We Get the Smart Ones – November 28, 2010

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about immigration to America, and much of it is negative. The gist seems to be that most of the people immigrating these days don’t belong here, that they’re coming to steal our jobs, get benefits they don’t deserve, or in some other way exploit those of us already here.

Foolish and wrong. With a few exceptions due to extraordinary education and talent, the people coming to this country are either taking jobs most Americans won’t willingly do—pick crops, bus tables, clean other people’s toilets—or they quickly set up as entrepreneurs, usually with a restaurant or import business. And if they take benefits for which we have no rules that will deny them … well, this country is rich enough. These immigrants will give back the value many times over in the future.

Note that in this discussion I don’t make much distinction between legal immigration—that is, people who waited in line, got their visa and green card, and submitted to official peeks and pokes—and illegal immigration, the people who just walked across the border hoping everything will work out. The point is, they came. They’re here. And they’re all scrambling to make it work.

Either way, we get the smart ones. Everyone on this continent who isn’t a tourist with a return ticket is a self-selected smart person, usually combining brains with strength and bravery. The first Americans who crossed over the Bering land bridge about 12,000 years ago weren’t just stumbling along after the caribou. They were looking for something different and, hopefully, better.

For the past 500 years this part of the world has been drawing off the cream of Europe’s dissidents, malcontents, and seekers. These were the people who didn’t like their chances in a class-ruled, law-bound, land-starved society. Or they dreamed of making their fortune in gold. Or they simply wanted adventure: people with restless souls and restless feet. People who couldn’t take it anymore and wouldn’t submit like dumb animals.1 What else would make a group of religious dissenters pack themselves into a small cargo ship and sail for a wilderness more savage than they could ever suspect?

The one exception to this picture, you might think, is the Africans who were hunted down and brought here in chains during the slave trade. But that was the greatest self-selection of all. The corralling and kenneling and the slave-ship voyage created an unimaginable hell. People with inflexible minds, weak notions, and small hearts gave up and died. The ones who lived had to be strong in body, mind, and spirit. They may have accepted their lot for the moment, but they kept their eyes open for the chance to escape, and they never—not generation after generation—stopped wanting to be free.

Now in the 21st century we’re drawing the dissidents, malcontents, and seekers from the Middle East, Asia, and the rest of the world as well. People who don’t like their chances at home and want something better.

In my small way, I can identify with the immigrants to this country, even though my family on both sides has been here for generations. After college, I found myself laid off in a recession in the middle of winter in central Pennsylvania. My father, who had moved to California some years earlier, suggested I come west to join him in his new business. Even though I was moving within the same country with the same language, laws, currency, and traditions—and moving into a nest well-feathered by my parents—it was still a psychological hurdle to give up the part of the world I knew for some strange, new place. I don’t give myself credit for brains or bravery in this decision, but I can see what a wrenching experience it must be for someone in another country to decide to give up family, friends, and homeland and move to a new world with a different language and customs, with unknown dangers, with no certain future. And even more so when they’re moving outside the realm of law and subjecting themselves to scorn, exploitation, and the possible loss of everything they own, even their own lives.

No, the deal with immigration is and always has been: we get the smart ones, the tough ones, the daring ones. That makes the average American an inheritor of intelligence, strength, and audacity. Will the immigrants we’re getting today make us smarter and stronger tomorrow? I certainly think so.

1. If you want to say that, in contrast, the current population of Europe is made up of generations of stay-at-homes, of people who were willing to submit to one more war, one more tax, one more restriction, one more humiliation—the frogs who would sit in the pot and say, “It’s not so hot yet. I don’t have to jump!”—well, that would certainly be an uncharitable observation, wouldn’t it?