By Richard Bernstein
ALIEN NATION Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster By Peter Brimelow 327 pages. Random House. $24.
Three years ago, Peter Brimelow, a writer for Forbes magazine and an immigrant from Britain, wrote a powerful and elegant article, published in National Review, in which he argued that current American immigration policies were leading to disaster. For many conservatives Mr. Brimelow's argument was a kind of heresy, because it contradicted the faith in immigration as an aspect of the free market. Liberals do not generally read National Review, but many of them have tended to view immigration as an enriching process, certainly a humanitarian requirement.
"Alien Nation" is Mr. Brimelow's book-length treatment of this subject. He has included more data this time around than he did in his National Review article, and yet some of the force of his original position has been strangely lost in the book. This is in part because Mr. Brimelow has opted for a choppy polemical style, with chapters broken up into brief sub-chapters and almost every page in turn festooned with indented, boldfaced or italicized segments in which Mr. Brimelow highlights certain points. Mr. Brimelow's personality also comes through, and it is entirely engaging. But the essay as a whole reads too much like one of those solicitations you get in the mail urging a contribution to a political cause.
Still, Mr. Brimelow has made a highly cogent presentation of what is going to be the benchmark case against immigration as it is currently taking place. Those who think that the system needs no fixing cannot responsibly hold to that position any longer unless they take Mr. Brimelow's urgent appeal for change into account.
His starting point is the Federal legislation in 1965 that, after a pause of nearly half a century, opened up the gates to the country's third great post-independence wave of immigration, one that is far larger in absolute numbers than its predecessors, and one that is conspicuously non-European and nonwhite in nature. Sometime in the middle of the next century, if current trends continue unchanged, whites will no longer be a majority, and blacks will no longer be the largest minority.
The strong racial element in current immigration has made it more than ever before a delicate subject. It is to Mr. Brimelow's credit that he attacks it head on, unapologetically. Among his most telling points is that a certain sentimental indulgence toward immigration, combined with the fear that to be opposed to it will be seen as racist, has blinded us to its disastrous consequences. Mr. Brimelow demonstrates what he sees as the looming danger with a concept called "the wedge." By 2050, he argues, the total American population will be nearly 400 million, of whom more than one-third ("a staggering 139 million people") will be post-1970 immigrants and their descendants.
To those of us who have seen neighborhoods revitalized by recent arrivals, and who have been heartened by the well-publicized success of some groups, especially the Asians, the obvious question is: what is so threatening about this wedge? Mr. Brimelow demonstrates (and he is well furnished with statistics) that by putting the stress on family reunification, rather than job skills, the country has made immigration a kind of civil right for the inhabitants of a small number of third world countries. And, he says, the new immigrants are disproportionately prone to poverty, crime and welfare dependency. In the great immigrant wave of 1890 to 1920, Mr. Brimelow argues, about one-third returned home. Largely because of the welfare system today, he says, that has changed: "The failures are no longer winnowed out. Instead, they are encouraged to stay — at the expense of the American taxpayer."
Those most likely to be harmed by the current wave of immigration, moreover, are American-born blacks, Mr. Brimelow says. Citing the economist Simon Kuznets, he argues that a major reason for black progress in this century is that immigration virtually halted between 1920 and 1965. The new wave, it stands to reason, will drive blacks out of jobs. In addition, the emergence of new racial minorities — especially Asian and Hispanic — will fundamentally alter the nature of the American nation-state, which has for most of our history been white, with a strong black minority. What Mr. Brimelow calls "the new American Anti-Idea" will produce "a sort of bureaucratically regulated racial spoils system, rather like Lebanon before its ethnic divisions finally erupted."
Mr. Brimelow does very little on-the-scene reporting, which makes his stress on statistics seem not only abstract but also detached from the concrete human and spiritual reality involved in immigration. He is critical of the press, which, he argues, has given us only the bright side of the picture and left out other matters, like the fact that 25 percent of the prisoners in Federal penitentiaries are immigrants. And yet he himself passes rather too quickly over what the press has perhaps overstressed: the genuinely moving spectacle of millions of people making better lives for themselves in this country than they could in the countries they came from. He may also underestimate the force of assimilation, the eagerness of immigrants to adopt American values as their own.
But Mr. Brimelow also shows that America is not so much a country of immigration as it is one of "intermittent immigration." The periods where there was almost no immigration are more characteristic of our history than the briefer periods when the door was open. The lulls provided time to digest and Americanize the masses of strange and different newcomers. Mr. Brimelow's argument that without a lengthy new lull we will be in trouble is too persuasively made to be ignored.