“Immigration And America”: Peter Brimelow`s Address To The Philadelphia Society
Peter Brimelow writes:
Better late than never…at least the subject isn`t going
away! Almost a year ago, I spoke at the
National Meeting, which was
devoted to the topic "What
Is An American?", at the kind invitation of
Midge Decter. Also on the
panel were San Jose State`s Professor
Benjamin Powell, who might
fairly be described as a raging
here), and Pepperdine`s
Andrew Yuengert, who was
actually quite sensible (paper
here). We were introduced by
Loyola New Orleans` Professor
Immigration is obviously a topic
American national identity. Of course, there is the
old cliché that we are all either immigrants or
descended from immigrants. That is what we all have in
common, but that is where the commonality ends.
There are extraordinary differences
of opinion on the issue of immigration. We have three
speakers today; I am going to introduce each one right
before they speak. Our first speaker is Peter Brimelow,
who has earned his reputation as a
financial journalist and is also now connected with
the webzine VDARE.COM: he has graciously consented to
address us today. As probably all of you know, the
contemporary debate on immigration was really sparked by
his book Alien Nation. We are very fortunate to
have him as our first speaker. Will you please join me
in welcoming Peter Brimelow.
Thank you, Nick, thank you, ladies
and gentlemen. As will be immediately apparent to you,
I`m an immigrant myself. I`m not sure this microphone is
really working very well, but it isn`t going to get much
help from me! So if you don`t understand what I am
saying, just stipulate in some socially acceptable way
and I will redouble my efforts to
assimilate acoustically. [Laughter]
As you all know, immigrants do the
dirty jobs that Americans won`t do, and here I am! [Laughter]
To begin at the end, we`re talking
about "What is an American?" My answer is that
Americans just are—they are Americans. We`re told
this is a nation of immigrants. But I say it`s a nation.
Immigration is just not as central to the American
experience as a lot of romantic intellectuals would like
you to think.
It is true, as Nick just said, that
the book I wrote, Alien Nation, just exactly ten
years ago, although it wasn`t the first book on
immigration, was perhaps the most noticed up to that
point. Which is to say, the
most denounced! [Laughter].
Since then of course, there have
been, after prudent interval, a number of excellent
books on the subject,
Michelle Malkin, I should say,
Sam Huntington, and of course
Professor Hanson who spoke last night.
I can`t say I`ve received an
enormous amount of credit for being first, which is sort
of mildly irritating. And my late wife, who
some of you will remember, found it extremely
But it is typical of the way that
ideas slowly enter mainstream discourse. In 1981 or
1982, I wrote an editorial for Barron`s which was
headlined "The Man in the Iron Mask." That was
what I jokingly said was what the
Reagan Administration had done to one of its White
Peter Ferrara, who had dared to mention the idea of
privatizing Social Security.
That was 20-odd years ago. Now
it`s Administration policy!
So, by my count, we should see
serious immigration reform this country—by which I mean
an immigration moratorium—sometime around the beginning
of the next decade.
Now, to show you that I have
assimilated culturally, I am going to quote Will Rogers,
whom nobody in Britain has ever heard of.
Will Rogers once said that it`s
not what people don`t know that hurts them, it`s what
they know that ain`t true.
This is preeminently the case with
the immigration debate.
To get the most boring thing out of
the way first—although it preoccupies me as a financial
When I came in to look at the
technical literature on the economics of immigration in
the early 1990s, I was amazed to find that the consensus
among labor economists—the
consensus—was that the great inflow triggered by
the 1965 Act, and the simultaneous breakdown of the
southern border, is not beneficial in aggregate. It
brings no net aggregate economic benefit to native-born
Americans. It does increase U.S. GDP. But virtually all
of that is captured by the immigrants themselves. The
native-born Americans are simply no better off.
Since Alien Nation came out,
I am happy to say, my reading of the consensus has been
confirmed by National Research Council`s 1997 report
The New Americans. It estimated that what
is called the "immigration surplus"—the net
additional wealth that reaches native-born Americans—was
something like ten billion dollars. Utterly trivial in a
5 or 6 trillion dollar economy. And wiped out by the
transfer costs, the cost of schools and emergency room
hospital care and that sort of thing, which are very
In a microstudy, the NRC found the
cost to every
native-born family in California of the immigrant
presence, as of 1996, was something like a thousand
dollars a year. Every native-born family is subsidizing
the immigrant presence by a thousand dollars a year.
Essentially, Americans are
subsidizing their own displacement.
Now, actually, I would say
something similar may be true—although we don`t know,
because it hasn`t been properly researched—of
last Great Wave of immigration between 1880-1920.
It`s not clear that that raised the income of
We were always told, particularly
descendents of that Great Wave of immigration, that
"immigrants built America". But, actually, it may
be more like they got on a rolling band wagon. The thing
was already underway before they arrived. The basic
reason is that
free economies are extremely flexible in their use
One thing I also found when I read
the technical literature which is also in the NRC
report, is that even though immigration doesn`t raise
the per capita income of the native-born, it does cause
immense redistribution between the native-born
communities—amounting at that point to about 2 percent
of GDP shifted from
That explains the class base of
this debate. It is extremely beneficial to have
who go to country clubs and vote Republican. It is
extremely unbeneficial if you are a
blue collar worker.
And this is exactly what happened
with the First Great Wave. The movement of blacks into
the northern cities and northern industries in the late
nineteenth century stopped when immigration began.
Booker T. Washington was highly
aware of this. His famous
Atlanta exposition speech was half about how blacks
had to "cast down your bucket where you are", the
part we all remember, acquire
technical skills and so on. But the other half was a
passionate appeal—it`s actually one of the great
speeches in the language—to whites, and particularly to
Southerners, to stop mass immigration, what he
described as people of "strange habits" and
"foreign tongues", because it was displacing blacks.
Now the second thing that people
think they know about immigration, which isn`t true—I
guess Professor Hanson illustrated it last night. He
referred at one point to America being a
Well, there are certainly a lot of
races in America now. But that is not how the Founding
Fathers saw America. They actually forbade the
naturalization of blacks; they limited U.S. citizenship
to free whites. Asians couldn`t become citizens until
well into the twentieth century. There was no
substantial non-European immigration until 1965.
Maybe it shouldn`t have been that
way—but it was. The U.S. remained a substantially
homogenous nation well into living memory.
As you know, John Jay wrote this
famous passage in
Federalist Number Two: he said, in effect, we can
make federalism work in this country because we are "one united people — a people descended from the same
ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the
same religion,"—and he didn`t mean Christianity, he
Protestantism— "attached to the same principles
of government very similar in their manners and
See, this isn`t a theoretical
point. It goes to the roots of American order. If you
think America is an organic nation that has evolved like
every other nation, then you have to be careful how you
introduce people into it, about immigration policy.
Whereas if you think it`s a
Proposition Nation, sort of like a credit
agreement—just sign on the bottom line—you can be much
more relaxed about it.
But the historical evidence, to a
much larger extent than people realize, is that the U.S.
is a traditional nation.
This brings me to the third thing
that people think they know about immigration which
ain`t true: that the U.S. is "a nation of
Of course all nations are nations
of immigrants. There is no known case where people grew
out of the ground. [Laughter]
What happened in the US did happen
faster than elsewhere—America was put together faster.
They did in 200 years what it took England over a
thousand years to do.
But that raises the prospect that
it can be undone just as fast as it was done—that the
American union may not hold together if discordant
elements are introduced.
There are two specific
qualifications to this
"nation of immigrants" idea that I recommend to
One qualification is that people
think that immigration has existed throughout American
history. But if you actually look at the data in
Alien Nation—I went to the trouble to chart it—
immigration is in fact highly discontinuous. There are
floods of immigration followed by long periods with no
immigration; there are pauses. These pauses were
essential to assimilation.
The greatest, the most recent
pause, of course, was in the middle of the 20th
Century, as a result of the cut-off in the 1920s. But
there are many other pauses, stretching right back into
American history. There was a long period of time after
the Revolution where there was very little immigration.
Irish arrived in New England in the 1840s after the
potato famine, they were coming into an area—which is
where I now live by the way—where there was no
immigration of any significance for two hundred years.
Which is why it was such a shock to everybody. Yet New
England developed enormously through that period,
because of natural increase.
One of the things you often get
thrown at you if you—well, you get a lot of things
thrown at you if you are an immigration reformer,
actually, but one of them is this argument: well, Ben
Franklin was worried that the Germans in Pennsylvania
wouldn`t assimilate, but look what happened to them.
Of course, in fact, there are
German-speaking enclaves in Pennsylvania. But the
important thing that happened to the Germans is that
German immigration stopped as a result to the Seven
Years` War (the
French and Indian War to Americans). And it never
resumed until the 1840s. There was a seventy year period
there where there was no significant German immigration.
And that allowed assimilation to take place.
It`s also true the intellectual
elite tends to think America was Built By Immigrants
because they live in
New York or
Los Angeles or somewhere like that—which are
heavily immigrant cities, entirely immigrant cities.
But the last estimate that I saw,
when I was researching Alien Nation, was
that if there had been no immigration at all after 1790—none
population of the US would still be about half of
what it is now, through natural increase.
It`s what is called the "founder
effect". People who are there first start to
multiply—it`s like compound interest.
Obviously this is very hard to
believe in New York, or Miami, or somewhere like that.
But I live in the
foothills of the Berkshires, in the
Litchfield hills. And in my area there are a
substantial number of blue collar workers that are
My son, Alexander, used to go up
Tanner Hill on the school bus, stop at Tanner Farm, and
a kid would come out called Tanner, whose family bought
the land from the Indians. There is a lot more of this
out there in Americaland than New Yorkers think.
I may say, by the way, that in the
public schools of Litchfield County my
children have learned a
great deal about Martin Luther King, and how awful
whites were to blacks. But that area of Connecticut was
a hotbed of abolitionism. Those Connecticut farm boys
joined up in vast numbers, and
died in vast numbers, fighting to free the slaves.
There was one famous regiment raised in Litchfield
2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, which despite its
name was an infantry regiment and which was
shot to pieces at Cold Harbor. The woman who cuts my
hair, the man who delivers my mail, had relatives who
died in that battle. They`re aware of it, but I have
never heard any mention of it in the public schools.
I`ve asked teachers about it, I`ve
asked the principals about it. None of them have ever
heard of it.
This goes to the issue of what we
mean by a "Proposition Nation". Maybe kids are
being taught some kind of a "Proposition", a
national creed, in the public schools. But what is
it? Is it something we approve of?
What is a nation? It seems to me
the only rational definition is that it has to be an
ethno-cultural unit. It is not entirely
ethnic—anybody, individuals of any race, can usually
assimilate. But it`s not entirely cultural either, as we
are currently led to believe. There is a substantial
ethnic component to a nation. And that has consequences
which we are not really clear about, but which we know
What we face now, with the
post-1965 wave of immigration, is an unprecedented act
of social engineering being performed by the government.
The government is second-guessing the people on
population size, because Americans of all races have
spontaneously got their family size down to replacement
levels. The American population has stabilized, absent
immigration—but in fact it`s projected to go up to
400, maybe 500 million, by 2050, because of
immigration. And also, of course, we are rapidly
shifting the racial balance. In 1960 the U.S. was 90
percent white; by 2050, whites will be about to go into
It seems to me that it`s up to
those who favor this to explain why they want to
transform America. What do they have against the America
that existed in 1965?
And why don`t they explain it to
the American people, so we can have a democratic debate
about it? Why does America
have to be transformed?
The classic conservative point of
view, it seems to me—though you don`t see it on the
Wall Street Journal
Editorial Page—is that if it`s not
necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. I
don`t think it`s necessary to change the U.S., certainly
by as much as is being changed right now.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his
Nobel Prize speech that
disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less
then if all men had become alike with one personality,
one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its
collective personalities. The very least of them wears
its own special colors, and bears within itself a
special facet of God`s design."
A remarkable statement for somebody
who was brought up a Marxist in that other would-be
It seems to me that the U.S., as it
had evolved by 1965, did reflect a special facet of
And I want to know why the
government wants to monkey around with it.
Thank you very much. [Applause]