Out of the melting pot, into the fire | Alien Nation Review: Washington Monthly, April 1995

Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster.

By Paul Glastris

Washington Monthly, April 1995 v27 n4 p42(6)

© Washington Monthly Company 1995 

One of my favorite Chicago haunts is Devon Avenue, a gritty strip of brick storefronts on the city's far north side. Once a middle-class Jewish shopping district, a place where women bought bat mitzvah dresses, Devon was going to seed in the seventies as upscale Jewish families headed for the suburbs. But then some enterprising Indian immigrants opened a few modest sari shops, the city's first. Business boomed, and soon dozens more Indian stores opened, hawking handmade jewelry, burlap sacks of basmati rice and 220-volt appliances for smuggling to relatives in protectionist India. Now, on summer evenings, Indian families from all over the Midwest parade up and down the avenue in saris and Nehru jackets, past the restaurants and retail stores, the sweet, musty scent of sandalwood incense wafting out of open doors on air-conditioned breezes. 

Though Indians dominate Devon Avenue, other groups shop here, too. American-born Orthodox Jews hit the kosher butchers and religious bookstores. Assyrians sit in shabby all-male cafes, playing backgammon and staring menacingly out the window, their open shirts revealing mats of thick black hair. Greek greengrocers stack boxes of mangos on the sidewalk, stiffly enforcing the rule against mixing and matching mangos from one box with another, a rule which women of every ethnic group love to break. Russian men in threadbare suits sit with their wives for hours on sidewalk benches, watching the melting-pot spectacle with vague disapproval. 

Unlike the immigrants, with their sectarian suspicions, I take a catholic delight in the whole Devon scene: It's a cheap alternative to the exotic foreign travel that I wish I could afford to do. This, however, makes me a traitor in the eyes of Peter Brimelow. A conservative, British-born senior editor at Forbes, and a naturalized American citizen, Brimelow argues in Alien Nation that the benefits of immigration have been hyped and the costs played down by an elite class of immigration advocates - economists, congressional aides, and journalists who derive a strange psychological pleasure from the presence of exotic foreigners on U.S. soil, a pleasure most other Americans do not share. 

Elites from both parties share this enthusiasm, though for somewhat different reasons. Liberals welcome immigrants out of humanitarian impulse, the prospect of more Democratic voters or, for multi-culturalists, diversity for diversity's sake. Conservative free-marketers stress the economic benefits of immigrants, while neoconservatives see their work ethic and family values as antidotes for American moral decline. Yet beneath this bipartisan immigration adoration, argues Brimelow, lies an ugly truth: Compared to native-born Americans, immigrants are less skilled, use more welfare, pay less taxes, and exacerbate the gap between rich and poor. Rather than admit this, the "alienists," as Brimelow dubs the elites, have kept the door wide open, without the support of the American people, while tilting the mix in favor of immigrants from the Third World. The eventual result, he concludes, will be a country whose traditional racial and cultural mix is so profoundly changed that, decades from now, America could look like Beirut. 

Brimelow's views on ethnic mixing are, I will argue, hysterical and unsound. But his views on elites have a ring of truth. "Alienists" from across the political spectrum have long promoted large-scale immigration while ignoring public opinion polls which for years have shown that the majority of Americans believe too many immigrants are being let in. In Europe, such cavalier disregard of public opinion toward immigration has led to race riots, third-party challenges, and sweeping restrictionist laws. 

We're not that far gone, but in today's stringent economy Americans are more willing than ever to see immigrants as a threat. Consider the successful passage last fall of Proposition 187, the California ballot measure that would deny social services to illegal immigrants. (Copycat measures have already spread to other states.) Florida and California officials are suing the federal government over the costs of providing social services to immigrants. The Contract With America even contains a provision that would make nearly all of the nation's 10 million legal resident aliens ineligible for an array of federal programs. 

Though Brimelow's book is deeply flawed, there are good reasons to take it seriously. His fellow conservatives now control immigration policy and his arguments could push a fair number of them into the nativist camp. A portion of the American public (though I don't think a majority) shares Brimelow's racial fears. And his anti-elitist arguments are almost bound to play well with the Perot and Limbaugh sets. But one of Brimelow's most powerful allies is the silence of immigration proponents on the system's very real problems. The "alienists" of both parties have ceded the debate, and nativists like Brimelow are filling the vacuum. 

In Alien Nation, the main target of Brimelow's wrath is the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendment of 1965. Sponsored by then-freshman Senator Ted Kennedy, the law abolished preferential treatment for European immigrants in favor of granting visas to family members of immigrants already here. Though Kennedy promised otherwise, the law wound up vastly increasing immigration levels because certain immigrant classes (refugees and family members of U.S. citizens) were exempt from overall limits. And contrary to Kennedy's assurances at the time, the law has also altered fundamentally the ethnic mix of immigrants. Over 80 percent of the 16.7 million legal immigrants admitted since the law's passage have come from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. 

Brimelow concludes that the 1965 act has been "a disaster" for America, notwithstanding the oft-cited claim of immigration advocates that current immigration is not that high by historical standards. Compared to the peak years of immigration around the turn of the century, he notes, fewer immigrants today return to their home countries; net immigration is thus relatively higher now. This, plus a much lower native birthrate, means that immigrants today have a disproportionately powerful impact on the country's makeup: Immigrants now account for 37.1 percent of all new population growth, compared to 27 percent between 1900 and 1910. 

But, as Stephen Moore of the CATO Institute points out, if the U.S. birth rate were zero, and we let in only one foreigner a year, then immigration would make up 100 percent of annual population growth. A better measure of the cumulative impact cf immigration is the percentage of the population that is foreign-born: It was 6.4 percent in 1900, and it is only 3.6 percent today, including illegals. The country is hardly awash in immigrants. 

Of course, the difference is that today's immigrants are mainly from the Third World. "Ethnicity is destiny," Brimelow repeatedly asserts. As evidence, he notes the connection between ethnicity and voting patterns. Most whites and a few immigrant groups (such as Cubans) vote Republican; blacks, Jews, most Hispanic groups, and a minority of whites vote Democratic. Ah, destiny! But he also contradicts his theory. The Irish and other white ethnics used to vote Democrat and now they vote Republican No one knows how Asians will vote, but for the present they lean Republican, like the country a a whole. The Hispanics, well, their vote are also up for grabs but they don't vote much anyway. 

Brimelow trips himself up because he is trying to write about immigration without mentioning its key ingredient, assimilation. In politics a in most other areas, the only thing destine about ethnicity in America is that it disappears Sure, certain traits persist. The fact that my grandparents came from Greece no doubt explains my taste for spring lamb and my enthusiasm for pontificating on subjects I know nothing about. But these are whispers compared to my rather loud American-ness. 

Almost everything we know about immigrant past and present suggests that they adopt with astonishing speed the folkways of America's mutant-British culture. Hence 10 percent of Mexican-Americans in Southern California have become Protestants, while one-third to one-half of all California Mexicans marry outside their ethnicity. 

White Heat 

Brimelow ultimately concedes assimilation's power in a few cover-your-ass sentences near the end of the book. But he maintains that assimilation might not work once whites lose their numerical superiority. Historically, he notes, the only stable multi-ethnic states have been authoritarian: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union, Cyprus under British rule. Today, those states have dissolved or are threatening to. What keeps America from disintegrating is, as it were, the jackboot of white hegemony. But by the year 2050, Brimelow notes from a U.S. Census prediction, whites will constitute only 53 percent cent of the population. He writes:  

As [the] white voting bloc is reduced in relative size," he writes, "ever more intense incentive will be offered enterprising politicians of all ethnic groups, including, perhaps, the almost-majority whites, to whip their supporters into line in order to marshal their vote. Supreme power in American politics will have come within grabbing range - no longer for any one bloc but for an unstable, jockeying combination of them. 

A scary scenario. The problem is, the much-ballyhooed decline of the white majority isn't really happening. Predicting population patterns is notoriously difficult because it requires making assumptions about future fertility and mortality rates that are impossible to predict accurately. That's why the census Brimelow cites has a margin of error of 150 million people for the total U.S. population in 2050. "If they don't even know what the population will be," asks Harvard ethnic historian Stephan Thernstrom, "how can they know what proportion will be Asian?" 

Even more problematic, the census study counts the millions of children of mixed marriages as nonwhite. But why? My ancestors are from Greece; my wife is from northern India. My five-year-old daughter looks, more than anything else, like an Italian. Is she white? Who can say? Certainly it's ridiculous to label her "nonwhite." Yet only by doing so can Brimelow make the case that immigration threatens whites' numerical majority. (Ironically, the myth that America is becoming a "majority minority" society has been pushed most fervently by the left as a way to sell "diversity training" to whites.)

When he argues that the economic benefits of immigration to the native-born are marginal, though, Brimelow does have a point. Yes, immigrants work hard and boost the GNP. But they also take back much of that growth in the form of wages they earn. Subtract those wages from the extra GNP growth and you get the "immigrant surplus," the portion that benefits the native-born. And that figure is pretty tiny: $6 billion to $20 billion per year in a $6 trillion economy, according to the calculations of economist George Borjas of the University of California at San Diego. 

Borjas is about the only economist with restrictionist leanings whose work other economists take seriously, and his analysis is fair, as far as it goes. But his equations don't pick up some major economic advantages of immigrants to the native-born, such as their high level of entrepreneurship. Most immigrant businesses are of the Devon Avenue variety - family-run enterprises - but others represent the cutting edge of American competitiveness. The founder and CEO of microchip-maker Intel Corporation, Andrew S. Grove, is a Hungarian immigrant. The firm that made the computer I'm typing on, AST Research, was started by a Pakistani and two Chinese immigrants. Foreign-born scientists and engineers dominate the product development departments of countless electronic and pharmaceutical firms, while immigrant scientists at American universities feed U.S. firms with fresh research and, on occasion, plow whole new fields of potential economic growth. Such contributions are perhaps impossible to estimate in dollars, but Brimelow barely acknowledges their existence. 

While minimizing their economic contribution, Brimelow charges that immigration exacerbates the widening gap between rich and poor in America. Borjas co-authored a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research which concludes that low-skilled post-1965 immigrants compete with native-born low-skilled workers not by taking jobs, but by bidding down wages at the low end of the pay scale. As much as one-half of the 10 percent relative decline in wages for low-skilled workers during the eighties was probably due to a combination of increased immigration and foreign trade, the study estimates. 

Those lower wage rates, in turn, mean higher rates of return for those who own factories, hire cleaning ladies, or otherwise employ low-wage immigrant workers. In a separate study, Borjas estimates that immigration redistributes as much as $140 billion annually from low-skilled workers to owners of capital. This helps explain, says Brimelow, why opinion polls find that upper-income Americans tend to be pro-immigrant. 

But, again, Brimelow doesn't tell the whole story. Immigration might explain part of the wage decline of native high school dropouts but not the falling wages of high school graduates, who are not hurt much by immigration. Also, even the lowest-skilled native-born workers derive some gain from lower prices on goods and services provided by immigrant workers, from fast food prepared by Mexican cooks to clothing at K-Mart rung up by Jamaican check-out women. More important, a myriad of studies looking for direct proof that immigration undercuts wages have found none. 

Finally, even presuming that immigration does explain part of the decline of low-skilled wages, abolishing immigration won't stop the decline. That's because immigration and foreign trade are to a great extent substitutes for each other. "If you don't let in immigrants, American companies will just move more of their plants to the Third World," notes Harvard economist Richard Freeman, who co-authored the wage study with Borjas: "Trade and immigration have similar down sides but in both cases the benefits outweigh the costs." 

It is possible, of course, to reduce the costs and boost the benefits by bringing in fewer unskilled immigrants and more educated ones. And incoming immigrant skill levels have grown. But native skill levels have grown faster, leading to a widening skills gap: Immigrants had .35 fewer years of schooling than natives in 1970, 1.3 fewer years in 1990. Again citing Borjas, Brimelow blames this troubling trend on the shift from predominantly European to mostly Third World immigrants brought on by the 1965 Immigration Act. But that is only partly right. According to the Urban Institute, the widening skills gap is almost totally the result of the low educational levels of two distinct groups: illegal immigrants, who enter the U.S. despite the 65 law, not because of it; and refugees from former communist countries, who have been admitted for geostrategic rather than economic reasons. Non-refugee legal immigrants - from countries such as India, Peru, Taiwan, Egypt, and Nigeria - have higher average education levels than native-born Americans or immigrants from Europe. 

Brimelow writes with the charmless vituperative wit of a talented journalist who has spent too much time feeling unfairly attacked. Ever since Brimelow first published his views in a lengthy cover story in the National Review a few years ago, he says he's been repeatedly called a racist for suggesting that a preference for one's own ethnic group is not some horrible retrograde prejudice but a natural - and even useful - human trait that only a utopian would seek to abolish: "The impulse that causes men to go to war over their racial, etc. differences is closely related to the impulse that causes them to protect and feed their families."  

There is something to this. Certainly the charge of "racism" is too easily thrown around these days, but there are suspicious holes in Brimelow's arguments. For instance, he buttresses his preference for white Eastern European immigrants by noting that the money they would remit home would help stabilize those countries' economies. Good point. But wouldn't the same hold true for Mexico, a country whose stability is arguably far more crucial to U.S. security than, say, Romania? 

He calls the assertion that America has always been multiracial "a lie." America at the time of the Revolution was biracial . . . black and white." And what, one may ask, about the Native Americans? Brimelow thinks that to the extent we have any immigration at all, it should reflect America's "traditional" ethnic mix. He then complains that too many African and Caribbean blacks are being let in, 12 to 14 percent of current annual total. But doesn't that just about match the percentage of the native-born who are black? 

Fixing the Alienation  

Amid all his histrionics and flippancy, though, Brimelow does put his finger on issues which legitimately bother Americans about immigration. The definitive issue is welfare. If there's one thing taxpayers hate more than able-bodied people on the dole, it's able-bodied foreigners on the dole. In 1970, Brimelow points out, a slightly lower percentage of immigrants received welfare (5.9 percent) than native-born Americans (6.0 percent). But by 1990, when 7.4 percent of the native-born collected welfare, 9.1 percent of immigrants did. 

These are troubling statistics, though less so than they first appear. The numbers are inflated by the high welfare rates of political refugees, who are eligible for benefits as soon as they arrive in the U.S. Non-refugee legal immigrants - who must wait three to five years before receiving such services - use AFDC, the main welfare program, at slightly lower rates than do natives, according to demographer Frank Bean and his colleagues at the University of Texas. 

Still, the number of immigrants receiving Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a cash benefit program for the indigent elderly and disabled, is soaring. Immigrants constituted 12 percent of the SSI caseload in 1993, up from just three percent in 1982. Immigrant SSI recipients tend to be elderly parents brought over by immigrant children who in many cases have the means to support them but who understandably take advantage of legal loopholes. 

To solve this very real problem, the Contract With America proposes a solution that is both draconian and foolish. Legislation now moving through the House would deny legal aliens virtually all cash assistance programs. This plan would do more than bring suffering to responsible legal immigrants who fall on hard times; it also would shift costs to the states, a fact some GOP governors have noted.  

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform has a better solution. The Commission argues that the immigrant welfare rate can be reduced - without stripping the government safety net to shreds - by making sponsors more responsible for keeping their relatives off the dole. Currently, the affidavit of support" that all sponsors must sign before bringing their relatives over is not legally enforceable. Making it so would allow the government to dock the wages of sponsors who don't fulfill their responsibility. Newt Gingrich favors this approach to the Contract's more severe welfare cutoff. 

Brimelow also highlights other outrages that immigration advocates might ponder. Why, for instance, does Uncle Sam send Earned Income Tax Credit checks to people it knows have fake Social Security numbers? (Eighty-three percent of illegal immigrants have fake numbers.) Why is it that 25 percent of all criminals in federal penitentiaries are foreign born, three times their proportion to the population? 

These disturbing trends can almost certainly be reversed without resorting to a "moratorium" on all immigrants, as Brimelow demands. The Clinton administration has taken some vigorous first steps by beefing up border enforcement and negotiating to repatriate immigrants in federal prisons back to their countries of origin. Still, tougher measures are in order. If we truly have too many uneducated immigrants coming in, why not impose ethnicity-neutral education standards for all immigration applicants? If some second-generation ethnics aren't speaking English fluently, maybe it's time to revamp (or eliminate) bilingual education, or perhaps grant extra points to immigration applicants who speak English. These and other reforms, which would make Americans feel that they are in control of immigration and not the other way around, should be championed - by liberal immigration advocates. But of course they won't be; multiculturalism runs too deep in the liberal psyche these days. For sensible leadership on immigration, we may have to depend on pro-immigrant conservatives like Newt Gingrich. 

Unfortunately, Gingrich and company have their own paralyzing mental blocks. New immigrants pay the federal government more in taxes than they take in services, whereas it is often the other way around for states and municipalities with large immigrant populations. This is the legitimate complaint driving Proposition 187 and similar measures. The obvious solution: Have the federal government reimburse immigration-impacted cities and states. But such a sensible idea would be doomed in a political environment that defines nearly all such aid as "pork." 

In the end, though, the public's reaction to the nativist arguments put forth in Alien Nation - indeed, the decisions the public will make on the entire immigration question - will probably depend less on calculations of costs and benefits than on gut feelings, on whether Americans feel comfortable allowing strangers to settle in their country. Brimelow would say that a taste for Third World immigration is limited to "alienists," Americans alienated from their country's white-dominated culture. Such people certainly exist; you can hear them every day on NPR pronouncing the word "Mexicans" as "Mehe-ca-nos." But to me, the appeal of immigration is quite different. Walking along Devon Avenue, I take an undeniable, patriotic delight in seeing immigrants slowly transforming themselves into Americans: the Indian mom in her sari next to her kid in a Bart Simpson T-shirt. 

Are my sentiments so different from the average American's? Somehow I doubt it. When pollsters ask citizens if too many immigrants are being allowed into the country, 60 percent respond yes. Yet 60 percent also approve of admitting immigrants looking to reunite with their families - a category which makes up the bulk of current immigration. Such responses suggest that the public's attitude toward immigration is confused, nuanced, or at least open to argument.  

So it seemed to me on a sticky-warm evening last September, when I took a drive up Devon Avenue to look for signs of a "backlash against immigrants." An editor had called wanting to know if the Midwest was experiencing the same kind of anti-foreigner revolt as California, where voters were rallying behind Proposition 187. If a backlash were brewing anywhere in the Midwest, I reasoned, it would be in the neighborhood around Devon Avenue, among the nativeborn Americans. 

I found plenty of them at Casey's Corner, a working-class bar on Devon. With a TV in the corner flickering images of U.S. troop ships preparing to invade Haiti, it didn't take much prodding to get the patrons to unload their frustrations over U.S. immigration policy, though not quite in the way Brimelow might have liked. 

Clark Yates, an African American with a scruffy beard and a mechanic's shirt with the sleeves torn off, complained: "How can we keep bringing people into this country by the millions when our own people don't have jobs?" "I've never been prejudiced," he insisted, "I accept everybody." Yates nevertheless grumbled that the government "brings in these people who can't speak a word of English." 

This tirade sparked Yates' friend Eddy Jerena, a carpenter of Sicilian extraction, into a spirited defense of Mexicans. "My brother, he has a business and the Mexicans work hard for him, 12 hours a day, and they don't complain. You get these American-born guys, they don't work like that. This country was built by immigrants. The Mexicans deserve to be here." Eddy's gripe with U.S. immigration was with the refugee program, and its generous welfare benefits. Why, he asked, is the U.S. government "importing all these Russians into the country" and paying them all this money? 

The third man at the table, Rick Scrimpsher, a burly Vietnam vet of German descent, insisted that he, too, wasn't against immigrants per se. "Everybody's welcome," he said, summing up his philosophy, "but after five years, they have to become citizens. If they don't, we boot 'em out." 

Three hours and several pitchers of beer later, I left Casey's Corner, delighted in the knowledge that my new friends' qualified generosity toward immigrants was a lot closer to my own attitudes than to the pinched British xenophobia of Peter Brimelow.