Alien Nation Review: The New Yorker, April 1995


AMERICAN BY INVITATION

A conservative call to arms on a coming issue.

BY MICHAEL LIND

THE NEW YORKER, APRIL 24, 1995

BEFORE Ellis Island became a port of entry for immigrants, it was used for the storage of ammunition. It`s a nice bit of symbolism, for immigration is proving to be one of the most explosive issues of American politics in the nineties. The recent passage of California`s Proposition 187-a package of measures aimed at illegal aliens-may be the first blast in a national campaign to demolish an immigration policy that has been in place since the Kennedy-Johnson reforms of the nineteen-sixties. A momentous new battle over who will be permitted to immigrate to America, and why, has begun.

Until recently, of course, immigrants from Mexico and other poor countries were welcomed by the American political right–Pat Buchanan and a small circle of like-minded dissidents aside. During the nineteen-eighties, California`s Governor Pete Wilson-who last year supported Proposition 187campalgned, at the behest of agribusiness, to allow undocumented farm-workers to remain in the United States. Indeed, the pro-immigration consensus of the Reagan right was symbolized by a constitutional amendment proposed by the Wall Street Journal: There shall be open borders.” The mainstream conservative consensus cracked, though, when one English immigrant, John O`Sullivan, who is the editor of National Review, published a cover story in the summer of 1992 by another English immigrant, Peter Brimelow, who is a senior editor at both National Review and Forbes. In that piece Brimelow set out a range of arguments against immigration. He has now elaborated those arguments in “Alien Nation: Common Sense About America`s Immigration Disaster” (Random House; $24).

As the title of the book suggests, Brimelow`s main concern is with the effect of today`s immigration on the nature of the American “nation” itself. He rejects what might be called the democratic-universalist vision of American identity–the familiar notion that America is a “nation of immigrants” united only by an idea.

Democratic universalism has proponents all across the political spectrum, but it prompts an interesting question. If to be American is to believe in certain values, then who is to define those values? One volunteer is Richard John Neuhaus, a former leftwing Lutheran pastor who has become a far-right Catholic priest. In his rightwing version of democratic universalism, morally upright immigrants are preferable to decadent native-born Americans. In a debate over immigration in National Review, Neuhaus recently wrote, `We do have a very real problem with aliens. These are native-born Americans who are profoundly alienated from the American experience.” In an article that appeared a few years ago in the magazine Neuhaus edits, First Things, he gave a more detailed description of the enemy within: “journalists, writers, academics, and a significant portion of the religious leadership” of the United States, and also “homosexuals” (who “are the very definition of social marginality”), “the urban and mainly black underclass,” and a “civil rights overclass.” There`s something chilling in his designation of native-born or naturalized American citizens as un-American or anti-American “aliens” simply because they happen to be poor and black or to work for the media or for universities. By comparison, the old-fashioned conservative language of black-baiting, gay-baiting, and anti-intellectualism is at least straightforward.

In the end, the claim that to be American is to believe in democratic values and virtues-whether these are defined by Neuhaus or by someone else-makes rousing Fourth of July rhetoric but has no basis in United States law. Congress has yet to pass an ideological equivalent of Israel`s Law of Return and order the Immigration and Naturalization Service to grant automatic United States citizenship to any of the hundreds of millions of foreigners who profess sincere belief in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Nor is the United States, strictly speaking, a nation of immigrants, for the simple reason that from the Colonial period to the present the majority of Americans, white and black, have been born on American soil and reared as members of a common American culture. The assimilated children and grandchildren of immigrants-white or black or brown, Jewish or Catholic or Protestant-aren`t themselves “immigrants”; they`re Americans.

The obvious alternative to the kind of purely political or ideological conception of American identity represented by democratic universalism is what could be called liberal nationalism: a conception of the American people as a transracial cultural nation whose members share a common language–American English–and a common vernacular tradition, which includes black-derived music and Mexican-influenced Western dress and cuisine as well as the political institutions and ideals derived from the Anglo-American settlers. The old melting-pot nationalism endorsed only the fusion of white immigrant groups; the patron saints of a new, transracial melting-pot ideal would be found in radical white abolitionists like Wendell Phillips and black visionaries like Frederick Douglass and Jean Toomer, who saw the greatest hope for America`s future in the greatest nightmare of traditional white conservatives: race-blending inter marriage.

THOUGH Brimelow acknowledges that “individuals of any ethnicity or race might be able to acculturate to a national community,” he rejects both contentless universalism and transracial cultural nationalism. Instead, he sets forth what looks very much like a defense of old-fashioned white racial nationalism. “It is simply common sense that Americans have a legitimate interest in their country`s racial balance,” Brimelow writes. “Indeed, it seems to me that they have a right to insist that it be shifted back.” He wistfully imagines what the United States would be like to-day if the white-only immigration policy of the nineteen-twenties had not been dismantled by the 1965 Immigration Act: “The American population would still be where It was in 1960–almost 89 percent white,” instead of less than eighty per cent.

Brimelow defends the nineteen-twenties immigration laws, which sought to limit the number of Jews and Southern and Eastern Europeans immigrating to the United States, by noting “As the Great Restriction`s national origins quotas were being legislated, President Calvin Coolidge put it unflinchingly: `America must be kept American.`” Brimelow adds approvingly, “Everyone knew what he meant.” Everyone knew, indeed. What Coolidge, then Vice-President, actually wrote-in an article that appeared in Good Housekeeping in 1921-was “America must be kept American. Biological laws show … that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”

Lamenting the projected steep decline of America`s white “ethnic core as a proportion of the United States population, Brimelow compares the United States with multiethnic empires in Cyprus and in the Caucasus,  where a  single ethnic group, the “umpire” Brimelow`s term-maintained social peace. The United States “faces the direct equivalent of being abandoned by an imperial umpire: the breaking of …`the racial hegemony of white Americans- “ The result, he warns, will be the breakdown of American society, as voters polarize into racial voting blocs. “The uneven distribution of immigration will tend to force the country`s regions even further apart,” Brimelow predicts. `The experience of an Anglo-Cuban society like Greater Miami is going to have little in common with an Anglo-black society like Atlanta or even with an Anglo-Mexican society like San Antonio. These will be communities as different from one another as any in the civilized world. They will verge on being separate nations.” And so the outlook is grim indeed: “The contradictions of a society as deeply divided as the United States must now inexorably become, as a result of the post-1965 influx, will lead to conflict, repression, and, perhaps, ultimately to a threat thought extinct in American politics for more than a hundred years: secession.” Note the confident verbs of a jeremiad: “must now inexorably”; “will.” Elsewhere, Brimelow repeatedly invokes a Delphic formula: “Race and ethnicity are destiny in American politics,” and “Once again: ethnicity, and demography, is destiny in American politics.”

In the book`s most ludicrous section, Brimelow compares today`s immigrants from Latin America and Asia to ancient Germanic barbarians: “In some ways, the nearest thing to a precedent for today`s world in motion appears to be the famous Volkwanderung–he means Völkerwanderung –“the great `movement of peoples` in the Fifth century that saw Germanic tribes overrun the Western Roman Empire.” This sort of rhetoric is far from new: in an 1885 polemic entitled “Our Country” the Protestant clergyman Josiah Strong similarly described Italian, Slavic, and Jewish immigrants as an “army more than twice as vast as the estimated number of Goths and Vandals that swept over Southern Europe and overwhelmed Rome.” Brimelow hastens to declare that the “German war bands” were less of a threat to Roman cultural unity than Mexican-American and Korean-American immigrants are to the integrity of American society, because, after all, “the Germans were Western Europeans.” It seems that Theodoric the Ostrogoth had more in common with Boethius than Henry Cisneros has with Bill Clinton.

It`s hard to know quite what to make Of all this. Mexican-American brick-layers and Korean shopkeepers as Ostrogoths and Visigoths? Brimelow complains about being called a racist, but he uses the rhetoric of an after-dinner speaker at a Klavern banquet. The Democratic Party, he informs us, is the enemy of white people: “The brutal truth is this: the Clinton Administration is a black-Hispanic-Jewish-minority whit (Southerners used to call them `scalawags`) coalition.” What does Brimelow mean by “scalawag” if not traitor to the white race–a race that, curiously, appears not to include Jews?

To be sure, Brimelow does not join  Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in worrying about nonwhite immigration because of its supposed “dysgenic” effect on the American gene pool people like Colin Powell and Richard Rodriguez are not inferior to Amen cans of Western European descent, it seems, but merely “incompatible” with them. Still, Brimelow`s Spenglerian argument about the decline and fall of white America bears no small resemblance to the argument found in “The Bell Curve.” He even one-ups the bell-curve graph with a diagram of his own, the “pincer chart”–a projection of demographic trends in the United States which shows the white population shrinking between the “pincers” of the black and Asian population, on one side, and the Hispanic population, on the other. Like the bell curve, the pincer chart provides crude prejudice with a striking, and reassuringly “scientific,” symbol. In “Alien Nation,” the anxiety of white-middle-class America at the fin de siècle may have found its second definitive expression

THE questions that Brimelow raises about the effect of immigration on national culture are not in themselves illegitimate. His answers, though, are based on implausible extrapolations and a profound misunderstanding of American society. Consider that pincer chart which lumps black Americans with Asian-Americans. If black American: are considered to be members of the American cultural nation, then a chart showing the effects of immigration should show the immigrant population growing at the expense of the American cultural nation–white and black. Ever that would be misleading if it treated the descendants of Latin-American and Asian immigrants as members of perpetually distinct groups. Unlike European immigrants, Brimelow suggests, the new immigrants cannot be expected to amalgamate with the majority, because “virtually all immigrants are racially distinct `visible minorities,”` from “completely different, and arguably incompatible, cultural traditions.” Is it really the Spanish Catholic tradition that sets Latin-American immigrants apart, in Brimelow`s mind, from culturally similar Italian immigrants–or is it their race? Even then, there`s the effect of intermarriage to consider. Brimelow himself reports that, for example, more than half of Japanese-Americans marry non-Japanese, and that the intermarriage rate for Mexican-Americans in California appears to be between a third and a half. It seems that, with the possible exception of black Americans, intermarriage is gradually turning both pincers and pincees into a single mixed-race majority.

Then why is Brimelow so pessimistic about the prospects for integration and amalgamation? For one thing, he seems to have bought into the myth of the multiculturalists that there are as many “cultures” in America as there are races.” Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that the peripatetic Brimelow emigrated from Britain to Canada before crossing the border into the United States. In the troubles of the binational Canadian federation, he sees a portent of the American future:

Foreign experience suggests that the breaking point could come well before whites slip below half of the overall U.S. population. In Canada, although the French-speaking minority has never been much above a quarter of the population, it has been able to dominate national politics for most of this century by voting as a bloc. English-speaking Canadians have been typically so split that federal governments based solely on their support have been elected very rarely, although they have comprised around three quarters of Canada`s population.

The analogy is alarming; it`s also unfounded. Where is the American Quebec? Black Americans aren`t a separate nationality, and, besides, they tend to be concentrated in many of the same cities and states as the new nonwhite immigrants. Asian-Americans-who share neither common ancestries nor common languages–do not form a cohesive political or geographic bloc. The only potential “Quebec” in the United States would be a Mexican-American concentration in the Southwest. And yet Mexican, Americans are politically far from homogeneous: Mexican-Americans Texas are much more likely to be Republican than Mexican-Americans in California. More important, most of them want to join the American main stream, retaining, like other groups, a few elements of symbolic ethnicity. According to one estimate, a majority of third-generation Hispanics speak only one language: English. In the long rum Mexican and Chinese immigrants are more likely to resemble the Irish and German immigrants of yesteryear than the French Canadians.

“ALIEN NATION” is filled with apocalyptic passages that sound like excerpts from such notorious nativist tracts as Madison Grant`s “The Passing of the Great Race” (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard`s “The Rising Tide of Color (1920). It`s inevitable, therefore, that some liberals will seize upon these passages to dismiss all critics of today`s immigration policy as racists or nativist: That would be a mistake. For one thing the Republican political elite, whatever its ultimate consensus on immigration is unlikely to accept Brimelow`s equation of the American nation with white America. Senator Phil Gramm is married to a Korean-American; Jeb Bush has a Mexican-American wife; the favorite jurist of the right, Clarence Thomas has a white wife; and the ideal Republican Presidential candidate is Colin Powell. One of the leaders of the new anti-affirmative- action movement in California is a black businessman, Ward Connerly. The religious right is more worried about the sexual habits of Americans than about their complexions, and country-club Republicans generally welcome anyone with the right income (as the Latin-American saying has it, “money whitens”). Conservative concern about the underclass is primarily class issue; Charles Murray is no less worried about the troublesome fecundity, as he sees it, of poor whites than about that of poor blacks.

What`s more, some of the familiar arguments that Brimelow makes against high levels of immigration— arguments based on concern about the economy and environmental consequences–deserve to be taken seriously even by people who utterly reject his reasoning on the subject of race. For example, there`s the claim that immigrants contribute to crowding and thus to environmental degradation in areas like Southern California; that immigrants of some nationalities play a disproportionate role in organized crime; and that immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to be on welfare. All these claims have been disputed, and none amount to anything like a knockdown argument-, yet such concerns do deserve to be taken more seriously than they have been.

With less than five per cent of the world`s population, the United States now accepts nearly half of the world`s legal immigrants to the developed countries. The American approach to immigration looks increasingly out of synch with the policies of other industrialized democracies. German Social Democrats and British Tories alike now promote restrictive immigration policies. One after another, Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and other European democracies have tightened their laws governing immigration from outside Europe, and Canada has now adopted a more restrictive policy as well. (Japan never permitted significant immigration in the first place.) All these democracies are erecting “golden curtains” in response to three major trends: the population explosion in the Third World (as a result of which the populations of Europe and North America have shrunk in this century from perhaps a third of the world`s total to at most a sixth); the post-1973 slowdown in Western economic growth, which has boosted the numbers of the unemployed in Europe and the underpaid in the United States; and the potential for mass economic migration from the impoverished countries of the former Soviet bloc.

Of these factors, Third World population growth is by far the most important. The economist Lester Thurow recently postulated “an iron law of economic development”: “No country can become rich without a century of good economic performance and a century of very slow population growth.” In much of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, birth rates are so high that not even rapid East Asian-style economic development would suffice to raise per-capita incomes near First World levels and thereby eliminate incentives to emigrate. Certainly it was always a delusion that the North American Free Trade Agreement, by raising Mexican incomes closer to American levels, would significantly reduce the motivation of poor Mexicans to emigrate; the gap in wages–widened since December`s devaluation of the peso–is just too immense.

Perhaps the most persuasive economic argument against large-scale immigration centers on the displacement of black American workers by immigrants in the crowded market for unskilled labor. Brimelow writes that “the plight of poor American blacks must be considered before that of landless laborers in Latin America.” He argues, further, that those who say “immigrants are revitalizing American cities” are “in effect expressing coded horror at the other effects of the great black migration from the rural South to the industrial urban North. Perhaps it is immigration enthusiasts, not immigration critics, who should be examining their motives.” The notion of a conservative like Brimelow championing the cause of black workers may bring to mind the crocodile tears that his colleagues on the right have shed for decades over the minimum wage (they are concerned about its supposed effect of eliminating jobs for the black poor, of course). The message, however, should not be dismissed because of the messenger. In the nineteenth century, black leaders like Frederick Douglass complained that European immigrants were taking entry-level jobs away from black American workers. No one who lives in a city where taxi service and many other trades are almost monopolized by new immigrants can doubt that the same phenomenon is occurring again.

Still, the problems associated with today`s high levels of immigration can be addressed without ending all immigration or attempting to shift the “racial balance” back in favor of whites by means of immigration reform (an option Brimelow speculates about). The goal of the Kennedy-Johnson reforms–which abolished the white-supremacist “national origins” system, imposed after the First World War to favor Western European immigrants–was the admission, on a color-blind basis, of a small number of skilled immigrants each year. Congress, by expanding the slots given to family reunification, turned immigration into an entitlement. It may be time to trim this entitlement, along with others; as Brimelow points out, “had immigration been restricted just to the nuclear-family members of American citizens-parents, spouses, and dependent children-only about 250,000 immigrants would have entered in 1992,” instead of almost a million. By means of such prudent reforms, the United States could ameliorate many of the adverse consequences of large-scale immigration without surrendering to panic and shutting the gates on any particular group Latin Americans, Asians, Middle Easterners, Africans. Or, for that matter, Englishmen.