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The idea of immigration to America as a way for the poor to improve their lives remains a powerful icon. Many liberals in particular remain mesmerized by this sentimental bit of patriotic mythology, bathed in a fuzzy glow radiating from Ellis Island. They seem little dissuaded by unkind reality, namely the many current, visible symptoms of American overpopulation – sprawl, resource shortages, school overcrowding, and pavement everywhere. Immigration romantics instead focus on the emotional appeal of the Land of Opportunity, where hard work and a little luck will lead to success.Liberal advocacy for continued high levels of immigration springs at least partially from a misplaced missionary urge to rescue, presumably based on the arrogant and racist supposition that those backward societies can never improve themselves. The huddled masses must instead be saved by relocation to the obviously superior America, which offers an array of services and opportunities that could never exist in countries run by darker peoples, according to the evident assumptions.Immigration can make susceptible Americans feel exceptional and generous while fulfilling the still-vibrant bootstraps myth of Horatio Alger, immigrant version. In an earlier century, Europeans bore the “white man’s burden” to “civilize” the benighted cultures under their colonial control; now a version of this twisted and dubious responsibility has been morphed into the “nation of immigrants” myth, implying that endless millions must be welcomed. Of course, the elitist psychological underpinnings of the immigration-as-rescue scenario are never examined by the people who accuse immigration restrictionists of being racist.

Clearly the rescuer has a more powerful position compared to the one being rescued. But what if there were an effective self-help strategy that proved the poor did not need to be rescued through immigration and that avoided all of its negative social effects? What if the poor could successfully uplift themselves in their own societies using the hard-scrabble skills they already possess? What if women were successfully empowered with financial responsibility in societies in which they had formerly been little more than slaves?

What if the key were not charity, but capital?

The Grameen Bank
Immigration enthusiasts who are fired by the missionary impulse to save the downtrodden of the world are using a fly swatter against an elephant. There are literally billions of poor on this planet who might theoretically be better off in the United States – but such an overload would swamp and sink the lifeboat. The sensible, humanitarian thing is to help the poor where they live. Microlending is also enormously cheaper: The Office of Migration and Refugee Services of the Catholic Church states that it costs “only” $2000 to resettle an individual in the United States – an amount that could supply loans for an entire village in Bangladesh.Another advantage to people remaining in their home countries is avoiding the culture shock that inevitably follows emigration from the Third World to the First. It is very stressful on families to relocate to a significantly different culture. Mature adults generally cling to the old customs as much as possible while young children easily soak up the new ways like sponges. Unhappy generation gaps often occur, particularly when those generations speak different languages. Young people are pressured to follow traditional practices that may have little meaning for them. They may join gangs of other young people in similar circumstances – kids caught between two cultures without feeling completely part of either. Violence and other forms of family dysfunction can be another result. How much better to foster a successful economic program that causes none of these problems.The assumption of American immigration enthusiasts that everyone on the planet deeply yearns to live in the United States is an arrogant and dangerous conceit. Everyone does desire adequate food, housing, and other necessities of life in a safe environment that includes personal and political freedom as well as cultural continuity. Professor Yunus has addressed these basic needs by creating an effective strategy that can help more people for less money and with minimal social stresses.

Microloans give immigration restrictionists an answer when they are accused of wanting to pull up the drawbridge. They can instead offer a positive message by pointing out that microlending is superior to immigration in every respect when improving the lives of the poor is the objective. It costs less per person helped, is kinder to the earth, improves the social standing of women, causes minimal family conflict, and strengthens local democracy. The program is known by legislators, but the connection has not been made that microloans are a better alternative to immigration, which is now having many destructive consequences in the United States. It is hard to make limitation sound positive even when it truly is the greater good. But microlending does indeed offer an upbeat story of empowerment and success. In addition to saying they are “against” mass immigration, reformers can say they are “for” effective self-help in the form of microlending. “Stay home and build a better life” should be the message.

[The Grameen Bank online contains general information

and news about microlending around the world:

Reviewed by

Brenda Walker lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and edits the website 

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