Peter Brimelow’s “Time To Rethink Immigration”—The Twenty Year Anniversary Edition
[See also Time To Rethink Immigration (II): Freeing America From The Immigration Gulag, By Peter Brimelow, June 5, 2006]
James Fulford writes:
Today, Mitt Romney has come out with a disastrous immigration statement that panders to Hispanics, but not as much as Obama did, promises to replace Obama`s unconstitutional, illegal, even impeachable, Obamnesty, with something that is just that much less unconstitutional, illegal, and impeachable—but not enough to win the election, let alone save America. Oh, and he wants to increase skilled immigration, further immiserating the American Middle Class.
France’s Bourbon monarchs were said, when they were restored after Waterloo, to have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Mitt Romney is the modern Bourbon candidate, but there is not going to be a Republican Restoration if he continues on this path.
By a pleasing coincidence, Peter Brimelow’s “Time To Rethink Immigration” cover story in National Review was dated twenty years ago this Friday. We present it here in an anniversary, re-hyperlinked form.
John O`Sullivan devoted most of the June 22nd, 1992 National Review to this piece (14, 000 words). The cover featured a picture of the Statue Of Liberty with her hand up like a traffic cop and the words “Tired? Poor? Huddled? Tempest-Tossed? Try Australia.`` That wasn`t popular with immigration enthusiasts.
That wasn`t popular with “so-called Hispanics”—which in this context means almost exclusively Mexican-Americans, but in other contexts might mean anything. (Brimelow`s point.)
Mitt Romney take note—this article was published during the 1992 Presidential election season, in which the incumbent, Bush the First, was contesting with Clinton. Bush the First ignored immigration and the National Question and lost. Four years later, Dole also ignored it and lost. George II did just about get himself elected because of eight years of cumulative Clinton backlash, but also ignored the National Question and led the GOP to epochal defeat. Now Bush advisors are telling Romney to do the same.
Note: An earlier version of this article, broken into two parts, is still on the site. We’re keeping it because so many of our other articles link to it.
Time To Rethink Immigration
First published in National Review, June 22, 1992
DANTE would have been delighted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service waiting rooms. They would have provided him with a tenth Circle of Hell. There is something distinctly infernal about the spectacle of so many lost souls waiting around so hopelessly, mutually incomprehensible in virtually every language under the sun, each clutching a number from one of those ticket-issuing machines which may or may not be honored by the INS clerks before the end of the Civil Service working day.
The danger of damnation is perhaps low—although a Scottish friend of mine once found himself flung into the deportation holding tank because the INS misunderstood its own rules. And toward the end of my own ten-year trek through the system, I whiled away a lot of time watching confrontations between suspicious INSers and agitated Iranians, apparently hauled in because the Iran hostage crisis had inspired the Carter Administration to ask how many of them were enrolled in U.S. universities. (The INS was unable to provide an answer during the 444 days of the hostage crisis-or, as it turned out, at all.)
Nevertheless, you can still get a pretty good blast of brimstone if you dare suggest that it might be another of those misunderstandings when, having finally reached the head of the line, you are ordered by the clerk to go away and come back another day with a previously unmentioned Form XYZ.
Your fellow huddled masses accept this treatment with a horrible passivity. Perhaps it is imbued in them by eons of arbitrary government in their native lands. Only rarely is there a flurry of protest. At its center, almost invariably, is an indignant American spouse.
Just as New York City`s government can`t stop muggers but does a great job ticketing young women on Park Avenue for failing to scoop up after their lapdogs, current U.S. immigration policy in effect enforces the law only against those who obey it. Annual legal immigration of some 950,000-counting the 140,000 refugees and the 100,000 granted political asylum-is overwhelmed by the 2 to 3 million illegal entries into the country every year, which result in a net annual increase of perhaps 250,000 illegal aliens. (A cautious estimate-again, no one really knows.)
The INS bureaucracy still grinds through its rituals. But meanwhile the U.S. has lost control of its borders. As it turned out, I could have avoided my INS decade by the simple expedient of staying here after I graduated from Stanford in 1972 and waiting to be amnestied, along with some 3.2 million other illegal immigrants, by the 1986 Immigration Act.
There is another parallel with New York: Just as when you leave Park Avenue and descend into the subway, on entering the INS waiting rooms you find yourself in an underworld that is almost entirely colored. In 1990, for example, only 8 per cent of 1.5 million legal immigrants, including amnestied illegals, came from Europe. (And a good few of those were on-migrants from Asia or the Caribbean.)
Only the incurious could fail to wonder: Where do all these people get off and come to the surface? That is: What impact will they have on America?
Where Will They Surface?
AMERICAN LIBERALS, of course, are determinedly, even devoutly, incurious about this subject. You quickly learn not to raise such matters with them at all.
The silence of American conservatives has a more complex cause. To a significant degree, it`s due to sheer ignorance. In the early 1970s, a battle-scarred Goldwater veteran brushed aside my news from the INS waiting rooms. The U.S., he said, was far too big for immigration to have any but the most marginal effect. When later I showed him a news report that the inflow from the former British West Indies had quintupled during the previous decade, he was astonished. (These numbers add up. By 1973, over 220,000 West Indians lived in the New York area alone. And it was just the beginning. The number of Jamaicans immigrating to the U.S. between 1951 and 1980 amounted to more than a tenth of the island`s population. By 1990, almost another tenth of Jamaica had arrived in the U.S., the highest proportion from any country in the world.)
Very few people can absorb new realities after the age of 21. And conservative leaders now in their fifties spent their formative years in one of the greatest lulls in the history of American immigration—the result of restrictive quota legislation designed to favor Northern Europeans in the 1920s, followed by the Depression and World War II. Amazingly, only about 500,000 legal immigrants entered the U.S. in the whole of the 1930s. (In those days, there was virtually no illegal immigration.) And only about a million entered in the 1940s, including World War II refugees. By contrast, of course, the U.S. accepted over 1.5 million immigrants, counting only legals, in the single year of 1990 alone.
The Great Immigration Lull was ended dramatically by the 1965 Immigration Act. Typical of so many Great Society reforms, it was passed amid much moralizing rhetoric and promptly had exactly the opposite of its advertised effect.
U.S. immigration policy was not transformed without debate. There was a debate. It just bore no relationship to what subsequently happened. In particular, staunch defenders of the national-origins quota system, like the American Legion, allowed themselves to be persuaded that the new legislation really enacted a sort of worldwide quota, no longer skewed toward Northern Europe—a policy easily caricatured as “racist” in the era of the civil-rights movement—but still restricting overall immigration to the then-current level of around 300,000. (A detailed account of Congress`s deluded intent and the dramatic consequences appears in Lawrence Auster`s devastating The Path to National Suicide: An Essay on Immigration and Multiculturalism, published by AICF.)
Today, it is astonishing to read the categorical assurances given by supporters of the 1965 Immigration Act. “What the bill will not do,” summarized Immigration Subcommittee chairman Senator Edward Kennedy: “First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same … Secondly, the ethnic mix will not be upset . . . Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia . . .”
Every one of these assurances has proved false. Immigration levels did surge upward—they are now running at a million a year. Immigrants do come predominantly from one sort of area—85 per cent of the 11.8 million legal immigrants arriving in the U.S. between 1971 and 1990 were from the Third World, 44 per cent from Latin America and the Caribbean, 36 per cent from Asia—and from one country: 20 per cent from Mexico. And about 33,000 Africans arrived in 1990, which looks small only by comparison.
Above all, the American ethnic mix has been upset. In 1960, the U.S. population was 88.6 per cent white; in 1990, it was only 75.6 per cent white—a drop of 13 percentage points in thirty years. (Indeed, the proportion of “European-Americans” is probably a couple of percentage points lower than that, because the Census Bureau counts all Middle Easterners as “white.”) The demographer Leon Bouvier has projected that by 2020—that is, easily within the lifetimes of many NATIONAL REVIEW readers—the proportion of whites could fall as low as 61 per cent. Among children under 15, minorities could be approaching the point of becoming the majority.
These projections put into context the common claim that—as Professor Julian Simon put it in The Economic Consequences of Immigration (1990), a book that has been widely accepted by conservatives as their bible on the subject—”contemporary immigration is not high by U.S. historical standards.” In fact, immigration is high, in terms of absolute numbers, by comparison with all but the peak decade of 1901-10, when about 8.7 million immigrants arrived, part of the great wave from Southern Europe. And counting illegals, the 1981-90 decade probably matched and may have exceeded that total. Furthermore, this latest wave shows no sign of receding. Nor, given the Third World`s demographic structure, is there any particular reason to suppose it will.
Of course, immigration is lower in relative terms than in the first decade of the twentieth century—the total U.S. population at that time was less than a third of today`s. However, this was not a proportion that could extend indefinitely. Immigration has never been relatively higher than when the second Pilgrim Father came down the gangplank, increasing the Plymouth Colony`s population by 100 per cent. As it is, the U.S. takes half of all the emigrants in the world.
But it also is crucial to note a point always omitted in pro-immigration polemics: in 1900, the U.S. birthrate was much higher than today. American Anglos` birthrates, for example, are now below replacement levels. So immigrants have proportionately more demographic impact. By the early 1980s, immigration was running at the equivalent of about 16 per cent of native births-including births to immigrants—and rising. This is eminently comparable to the 19.9 per cent of 1901-10. Hence the steadily shifting ethnic balance.
“The government should dissolve the people and elect another one,” quipped the Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht after the East German riots of 1953. For good or ill, the U.S. political elite seems to be acting on his advice.
Immigration Sleight of Hand
PERHAPS BECAUSE the 1965 Immigration Act was slipped through in such a deceptive way, many Americans, and many conservatives, just do not realize that it is directly responsible for this transformation of their country. They tend to assume that a kind of natural phenomenon is at work—that Hispanics, for example, increased from 4.5 per cent of the U.S. population in 1970 to 9 per cent in 1990 because they somehow started sprouting out of the earth like spring corn.
But no natural process is at work. The current wave of immigration, and America`s shifting ethnic balance, is simply the result of public policy. A change in public policy opened the Third World floodgates after 1965. A further change in public policy could shut them. Public policy could even restore the status quo ante 1965, which would slowly shift the ethnic balance back.
It`s often said that Europeans no longer want to emigrate. But in fact the 1965 Act cut back a continuing flow: the number of British immigrants, for example, had been running at around 28,000 a year and was immediately reduced by about half. Along with other Europeans, the British seem simply to have been diverted to the countries that compete with the U.S. for skilled immigrants: above all Australia and Canada.
And all such dogmatic assertions about immigration are dangerous. Witness the sudden influx of more than 100,000 illegal Irish immigrants in the late 1980s—and the wholly unexpected unfreezing of a sea of potential immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.
Since 1965, moreover, U.S. public policy has in effect actively discriminated against Europeans. This is because, in another reversal, the 1965 Act placed a higher priority on “family reunification” than on admitting immigrants with skills. And “reunification” meant relatives no matter how remote. So the new immigrants arriving from countries that had not been traditional sources were able to sponsor so many additional immigrants that they crowded out European applicants with skills but no family connections from the “overall quota”—before spilling over into the special category of admissions outside the “overall quota,” which turned out to be vastly larger than predicted.
As a result, the post-1965 immigration is not only much bigger than expected: it is also less skilled. And it is becoming even less so—one economist, Professor George J. Borjas, himself a Cuban immigrant, has gone so far as to say, in his 1990 Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy, that “the skill level of successive immigrant waves admitted to the U.S. has declined precipitously in the past two or three decades.” For example, in 1986 less than 4 per cent of the over 600,000 legal immigrants were admitted on the basis of skills.
Paradoxically, Borjas says, the U.S. attracts disproportionate numbers of unskilled people from Third World countries because the income distribution there is so unequal. The poor have the most to gain. Conversely, it is skilled workers who have the most to gain by leaving egalitarian Western Europe—if they could get in here.
Some more skilled immigrants will be coming to America as a result of legislation in 1990, which—initially as a result of pressure from Irish groups—increased the skill quota by rather less than 100,000. But the price of this, extracted by other, post-1965 ethnic lobbies, was a substantial overall increase in family reunification immigration.
Come, All Ye Huddled Masses
JUST AS conservatives tend to think immigration is a natural phenomenon, they also assume vaguely that it must have been ratified by some free-market process. But immigration to the U.S. is not determined by economics: it is determined—or at least profoundly distorted—by public policy. Inevitably, there are mismatches between skills supplied and skills demanded. Which helps explain why—as Borjas demonstrated in Friends or Strangers —welfare participation and poverty rates are sharply higher among the post1965 immigrants, with some groups, such as Dominicans and other Hispanics, approaching the levels of American-born blacks.
Borjas`s findings, although well understood among specialists, will be surprising to many conservatives. They contrast sharply with some of Julian Simon`s more familiar conclusions. The basic reason: Simon`s data were old, reflecting earlier, more traditional immigrant groups—another danger in this rapidly changing area.
Such is the grip of the American elite`s pro-immigration consensus, however, that book reviewers simply assumed Borjas must be pro-immigration too. They failed to pick up what he described as his “worrisome” evidence that problems were developing with the post1965 immigrant flow. Thus Business Week`s Michael J. Mandel reviewed both Borjas`s and Simon`s books under the drum-beating heading “DOES AMERICA NEED MORE `HUDDLED MASSES`? YES.” Possibly provoked by such total misreadings, Borjas the following year spelled out his position in the preface to his paperback edition:
it is almost certain that during the 1990s new immigrants will make up at least a third of all new labor market entrants. In view of the available empirical evidence, there is no economic rationale to justify this huge increase in the size of the foreign-born population. (Italics added!)
On close examination, at least some pro-immigration enthusiasts turn out to be perfectly well aware that current policy is deeply flawed. Ben J. Wattenberg has popularized the idea that the U.S. can become “The First Universal Nation ,” as his 1991 book is titled, drawing its population from every corner of the globe. This romantic vision has entranced quite a few conservatives. But they don`t seem to have noticed that in that book, Wattenberg actually calls for “designer immigration”—radically reoriented toward skills rather than family reunification, keeping out illegals and ending what he describes as the “odd situation” whereby Europeans are effectively discriminated against. Of course, he hastens to add, this will not cut back on Third World immigrants as such. (Wattenberg tells me that the 1990 Act was merely “a good solid half-step forward” and that he “still advocates designer immigration.”)
`A Nation of Immigrants`
EVERYONE HAS seen a speeded-up film of the cloudscape. What appears to the naked eye to be a panorama of almost immobile grandeur writhes into wild life. Vast patterns of soaring, swooping movement are suddenly discernible. Great towering cumulo-nimbus formations boil up out of nowhere, dominating the sky in a way that would be terrifying if it were not, in real life, so gradual that we are barely aware that anything is going on. This is a perfect metaphor for the development of the American nation. America, of course, is exceptional. What is exceptional about it, however, is not the way in which it was created, but the speed.
`”We are a nation of immigrants.” No discussion of U.S. immigration policy gets far without someone making this helpful remark. As an immigrant myself, I always pause respectfully. You never know. Maybe this is what they`re taught to chant in schools nowadays, a sort of multicultural Pledge of Allegiance.
But it secretly amuses me. Do they really think other nations sprouted up out of the ground? (“Autochthonous” is the classical Greek word.) The truth is that all nations are nations of immigrants. But the process is usually so slow and historic that people overlook it. They mistake for mountains what are merely clouds.
This is obvious in the case of the British Isles, from which the largest single proportion of Americans are still derived. You can see it in the place-names. Within a few miles of my parents` home in the north of England, the names are Roman (Chester, derived from the Latin for camp), Saxon (anything ending in -ton, town, like Oxton), Viking (-by, farm, like Irby), and Norman French (Delamere). At times, these successive waves of peoples were clearly living cheek by jowl. Thus among these place-names is Wallesey, Anglo-Saxon for “Island of the Welsh”—Welsh being derived from the word used by low-German speakers for foreigners wherever they met them, from Wallonia to Wallachia. This corner of the English coast continued as home to some of the pre-Roman Celtic stock, not all of whom were driven west into Wales proper as was once supposed.
The English language that America speaks today (or at least spoke until the post-1965 fashion for bilingual education) reflects the fact that the peoples of Britain merged, eventually; their separate contributions can still be traced in it. Every nation in Europe went through the same process. Even the famously homogeneous Japanese show the signs of ethnically distinct waves of prehistoric immigration.
But merging takes time. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, it was nearly three hundred years before the invaders were assimilated to the point where court proceedings in London were again heard in English. And it was nearly nine centuries before there was any further large-scale immigration into the British Isles—the Caribbean and Asian influx after World War II.
Except in America. Here the process of merging has been uniquely rapid. Thus about 7 million Germans have immigrated to the U.S. since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their influence has been profound—to my British eye it accounts for the odd American habit of getting up in the morning and starting work. About 50 million Americans told the 1980 Census that they were wholly or partly of German descent. But only 1.6 million spoke German in their homes.
What Is a Nation?
SO ALL NATIONS are made up of immigrants. But what is a nation—the end-product of all this merging? This brings us into a territory where words are weapons, exactly as George Orwell pointed out years ago. “Nation”—as suggested by its Latin root nascere, to be born intrinsically implies a link by blood. A nation is an extended family. The merging process through which all nations pass is not merely cultural, but to a considerable extent biological, through intermarriage.
Liberal commentators, for various reasons, find this deeply distressing. They regularly denounce appeals to common ethnicity as “nativism” or “tribalism.” Ironically, when I studied African history in college, my politically correct tutor deprecated any reference to “tribes.” These small, primitive, and incoherent groupings should, he said, be dignified as “nations.” Which suggests a useful definition: tribalism/nativism is nationalism of which liberals disapprove.
American political debate on this point is hampered by a peculiar difficulty. American editors are convinced that the term “state” will confuse readers unless reserved exclusively for the component parts of the United States—New York, California, etc. So when talking about sovereign political structures, where the British would use “state,” the Germans “Staat,” and the French “l`etat,” journalists here are compelled to use the word “nation.” Thus in the late 1980s it was common to see references to “the nation of Yugoslavia,” when Yugoslavia`s problem was precisely that it was not a nation at all, but a state that contained several different small but fierce nations—Croats, Serbs etc. (In my constructive way, I`ve been trying to introduce, as an alternative to “state,” the word “polity”—defined by Webster as “a politically organized unit.” But it`s quite hopeless. Editors always confuse it with “policy.”)
This definitional difficulty explains one of the regular entertainments of U.S. politics: uproar because someone has unguardedly described America as a “Christian nation.” Of course, in the sense that the vast majority of Americans are Christians, this is nothing less than the plain truth. It is not in the least incompatible with a secular state (polity).
But the difficulty over the N-word has a more serious consequence: it means that American commentators are losing sight of the concept of the “nation-state”—a sovereign structure that is the political expression of a specific ethno-cultural group. Yet the nation-state was one of the crucial inventions of the modern age. Mass literacy, education, and mobility put a premium on the unifying effect of cultural and ethnic homogeneity. None of the great pre-modern multinational empires have survived. (The Brussels bureaucracy may be trying to create another, but it has a long way to go.)
This is why Ben Wattenberg is able to get away with talking about a “Universal Nation.” On its face, this is a contradiction in terms. It`s possible, as Wattenberg variously implies, that he means the diverse immigrant groups will eventually intermarry, producing what he calls, quoting the English poet John Masefield, a “wondrous race.” Or that they will at least be assimilated by American culture, which, while globally dominant, is hardly “universal.” But meanwhile there are hard questions. What language is this “universal nation” going to speak? How is it going to avoid ethnic strife? dual loyalties? collapsing like the Tower of Babel? Wattenberg is not asked to reconcile these questions, although he is not unaware of them, because in American political discourse the ideal of an American nation-state is in eclipse.
Ironically, the same weaknesses were apparent in the rather similar concept of “cultural pluralism” invented by Horace M. Kallen at the height of the last great immigration debate, before the Quota Acts of the 1920s. Kallen, like many of today`s pro-immigration enthusiasts, reacted emotionally against the calls for “Americanization” that the 1880-to-1920 immigrant wave provoked. He argued that any unitary American nationality had already been dissipated by immigration (sound familiar?). Instead, he said, the U.S. had become merely a political state (polity) containing a number of different nationalities.
Kallen left the practical implications of this vision “woefully undeveloped” (in the words of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups). It eventually evolved into a vague approval of tolerance, which was basically how Americans had always treated immigrant groups anyway—an extension, not coincidentally, of how the English built the British nation.
But in one respect, Kallenism is very much alive: he argued that authentic Americanism was what he called “the American Idea.” This amounted to an almost religious idealization of “democracy,” which again was left undeveloped but which appeared to have as much to do with non-discrimination and equal protection under the law as with elections. Today, a messianic concern for global “democracy” is being suggested to conservatives as an appropriate objective for U.S. foreign policy.
And Kallenism underlies the second helpful remark that someone always makes in any discussion of U.S. immigration policy: “America isn`t a nation like the other nations—it`s an idea.”
Once more, this American exceptionalism is really more a matter of degree than of kind. Many other nations have some sort of ideational reinforcement. Quite often it is religious, such as Poland`s Roman Catholicism; sometimes cultural, such as France`s ineffable Frenchness. And occasionally it is political. Thus—again not coincidentally—the English used to talk about what might be described as the “English Idea”: English liberties, their rights as Englishmen, and so on. Americans used to know immediately what this meant. As Jesse Chickering wrote in 1848 of his diverse fellow Americans: “English laws and institutions, adapted to the circumstances of the country, have been adopted here . . . The tendency of things is to mold the whole into one people, whose leading characteristics are English, formed on American soil.”
What is unusual in the present debate, however, is that Americans are now being urged to abandon the bonds of a common ethnicity and instead to trust entirely to ideology to hold together their state (polity). This is an extraordinary experiment, like suddenly replacing all the blood in a patient`s body. History suggests little reason to suppose it will succeed. Christendom and Islam have long ago been sundered by national quarrels. More recently, the much-touted “Soviet Man,” the creation of much tougher ideologists using much rougher methods than anything yet seen in the U.S., has turned out to be a Russian, Ukrainian, or Kazakh after all.
Which is why Shakespeare has King Henry V say, before the battle of Agincourt, not “we defenders of international law and the dynastic principle as it applies to my right to inherit the throne of France,” but
However, although intellectuals may have decided that America is not a nation but an idea, the news has not reached the American people-especially that significant minority who sternly tell the Census Bureau their ethnicity is “American.” (They seem mostly to be of British origin, many generations back.) And it would have been considered absurd throughout most of American history.
John Jay in The Federalist Papers wrote that Americans were “one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” Some hundred years later, Theodore Roosevelt in his Winning of the West traced the “perfectly continuous history” of the Anglo-Saxons from King Alfred to George Washington. He presented the settling of the lands beyond the Alleghenies as “the crowning and greatest achievement” of “the spread of the English-speaking peoples,” which—though personally a liberal on racial matters—he saw in explicit terms: “it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.”
Roosevelt himself was an example of ethnicities merging to produce this new nation. He thanked God—he teased his friend Rudyard Kipling—that there was “not a drop of British blood” in him. But that did not stop him from identifying with Anglo-Saxons or from becoming a passionate advocate of an assimilationist Americanism, which crossed ethnic lines and was ultimately to cross racial lines.
And it is important to note that, at the height of the last great immigration wave, Kallen and his allies totally failed to persuade Americans that they were no longer a nation. Quite the contrary: once convinced that their nationhood was threatened by continued massive immigration, Americans changed the public policies that made it possible. While the national-origins quotas were being legislated, President Calvin Coolidge put it unflinchingly: “America must be kept American.”
Everyone knew what he meant.
`Pulling Up the Ladder`
And the American lifeboat undeniably did stabilize after the 1920s. It took time. As late as 1963, when Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan published Beyond The Melting Pot, the ethnic groups that had arrived in the 1880-to-1920 wave appeared not to be assimilating into the American mainstream. At best, as Will Herberg argued in Protestant, Catholic, Jew, there was a “triple melting pot” working within the major religious communities—for example, Irish Catholics marrying Italian Catholics; German Jews marrying Russian Jews.
But then, just when the media-academic complex had tooled up an entire industry based on the “unmeltable ethnics,” they started to melt. The figures are dramatic. According to Robert C. Christopher in his 1989 Crashing the Gates: The De-Wasping of America`s Power Elite, half of all Italian-Americans born since World War II married non-Catholics, mainly Protestants; some 40 per cent of Jews marrying in the 1980s chose Gentile spouses, a phenomenon rare if not unknown only twenty years earlier.
Christopher, a former Newsweek writer and political liberal, naturally saw this development as an emerging cultural synthesis free (at last!) of any nasty ethnic connotations at all. But there is a simpler interpretation: the American nation was just swallowing, and then digesting—Wasping, to adapt Christopher`s terminology—an unusually large and spicy immigrant meal.
This pattern of swallowing and digesting has recurred throughout American history. Waves of immigration have been followed by lulls right back into colonial times. After the turmoil of the Revolutionary War, there was a Great Lull remarkably similar to the one earlier this century. For nearly fifty years, there was practically no immigration at all. The U.S. grew rapidly through natural increase. But the make-up of the white population remained about what it had been in the 1790 Census: largely (60 per cent) English, heavily (80 per cent) British, and overwhelmingly (98 per cent) Protestant. This was the nation Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America (1835)—an irony, since his name has now been adopted by Gregory Fossedal`s pro-immigration lobby. That Tocqueville`s analysis still has relevance is a tribute to that nation`s powers of assimilation and cultural transmission.
Thereafter, immigration relative to U.S. population peaked about every fifteen or twenty years: in 1851-54, 1866-73, 1881-83, 1905-07, and 1921-24. In between it plunged, by as much as three-quarters or more. And the ethnic composition continuously changed. Earlier in the century, the largest element was Irish; in the middle, German; by the end, from Southern and Eastern Europe. After 1924, immigration was reduced to a trickle but that trickle was from Northern and Western Europe. These variations in the magnitude and make-up of immigration were vital to the process of digestion.
And this pattern of variation puts a different perspective on the immigration debate. For example, it is conventional to dismiss all concerns about immigration with the argument that such fears have proved groundless in the past. Of course, this is illogical. Just because a danger has been averted in the past does not mean it cannot happen in the future. Many passengers might have climbed aboard the lifeboat safely; one more may still capsize it.
But in fact these concerns, which have been expressed by the most eminent Americans going right back to colonial times, were perfectly reasonable. They were rendered moot only by changing circumstances. Thus Benjamin Franklin worried about German immigration in 1751: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them… ?” Franklin was not proved wrong: instead, German immigration was halted—in the short run, by the Seven Years` War (1756-63); in the longer run, by the post-Revolution Great Lull.
Similarly, the nativist anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” insurrection, which had seized six state governments and elected 75 congressmen by 1855, was the reaction, harsh but human, of a Protestant nation that had forgotten immigration to its apparently imminent inundation by Irish Catholics fleeing the 1846 potato famine. Subsequently, Know-Nothingism receded, partly because of the Civil War, but also because the supply of Irish Catholics turned out to be finite after all. The Irish made up nearly half of the 1851-54 wave. They were perhaps a fifth or less of the subsequent trough.
The public policies that excluded Asian immigration for nearly a hundred years also appear rather different in this historical perspective. The California Legislature`s 1876 report on immigration complained that the Chinese “have never adapted themselves to our habits, mode of dress, or our educational system… Impregnable to all the influences of our Anglo-Saxon life, they remain the same stolid Asiatics that have floated on the rivers and slaved in the fields of China for thirty centuries of time.” Whatever its dark motive, this is on its face a very specific complaint about the difficulty of assimilating immigrants from a pre-modern society. In the interim, the Orient has modernized. Today, immigrants from the area are often viewed (perhaps naively) as the most, well, “Anglo-Saxon,” of the current wave.
Ask a Stupid Question…
HISTORICAL perspective also discredits another conventional ploy in the immigration debate: “How can X be against immigration when the nativists wanted to keep his own great-grandfather out?” This, of course, is like arguing that a passenger already on board the lifeboat should refrain from pointing out that taking on more will cause it to capsize.
But let`s assume, for the sake of argument, that X is Irish-American. Disqualifying him from the debate overlooks the long and painful adjustment to America that the Irish, like every immigrant group, had to make. The Irish too came to the U.S. from what was still basically a pre-modern agricultural society. Throughout the nineteenth century, they displayed social pathologies strikingly similar to those of the current black ghetto: disease, violence, family breakdown, drug addiction (alcohol in those days), and, perhaps not surprisingly, virtually no intermarriage.
Slowly, over generations, America changed the Irish—and they changed themselves. Today, in terms of measures like income, education, and political affiliation, Irish-Americans are more or less indistinguishable from the mainstream, with which they have extensively intermarried. (Well… alcoholism is a little higher. But so are incomes.) In his book The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, the Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell describes this as “historically . . . one of the great social transformations of a people.” Irish-Americans have earned the hard way their right to opinions about who and how many their country can absorb.
The Irish changed themselves with a great deal of encouragement from a notably stern clergy. But the Roman Catholic Church itself made an adjustment to America. Indeed, the word “Americanization” was invented in the 1850s by a Vermont Yankee convert to Catholicism, Orestes A. Brownson, who argued in his Brownson`s Quarterly Review that the nativists had a point: the Irish should assimilate to the American nation that had already been formed; the Church should not identify itself with Old World autocracy—as Pius IX, after the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, was inclined to do. Brownson provoked a ferocious controversy. But, today, his view can be seen to have prevailed.
In politics as elsewhere, if you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer—at any rate a terse answer. And asking people if they want their communities to be overwhelmed by weird aliens with dubious habits is a stupid question. The answer is inevitable. Until now in America, chance circumstances and changes in public policy have always combined to change this question before the inevitable answer became too embarrassing. But the greater the number of immigrants, and the greater their difference from the American mainstream, the louder and ruder the answer will be.
The political elite may choose not to hear. Others, however, will.
Closing the Floodgates
AT THE MOMENT, the political elite shows every sign of choosing not to hear. The immigration floodgates were opened by accident in 1965. Opinion polls show most Americans want them shut—for example, in a recent poll by FAIR, 84 per cent wanted Congress to take a more active role in decreasing immigration and stopping the entry of illegal aliens. But the elite`s reaction is unexpectedly odd: it stands around idly, alternately ignoring the situation, denouncing anyone uncouth enough to mention it, and, most frequently, indulging in romantic rationalizations (“The more the merrier” “Diversity is strength”)
This sort of after-the-fact rationalization infests U.S. immigration history. Thus the much-loved lines on the base of the Statue of Liberty
. . . Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…
—are not part of the Declaration of Independence or some other pronouncement of the Founding Fathers. Instead, they are the reaction of a young Zionist, Emma Lazarus, to the Russian pogroms following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. They were added years after the dedication of the statue, which was a gift from France to commemorate the U.S centennial and originally supposed to symbolize, not “The Mother of Immigrants” in Miss Lazarus`s phrase, but “Liberty Lighting the World”—”liberty under law,” adds FAIR Chairman Dan Stein, thinking grimly of recent amnesties for illegals.
And they aren`t even true. American immigration has typically been quite selective, if only because the cost of passage was (until recently) an effective filter. “… even throughout the early history of the U.S.,” admits Julian Simon, “immigrants did not arrive with less education than natives had—contrary to popular belief and contrary to the famous poem by Emma Lazarus …” Early English settlers included Royalist gentry who went to Virginia, like George Washington`s ancestors, and Puritan gentry who went to New England, as Oliver Cromwell and his family once planned to do. And, whatever Yankees may have thought, the Irish immigrants of the 1850s were not the bottom of the barrel. Three-quarters of them were literate; their fares were commonly paid by established extended families.
It was thirty years from the founding of the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to the passing of the restrictions in the 1920s. FAIR was founded in 1979 and the AICF in 1983. So there are some years to go.
Still, there can be little doubt that, this time around, the political elite has been notably more inhibited about responding to the issue. One important reason has been pointed out by Katherine Betts in Ideology and Immigration, her study of the parallel Australian situation. Using polling data, Professor Betts showed that while non-traditional immigration was viewed with increasing hostility among ordinary Australians, the university-educated were inclined to favor it. Favoring immigration, she concluded, was “part of a cluster of values defining social status for Australian intellectuals.”
The “New Class,” as Irving Kristol has called the confluence of educators, bureaucrats, and media professionals, has everywhere emerged as the key sociological fact of late-twentieth-century political economies. Dogmatic attitudes on immigration and race have become a badge of New Class superiority to ordinary people—and a route to power, since the social stresses resulting from non-traditional immigration are a splendid excuse for further government programs.
Deference to these elite values explains to a significant degree the silence of American conservatives about the current immigration wave-in such striking contrast to the aggressive Americanism of Republicans from Henry Cabot Lodge to Theodore Roosevelt last time around.
In his first volume of his autobiography, Making It, Norman Podhoretz describes the “brutal bargain” by which he says the children of Eastern European Jews were accepted into WASP society at the price of repressing their ethnic mores. Similarly, American conservatives have reached what might be called a “bland bargain” with their country`s ruling establishment.
Conservatives are now somewhat more likely to be allowed into public debate than in the dark years of the 1950s. But they still must not say anything that impinges upon the truly sacred liberal taboos—above all anything that might be remotely connected with ethnicity or race. And immigration, of course, is inextricably so connected.
Slaves naturally try to curry favor with their masters. Some conservatives, fixated on the issue of economic growth, have apparently calculated that, by emphasizing the (assumed) need for more immigration, they can establish their non-racist credentials and even advance their limited agenda with the liberal elite.
Slaves can even grow to love their chains. Some conservatives have internalized the prohibitions under which they must operate. An example, alas, seems to be Paul Gigot, the otherwise estimable Washington columnist of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Writing about the question, which became an issue early in the 1992 presidential election cycle, of whether a million Englishmen or a million Zulus would assimilate more easily into Virginia, Gigot expressed good inside-the Beltway distaste. Then he added an economic-growth twist: “The Zulus… would probably work harder than the English.”[Potomac Watch: Pat Buchanan Puts Conservatism Back in a Pup Tent, December 13, 1991.]
This comment reveals an utter innocence about the reality of ethnic and cultural differences, let alone about little things like tradition and history—in short, the greater part of the conservative vision. Even in its own purblind terms, it is totally false. All the empirical evidence is that immigrants from developed countries assimilate better than those from underdeveloped countries. It is developed countries that teach the skills required for success in the United States. As Borjas puts it
“… the per capita GNP in the United Kingdom is more than six times greater than [that of] the Dominican Republic. It is not surprising that immigrant households originating in the Dominican Republic are about five times more likely to be on welfare than those in the United Kingdom.”
Let`s spell it out with an anecdote. Recently, the South African police were perplexed by an epidemic of murders on the black commuter trains between the townships and Johannesburg. Naturally, Nelson Mandela`s African National Congress blamed the government. But the victims were from all factions. Now it has emerged that the black operators of the semi-legal private cab services competing with the railroad had paid gangs of those hard-working Zulus to influence consumer preferences by going on board and throwing passengers from the moving trains.
Asking the Right Questions
SUPPOSING AMERICA`S political elite suddenly decided to notice immigration, what questions should they consider?
Is immigration really necessary to the economy?
Audiences always burst out laughing at one apparently gagless scene in the hit movie Back to the Future: the time-transported hero drives up to a gas station in the 1950s, and an army of uniformed attendants leaps forth to pump the gas, clean his windshield, fill his tires, polish his hubcaps, offer him maps, and so on. The joke was in the shock of self-recognition. It was only yesterday—and yet completely forgotten, so accustomed is everyone now to self-service.
“We need immigrants to meet the looming labor shortage/do the dirty work Americans won`t do.” This further item from the pro-immigration catechism seems to be particularly resonant for the American conservative movement, deeply influenced by libertarian ideas and open, somewhat, to the concerns of business.
But it has always seemed incongruous, given persistent high levels of unemployment among some American-born groups. Since these groups obviously eat, it would appear that public policy is subsidizing their choosiness about work, thus artificially stimulating the demand for immigrants.
And if there is a looming labor shortage (hotly disputed), it could presumably be countered by natalist policies—encouraging Americans to step up their below-replacement birthrate. Even the current high immigration inflow is exceeded by the 1.6 million abortions in the U.S. each year.
For example, the federal income-tax code could be adjusted to increase the child allowance. In 1950, this provision exempted the equivalent (in 1992 dollars) of $7,800 for each child; now, after inflation, it exempts only $2,100. Or the “marriage penalty”—by which a couple pay more in taxes if they marry than if they live together out of wedlock-could be abolished. Or the public-school cartel could be broken up, reducing the crushing costs of educating a child.
But Back to the Future make