By Boat or on Foot, the Immigrants

I cannot say enough that don’t like the nativist streak within the Republican Party.

Some if it is absolutely racist, playing on the notion that the swarthy peoples from southern lands are coming here not for a better life, but to join MS-13, rape our husbands, and addict our kittens to drugs.  It’s a reality/fact averse position to hold, preying on the worst stereotypes of immigrants, and it only diminishes the people that push it.

Some of it is, I think, just misunderstood economics, a common problem on all sides of the aisle.  “They’re stealing our jobs!” isn’t rooted in a reality that bears out.

We have way too many politicians who use terms like “white genocide.”

It really needs to stop.

From a policy perspective, I absolutely believe we can question incentivizing any kind of immigration, legal or illegal.  My family came here before there even was a concept of legal vs. illegal immigration (as did most did prior to the 1880s), and aside from help from an existing mutual aid society, opportunity was the incentive.  Opportunity, and not being killed.

For those seeking asylum, opportunity and not being killed are still the primary motivator.  Our admirable national compassion wants to go beyond that.

And that’s a state-level problem.  If citizens of border states want to provide tax-subsidized succor to incoming peoples, great.  That’s on them.  It doesn’t have to be my problem.  I live in a state that is on the low end of southern border immigration.  The ones that do get here find a space in the economy that isn’t currently occupied by our aging population.  Nativism here is from a logical perspective quite bizarre.

We are, as a nation, still coming to grips with the rapid departure from the post-WWII economy.  Almost every feature we value from the labor-heavy economic mechanics of the post-war economy is in retreat.  Many opportunities are found, but even President Trump spoke of it in the 2016 campaign, Americans just aren’t moving for those opportunities.

Perhaps this is why I hate politics.  Both sides jump to all the wrong conclusions about the problem, embrace solutions that don’t solve the problem.  On the right, it seems to be about trade protectionism and nativism.  On the left, it’s the stale rhetoric about wage increases.  Both ignore factors like volatile housing markets, consumer credit score dependency, insane rental costs where many of the jobs are, and the impact the state regulatory burden of occupational licensing has on workforce mobility.  And when they do start to try and fix these things, both parties will opt to favor the wrong interests and lie to themselves and everyone else about their turpitude.

Boom-town economics still exist.  Say I’m a barber in a depopulating, aging town.  The cost of living goes up, but my clientele are older, on fixed incomes, and can’t afford the cost increases to my service that I need to pay for my house and raise my children.  But I’m locked into my home in a market that has declined.  I’ve been so dependent on credit to shore up my standard of living that I haven’t been able to put money back into maintenance costs for my house.  The tax appraisal just bumped the value of my home, but the banks disagree.  On top of that, even if I wanted to, my barber license in this state isn’t transferrable to a new state where a regional economy is calling for ancillary services like the one I provide.  I can short sale my house, maybe, or pay out of pocket and take a profound economic loss (this happened to my wife and I when we moved).  And then I’m wounded if a new job does a credit check, or if I need to get a bank loan to stand up a new business in the new boom-town.  Or the housing costs in the boom-town mean that I’m going to live in substandard housing on the outskirts of that, to be a virtual slave to the privileged classes.  See “the Bay Area.”

Such people are locked in because our economy is working on outdated concepts.  The people that can succeed are the ones that can afford to be mobile.  Thanks to the post-war economy and the Boomers, and I say this without judgment, we have expectations about deep roots and homeowner permanency that have obscured an economy most favorable to a transient workforce.

And this is where immigration comes in.  Immigrants have and always will be the most transient of a workforce, and thus they come with the most flexibility that it takes to move.  In the case of legal immigrants or holders of work visas, they are more likely to come here for specific work with a direct line to specific areas of our GDP.  Or they pick fields that suffer “portable” skill sets, like IT or hotel management.  They also benefit from being bilingual, and they also still benefit, in many cases, from their strong, financially interdependent family structures.

If the right wants to diminish the need for immigration, it needs to get over the “ermagherd, there’s a brown horde coming from Honduras,” and start accepting that our existing population needs to be more nimble.  Or we need to find ways to incentivize movement to our areas that suffer a depleted stream of workers, especially here in Maine.  These are the gaps filled by immigrants and refugees currently, and we shoot ourselves in the foot if we reject brown “from away” when we’re not getting a significant amount of “from away” to begin with.  It’s both the high taxes of things like “Question 1” and the increasing sense of “you are not welcome here.”

Maine’s interesting because of the age of its population, and the nature of its workforce.  I can’t afford to take a programming job here in the state without taking a pay cut.  Companies simply can’t pay competitively.  I’ve seen jobs in my industry unfilled in Maine for years.  These are jobs that would be happily taken by H1-Bs, but hostility to that program, on the merits of nativism, is hurting us there, too.  There is such a backlog of work in IT that it has lateral consequences for American enterprise.  Consider all the concerns about industrial espionage, or even the hospitals that have been subject to extortion by ransomware attacks.  We are vulnerable because of this backlog of work, especially in the realm of IT security.

And yes, our education system is failing to provide the talent for this, and we should fix that.  But in the interim, if a guy from Bangalore can fill the hole, we need that guy from Bangalore.  If he brings his family over here as well, and they acclimate to America–and time and again we see they do–all the better.  Immigration to the United States has always been a result of our status as a welcoming, beacon of safety (except for when it hasn’t), but it has also always been because we have a place for them.  We absolutely do.  Improving the life of existing citizens isn’t mutually exclusive of the new.

I’ll tie this up with a personal story, rooted both in my mother’s work in the ESL department of my school district growing up, and my first marriage.

My ex-wife’s family was Saigon aristocracy in Vietnam.  The patriarch was a colonel in the South Vietnamese Army, and was able to relocate to the States at the end of the war with his mistress, leaving his mother, wife, and children behind.  Many of them, including my ex-wife’s mother, became Boat People.  They came to America, some of them ended up in Australia.  They were leaving the exact same conditions these Hondurans are fleeing.  Today, my oldest child, now 16 and brimming with possibility, is a product of the union of generations of people fleeing the pogroms of the Tzar, or fleeing the horror of Communism.

I grew up with so many Vietnamese and Cambodian friends because of how many of them resettled in bucolic Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  I grew up with refugees from the Former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries, as did my wife.  These people are now some of the most patriotic of Americans.  This nativism is already hitting their kids and undermining their faith in the nation that gave their parents and grandparents hope.  Don’t do that, please.  Please, if you love G-d and you love America, abandon this before it does even more harm to our national character.

Republicans rightly admire President Reagan.  His party is the party I want to be in.  I’d like to share an excerpt from his stirring farewell address in 1989:

“I’ve been reflecting on what the past eight years have meant, and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one – a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor.

It was back in the early Eighties, at the height of the boat people, and the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat – and crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship, and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor – Hello, Freedom Man.”

A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I.

Because that’s what it has to – it was to be an American in the 1980’s; We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have but in the past few years the world – again, and in a way, we ourselves – rediscovered it.”

You want to Make America Great Again?

Be more like Reagan, and stop celebrating the nativism of Trump.


Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

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About Brian

Brian Kresge

Brian Kresge

Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

About Leah

Leah Kresge

Leah Kresge

Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine, special educator and former school board member, mother to Amelia and Nezzie.

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