Immigrants to Be Proud Of

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

March 30, 2006

Everybody says the Republicans are split on immigration. The law-and-order types want to close the border. The free-market types want plentiful labor. But today I want to talk to the social conservatives, because it's you folks who are really going to swing this debate.

I'd like to get you to believe what Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas believes: that a balanced immigration bill is consistent with conservative values. I'd like to try to persuade the evangelical leaders in the tall grass to stop hiding on this issue.

My first argument is that the exclusionists are wrong when they say the current wave of immigration is tearing our social fabric. The facts show that the recent rise in immigration hasn't been accompanied by social breakdown, but by social repair. As immigration has surged, violent crime has fallen by 57 percent. Teen pregnancies and abortion rates have declined by a third. Teenagers are having fewer sexual partners and losing their virginity later. Teen suicide rates have dropped. The divorce rate for young people is on the way down.

Over the past decade we've seen the beginnings of a moral revival, and some of the most important work has been done by Catholic and evangelical immigrant churches, by faith-based organizations like the Rev. Luis Cortés's Nueva Esperanza, by Hispanic mothers and fathers monitoring their kids. The anti-immigration crowd says this country is under assault. But if that's so, we're under assault by people who love their children.

My second argument is that the immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic. Immigrants work hard. They build community groups. They have traditional ideas about family structure, and they work heroically to make them a reality.

This is evident in everything from divorce rates (which are low, given immigrants' socioeconomic status) to their fertility rates (which are high) and even the way they shop.

Hispanics and Hispanic immigrants have less money than average Americans, but they spend what they have on their families, usually in wholesome ways. According to Simmons Research, Hispanics are 57 percent more likely than average Americans to have purchased children's furniture in the past year. Mexican-Americans spend 93 percent more on children's music.

According to the government's Consumer Expenditure Survey, Hispanics spend more on gifts, on average, than other Americans. They're more likely to support their parents financially. They're more likely to have big family dinners at home.

This isn't alien behavior. It's admirable behavior, the antidote to the excessive individualism that social conservatives decry.

My third argument is that good values lead to success, and that immigrants' long-term contributions more than compensate for the short-term strains they cause. There's no use denying the strains immigration imposes on schools, hospitals and wage levels in some markets (but economists are sharply divided on this).

So over the long haul, today's immigrants succeed. By the second generation, most immigrant families are middle class and paying taxes that more than make up for the costs of the first generation. By the third generation, 90 percent speak English fluently and 50 percent marry non-Latinos.

My fourth argument is that government should be at least as virtuous as the immigrants themselves. Right now (as under Bill Frist's legislation), government pushes immigrants into a chaotic underground world. The Judiciary Committee's bill, which Senator Brownback supports, would tighten the borders, but it would also reward virtue. Immigrants who worked hard, paid fines, paid their taxes, stayed out of trouble and waited their turn would have a chance to become citizens. This isn't government enabling vice; it's government at its best, encouraging middle-class morality.

Social conservatives, let me ask you to consider one final thing. Women who have recently arrived from Mexico have bigger, healthier babies than more affluent non-Hispanic white natives. That's because strong family and social networks support these pregnant women, reminding them what to eat and do. But the longer they stay, and the more assimilated they become, the more bad habits they acquire and the more problems their subsequent babies have.

Please ask yourself this: As we contemplate America's moral fiber, do the real threats come from immigrants, or are some people merely blaming them for sins that are already here?