The April 5, 2004 edition of the New Yorker had a fascinating article about height. (Incidentally, I highly recommend The Complete New Yorker.) It centers on a researcher named John Komlos, an anthropometric economist at the University of Munich, and work he’s done to trace heights of different populations over time. In considering the effects of immigrants on a society and vice versa, it’s worth considering what we really ought to consider intrinsic. As the author of the article notes, “height, like skin color, seems to vary with geography: we think of squat Peruvians, slender Masai, stocky Inuit, and lanky Brazilians.” We intuitively assign those sorts of regional differences to genetics, hard-wired limitations of a particular people.
As the author explains:
In the early nineteen-seventies, when the anthropologist Barry Bogin first visited Guatemala, the country’s two main ethnic groups seemed to live on different social planes. The Ladinos, who claimed primarily Spanish ancestry, were of average height. The Maya Indians were so short that some scholars called them the pygmies of Central America: the men averaged only five feet two, the women four feet eight. The Ladinos and the Maya shared the same small country, so their differences were assumed to be genetic. But when Bogin … began taking measurements he soon found another cause. “There was an undeclared war going on,” he says. The Ladinos, who controlled the government, had systematically forced the Maya into poverty. Whether they lived in the city or in the countryside, the Maya had less food and medicine, and they had much higher rates of disease.
A decade and a half later, after civil war had erupted and up to a million Guatemalans had fled to the United States, Bogin took another series of measurements. This time, his subjects were Mayan refugees, between six and twelve years old, in Florida and Los Angeles. “Lo and behold, they were much taller than the Maya in Guatemala,” Bogin says. By 2000, the American Maya were four inches taller than Guatemalan Maya of the same age, and about as tall as Guatemalan Ladinos. “As far as I know, it’s the biggest increase of its kind ever measured,” Bogin says. “It shows that they weren’t genetically small. They weren’t pygmies. They were suffering.”
Much the same transformation has occurred in the Mexican-American population. Since the nineteen-twenties, the median height of Mexican-American teenagers has nearly reached the United States norm.
Height, of course, is not a factor people talk about in terms of setting immigration levels. Intelligence, work ethic, criminality and lechery are much more common features of the debate. On the simplest level, my point is that if immigration can change something as unquestionably genetically controlled as height, why should we think it wouldn’t change something as definitionally cultural as “heritage” or social behavior. (For more on heritage, see my posts “American Heritage” and “More on Heritage.”)
There is a more important lesson to be learned from the example of height among Mexicans and Guatemalans.
The first thing to point out is the role of economics in something as simple as height. The institutionalized caste system in Guatemala, which is basically the same as what exists throughout Latin America, has profound effects on health, wealth and welfare of the different castes. Looking at Mexican immigrants and observing that they are poor, less educated, etc., etc., as if those were all independent factors is a mistake. They are coming here because they are poor, and poverty has a number of obvious correlates. As a nutritionist told the New Yorker, “Iodine deficiency alone can knock off ten centimeters and fifteen I.Q. points.” Improper nutrition is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. Intelligence is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. Poor education is a cause and consequence of poverty, and a cause and consequence of poor nutrition, and a cause and consequence of low I.Q. If there are forces preventing people from crossing class boundaries, those interlocking feedback loops can trap a community in poverty indefinitely.
That phenomenon is obvious in the Guatemalan example, and the New Yorker offers others. In Holland, the growth of colonial wealth did not produce a change in societal height, but as the prosperity spread to the whole of society, heights did increase. The Dutch, like most Europeans, are substantially taller than citizens of the US. Why? Komlos and other researchers quoted by the New Yorker strongly suggest that the rising income inequality and income immobility in our nation can explain the difference.
Regardless of those details of the dynamic within our society, it’s clear that immigrants from Latin America benefit by escaping the much more regimented class system that exists in their home countries. They do integrate into American society, and it would be well worth examining what barriers we impose that prevent them from integrating more successfully, and how we are allowing the legacy of racist policies in those home countries to drive our own actions here.
Consider education policy. Former Kansas Board of Education member Connie Morris won her seat by talking about denying children of illegal immigrants access to public education. Setting aside that the legal battle on that front was over more than a decade earlier. Education is the silver bullet. It plays a vital role in integrating society, and is the primary venue for administering childhood anti-poverty programs like school lunches, screenings for treatable childhood diseases, and anti-gang after school programs. Denying children of illegal immigrants access to schools (which happens de facto, whatever the Supreme Court may have ruled) simply traps those children, many of whom are native-born citizens of this country, in the cycle of poverty.
Similar arguments apply to attempts to deny illegal immigrants access to various social programs. The more fearful we make them of official paperwork, the less likely they are to have car insurance (but they still have to drive to get to work and to feed the family) or even to get married officially. They are less likely to seek police protection, and are therefore susceptible to control by gangs or exploitative bosses. They are less able to stand up for the right to form a union, or simply to demand the legally required minimum wage. All of which traps them in poverty, which traps their children in poverty.
Edward Abbey said many, many smart things, and many, many offensive things. An essay that perfectly balanced those tendencies is his essay “Immigration and Liberal Taboos,” anthologized in One Life at a Time, Please. He describes it as his favorite in the book, in part because of its history of rejection beginning with the New York Times op-ed pages, ending with publication in the Phoenix New Times. He essentially argues for isolationism: seal the borders to all new immigrants, and to all exports of American force and influence on our neighbors, at least until we sort out our own internal problems. To that proposal, I’d only assent if I actually thought we could solve those problems in a reasonable time frame. We can’t, but I think Abbey’s argument for that cause is more compelling than the argument you’d get from Lou Dobbs. I’ll let the second part of Abbey’s case speak for itself:
Ah, yes. But what about those hungry hundreds of millions, those anxious billions, yearning toward the United States from every dark and desperate corner of the world? Shall we simply ignore them? Reject them? Is such a course possible?
“Poverty,” said Samuel Johnson, “is the great enemy of human happiness. It certainly destroys liberty, makes some virtues impracticable, and all virtues extremely difficult.”
You can say that again, Sam.
Poverty, injustice, overbreeding, overpopulation, suffering, oppression, military rule, squalor, torture, terror, massacre: these ancient evils feed and breed on one another in synergistic symbiosis. To break the cycles of pain at least two new forces are required: social equity – and birth control. Our Hispanic neighbors are groping toward this discovery. If we truly wish to help them, we must stop meddling in their domestic troubles and permit them to carry out the social, political, and moral revolution which is both necessary and inevitable.
Or if we must meddle, as we have always done, let us meddle for a change in a constructive way. Stop every campesino at our southern border, give him a handgun, a good rifle, and a case of ammunition, and send him home. He will know what to do with our gifts and good wishes. The people know who their enemies are.
Needless to say, I’m not endorsing sealing the borders, nor am I in favor of fomenting and arming violent revolts throughout Latin America. Our nation’s history teaches the dangers inherent in that course of action.
But the people do know who their enemies are, and guns are not the only tools available to them to fix their problems. At the end of the day, the flow of immigrants from Latin America is a simple consequence of our nation’s economic success, and the crushing economic failure of their own governments’ economic policies. Unless we can raise the cost of crossing the border anywhere close to the profit to be made by crossing it, the flow of immigrants, legal or illegal, will not stop.
This gives us three options. Raise the cost of crossing the border enormously high. Lower our standard of living. Raise their standard of living. I consider the first unrealistically expensive, and decisively inhumane. The second option would be silliness, and probably not possible without actually destroying infrastructure. I favor the third option as both the most morally ideal and most feasible.
The evidence from simple things like average heights or complicated things like political and economic freedom in industrializing countries all tells us that profound social changes follow from increases in what Abbey above refers to as social equity. Indeed, social equity is a force that drives the second force Abbey refers to: birth control. But that’s a topic for another day.