ORBIS, Wntr 1997 v41 n1 p139(10)
Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster. (book reviews) Christopher M. Gray.
© 1997 Foreign Policy Research Institute
By Christopher M. Gray
"It's a complex fate, being an American," wrote Henry James.(1) When the novelist made this observation more than a century ago, he worried that an American national identity would never congeal sufficiently to enable the emergence of a genuine national literature. It turns out he was unduly pessimistic about that. But James's concern about the American national cultural identity has recently resurfaced in the acrimonious debates about U.S. immigration policy. Only illegal immigrants and their apologists appear to be happy with the current policy. Everyone else admits that the de facto open-borders policy that has prevailed since 1965 has not only failed on its own terms but has exacerbated the problems of a society increasingly divided along ethnic lines.
When Muslim legal aliens bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, many experts on national security and foreign policy finally awoke to the public's justified concerns over lax policing of U.S. borders. More mundane events added to elite disenchantment. America's intervention in Haiti, for instance, resulted in part from fear of a mass refugee exodus to Florida similar to the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Diseases Americans once thought of as licked - such as tuberculosis, measles, cholera, malaria, and leprosy - reappeared in the United States thanks to Third World immigrants. Border-state welfare services were burdened by both legal and illegal immigrants; formerly formidable engines of assimilation such as public schools fell under the control of militant multiculturalists; and many wage earners hearkened to big labor's traditional contention that foreign immigrants tip the employer/employee balance in favor of the former. Thus, several state and congressional races in 1994 hinged heavily on the candidates' positions on immigration, and current opinion polls indicate that more than 70 percent of Americans want to restrict both illegal and legal immigration. As a result, for the first time in more than seventy years, federal immigration policy became a major issue in a presidential election. President Bill Clinton and Bob Dole vied with each other to see who could be tougher on immigration, and both the Democratic and Republican platforms took positions that would previously have been denounced as "nativist."
Several estimable books chronicle this sea change in American attitudes toward immigration policy. The three authors reviewed here all take pains to explain the historical origins of the current situation. All three eschew the sentimental and lachrymose attitudes ("give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses") that often have marred studies of immigration. And although the style and tone of their approaches differ markedly, all three authors work their way to conclusions that severely criticize the permissive mindset toward foreign immigration in particular, and ethnic politics in general, that characterizes the federal bureaucracy, media, universities, think tanks, and most large corporations.
Peter Brimelow's Alien Nation, the first published and least detached of the three books, provoked an outraged response from many reviewers last year. Lawrence Chua, a Third World advocate for the Village Voice, even growled: "His fear is justified. We will bury you."(2) It is not hard to understand why the book elicited such hysterical rhetoric. Brimelow, a native Englishman and immigrant himself, tries deliberately to be provocative by way of arousing naive Americans about their coming "immigration disaster," and styles himself as a latter-day Thomas Paine preaching "Common Sense." In fact, his 1992 National Review article, "Time to Rethink Immigration," did kindle serious mainstream intellectual debate on a subject formerly addressed by racialist cranks and uncritical journalistic cheerleaders like Ben Wattenberg and A.M. Rosenthal. To be sure, Brimelow's zesty rhetoric may strike readers as apocalyptic and hyperbolic. But his doomsday warning also makes his book the best place to begin analyzing the "complex fate" of American Immigration policy.
Brimelow lays out the available facts of immigration policy, such as: 1) the United States constitutes 5 percent of the world's population but admits almost 50 percent of the world's legal immigrants; 2) every year the United States admits about 1.3 million net legal immigrants and about 300,000 net illegal immigrants; 3) the rate of immigration may not be as absolutely high as in the peak years 1901-1914, but it is relatively higher given the current native population's much lower birth rate; 4) both the legal and illegal immigrants entering the United States are not as educated or skilled as those of previous generations; 5) U.S. government immigration policy is a lax and disorganized shambles owing to the unintended consequences of the 1965 immigration and nationality amendments and Washington's unwillingness to enforce existing laws; and 6) high proportions of certain immigrant groups are demonstrably prone to end up as criminals or welfare recipients. Brimelow also points out how much damage certain immigrants such as the World Trade Center bombers, mass murderer Colin Ferguson, and HIV-positive Haitians can do to U.S. society's sense of security, however politically incorrect it may be to say so.
Brimelow traces the collapse of American control over immigration to the 1965 legislation. With ironic glee he quotes Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Senate floor manager of the bill:
"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 of this country 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. . . . In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think" (pp. 76-77).
Brimelow then acidly notes:
Every one of Senator Kennedy's assurances has proven false. Immigration levels did surge upward. They are now running at around a million a year, not counting illegals. Immigrants do come predominantly from one area - some 85% of the 16.7 million legal immigrants arriving in the United States between 1968 and 1993 came from the Third World: 47% from Latin America and the Caribbean; 34% from Asia. . . . Also, immigrants did come disproportionately from one country - 20% from Mexico. . . . Finally, and above all, the ethnic pattern of immigration did change sharply. In fact, it could hardly have changed more sharply. And the ethnic mix of the country has, of course, been upset (p. 77).
To be sure, the 1921 Quota Act and 1924 Immigration Act, which the 1965 reform was meant to revoke, bluntly discriminated in favor of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. Under the 1965 amendments, by contrast, every country was theoretically allowed an equal quota (currently 25,620). But the 1965 act's emphasis on extended (as opposed to just nuclear) family reunification, as well as the bizarre enforcement priorities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), resulted in a flood from underdeveloped Third World nations that quadrupled the 1965 level of 250,000-300,000 net admissions. It also resulted in discrimination against immigrants from formerly favored nations, such as Brimelow's own Great Britain.
Brimelow uses his own struggle to obtain citizenship to paint a devastating portrait of how illogically the INS approaches its duties. Indeed, those who violate current immigration law regularly receive much more favorable treatment than those who observe it. Moreover, numerous advocacy groups exist to assist the lawbreakers, but the law abiders are on their own. No one valuing fairness and justice can possibly approve of the current situation for classifying and processing aliens. Brimelow's strongest and most convincing recommendation is that whatever immigration policy the Congress decides to adopt, it must be simple, strategic, and enforceable.
Brimelow provides useful information, some in the form of charts and tables, about which regional and national immigrant groups are admitted to the United States, which ones tend to go on welfare, and educational and literacy levels of immigrants, as well as a skilled economic analysis (he is a senior editor of Forbes) of the costs and benefits of current immigration policy. He notes, for instance, that Japan has become a mighty economic power despite permitting almost no immigration. Hence, like Thomas Sowell, he concludes that any economic case made for or against immigration must be subordinate to the cultural arguments pro or con. Unlike Sowell, however, he does not carefully define what he means by culture, or present enough evidence to document his conjectures about the impacts of various cultural groups. In his zeal to explode the often exaggerated claims on behalf of immigrants, he tends to ignore their sometimes considerable contributions.
Brimelow also damages his economic analysis by clinging to the myth of "overpopulation." He grudgingly concedes that his demographer opponents (such as Julian Simon, Nicholas Eberstadt, and Ben Wattenberg) are scientifically correct on this count but growls "if the population optimists are right, they are right in general. There is plenty of room for unpleasantness in detail" (p. 54). This "overpopulation" obsession undoubtedly influences his suggestion to enact "an immediate temporary cutoff of all immigration - say three to five years" (p. 262).
Above all, Brimelow damages his credibility by using what, in others' ears, are code words for racism: "Race and ethnicity," he writes, "are destiny in American politics. The racial and ethnic balance of America is being radically altered through public policy" (p. xvii). Such "apocalyptic passages," as Michael Lind wrote in The New Yorker, "sound like excerpts from such notorious nativist tracts as Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color (1920)"; he accuses Brimelow of using "the rhetoric of an after-dinner speaker at a Klavern banquet."(3) Yet it is ironic that Lind takes this cheap shot since his own analysis both parallels and complements that of Alien Nation.
A Universal Nation or Multicultural Mosaic?
For two centuries, the belief in an American exceptionalism has rested on evidence that the United States is a uniquely blessed country that could do without such attributes as a common language, an established religion, and a shared sense of the past. Rather, the "exceptional" foundations of American nationhood - and strength - were assumed to be its status as a "universal nation" populated by a continuous influx of immigrants assimilated in a "melting pot"; as a procedural state dedicated to the abstract universal ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution; and as a millennialist nation favored by providence, "a shining city on a hill." Today, the first two positions are usually held by members of the neoconservative Right, while the religious Right hews above all to the third. But whatever the exact content of their American creed, exceptionalists agree that the United States is a phenomenon unique in history.
A surprisingly diverse mix of distinguished historians and sociologists, many of whom were secularized Jews, have espoused the exceptionalist myth - Marcus Hansen, both Arthur Schlesingers, Oscar Handlin, Louis Hartz, Daniel Boorstin, and Seymour Martin Lipset among them. These scholars, implies Michael Lind in The Next American Nation, were so impressed by the relative absence of class warfare and anti-Semitism in America that they proclaimed the country exceptional. To do so, however, these "consensus" historians were obliged to gloss over long-standing American phenomena, such as slavery, anti-Catholicism, and ethnic and racial discrimination, all of which dated back to the earliest colonial times. Lind, by contrast, takes as his starting point the central role that Protestant culture played in U.S. national development. (Robert W. Fogel, the Nobel Prize-winning economic historian, humorously commented that the United States possessed the "most Protestant Catholics and Protestant Jews" in history.(4)) As Lind puts it:
The exceptionalist interpretation of American history holds that American politics from 1776 to the present has consisted of the gradual, painful, but progressive working out of the ideas of the Founding Fathers. Exceptionalism, in other words, is both idealist and gradualist (p. 10).
The exceptionalist historians are the American variant of British Whig historians who wrote presentist narratives of progress and enlightenment canonizing whatever establishment happened to be, in their estimation, on the right side of history. In place of this proleptic understanding of America's past, Lind proposes what he calls a liberal nationalist reading of U.S. history:
The liberal nationalist conception of the American past, in contrast, is both realist and catastrophist. It is realist, insofar as it sees American society as the result of power struggles and inherited cultural legacies, not just abstract philosophical debates. It is catastrophist, insofar as it views American history not as the smooth and logical unfolding of an argument about liberty or democracy, but as a sequence of racial, cultural, and political regimes, each assembled by the victors in a cataclysmic and violent struggle (p. 10).
Lind spies three great eras of American history: 1) Anglo-America, 1789-1861; 2) Euro-America, 1875-1957; and 3) multicultural America, 1972 to today. The Civil War punctuated the transition from the first to the second era, and the civil rights revolt and Vietnam War that from the second to the third. As Lind explains, "each of these three republics has put the basic building blocks of the nation-state - race, culture, and citizenship - together in a different way" (p. 11). He then proceeds to reconstruct U.S. history in three coruscating chapters that narrate and analyze how a republic of Protestant dissenters swiftly and sometimes ruthlessly expanded its territorial, economic, and cultural power through righteous Protestant ideology, military conquest, enslavement, hard work, and sometimes dumb luck. Thus, until recently, immigrants were expected, and if necessary forced, to be "Americanized" into loyal and conformist citizens who adhered to the dominant Protestant cultural establishment. He also illuminates the implicit and unspoken regime of white supremacy, under which white labor was systematically protected from competition from blacks and, through restriction on immigration, from certain nationalities such as the Chinese and Japanese who were considered both threatening and incapable of assimilation. Lind rightly deplores such bigotry, but he also demonstrates how Americans of all creeds and races bought into "our common civic culture," which remains primarily British Protestant to this day.
A dominant cultural establishment cannot coexist with the myth of "a universal nation," that oxymoron proclaimed by Daniel Boorstin's popularizer, Ben Wattenberg. A state can theoretically be universal, but not a nation. Lind accurately observes that "the assertion that the United States is a 'universal nation' is another recurring claim of American exceptionalism." But "most modern nationalisms . . . used similar messianic language" to describe their unique contributions to world destiny. For instance, Ernst Arndt declared in the early nineteenth century "that the German was 'a universal man'" (p. 227). Both Lind and Brimelow note how other nation states, especially Brazil, contain more varied populations than the United States. And they consider the dilemma that Jack Miles stated thus in his review of Brimelow's book:
Can the American political system - the polity, the state - survive the demise of the American nation? The state has survived past peaks of immigration by relying on the nation to assimilate the immigrants culturally. But if the nation can no longer assimilate new groups because it has itself become no more than a group of unassimilated, contending cultures, how will the state survive a continuous heavy influx?(5)
Looming behind all present discussion of assimilation and "a common civic culture" is the powerful multiculturalist movement, which proclaims all cultures equal and victimized cultures more equal than others. According to its most thorough scholar, Richard Bernstein, multiculturalism "is an ardently advertised, veritably messianic political program" that is now the "dominant ideology of the late twentieth century."(6) All those who document how cultures are not equal, for instance Thomas Sowell, are censored or anathematized by this movement. In short, multiculturalism has melted the melting pot and replaced it with a mosaic in which cultures contend on an equal plane. The ethnic spoils system that legally classifies all citizens as either Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander, African-American, Caucasian, or Hispanic now governs the distribution of jobs, promotions, grants, and contracts in businesses, government, and universities throughout the United States. The American Left, with the exception of a few neoliberals at The New Republic, adheres to multiculturalism, with the result, as Lind writes, that America has changed "the common ethic from a generalized, Protestant-inspired Christianity to a secular ideal of authenticity. . . . To be authentic, in Multicultural America, means to conform to the standards" of one of the five official races, not to "a common civic culture" (pp. 122-23).
Lind sees the multicultural movement as the chief agent exacerbating the U.S. immigration crisis and quotes its own advocates, such as Michael Walzer, to make his case. "A radical program of Americanization," wrote Walzer, "would really be unAmerican. It isn't inconceivable that America will one day become an American nation-state, the many giving way to the one, but that is not what it is now; nor is that its destiny" (pp. 240-41).
As multiculturalists would have it, therefore, unchecked immigration is necessary to prevent the congealing of "a common civic culture" that might otherwise be used to oppress the powerless. By thus exposing the real agenda of the multiculturalists, Lind builds a powerful case against open immigration and affirmative action. Unfortunately, he then scatters his own fire in a gratuitous effort to replace the current "culture war" with a class war waged against what he considers a ruthless and wealthy "overclass" that profits from cheap immigrant labor. Lind takes a laissez-faire approach to various sexual liberation movements, and he fears the developing traditionalist backlash against multiculturalism will mean sexual repression (pp. 309-10). How does he expect us to uphold "a common civic culture" without exhorting all citizens to respect (if not always practice) common sexual standards?
The End of Large-Scale Immigration?
If Thomas Sowell is correct that "the development of modern industry and instant electronic communications" renders "the transmission of knowledge, skills, and technologies less and less dependent on the transportation of bodies" (p. 389), then governments can restrict immigration with few negative consequences. In Migrations and Cultures, his eighth book on race and culture, Sowell deliberately eschews doomsday rhetoric and quick-fix recommendations. Instead, he draws on a quarter century of research and reflection in order to examine the migratory experiences of six cultural groups - Germans, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Jews, and Indians - over the past three hundred years.
In his introduction, Sowell painstakingly reminds readers that large-scale migrations have occurred routinely throughout human history for a variety of reasons. He inserts qualifications and nuances about the causes of immigration early on, so that readers will not jump to conclusions but instead share his understanding of immigration as a "complex fate." He alerts the reader to watch closely for the interactions between the cultural group's specific values, locale, and background, and the location, background, and human culture where the group settles in the host country:
The histories of particular racial and ethnic groups, and of particular nations and civilizations, can shed much light on the question as to what extent peoples carry enduring cultural patterns within themselves and the extent to which they are shaped, or their fates determined, by the actions of others in the society in which they currently find themselves . . . empirical evidence on the persistence of cultural patterns within the same group from one country to another affects not only empirical questions but moral and political questions as well (pp. 46-47).
Sowell's method could not be more at variance with the multiculturalist approach, by which all cultures, especially victim cultures, are equal. All eight of his books indicate just the opposite, that certain cultures possess distinct advantages over other cultures, even after compensating for contextual variations. For instance, Germans excel as farmers whether they are located in the Ukraine, North America, Brazil, Argentina, or Australia. The Chinese doggedly maintain their traditions of family, frugality, social separateness, and a determination to invest in the future wherever they go. But Sowell also finds variations within the general continuities of these cultural groups. German Jews usually experience strained relations with Eastern European Jews. The former consider the latter to be crude and somewhat uncivilized, while the latter resent the patronizing tone and "gentile" manners of the former. These strained relations occurred in both the United States and Australia. Italians from provinces north of Rome likewise share few cultural attributes with Italians from Calabria or Sicily. The former were much more prosperous and literate owing to the historical and economic traditions of many centuries. These traits persisted for several generations even after migration to prosperous host countries afforded ample educational opportunity.
Sometimes the variations of immigrants' time and place are tragicomic. Sowell cites Yasuo Wakatsuki, who writes,
"If you want to see Japanese of the Taisho (1912-1926) era go to Brazil; if you want to see Japanese of the Meiji (1868-1912) era go to America." This difference was dramatically demonstrated during World War II, when Japanese Americans loyally supported the United States, despite receiving harsh treatment as enemy aliens, while the Japanese in Brazil (treated much better) remained so fanatically pro-Japan that many of them refused to believe that Japan had been defeated, even after its unconditional surrender in 1945. Thousands of Japanese in Brazil waited in port for the arrival of "victorious" Japanese military forces in the Western hemisphere. In both the United States and Brazil, the responses of the Japanese reflected the inner patterns of a people, rather than the effect of the surrounding society. Japan itself was quite different at the different times when they emigrated - very pro-Western in general and pro-American in particular during the earlier era and fanatically nationalist and racist during the later era (p. 107).
Sowell cherishes this episode because it destroys so many stereotypes. He deeply distrusts political panaceas such as ethnic or racial quotas since his evidence indicates how futile is the quest for equal outcomes. Sowell's studies also reveal that office seeking usually hinders a cultural group's quest for prosperity and social importance. Moreover, his evidence refines the conventional wisdom on immigrant "skills." He stresses that it is not specific skills that are important so much as the willingness to learn new skills or invest in the future. Economists describe this willingness to learn, adapt, and work hard as "human capital." Sowell calls it "a great mistake to equate formal schooling with human capital" (p. 389). Poor immigrant groups with rich human capital usually swiftly surpass wealthier cultural groups with less human capital. In sum, human capital does not lend itself to quick analysis or creation but must be studied and nurtured over time.
While Migrations and Cultures does not neglect the role of religion (as too many of Sowell's previous books did), it still fails to stress how a specific theological outlook can shape a cultural group's character. One yearns, therefore, for the kind of carefully linked analysis done by Robert Fogel on American Protestant evangelical movements and their specific socioeconomic results. For nothing affects a culture more than its religion.
In his cautious conclusion on the benefits and drawbacks of migrating cultural groups, Sowell continues his cool weighing of evidence. He is not as hostile to open borders as Brimelow and Lind but does acknowledge many of their arguments. He observes that "international migrations have tended to become a less and less effective way of transferring human capital" thanks to recent changes in trade and communications (p. 390). Perhaps setting up overseas concerns and educating temporary immigrants offer the best alternatives to maintaining human capital flows. In that, Sowell's personal view much resembles that of his colleague Nathan Glazer, who calls himself a "moderate restrictionist."(7) Like Brimelow (whom he cites) and Lind, Sowell admits that "domestic ideological agendas" (read: multiculturalism) make it impossible to be selective when admitting immigrants, thus giving Americans no choice between "loss of control of borders or restrictive policies toward immigrants in general" (p. 390). Brimelow, Lind, and the multiculturalists they combat might relish that choice. But Sowell would undoubtedly argue that it is no choice at all.
1 Henry James, letter (1872), in biographical note to Letters of Henry James, vol. 1 (1920), ed. Percy Lubbock, cited in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th ed., ed. Justin Kaplan (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1992), p. 548.
2 Lawrence Chua, "The Closing of the American Mind," review of Alien Nation, by Peter Brimelow, Voice Literary Supplement, Apr. 1995, p. 17.
3 Michael Lind, "American by Invitation," review of Alien Nation, by Peter Brimelow, The New Yorker, Apr. 24, 1995, p. 109.
4 Robert W. Fogel, "Remarks," speech delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 1995.
5 Jack Miles, "The Coming Immigration Debate," review of Alien Nation, by Peter Brimelow, Atlantic Monthly, Apr. 1995, p. 132.
6 Richard Bernstein, Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future (New York: Knopf, 1994), p. 7.
7 Nathan Glazer on Think Tank, PBS Television, Apr. 23, 1994.
Christopher M. Gray works as a public policy consultant in the Washington, D.C., area. He received both a bachelor's and a master's degree in history from Johns Hopkins and took an MBA at George Mason.