Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Marriage, Demographic Winter, and Immigration

I have recently written separate posts about immigration, marriage, and declining birthrates. Imagine my surprise to see this article by Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School linking all three issues. Glendon’s main focus is immigration. She makes some very salient points, but I must admit to having a strong reaction to some of her suggestions.

Glendon asserts that our declining birthrate is a direct result of the increasing focus on the individual over the past half a century or so. She says that declining birthrates “are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in beliefs and attitudes--a crisis involving changes in the meanings and values that people attribute to aging and mortality, sex and procreation, marriage, gender, parenthood, relations among the generations, and life itself.”

The result, Glendon asserts, is one of the largest demographic shifts in history, where “over a mere 20 years, major demographic indicators in the United States and northern Europe rose or fell by a magnitude of 50% or more.” Glendon says that while some social innovations were positive, some have been detrimental.
“For example, the notion gained wide acceptance that behavior in the highly personal areas of sex and marriage is of no concern to anyone other than the "consenting adults" involved. With the passage of time, however, it has become obvious that the actions of private individuals in the aggregate exert a profound influence on other individuals and on society as a whole. In fact, when enough individuals behave primarily with regard to their own self-fulfillment, the entire culture is transformed. Affluent Western nations have been engaged in a massive social experiment--an experiment that brought new opportunities and liberties to many adults but that has put mothers, children, and dependents generally at considerable risk.”
In other words, Glendon seems to be saying that our focus on individualism has turned into simple selfishness. Indeed, it is difficult to ignore the manifold and omnipresent manifestations of self-worship in our society. Glendon says that this focus has weakened family structure and social fabric. “The family breakdown has had ripple effects on all the social structures that traditionally depended on families for their support and that in turn served as resources for families in times of stress from schools, neighborhoods, and religious groups to local governments and workplace associations.”

Another casualty of self-idolization, of course, is the desire to produce offspring. Coupled with increasing life spans, Glendon says, this will inevitably lead to “demographic winter.” She cites the declining number of active workers supporting each retiree, and suggests that this is at the heart of the push to “normalize[e] the extermination of persons who become inconvenient and burdensome to maintain at life's frail beginnings and endings.”

Glendon’s solution? Immigration. Lot’s of it. I referred to a couple of articles by conservatives (here and here) that also call for dramatically increasing immigration in this post.

But Glendon isn’t happy with our current immigration debate. She rips on both sides of the debate for being willfully myopic. One side ignores the legal factors and the real economic and social costs of immigration, while the other side “ignore[s] both our need for replacement migration and the human situations of the men and women who seek opportunities in the United States.”

Glendon contends, “If the United States is to develop realistic, wise, and humane immigration policies, it will need a much fuller and better-informed public discussion.” She says that due to diversity, our nation has been more bound together by laws than other nations that have a stronger shared tribal culture. So soft pedaling immigration lawbreaking is a non-starter. While she advocates expansive immigration, she admits that it carries significant costs, and says that we all need to be fully aware of those costs. She hints that these costs include Americanizing our immigrants (one of my pet issues). But Glendon says that we also need to be fully aware of the costs of failing to loosen up legal immigration.

Glendon advocates five immigration principles that were outlined in a 2003 letter issued jointly by Mexican and US Catholic bishops. I think the Christian in me could go along with most of these principles, but the sovereign US citizen in me chokes on some of them.
  • Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.

  • When opportunities are not available at home, persons have the right to migrate to find work to support themselves and their families.

  • Sovereign nations have the right to control their boundaries, but economically stronger nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.

  • Refugees and asylum seekers fleeing wars and persecutions should be protected.

  • The human dignity and rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.
Let’s look at each of these principles in order.
  • Number 1 sounds OK.

  • Number 2 sounds compassionate to the individual, but seems to promote bad government in source countries. Doesn’t anyone have a responsibility to build up his/her native country and to work to create opportunity?

  • Number 3 basically says that Mexico and other “poor” nations have a right to control their borders, but the US doesn’t. Hey, what happened to all of that pro-law talk? Again, maybe individually compassionate, but reeking of very bad policy, although; it has been our de-facto immigration policy for the past three decades.

  • Number 4 has long been policy. I don’t see anyone arguing against this.

  • Number 5 sounds fine, but it comes down to the interpretation of the words, “human dignity and rights.” I think the recent immigration protests show that some people have a much more expansive view of those terms than do most Americans. Besides, as I understand it, if I choose to illegally cross the border of another nation, I essentially have the human right to be shot and to die with as much dignity as that situation affords me.
In short, these principles might be acceptable for a religious organization, but are perhaps less than satisfactory as the basis for national policy. They seem quite generous on the rights of migrants and source nations, and awful skimpy on the rights of the receiving nation.

Glendon has some solid reasoning behind her criticisms of current cultural and family issues. She makes a good pitch in favor of legal immigration. She makes a good point about the need to recognize and appreciate all of the factors in the debate. But her proposed solution comes across as overly idealistic fluff that itself ignores important realities, including the matter of law, of which she makes such a strong point earlier in the article.

To be sure, our immigration situation poses some difficult problems that defy simple solutions. I agree with Glendon that we need clear debate that considers all of the factors involved in this issue. I like Glendon’s suggestion that we should have a set of principles to help guide the debate. But her suggested principles are woefully inadequate.

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