Strangers in the Land

The Flight into Egypt
Illegal Immigration?

Pew Research has an interesting piece up entitled A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States.  There is a lot here to talk about–so much so that this blog post is going to focus only on the opening paragraph:

Unauthorized immigrants living in the United States are more geographically dispersed than in the past and are more likely than either U.S.-born residents or legal immigrants to live in a household with a spouse and children. In addition, a growing share of the children of unauthorized immigrant parents — 73% — were born in this country and are U.S. citizens.

Like I said: there’s a lot here.  I want to break this down into a few topics and look at each one in more detail.  First, I want to talk about the effects of greater geographic dispersal, followed by the ramifications of the fact that growing numbers of illegal immigrants are parents of US citizens.  Finally, I want to talk a bit about the fact that greater numbers of unauthorized immigrants live in intact homes in comparison to US-born residents or legal immigrants.

I want to state up front that I am not a fan of illegal immigration.  I have too many friends and aquaintances who have went to great effort to gain US citizenship through appropriate channels.  At the same time, though, I believe we have created a beuracratic mess of the issue, and that, in addition to protecting our borders, we should be intent upon providing streamlined and effective means for people to immigrate or become resident workers.  Our top priority should be on establishing a record of who is in our nation and removing (i.e. deporting) the criminal element among them.  I think the so-called “amnesty” bill (the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007) put forward by President Bush and supported by John McCain was a step in the right direction and that many of the screeds against it from the right were ill-informed at least and possibly xenophobic; the failure of the bill not only barred the creation of a legal path to citizenship for undocumented workers already present in the US, In my opinion it harmed our national security by allowing such workers to remain under the radar as well as rejecting the security measures included in the bill.  The criticisms from the left were also weak and seemed based upon a presumption of getting something better down the road.  In the mean time, we still have a mess.

All of that said, I think this information from Pew Research is very interesting.  The fact that new immigrants to the US are more dispersed than in the past is a solid counter point to those who claim that immigrants will not enculturate into our society.  In the past, when large numbers of immigrants from one ethnic group came into the US, they tended to huddle in larger cities and create ethnic enclaves.  The fact that immigration is more diffuse is possitive in the sence that it will (I believe) encourage people to interact with their surrounding community out of necessity.  While this will create tensions in more communities than in the past (the English first vote in Nashville being evidence of that), this is simply because immigration is no longer a localized phenomena and is instead spread throughout the country.  Of course, Nashville is a fairly large metropolitan area so one would expect a number of ethnicities to be present.  But I have only lived in the Nashville area for a little over a year; prior to that I lived in Winchester TN and Sewanee TN–neither of which is very large.  In the Monteagle-Sewanee-Winchester area there were a number of businesses owned and opperated by people from various Asian countries, whether Chinese Buffets, or nail salons etc… In addition, there were fairly large hispanic populations working in construction and various other businesses (such as Tyson Chicken).  Leaving aside questions of work environment and other issues for the moment, consider the amazing situation we live in today where immigrants to the United States no longer settle in China Towns or Little Italys, but instead spread out so that there is a small Chinese community in such a small area, and at least one Vietnamese family in a town of around 7,000 people.  This shows that times are not what they once were on the immigration front.

The second issue raised is that growing numbers of illegal immigrants are parents of US citizens.  I understand that there are people who are trying to change the citizenship laws of the United States to make it so that one is not automatically granted citizenship by virtue of being born here.  I think that such a change would be a horrible mistake and fundamentally go against the character of the United States.1 Be that as it may, such a change has not occurred and I seriously doubt any dramatic changes are on the horizon. So we are left with difficult situations in which parents can be divided from their citizen children because they are not legal immigrants. Similarly, there is a “widow penalty” in our immigration law that requires people to have been married for at least two years before they become citizens. While such requirements where well-intentioned to close that popular backdoor to citizenship, the temporary marriage, it has also had the ramification of harming grieving people–including spouses of US soldiers who have been killed while serving their country–by forcing them out of the US.

The final thing brought up in this short snippet is the fact that undocumented immigrants are more likely than either US citizens or legal immigrants to grow up in an intact family. This is a very interesting statistic indeed, and raises two questions in my mind: shouldn’t “family values” conservatives jump at the chance to bolster their ranks and, secondly, what is it about American Citizenship that causes families to break up? Should immigrants want to become part of our society? Might they contract the social diseases that are breaking down our relationships?

Of course, I know there are untold sociological factors at work here, so some of these questions are asked tongue in cheek. But at the same time, I do think this may highlight something important about the break down of the family in the US–a problem that might (at least partially) be corrected by the changes wrought by the economic down-turn.

In his book A Better Hope, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an essay entitled “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality” in which he builds upon an argument made by Nicholas Boyle in his book Who Are We Now?. Hauerwas quotes the following bit from Boyle:

Sexual preference, once detached from the process of bodily reproduction, loses touch with the necessities and enters the realm of play–it becomes part of the entertainment industry, a choice to be catered for, but not a constraint on producers. Indeed, worldwide consumerism makes use of homosexuality as a means of eliminating the political constraints which regulate our role as producers: if marriage is redefined as a long-term affective partnership, so that it may be either homosexual or heterosexual, the essentially reproductive nature of male and female bodies is no longer given institutional (and therefore political) expression. Bodies are seen as the locus only of consumption, not of production; production is thereby repressed further into our collective unconscious; and producers, particularly women, are deprived of the political means of protest against exploitation. (It becomes more difficult to maintain, for example, that certain working practices are more destructive of the family, for ‘having’ a family is treated as the ‘Choice’ of a particular mode of consumption.)

Hauerwas builds on this by noting that “Capitalism thrives on short-term commitments. The ceaseless drive for innovation is but the way to undercut labor’s power by making the skills of the past irrelevant for tomorrow. Indeed, capitalism is the ultimate form of deconstruction, because how better to keep labor under control than through the scarcity produced through innovation? All the better that human relationships are ephemeral, because lasting commitments prove to be inefficient in ever-expanding markets.

There are, to be sure, obvious flaws in this reasoning2., it seems enough to make one wonder whether the tangible benefits of citizenship in a Capitalist hegemon actually outweigh the more fundamental negatives. Of course, given such a characterization of capitalist forces, it’s a wonder anyone marries or remains married–perhaps it says something positive about us that anyone does.

  1. That being said, if the law is changed, I would hope a basic citizenship test would be required–imagine the wailing when supporters of such a change realize many their own children couldn’t pass! []
  2. if Boyle is correct, for example, how does he explain the fact that various countries of Europe, in which homosexuality is more open and accepted even than in the US, still provide much more gracious parental leave to their workers? Perhaps it’s because they are more socialist than the US, and while Boyle may address the issue, I haven’t gotten far enough in his book to find it yet []
  • Indie

    I think, perhaps, you should make footnote number two a bit bigger. I just about fell over when I read the Boyle quote. Not only are gay people somehow responsible for the destruction of straight marriage, now they have somehow caused women to be held back in the workplace. Amazing! Next thing we know we'll find out that gays are the true originators of the swine flu. They are probably responsible for the existence of mosquitoes too.

  • Jody+

    What I would really like to talk about, is the interesting fact that not only are undocumented immigrants more likely to grow up in intact homes than natural born americans, but that they are also more likely than legal immigrants to do so. What does this say about our society?

  • Adam

    Some speculation, some of which you've already heard, posted here to share with all:

    1. The stereotypical undocumented immigrant is often in the U.S. in order to make money to provide for a family. Therefore, you have a self-selection of those with strong ties to family who are here illegally. I don't know if that is responsible for the difference in any way, but from a design perspective, I would highlight that as a potential confound in my data.

    2. Those who immigrate through proper channels may be more likely to buy in to the pervasive culture.

    So why is the pervasive culture less likely to result in intact homes? I like to credit the Disney-fication of our culture. The myth of "happily ever after," which has been part of our popular mythos in fairy tales for centuries, has been exacerbated by the popular culture to the point that emotional love has become the cementing agent for marriage. While emotional love (my term) is wonderful and should be the starting point for such unions, it is often subject to the whims of infatuation, so that partners "fall out of love" and see the normal ebbs and flows of emotional love as an indication that the union should be dissolved. A consumer culture, where marketing is designed to engender dissatisfaction with the status quo in order to sell products to satisfy wants disguised as needs, steers us all towards our juvenile and narcissistic impulses to seek immediate gratification without much tolerance for frustration of our desires.

    But I could just be full of it…

  • Indie

    Well, I certainly responded with sarcasm. I see now that he says "makes use of homosexuality." Still, it seems out of place here to focus on homosexuals without mention of others who can't or choose not to produce children. It comes across to me as scapegoating.

    Is the stuff that Adam is talking about less pervasive in the European countries which have both birth control and homosexuals? Are those countries less consumer driven? I'm no expert, but I would say that in some areas they are. In the U.S. health care, for example, is just another commodity for those with the money to pay. Most European countries see health care as a right that all are entitled to. I don't know about a difference in intact families, but there is certainly a difference in the level of care that women and children receive during the childbearing cycle.

  • Jody+

    Hey guys,

    Good stuff. I have to leave in just a minute so I'm going to leave a more lengthy response until later. I think that there could be several factors at work that skew the numbers when it comes to the likelihood of living in an intact home. Briefly, I wonder what effect the make up of the undocumented immigrant population vs. the legal immigrant population has, i.e. does economic or ethnic background make a difference? Country of origin, age of immigration? Pew research itself addresses this question later in the article:

    Most unauthorized immigrant adults reside with immediate family members — spouses or children. About half of undocumented adults live with their own children under 18. Nearly half of unauthorized immigrant households (47%) consist of a couple with children. That is a greater share than for households of U.S.-born residents (21%) or legal immigrants (35%). This difference stems in large part from the relatively youthful composition of the unauthorized immigrant population.

    This is interesting to me. Are they assuming that the major factor in the prevalence of intact families is that they simple haven't had time to break apart? Maybe this is so, but what makes them break apart? When I first read about this difference, I began to wonder how much of the likelihood of divorce/fragmentation was increased by the greater choice-making provided by our society and the individualism inculcated by it. I also wondered what difference social status might make. The social status of undocumented vs. legal immigrants would, from what I understand, be very different, not only because one group is on the "outside" of the system and the other is not, but because the US has, as I understand it, tended to favor skilled workers and immigrants with higher education in the immigration process. This would mean that legal immigrants might be more likely to share the factors that lead to increased fragmentation in American society, e.g. economic mobility, education, etc….

    I have more but I'll have to leave it at that for now.

  • Indie

    Have you seen information that links social status to divorce rates? It seems that I've read that people in the Northeast where people are generally better education and better off financially have lower divorce rates than those in the South were people tend to be more poor and less educated. I haven't actually seen stats on based on social status though.

    Just from my unscientific observation, of Latina women in Nashville out with their children, I very often see them accompanied by a grandma or friend who is helping with the children. My experience has been that us white moms don't have those sorts or support structures and it leads to a lot of stress on families and marriages.

  • Jody+

    [seesmic I2FRbRk7nF|8W6awPEGIi_th1.jpg seesmic]

  • Adam

    I think you can probably chalk some of the effect up to the more collectivist cultures that exist outside of the U.S. Our culture tends to be more individualistic than any other culture I can think of, and while that is not always a bad thing, I do think it can pose a dual threat to marriage. The first is the social support of extended families, which tends to help with the stress of child rearing et al, especially in cultures where there aren't as rigid of interpersonal boundaries expected from grandparents. In other words, I don't respond well to my folks butting into parenting sometimes, but that's probably as much a product of our individualistic culture as the fact that they don't live with us.

    Secondly, that individualistic culture often favors personal happiness over collective stability. While there are still societal pressures to stay married in our culture, there are also pressures to be happy and leave situations that are unsatisfying. While this is beneficial in cases where there is abuse (and there is partner pressure to remain in the relationship, so any societal pressure to leave is welcome), it is detrimental to family stability over the long term.

  • Jody+


    To be fair to Boyle, I don't think he's saying that Homosexuals are doing this, but rather that their existence is used as an excuse by "worldwide consumerism" to take the route he mentions. Personally, I think his argument makes much more sense when contraception is viewed as the primary cause rather than homosexuality (and as a Catholic he's probably agree with that), much the same way that the "break down of the family" is much more a function of the heterosexual divorce culture than whether or not same-sex unions are recognized, although the latter are often made scape-goats. That being said, the villains in Boyle's writing are consumerism, the market and unrestrained corporations. I don't know if he's a neo-marxist, but he certainly reads like one: everything is explained through economic pressures. This, in the end, is why he zeros in on homosexuality, as he sees it as an example of the homogenization of humanity. For example, consider this note about feminism:

    England has so obviously been hollowed out and dissipated by the imperial past and the global present that talk of English nationalism can only be the material of comedy. But things will not be very different for the other insular peoples England has unthinkingly used and abused for centuries even if they regain nominal independence: Anglophobia, an uncertain loyalty to a Celtic tongue, and tribal memories of subsistence agriculture cannot amount to a distinctive presence on an international scene where finance houses, and even oil companies, turn over larger sums than governments. At most they will provide the excuse for differing tax regimes, the regional coloration in the patchwork of a federal Europe, in which the new nationals will want to be able to seek employment at least as freely as they do at present.

    Similarly the worldwide movement of feminism has been a response to the incorporation of half the human race into the global system of sexually undifferentiated consumer-producers. Those who earn and spend within that system eventually expect to be able to vote in it too. They then use their votes to secure equity in pay and working conditions, even though the result is a general decline in effective wage levels, so that two earned incomes are necessary to bring in what used to be brought in by one–the principal reason, of course, why the market favors women's involvement. In this process of equalization there lies, however, the possibility of profound transformation of the system of production.

    While work used to be organized to reflect the reproductive cycle of the male body, which permits multiple reproduction of genes throughout the year with minimal effect on the rhythm of work, the increasing dependence on female workers promises a revolutionary redefinition of the time within which work has to be performed. The forgotten, suppressed, and exploited rhythms of the female body, with its monthly cycle, its opportunity of reproducing its genes only once a year as a maximum, and its expectation then of a longer period of nursing, emerge at last into economic and so into political significance. The provision of child care, maternity leave, and career breaks, the financial rights of women (pensions, the right to occupancy of mortgaged houses) and general physical respect for the worker become political issues. Some related benefits for male workers may follow, such as a greater willingness of employers to provide paternity leave and health care, but the main consequence is that work and personal life become more closely integrated. New constraints are accepted on the process of production, which derive directly from the characteristics of the bodies that engage in it. Since the body is the point at which consumption and production intersect, the result of women's participation in the global market may in the long run be that its activity becomes less frenetically abstract, and its socially atomizing effects are muted. (p56-57)

    At any rate, the real question is whether Hauerwas and Boyle are right that there is something inherent in our way of life that leads to the break down of family (part of the atomizing effects of the market Boyle mentions), and if so, whether it attacks the very thing immigrants come to this country to protect and/or benefit, i.e. their family.

  • Jody+

    Ok, so at the end I was saying I had a few other remarks but that I didn't want to make the video too long.

    A couple things. I misinformed you about posting video comments. In order to do that, simply look to the upper left of your reply box. If you're posting a new comment it will say "Post a new comment" and underneath it will say "or post a video comment." Likewise, if you're replying there will be a link to post a video comment under "Replying to X." Hope this helps.

    Moving on. I did have a few other remarks about social status and the propensity to broken homes. Judging from the broad evidence in our culture, that those who marry young, or don't have a certain degree of education tend to divorce at a higher rate and increasingly never marry at all (a little over 30% of all children in the US are born out of wedlock and that rate climbs to close to 70% in the African American community. The percentage has leveled off among African Americans, but continues to climb for other groups), it highlights the peculiarity of this information even more. At least from what I know, most undocumented immigrants are not highly educated, and many have married young. Like their American counterparts in similar economic situations, they lack many of the resources that help people react positively to change and stress in a relationship: and yet, they (so far) have a higher rate of intact homes. I tend to think that the reasoning suggested by Pew Research, i.e. that this is mostly a function of age, shouldn't be the predominant factor. Maybe it is, but I wonder if Indie might be on the right track in her previous comment. Perhaps undocumented immigrants–who are disproportionately Hispanic for obvious geographical reasons–buck the trend in part because they have a healthier social support network that it takes Americans a greater degree of educational and economic achievement to develop or replace with something else.