"Minding the 'Golden Door': Toward a Restrictionism that can Succeed"

From:  National Review, April 2, 2001

Original Author:  Ramesh Ponnuru


[Peter Brimelow's response to this extraordinary personal attack is referred to in Chilton Williamson's Miller Watch (1). Meanwhile, we can't resist sharing VDARE.COM annotations by James Fulford]

REMEMBER the immigration debate of the '90s? [For Sam Francis' definitive answer to this silly question, click here] Just a few years ago, immigration was a major issue in national politics. No longer. [Of course, this was written before 9/11, but it was still strikingly superficial]. Back then, Congress was on the verge of cutting immigration levels. Now it's considering raising them. In the polls, public support for reductions in legal immigration has dropped 20 points from its mid-'90s peak. Republicans in California, who once thought they could make big gains by appealing to anti-immigration sentiment, now blame their efforts to do so for destroying the state party. Nationally, Republicans take every opportunity to say how good immigration has been for America.

What happened? My colleague John J. Miller wrote an article for Reason two years ago that listed several reasons for the shift: the tendency of public support for immigration to wax and wane with the economy; the development in Washington of a savvy pro-immigration lobby linking business and ethnic groups; and the widespread belief among Republicans that an anti-immigrant image hurt them badly among Hispanic and Asian voters. [Most of whom weren't going to vote Republican anyhow, and many of whom don't vote at all. See below.]

Miller's article was persuasive on each point. [See what Chilton Williamson meant about mutual admiration?] But he did not linger on the question whether the restrictionists could have done a better job making their case—and for those of us who find that case compelling, it is an important question. The anti-immigration movement of the '90s raised serious issues, especially about the way continued mass immigration contributes to the balkanization of America, that had been too long ignored. Anxiety about those issues is bound to find political expression again in years to come. If restrictionists draw the right lessons from their failure last time, it may help them to prevail then.


The first tactical mistake was to insist on a moratorium on immigration, as leading critics of the status quo such as National Review and Patrick Buchanan did. The appeal of a moratorium was understandable. America had blundered into its current immigration policy rather than deliberately chosen it; a cutoff would let us design a rational policy from scratch. Simply proposing a moratorium forced a debate on the costs and benefits of continuing the existing policy, Restrictionists hoped that it would produce a compromise in which immigration was cut.

It didn't quite work out that way. The demand for a moratorium obscured the true position of the restrictionists. It made it seem as though they opposed all immigration, when in the main they wanted less immigration or different criteria for immigration or both. Proposing to end all [Actually, not all. A moratorium means no net immigration. Gross immigration could be as high as 2-300,000. This is one of a number of signs that Ponnuru has not grasped the basic reform argument] immigration, even temporarily (A qualification that was usually, and predictably, [Predictably in this case means that we're giving a "handle" to the left, who will call us racists. But they will anyway.] ignored), also raised the emotional temperature of the debate on both sides.

The moratorium may have excited anti-immigration voters more than a proposal to halve immigration levels would have. But it also struck many voters as a sign of blanket hostility to immigrants—which was unwise in a country where 14 percent of adult citizens are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. [How did that happen? See Alien Nation for the answer.] The exit polls from the Republican presidential primaries in 1996 told the tale: In places where few immigrants lived, the issue favored Buchanan but was not important; [There are fewer places where few immigrants live, but they are the GOP heartland.  However, the truth is that Buchanan barely mentioned immigration, focusing instead on trade. And his real problem was that he was demonized, not least by National Review, for being "out of the mainstream." The immigration issue could do a lot of good for Republicans - if the leadership would get behind it. Cf the tax cut issue, now a GOP mantra but regarded as impossibly radical in the 1970 – which Ponnuru is too young to remember] where there were more immigrants, the issue had greater power but, on balance, hurt him. Where immigrants were an issue, they were also a constituency. [They may be rioting in the streets of Los Angeles, but elected officials are unwilling to do anything to offend those of them who vote.]

The restrictionists might have succeeded had they staked out a position that was anti-immigration (or at least against constantly high levels of immigration) but pro-immigrant. Had they done so, they would have really pressed the argument that reducing immigration levels would encourage the assimilation of those let in and thus serve the long-term interests of immigrants themselves. Restrictionists did, in fact, make that argument. But it was drowned out by less palatable ones. The moratorium was one reason for this. Another was the kitchen-sink quality of the prevailing critique: Immigrants were damned for stealing American jobs, and also for going on welfare. [Maybe it's the "kitchen-sink" quality of the problem. Some immigrants are working, some are on welfare, and some are doing both. Think about it.]

Which brings us to California's Proposition 187. That ballot initiative was, in retrospect, the high-water mark of the restrictionist campaign. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Proposition 187 was an attempt to end government benefits, such as welfare and public education, for illegal immigrants. The distinction between legal and illegal immigrants was a distraction: It didn't matter in terms either of the restrictionists' ultimate goals or public opinion. As Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist-leaning Center for Immigration Studies, puts it, "There's a perception by a lot of folks that immigration I like must be legal immigration and immigration I dislike must be illegal immigration."

The emphasis on government benefits, meanwhile, might in theory have provided common ground between pro-immigration and anti-immigration conservatives, although many pro-immigration conservatives opposed 187 because of its spirit. [It's the wrong spirit to stop taxing Americans to pay for illegal immigrants? The welfare magnet in California is actually bad for Mexico, anyway.] But nothing could have been calculated to alienate Hispanics more than the perceived suggestion that they were welfare chiselers when, as their labor-force-participation rates suggest, they have a strong work ethic. The campaign for the initiative, especially the infamous, they-keep-coming ad [We wish people wouldn't say "infamous" when they mean "complained of by the Establishment media." And they do keep coming, and coming, and coming, like the Energizer Bunny. And finally – how many times do we have to say this – PETE WILSON WON!] featuring grainy footage of Mexicans crossing the border, didn't help.

The libertarian compromise—immigration sí, welfare no, as Tom Bethell put it in The American Spectator—was also reflected in the welfare-reform bill Congress passed in 1996. Half of the savings it projected came from benefit cuts for legal, unnaturalized immigrants. The cuts, again, made the Republicans appear to be anti-immigrant even as they remained objectively pro-immigration. (They also put restrictionists in the curious position of telling immigrants to naturalize in order to get welfare.) [Ponnuru's talk about benefit cuts to legal immigrants is about the law that an immigrant is not supposed to be a "public charge." This has always been the law; the "mean-spirited" among us were suggesting that it might be enforced. But yes, "welfare rights" do only come with citizenship, so that people who wish to have the rights without the obligations of citizenship would be left out.] That anti-immigrant reputation was reinforced by Congress's decision to toughen deportation laws but also to make the new laws retroactive. [The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) didn't make punishment retroactive. It changed the criteria for allowing foreign criminals to stay in the country. Ponnuru is taking the same position as the immigration lawyers: that it's unfair to deport thieves and fraud artists, when at the time of their crime, they could expect to be permitted to stay in the US after serving their sentence. But this is a privilege, not a right. Americans have the right to change it any time.] A political backlash caused the quick reversal of most of those policies, but the damage to the Republicans was done. [Some of this damage is only visible to the intelligentsia, other damage is caused by demographic changes in the voting population; see "Swept Away" for the latest figures, unpublished, needless to say, by the post-purge NR.]

A pro-immigrant, anti-immigration position would arguably have been both more humane and more politically sustainable than the position Republicans, influenced by a misguided restrictionist movement, actually took. But that position was made impossible by an even deeper, and more morally serious, mistake of the movement: its racialization of the issue.


Peter Brimelow, formerly [i.e. until purged when Buckley decided to toe the new GOP line] a senior editor of NR, was the chief intellectual force behind the restrictionist movement of the 1990s. In a 1992 cover story for the magazine, his 1995 book Alien Nation, and subsequent NR articles, Brimelow bravely and wittily challenged the elite pro-immigration consensus and the taboos that sustained it. In so doing, he opened a debate that had been artificially closed for too long. But for all his impressive polemical talents, he opened the debate on terms that almost guaranteed the restrictionists' failure.

In Alien Nation, Brimelow repeatedly declared that mass immigration is a threat to the commonweal because it alters the country's racial composition. But he never made a cogent argument why the country's racial balance, as opposed to its culture or cultural cohesion, is worth preserving. Nor did he argue that a culture can be preserved in its essentials only through racial stasis. Instead, he said that this thesis was a matter of "common sense" that only the blinkered politically correct would deny, supplementing this obscurantism with frequent cryptic remarks about race being "destiny in American politics." [Is race destiny? On an individual basis, no. But when 92 percent of blacks vote Democrat, then more black people mean more Democrats absolutely. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Hispanics and Asians. That's the political end of it. The cultural, rather than racial, end of it is that it's simply harder, and less likely, for visible minorities to assimilate.]

Cultures and races overlap, of course, and admitting Asians and Hispanics to America at the rate we are doing will have cultural consequences because they are bearers of their cultures. But it is those consequences that ought to concern us, not race per se. The point of assimilation is that culture can transcend race. [Can is right. Ponnuru himself is presumably assimilated to the Anglo-American culture he works in. But most of the time culture goes with race. And it's much harder for visible minorities to forget their roots in foreign lands and assimilate than it is for whites.] The biologization of the argument against immigration distorted that argument in several ways. The implications for American blacks, for example, became hopelessly muddled. Brimelow frequently argued that immigrants pose a threat to the economic interests of black Americans. But in order to further the case against immigration, he also argued that biracial societies inevitably fail.

Supporters of continuous mass immigration would certainly have painted restrictionists as racists in any case, as indeed they had done before Brimelow. But the restrictionists handed them ammunition. [They don't need ammunition. Everyone can be called racist by the Left.] In the afterword to the paperback edition of Alien Nation, Brimelow suggests that by raising the topic of racial balances he freed more timid souls to make other objections to immigration. But this seems a misreading. The restrictionist cause was made disreputable by what could fairly be described as its obsession with race. [The April 2 issue of NR, in which this appears, mentions race three times on page 6, twice on page 8, twice on page 10, once on page 12, twice on 14, once on 15, pages 26, 27, and 28 are all one story calling for the firing of the black woman who heads the Commission on Civil Rights, once on page 31. Perhaps this obsession with race is catching. But obsession with race is more like Ken Starr's fabled "obsession with sex." Any prolonged investigation of Bill Clinton will turn up stories of kinky sex and even sex crimes. That's not the investigator's fault. By the same token, any serious look at politics in America will involve race. This has been true since the Missouri Compromise.]

That obsession also led to an ahistorical analysis of America's experience with immigration. Previous immigrant waves were thought to be less disruptive than today's because yesterday's immigrants were "white"—even though Italians and Slavs were by no means regarded as such at the time. One conservative columnist, [Don Feder, not named here.] for example, wrote that immigration at the turn of the last century was not analogous to immigration today because, back then, immigrants "all came from societies that respected law and had common concepts of justice, liberty, and individual responsibility." Like czarist Russia? [This is a direct slap at Feder's ancestors, immigrants from czarist Russia who were not Cossacks, but Jews. Russian Jews used to devote as much of their spare time as they could to the study of the Talmud, with its thousands of pages of ethical arguments on the subjects of, yes, justice, liberty, and individual responsibility. This is different from importing the same number of Hindus, Muslims, or Chinese. Some of those societies are opposed to justice, liberty, and individual responsibility. An example that springs to mind is that of K. S. Sudarshan, chief of the RSS party in Ponnuru's ancestral India. Sudarshan has officially come out against individual rights, on the Hindu religious grounds that people aren't individuals. Even the Czar didn't agree with that; when it came to individual rights, he was the individual and he had the rights.] To treat racial categories as fixed and immutable leads not only to bad history but to bad predictions. The notion that American whites will soon become a minority surrounded by Asians and Hispanics, which is central to Alien Nation, depends on the assumed unasimmilabsility of those groups. But one of the arguments for reducing immigration is that it would encourage assimilation, including intermarriage, and thus reduce the importance of racial distinctions. It is not, however, an argument that can be made by those for whom such distinctions are everything.

Pro-immigrationists refuse to engage in any analysis of what level of immigration would be best for America. And the restrictionists are complicit in this failure.

The fixation on race has become more pronounced as the restrictionists' political influence has declined. A case in point is Brimelow's recent attack on NR for having "caved on immigration"--an attack posted on his website, VDARE.COM (named for Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America). [i.e. in itself proof of "racism."] His proof is that William F Buckley Jr. does not believe that America should try to preserve its racial balance-even though Brimelow also notes that immigration is about much more than race. He refers as well to a "magisterial review" in another publication [American Renaissance, which, again, Ponnuru doesn't name] by one James Lubinskas, an essay that laments that NR gave up on defending racial segregation in the South. So much for Brimelow's previous argument that immigration should be opposed out of tender-hearted solicitude for the economic interests of the black underclass. [Well, actually, not so much for Brimelow's previous argument. This is what one W. Buckley would call a non sequitur. Immigration harms both blacks and whites. It hurts blacks worse because they're poorer. Hispanic immigration means black unemployment. It hurts whites in a different way, because they're the majority, and they don't qualify for affirmative action.]

Brimelow quotes Lubinskas's remark that NR has sunk so low that it now publishes attacks on "popular white conservatives"—he means, oddly enough, Pat Buchanan [Buchanan is popular, and he is a conservative. NR's lengthy history of trying to rule on who is and who isn't a conservative gets them much disliked.]by "senior editors with Indian surnames." NR can thus no longer be considered an ally, Lubinskas writes, in fighting "the displacement of the country's founding stock by aliens." (The Lubinskas clan, one assumes, came over on the Mayflower.) [Lithuaniuans like Lubinskas are closer culturally to the Pilgrims than: the Chaldeans of Detroit, the Somalians of Manhattan, the Cape Verdeans of Massachusetts, or for that matter the Aztecs and Apaches who were here before the Plymouth Colony. It's even possible that they're closer to the Pilgrims than, for example, unassimilated Hindus, who, unlike the civilised Ponnuru or Tunku Varadarajan, do things like "murdering Christian missionaries, destroying mosques and churches, and even objecting to Valentine's Day." We would have refrained from mentioning that if it hadn't been for the attacks on Feder's and Lubinskas' ancestry.] Since even most whites find this sort of stuff repellent and absurd, a movement that traffics in it will quickly achieve the irrelevance it deserves. No matter how much it talks about preserving America, its hostility to the country we actually live in will speak louder. [Some of the present problem is recent and reversible. When Rudy Giuliani was first elected, was he hostile towards the New York he "actually lived in," with its 2000 murders annually? Or was he trying to restore it?]


None of this is to excuse the follies of the pro-immigrationists. They have never thought much about the cultural preconditions of nationhood. They constantly say that "America is more than a nation, it's an idea." But the restrictionists rightly observe that America is more than an idea—it's a nation. And nations are held together not just by shared political ideas, on which people of the same nation can disagree and people of different nations can agree, but by a common culture.

Because they generally do not recognize the importance of a common culture, advocates of high immigration have given lip service, at best, to assimilation. Some pro-immigration conservatives, to be sure, have argued that big levels of immigration are compatible with vigorous efforts at assimilation. They argue, for example, that the schools should teach English. But even they have not drawn any lessons from the failure of any practical politician to follow their lead in making a distinction between high immigration and multiculturalism. Hispanics voted heavily against the English-language initiative in California in 1998. And George W Bush, in seeking the Hispanic vote, [Steve Sailer and Sam Francis have written at length about the pointlessness of pandering to Hispanics, especially from the point of view of a Presidential candidate. It's the Electoral College that elects the President, and 73% of Hispanics are in two states.] challenged neither immigration nor "bilingual education."

And like the restrictionists, the high-immigration crowd has its own historical myths. They will often note that a century ago people had the same concerns about Italian immigrants as they do now about Hispanics. [Click here for Michael Barone's recitation of this belief and here for Steve Sailer's refutation.] They do not stop to consider that the assimilation of Italian-Americans took place largely during an immigration pause—let alone that there might have been a connection between the two phenomena.

Very few supporters of immigration take the extreme view of the editors of the Wall Street Journal, who want a constitutional amendment that says, "There shall be open borders." (No joke.) But few of them take their opposition to open borders to its logical conclusion: that if there is no reason in principle that immigration cannot be limited, there is also no reason in principle that that limit cannot be set at a lower level than today's. They refuse to engage in any analysis of what level of immigration would be best for America.

And the restrictionists, because they have made it so easy for supporters of immigration to avoid this analysis, are complicit in this failure. It isn't as though there were no other models of an anti-immigration politics available: In the mid '90s, Nathan Glazer, Glenn Loury, and the commission led by Barbara Jordan all advocated a moderate restrictionist position. And there were, in fact, lively disagreements among anti-immigration activists. But too many of them indulged the fantasy that they could make immigration the central, realigning issue of American politics. They used apocalyptic rhetoric: The country was being "inundated," it might not survive, etc. [This was written before the latest figures on illegal immigrants were released, and before 9/11, immigration's Pearl Harbor, but that's no excuse for ignoring the demographic realities. "Inundated" by the way, means flooded. What would you call it?]

Even if they believed their own rhetoric, they should have been more careful. Seven years ago, John O'Sullivan concluded a cover story on immigration in NR by asking pro-immigration conservatives to reconsider their position because "the survival of America is a big thing to get wrong." I favor cutting immigration not because America's survival is at stake, but because it would make for a stronger, more cohesive America. But if uncontrolled immigration really does put America's survival at stake, a strategy to change that policy is a pretty big thing to get wrong, too.

[If by get it wrong, you mean political feasibility, you might want to take a look at the numbers of the last election. Here's what John O'Sullivan wrote in the Pre-Purge National Review:

What they demonstrate, of course, is that conservative nervousness and Republican passivity over the multicultural fraying of America is politically foolish as well as morally obtuse. These Americans know, with Macaulay, that an acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia, and they know, with Bob Dole, that their little acre was once safer and better tended than it is today. They would like to restore it to its earlier condition. Their only problem is that conservatives [now including NR] are giving them no one to vote for. ]




November 03, 2001