysterical about immigration–which is actually a net plus to our economy and society–seems the height of irresponsibility.

Back to Ellis Island

Instead, the Republican Party should focus its efforts around those core policies that would serve to unite rather than divide conservative natives and immigrants (see survey results in sidebar). These should include absolute opposition to affirmative action policies in all their many guises, which Thomas Sowell and others have shown inevitably lead to heightened ethnic conflict wherever in the world they are implemented. Also, we must return our public schools to the teaching of our unifying English language and our common American culture, and eliminate the native-language instruction and divisive multiculturalism programs that could fragment our society. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are just as relevant heroes for the children of Asian and Hispanic immigrants today as they were for the children of Italian, Slavic, and Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century.

We must also dramatically roll back our well-intentioned but failed welfare state, whose costs have been far greater than the $4 trillion spent directly since 1964. Massive social welfare programs have left us with a combined legacy of gigantic annual budget deficits and very high tax levels, which severely depress our economic growth. But even more serious have been the severe social pathologies generated by these programs, overwhelmingly among the native-born, which have left large portions of nearly all our major cities devastated wastelands. All of this would have been unimaginable 30 years ago.

Removing from the welfare rolls the 10 percent of recipients who are immigrants is certainly a necessary and proper action for our government to take, but it will not save our society unless we apply the same measures to the other 90 percent who are native born. And combining these two actions would serve as a sure means of winning rather than losing crucial immigrant votes. Our goal must be to return our entire society to the values of individual liberty, community spirit, and personal self-reliance that once characterized the American spirit, drawing from the traditions of the Western frontier and Ellis Island.


SIDEBAR: Political Scapegoats

In December 1993, while considering a primary challenge to Governor Pete Wilson of California, I commissioned an extremely detailed survey of 1,200 Republican primary voters, with one of the main sections being an analysis of their views on the crucial issue of immigration.

At first glance, the results seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom on illegal immigration with the respondents rating “stopping illegal immigrants at the border” at 4.3 in importance (on a scale of 1-5), second only to crime control (4.5), and slightly ahead of job creation and tax limitation. But when voters were then asked the reasons behind their immigration concerns (in two parallel subsamples of 600 each, dealing with illegal and legal immigrants respectively), neither illegal nor legal immigrants were viewed as taking jobs away from other Californians, as committing much crime, or as generally turning California into a “Third world” state. The only issues that raised significant concerns were the financial drain of illegal immigrants on welfare (4.1), fears that legal and illegal immigrants weren’t learning English in the schools (3.2 combined), and anger that legal and illegal immigrants and their children would benefit unfairly from affirmative action (3.3 combined).

Next, respondents were informed that some studies showed that most illegal/legal immigrants were paying taxes, obeying laws, trying to learn English, and weren’t on welfare; by better than 2-1 the response was that under such circumstances, immigration was not a serious problem in California. Following this, the respondents indicated by a margin of nearly 4-1 that they agreed that immigrants were being unfarily blamed by politicians for problems like crime and welfare, which were more connected with the native-born urban underclass than with legal or illegal immigrants.

Finally, a subsampled of 600 was informed that a hypothetical candidate believed that immigrants — both legal and illegal — were being scapegoated by politicians, and that if welfare benefits were cut and bilingual education and affirmative action stopped, then immigration would again become an actual plus for California. A majority of the subsample agreed, and more significantly, the voters of this subsample were willing to support the hypothetical candidate on a sample ballot just as strongly as were the other 600 subsample: A pro-immigration stance had incurred no political cost. All of this data indicate that the immigration issue is largely a proxy for concerns about welfare, affirmative action, bilingual education, and multiculturalism, and is much broader than it is deep.

The result of my actual gubernatiorial primary race supports this conclusion. Despite my complete lack of name recognition or political experience, my being outspent nearly four to one by Governor Wilson, and my public opposition to immigrant bashing, in just eight weeks of campaigning I raised my support from 8 percent to 34 percent by election day, including nearly half of all Republican voters age 50 and under.

Them vs. Unz: A Debate on Immigration
Policy Review, Special Letters Section, Winter 1995

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