AsianWeek | June 2, 1995
By Carlos Mendez
Peter Brimelow is the naughty, but honorable British schoolboy posing as a champion of the common man. His controversial new book, "Alien Nation," pleads that its subtitle discloses "Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster."
A senior editor at both Forbes and National Review, Brimelow expands in Alien Nation on a 1992 cover story published in the latter, a biweekly conservative opinion journal. Playing on the name of the syndicated television series and on the sociological notion of "alienation," the book launches another broadside attack on America's continuing "culture wars."
The book opens with a reference to Adolf Hitler and closes 274 pages later with a Thomas Paine quote. In between, the British-born Brimelow mines the immigration field with a selective interpretation of statistical data.
In the pugnacious style of a clever Oxford Union debater, Brimelow constructs an elaborate conservative rebuttal to the immigration debate. Marshalling the relevant historic, economic, sociological and cultural arguments, he works a complex issue into a dogmatic spin serving a particular ideological agenda.
Employing the financial journalism that is his stock in trade, Brimelow, a Stanford University graduate with a master's degree in business administration, makes the focal contention of his book in part numerical.
"The book is primarily about facts," contends the mild-mannered and gregarious Brimelow. "Some critics complain there aren't enough humans in it, or any interviews with immigrants. Well, I never intended to write a touchy-feely book. This is a very rigorous, analytical book despite what others may claim."
But "Alien Nation" is often the hyperbolic performance of a skilled controversialist wired online to the Nexus database, and well read in the nonfiction bestsellers of the last 20 years. In part, Brimelow charts America's political mood swings that both reflect and impact the nation's immigration policies.
And like a preacher at a whore-house raining fire and brimstone upon a reluctant flock, Brimelow valiantly tries to steer what he deems a wayward nation from its righteous path of sin.
In Brimelow's telling, the Fall originated in the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. In closing the door to a restrictionist history of pro-European immigration, the liberal activist government of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations opened the door to the rest of the world. The American demographic shift of the last 25 to 30 years is the act's unintended consequence.
Drafted in the era of civil-rights reform, the 1965 overhaul of immigration law eliminated quotas by national origin that critics and historians saw as a restrictive and racist system in its preference for immigrants of European origin.
"But remember," writes Brimelow, "that there are 191 independent countries in the world, up from 120 in 1965. And 191 into 700,000 [current annual ceiling] goes 3,664.9 times — far less than the 25,620 to which country is supposedly entitled. If one country fills its quota, others can't."
In the December 1993 issue of The New Republic, Nathan Glazer, dean of the immigration sociologists and author with Daniel Moynihan of the classic study "Beyond the Melting Pot," made the following point in response to Brimelow's original article:
"The consensus of 1924 [the sociopolitical forces that legislated the restrictive immigration law of that year] was finally swept away in 1965. The coalition that forced the abandonment of the arrangement of 1924 consisted of Jews, Catholics and liberals, who had for years fought against the preferences for northwestern Europe and the restrictions on Asia. The new immigration act abandoned all efforts to make distinctions among nations on grounds of race, size or historical connection. All would in principle be limited to a maximum of 20,000, under an overall cap of 290,000."
The growing economics of Western Europe during the 1960s, continues Glazer, the traditional push factors that once sent steady waves of European immigrants in search of the fabled promised land slowed migration to a trickle. While the iron curtain of the Soviet era kept the Eastern Bloc a literal "captive people."
In the same breath, immigration from Asia and Latin America rose almost exponentially. The continuing increase in both migrations was ably assisted by the "family reunification" provision of the new law, creating what became the "chain migration" effect. Priority was given to "permanent residents," who were now allowed to "petition" for members of their extended families.
As outlined in Brimelow's appendix based on official government sources, of the almost 44 million who migrated to the United States from 1820 to 1967, 80 percent were from Europe, 6.6 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 3.4 percent from Asia.
From 1968 to 1993, after the new law took effect, of the almost 17 million legal immigrants to the United States, 14 percent came from Europe, 47 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 34 percent from Asia — for a total of 5.6 million.
Brimelow notes that nearly "70 percent of the Asian population in 1990 was contributed by immigrants since 1970 and their American-born offspring."
The changing American demographic landscape created by the immigration reform of 1985, along with the reality of illegal immigration from along the southern border, has succeeded in making immigration — legal and illegal — "the great national panic" of the 1990s.
Along with "Islamic terrorism" and periodic spasms of "Red menace" and Indian-hunting that through time percolated in the collective American conscious and subconscious as demon perils, the complex web of immigration has become another field ripe for harvesting in shame or sorrow, but rarely with cool objectivity.
The economic insecurities spicing the debate and fueling antiimmigrant sentiments, in addition to environmental questions and issues of multiculturalism and bilingual education, often hide a more pernicious subtext and undercurrent.
What historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the disuniting of America" is seen by others largely as a coded concern about the country's evolving racial demographics. It is an issue usually discussed in the gentle words of polite society — a condition Brimelow now is only too happy to loudly correct.
If, as Brimelow claims, an estimated 2 million to 3 million Brits migrate illegally to the United States each year, then London's Heathrow Airport should vie with, if not surpass, San Ysidro or El Paso as a concern of the Immigration and Naturalization Services border patrol.
The accelerating immigration debate may prove a restorative boost to the American psyche. By throwing the doors open to questions of national identity, the "polity" — what Brimelow calls the constituent elements of the nation-state — may begin an overdue self-examination. The gathering storm, potentially threatening, may finally abate, actually shedding some light.
Meanwhile, the publication of "Alien Nation" is but one symptom of the current distemper. Brimelow's caricature of his opponents under "Immigration Policy as Psychotherapy" could double as a revealing self-portrait.
"A final, highly personal reason" the U.S. immigration debate is blocked, Brimelow contends, is that "such commentary about immigration is quite clearly the projection of personal values, fears, phobias and fantasies."
Brimelow makes an economic case for what then becomes essentially a cultural argument against present immigration laws. But his idea of culture is the strange, archaic, Teutonic notion of "blood and soil."
Like Pat Buchanan and the far right of the conservative movement, Brimelow, the sophisticated New Yorker, apparently wants to take back America and "American culture" — street by street, if need be.
Writing in a rhetorical manner in a New Yorker review of "Alien Nation," Michael Lind describes its author as reminding him "of an after-dinner speaker at a Klavern banquet," often making the droll Brimelow sound like an unrepentant racist.
"For the first time," writes Brimelow, "virtually all immigrants are racially distinct 'visible minorities.' They come not from Europe ... Instead, these new immigrants are from completely different, and arguably incompatible, cultural traditions."
Brimelow uses three graphs to highlight his ominous forebodings: "The Third World Overhang," "The Wedge" and "The Pincers." In the last, the white American population appears cornered by the encroaching black and Asian tide on one end and by the Hispanic on the other.
"The U.S. government," Brimelow observes, "officially projects an ethnic revolution in America. Specifically, it expects that American whites will be on the point [53 percent] of becoming a minority by the year 2050." Therein lies the rub. "To get a sense of perspective," continues Brimelow, "we have to go back to the beginning. And in the beginning, the American nation was white."
In a much-quoted passage, Brimelow writes, "Race is destiny in American politics ... It is simple common sense that Americans have a legitimate interest in their country's racial balance. It is common sense that they have a right to insist that their government stop shifting it. Indeed, it seems to me that they have a right to insist that it be shifted back."
The increased peopling of America by people of "non-traditional origin" — presumably other than the British Isles and the countries along the Nordic seacoast — then becomes, in Brimelow's hands, a dangerously racist or racialist argument.
In drawing a line between the hawks and the doves of the immigration debate, Brimelow creates a Manichean scheme. On the proponent side are the "enthusiasts," and, in a slick challenge to racial fidelity, the "alienists." On the opponent side, "the patriots."
Before Oklahoma City, "patriot" as an instrument of policy was last associated with a missile system. After Oklahoma City, the term leaves a sour odor.
In a providential stroke of irony, the second week of Brimelow's book-promotion tour found him in the Southland as Los Angeles prepared to mark the third anniversary of the riots.
In one of his more trenchant observations, Brimelow notes the flight of lower-income whites and the arrival of highly-educated ones to the L.A. region: "[A] dual economy seems to be emerging, with a white and Asian upper class and a black and brown proletariat. It may be convenient in the short run. but in the long run, it may well prove a sociological San Andreas Fault."
With all the panache of a roving gang of ghostbusters, "Alien Nation" rattles down a one-way Route 66, taking no prisoners. The narrative's implied hostility, which seem a product of the latest American fad — "the angry white male." But in person, Brimelow, a naturalized American citizen, is the furthest cry from aggrieved. Rather, he is the bemused, if somewhat befuddled, observer of the American scene.
Brimelow is also the proud father of an American-born son. Alex, now 4, makes a repeating visit through the pages of "Alien Nation," enlisted in a thankless task as metaphor of the endangered white American male.
Like many American political conservatives, Brimelow functions on a plateau of sublime principle, with an innate conviction of papal infallibility: mindless perhaps of the fact that ideas have human consequences; that face — once a matter of black and white, but now polychromatic — remains the great American dilemma. But Brimelow begs to differ.
"There's a tendency among American intellectuals," he contends over his first cup of morning coffee as Los Angeles awakes to a kind of spring "insurrection," "to take order for granted, to believe that this has been a peaceful, stable society for so long and will remain so. But it's not. It's a very fragile public order that can be disrupted. It is hard to hold societies together."
Remarking on Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Miles's review of his book in the April 1995 issue of the Atlantic, Brimelow voices surprise at Miles's objection to his call for a new Operation Wetback. A replay of that infamous forced removal of Mexican laborers from East Los Angeles in the 1950s is one of Brimelow's new policy recommendations.
"What he's saying," counters Brimelow a bit simplistically, "is that Americans have lost control of their national territory. He says this is impossible because it would cause civil war in East Los Angeles. Well, that's an extraordinary claim, which reinforces my thesis that this thing [illegal immigration] is out of control. I wouldn't have dared to make that claim. But that you can't enforce the law in certain parts of the country to me is extraordinary."
Brimelow quickly dismisses the historical circumstances that carved and created the state of California. And just as casually, he rejects the particular socioeconomic dynamics that make Los Angeles the geopolitical equivalent of a border town.
The 1950 census shows, says Brimelow, that 90 to 95 percent of the population of Los Angeles was Anglo. The 1990 INS figures estimate 4.5 million illegal residents in California. Threequarters are Hispanic, of which one-half are Mexicans.
"This used to be an Anglo society, but no longer is because of immigration," claims Brimelow.
The underlying principle of his book, says Brimelow, is extremely simple. "Is there any economic rationale, is there any reason to drive up the American population by 130-odd million by the year 2050? And second, what do the American people think about this? The answer to the first question is no — there's no economic rationale to this. And the answer to the second question is no — the American people hate it. They're violently and intensely opposed to it."
As a resident New Yorker, someone who works and relishes life in the big city, Brimelow is asked whether he would not appreciate seeing the rest of the country resemble New York. "No," comes the immediate reply, "I'd hate it. And, in any case, it's not up to me. What does the rest of the country think about this?"
But the heart of the matter, as critics have noted, is Brimelow's longing for a paradise lost — a supposedly white American world. And whether that longing is in fact racist.
Shifting into third gear, Brimelow drives his counterpoint home in a burst of rapid fire: "In forcing the debate and changing the shape and framework of the debate. It's like the famous American definition of the pioneer — a man who circles the covered wagons with arrows in his back. That's what I'm doing. I go in first and get all the obloquy. But I also alter the shape of the debate.
"There are two ways of looking at America if you look historically. One, it's a bunch of ideas; that people come here, believe the ideas, and decide to say, "Yes, I agree with all that.' Stand up in line and salute their allegiance to America. That's basically the neoconservative view of America.
"In my reading of American history that's something completely new, and became some sort of public dogma only after the second World War. Prior to that war, America was viewed as a nation like any other. Americans were people who arrived here from God-knows-where and evolved over a very long period of time. And there were no idcological questions at all.
"That's certainly what the Founding Fathers thought. If you read the Federalist Papers, John Jay explicitly said that. The reason we can make this thing work across the continent is that we are one people with one religion, one language, one history and one set of customs. He viewed American as a language..."
Brimelow is suddenly cut short and reminded that the fine words of the Federalist Papers and the creation of the American nation came at the great expense of its native people.
"Maybe," Brimelow replies, "they did [massacre the American Indians]. But I'm saying that's how they viewed themselves. As a matter of historical fact, that's what the American nation was.
"If you look at the first census of 1790, it's 80 percent white. The 20 percent black weren't considered part of the nation because they were slaves. If you look at the 80 percent white, you see 80 percent were British, of which 98 percent were Protestant. It was a very socially coherent society. And it remained that way until the 1840s. There was no immigration until the 1840s."
It is suggested that historical arguments do not make for sound immigration policy in the latter part of the 20th century.
"America was a nation like the European nations," Brimelow continues, dismissing the point. "The difference is it all happened much faster. The difficulties today are two. One, there's no immigration pause in sight; and two, the assimilative mechanism has broken down.
"It goes back to what I was saying about American order. What are the roots of American order? Is it that we believe in ideas, that there's a kind of ideational order? Or is it that we are part of a nation? I think that to a much larger extent than people recognize, it's because there is an actual living, breathing, European-type nation here. And it's growing, it's changing as it assimilates different groups all the time. The interlacing of ethnicity and cultures historically has always been a part of that process. There has always been a pure ethnic component to the American nation."
But the question remains, does "Alien Nation" pine for a lost white America?
In American libel, Brimelow cagily replies, truth is an absolute defense.
Brimelow is given a choice between "Perry Mason" and "NYPD Blue." One is a reflection of a homogeneous, slightly dull and rigidly hierarchical organization of reality, a Los Angeles in the early 1960s; the other, a polyglot, densely layered, multiracial American metropolis.
"I like that argument," Brimelow replies, "because it answers my question — there's no economic rationale for this immigration. So what is the rationale for it? The real answer is that diversity is an end in itself. That's great. But let's go to the American people and ask if that's what they want."
Which American people? "The ones who live here and have to vote. That's a close enough approximation for me. Let's see how they feel about that."
Brimelow generously offers, "To address your readers, why are East Asian immigrants so successful, or is that a myth?"
He notes the unexpected clash of immigration meeting the welfare state. He cites a high 9 percent of non-refugee Asian immigrants on public assistance. He then attempts to unravel the mystery of who prospers among different immigrant nationalities.
"One of the great lessons of the last 30 years is that national origins matter," contends Brimelow. "It makes a tremendous difference which country people come from. There are always exceptions to that rule. But the basic rule of thumb is that First World immigrants do better than Third World immigrants by a factor of five to 10."
But Brimelow is reminded that social class, irrespective of nationality or race, is the key indicator of immigrant success.
"If these East Asians are such marvelous immigrants," Brimelow replies, "why don't we have more of them or fewer of others? That's a fairly straightforward proposition. If it turns out that educated Bangladeshis do better than working-class English, why not have more of them and fewer of the others? You can get to that by adapting the Canadian point system [which gives preference on the basis of education and language skills].
"The real problem is there's an immigrant binge here. The numbers are very large. And there's going to be a cutoff. My point is you can bend or you can break. Either you allow for reform now, or you can wait until someone comes along and stops it completely. One way or another, that is going to happen," he says.
The highly contentious and divisive book inevitably raises questions of Brimelow's motive, which he candidly and forthrightly answers.
"There are two motives," he replies. "One, the nation is in danger. The union is in danger. If the current levels of immigration continue, the country is going to collapse. It's going to be Balkanized. It will be several countries."
For the muscular conservative and defender of American law that he pretends to be, Brimelow takes a very dim view in "Alien Nation" of the strength and potency of the American landmass. Repeatedly, he refers to the colossal territorial might of "the world's last great superpower" in the fragile image of a "lifeboat" — one that is about to capsize with the addition of one more immigrant.
"But the real answer," says Brimelow, "is the greatest story you'll ever see in journalism. Here's a country transforming itself against its will by accident, with no economic rationale whatever. And it can't stop it. It's irresistible to me as a journalist to write about that."
If told in a less highly charged and partisan manner, would "Alien Nation" be more effective as journalism and social commentary?
"I'm a reactionary, there's no question about that," Brimelow quickly replies. "But on the other hand, the question here is the facts. By my standards, this is a cool and objective book."
There's a big difference between American and British journalism, contends Brimelow. British journalism puts a premium on directness, while American journalism is riddled with taboos. "Alien Nation" is, Brimelow believes, a product of the British style.
But getting back to the elusive question, Brimelow is once again asked whether the book's argument is inherently racist.
"I guess my point is very simple," Brimelow replies after a little dodging. "There is this radical and unprecedented transformation going on right now. I don't think it is an idea of a white America. America wasn't white in 1960. It was 90 percent white and 10 percent black. But it was a nation.
"I wonder to what extent it is a nation now. I think it's become an empire with different national communities living within it. If immigration stops now, the assimilation process will overpower these national communities. And ultimately you'll have an assimilated American nation.
"Immigration is destiny in American politics. What I mean by that is that, unlike European politics, where politics divided on class lines, here it divides on ethnic lines. There's no argument about that. That's simply true. That's how American politics works. I may be uncouth to point this out, but I'm not worried about that.
"But what it means is that to the extent you're messing around with the racial and ethnic balance of the country, you're messing about with its politics. You will alter its political future if you don't make sure that the groups who came in are assimilated. What's necessary for assimilation is a pause. And a repair of the assimilative mechanisms, which I don't think are working very well right now. Hence, you see these foreign-language communities of native-born Americans.
"When I say a 'pause,' that doesn't mean no immigration. It means no net immigration, or little net immigration. In a few years, when the situation has gotten under control, Americans can reconstruct immigration policy — hopefully on a more rational basis, which it isn't at the moment."
Convinced of the correctness of his perceptions, Brimelow refuses to see these "foreign-language communities" as either passing stages in the acculturation or as vivid ethnic communities that have traditionally dotted the American landscape.
The protectionist wing of American conservatives, when their concern is not numerical, seems tone-deaf to New York literary critic Alfred Kazin's classic one-liner. "What's the difference between the ILGWU [International Ladies Garment Workers Union] and the American Psychiatric Association? One generation."
In a more contemporary setting, social critic Richard Rodriguez makes the same point.
"Despite ourselves," wrote Rodriguez four summers ago in the Los Angeles Times, "and because of the immigrants, California is becoming a world society — an extraordinary meeting place of Asia and Latin America with white and black America.
"So much nonsense has lately been written about the resistance of the new immigrants to America," Rodriguez added. "The truth is that, in time, California will turn the Mexican and Chinese teen-agers into rock stars and surfers."