Interview by Vincent Carroll
Rocky Mountain News, June 18, 1995
Peter Brimelow is a two-time immigrant—first to Canada from England and from Canada to the United States, where he is now a citizen—who ironically finds himself a leading figure in the movement to reshape American immigration policy. In his controversial book Alien Nation, Brimelow argues that the present policy of admitting large numbers of immigrants each year—legal and illegal—threatens to fracture American identity and is meanwhile doing little good for the economy. He also contends that immigration is virtually the sole factor that will boost U.S. population to 390 million by mid-century.
Brimelow is a senior editor of Forbes magazine, has written for many other major publications, and was a columnist for the London Times.
This interview with Vincent Carroll, editor of the editorial pages, is one in a series with prominent authors.
Carroll: Supporters of large immigration quotas often insist that the level of immigration into America today is not greater than it was at other periods of America's history.
Brimelow: That's bunk, and it arises because people either don't understand or can't understand, apparently, the statistical concepts involved. Immigration relative to population is as high as it has ever been, especially if you take into account illegal immigration. But the critical issue is not immigration relative to population size, but population growth. It happens that in the U.S., Americans of all races have stabilized their family sizes at or around replacement level, so the Census Bureau projects the population will be (absent immigration) around 250-260 million as far as the eye can see. But with immigration at current levels, it will be driven up to 390 million by 2050, of whom 130 million will be immigrants and their descendants.
Which is why, incidentally, this is an issue that interests environmentalists, because the great bulk of population growth is captured with immigration. The government is essentially second-guessing the people's population desires. The people in effect want to stabilize population at about 250 million.
Carroll: So a third of the U.S. population will be post-1970 immigrants or their descendants by mid-century?
Brimelow: In my book, I call that portion of the population "The Wedge." Look, Americans do have a tradition of immigration, but it is a tradition of intermittent immigration, going back into colonial periods. There is usually a pause between great influxes. The two great pauses were after the Revolution, which lasted nearly 50 years, and in the middle of this century, which lasted 40 years. Most of the time these pauses happened by accident. But in the 1920s, Congress did it by legislation, and that's what is going to have to happen now because of the demographic structure of the Third World, which is where the U.S. now draws its immigrants from. It mostly comes from 15 countries.
Carroll: Explain why that is. The 1965 Immigration Act was meant to create a level playing field for immigrants from all countries, so as not to discriminate.
Brimelow: Which is absurd on its face because immigration policy is inherently discriminatory. You've got to make choices. Even if you have open borders, you are, in effect, discriminating in favor of people who live next door. Yes, Congress said it was going to treat all countries in the world equally, but that's not how it's worked out. In fact, 15 countries are dominating the immigration inflow because of the principle of "family unification," which is defined very broadly. Basically, immigrants have the right to bring more relatives in.
And so the first countries to get the immigration chains going were able to shoulder aside the rest. Thus skilled immigrants from many countries have been shouldered aside for the unskilled who happen to be related to those already here; the result is a dramatic deterioration in skill levels among immigrants. For the first time in American history, immigrants are less skilled than the native born. At various points in the 1980s, 45% of the immigrant inflow didn't have high school degrees. That is an absurd situation for a country that's competing on the basis of high technology.
Carroll: But clearly some immigrants are highly skilled. Author George Gilder points to the large numbers of immigrant scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs active in the Silicon Valley and claims that if "you exclude immigrants from our high-tech industries, what you get is Europe, where they have no important computer or semi-conductor companies after 20 years of focusing on information technology."
Brimelow: George is just not looking at the facts. There has been enormous immigration into Britain from India. The reason Britain's high-technology industry is inferior is because of its suffocating tax system. There are about 30,000 immigrants a year to the U.S. who have Ph.Ds. It's a very, very small fraction of the inflow.
Carroll: What are we talking about in terms of total immigrants?
Brimelow: Legal immigration is just short of a million a year. It's been running somewhere between 850,000 to 950,000. Illegal immigration is somewhere over 2 million to 3 million a year, but most of those go back. In fact, they go back several times. So it appears that the net illegal immigration annually is somewhere between 300,000-500,000. That's very high, especially as it is almost totally unskilled.
Carroll: Your book claims there are now more illiterate immigrants than there are immigrants with Ph.Ds.
Brimelow: Yes. If you needed skilled immigration, you could have it. You could just simply take the skilled immigrant part of the flow, which would be very small. So if Gilder were right, there's no case for bringing in so many unskilled immigrants. The overlying point is that nobody can look at the way the system's working now and be satisfied with it.
Carroll: Some critics of yours say that if you don't have unskilled immigrants, you won't have people willing to do unattractive jobs such as picking lettuce.
Brimelow: The Japanese seem to manage, don't they? They seem to harvest their rice. Cheap work is simply not necessary for a high-technology economy. The Japanese have outstripped the Americans since 1955 with no immigration at all. For that matter, the U.S. grew faster in the 1950s and '60s than before mass immigration started again. You know, there is technical literature on how much immigration helps the American economy, specifically how much the native born benefit from it. For some reason, many people just don't bother to look at it. I think the reason is sheer ignorance, actually. But the fact is that the technical literature demonstrates that immigration is just not a very effective way of increasing the wealth of the native born, and probably never has been—once you get past a certain depth and complexity of the economy.
Carroll: You argue that even great enthusiasts of immigration, like the economist Julian Simon, acknowledge that immigration probably does have a deleterious effect on poor workers, which in this country means, disproportionately, blacks.
Brimelow: It is something he will acknowledge when asked. He conveniently skips over this when he's discussing immigration in debate. But he never said that immigration does not displace specific groups. All he says is that, in the aggregate, immigrants don't only take jobs, they also make jobs. But the problem is that the people who are displaced are not necessarily the ones who are going to benefit from immigration. In fact, one of the things that the work of George Borjas (a Cuban-born economist at the University of San Diego) is able to demonstrate is that although immigration doesn't increase the wealth of the native born by any significant amount, it does cause a redistribution of income within the native-born community. Immigration is a class issue. It benefits the upper-middle classes insofar as it benefits anybody. And it punishes the unskilled and the poor. It did in the 19th century, too.
Carroll: Well, there is little doubt that in cities like Boston in the 19th century, Irish immigrants did compete with free blacks for low-level jobs.
Brimelow: One of the unappreciated things about the Know-Nothing Party (which is identified with 19th century nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment) is that they were abolitionists; they were against slavery. Many went on to become prominent Republicans. One of their objections to the Irish was, specifically, that the Irish didn't like the blacks. And what's more, they were right—Irish immigrants didn't like the blacks. Look at the New York draft riots.
Carroll: The foundation of your argument against immigration is not economic so much as cultural, is it not?
Brimelow: Well, I think that the most original part of my book is my revisionist look at economics. Because what it does is show that quite contrary to all this anecdotal propaganda we get from places like Reason magazine (a libertarian publication that opposes immigration restrictions), you can't make an economic case for immigration. You have to make a political case.
Carroll: You make a political case against it. Specifically, you worry about the political fragmentation of this country. I've always been somewhat skeptical of this fragmentation argument, taken literally, since it seems to me that if immigrants don't assimilate, they won't succeed, and most know it.
Brimelow: Let me say I have confidence in the American assimilative mechanism. I think America can probably assimilate Martians. But it takes time to work. It has always worked in the past in combination with immigration pauses. Those pauses are critical to the assimilation process. And right now a pause will have to be legislated.
I'm always getting into trouble because I've written so frankly about race and immigration. But what I say, although nobody's bothered to notice, is that a nation is an interlacing of ethnicity and culture and it's possible for individuals of any race to assimilate culturally. But it does take time. The more different people are and the more different a culture they come from, the longer it's going to take.
To address your specific point. The 1990 census picked up two fascinating trends. One is that immigrants are going into enclaves, and these enclaves are sort of statewide. So you see this great concentration, for example, of Asians, many of whom ultimately finish up in Northern California or in Orange County (Calif.). Hispanics are in a contiguous area all the way through the Southwest and West. There are several counties in southern Texas now that are more than 99% Hispanic.
The second point the 1990 census picked up—it was Bill Frey, a demographer from the University of Michigan who spotted it—both native races are, to a discernable extent, moving out of the impacted areas. Frey calls this "the flight from diversity." Seventy-five percent of all legal immigrants end up in six states—California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Illinois. And the native-born Americans are on the move away from those states. Whites from California go up to the Pacific northwest, the Intermountain West and to the white areas of the South. Blacks go predominantly to the black areas of the South, the great black metropolises of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and so on. So the country is actually polarizing ethnically. And what is going to result, if this continues, is sectional areas that are as different as different countries. They're going to be different racially, and they're probably going to speak different languages.
Carroll: Stop right there. Speak different languages? With the exception of Spanish, what other language could any section possibly speak? Asian immigrants tend to come from a variety of nations, after all.
Brimelow: I mainly mean Spanish, of course, because half of all the immigrants who have come in since '65 have been Spanish-speaking. Which, by the way, is completely contrary to what the 1965 law explicitly promised; it promised that no one country or group or area would dominate the inflow.
Meanwhile, the assimilative mechanism is being dismantled. When people came in previous immigration waves, the authorities were absolutely determined to Americanize them. Theodore Roosevelt went around making speeches about how there should be no hyphenated Americanism. Now it's exactly the reverse. People, parties go around making speeches about "diversity." Vice President Al Gore made a speech in which he even got the meaning of "E Pluribus Unum" wrong. He said it means, "Out of one, many," when of course it means exactly the opposite.
Carroll: One of the more interesting and serious-minded critiques of your book has been by the author Francis Fukuyama. He points out that you throw around the term "white" awfully loosely in describing American culture—using "white" as a synonym, essentially, for European. The dominant cultural tradition of the United States is much more specific than that. This nation was founded, as he writes, by "a sectarian Protestant Anglo-Saxon culture that was somehow detached from its ethnic roots, mixed with universalistic Lockean-liberal principles, and adopted by the non-Anglo-Saxon, non-Protestant immigrants" who arrived later. There was a time, he points out, when the differences between, say, a southern Italian and an Englishman were perceived to be of greater magnitude than the difference today between, say, a Guatemalan and a Midwestern farmer.
Brimelow: The country was 80% white and 20% black at its independence, but no blacks participated in the political process. It was also of overwhelmingly British origin to an extent that's completely forgotten now. If you read the Founding Fathers, if you read the Federalist Papers, you see that the reason they thought they could make a nation was because they considered themselves people with one language, one culture, one history, one religion. They didn't mean Christianity; they were 98% Protestant. So it was a nation in the European sense. And it remains a nation in the European sense because all nations in Europe have assimilated groups. All nations are nations of immigrants. I know of no case where people have simply grown out of the ground. The difference is the speed in which the U.S. has been put together. And the problem is that it could all be un-put together just as quickly.
Carroll: Here's what I'm trying to get at. If you're talking about the need to assimilate immigrants so they adopt, in good part, American culture, that is one thing. But one should not then define American culture as "white."
Brimelow: I don't. All nations are an interlacing of ethnicity and culture. That's even true with the Japanese. You can trace separate ethnic groups in Japan. You have to know a lot about Japanese ethnology to do it, but you can. Yes, immigrant groups who came here from Europe in the 19th century and early 20th were perceived as very different from those who were already here. That is true. But objectively, they were not as different as many current immigrants. The overwhelming majority of earlier-era immigrants were Christians, for example. They were obviously of the same race. And, what is often forgotten, they came at a time when immigrants were still also arriving in large numbers from nations that supplied this nation's original stock—northern and western Europe. That is not the case now. Immigration is totally non-traditional now. In any event, what happened was that it took more than 40 years for the last great wave of immigrants to assimilate—through intermarriage, for example, which is one good test of assimilation.
Carroll: I understand what you're saying, but I still find jarring some of your discussion of the ethnic component of immigration. Let me put it this way. If one discusses immigration in terms of a racial cast as opposed to a cultural cast, then the question of whether one would like to welcome, say, 200,000 immigrants from Russia as opposed to Korea is very simple. One prefers them from Russia on the theory that they will "fit in" better off the bat. But I, for example, am not so sure I would prefer 200,000 immigrants from Russia as opposed to from Korea because as I look at the remarkable performance of Koreans here, I conclude that their habits of hard work, thrift and so on are precisely those that many of us wish more Americans had these days.
Brimelow: Of course you're right, generally speaking. It may be that if we could choose east Asian immigrants that would be a good idea. But you should note that the dependency rates—the welfare rates—you find for some Asian groups are shockingly high. Nearly 50% for Cambodians and people from Laos; very high for Vietnamese, too. It's even over 8% for Koreans, and 10.4% for those from China. I would like to know the reason for that. But that's in part one reason I'm cautious about Asian immigrants.
Carroll: The spring issue of City Journal has an article by Heather McDonald called Why Koreans Succeed. While it never mentions how many Koreans in New York City are on welfare, it does point out how Koreans and Chinese immigrants now dominate all the elite public high schools in New York City. It looks to me as if most of them are doing pretty well.
Brimelow: It is not clear to me that having immigrant valedictorians is terribly good for the native born. But if the point is that national origins absolutely matter, the answer is of course they do. People differ systematically by national origin, on average, by an enormous amount. In general, however, First World immigrants do better than Third World immigrants, and are less dependent on government. Hmong refugees, for example, which are a particular group from Laos, are 70% or 80% on welfare.
Carroll: One hears all the time from immigration enthusiasts the view that ''if it weren't for immigration, I wouldn't be here." It is certainly true in my personal case.
Brimelow: In most cases, the people who say that don't realize that current policy would probably have prevented their great-grandparents from coming here anyway. We do not have open borders in this country. It's a highly perverse, discriminatory and paradoxically interventionist immigration law that now favors a few countries over the rest. Immigration policy is run by special interests.
Carroll: But even immigrants who don't do well initially, or who take a long time to assimilate, eventually have made it in the past. Thomas Sowell has pointed out, for example, that it took the Irish and southern Italians a very long time to be assimilated in the United States. Generations.
Brimelow: That's right. And so the argument is that Hispanics are assimilating at that pace. But the question is, why do Americans have to go through this experience again anyway if it's not doing them any economic good and if the population is large enough?
Carroll: OK, so what would you do about immigration? You say we should end all illegal immigration. How is that possible?
Brimelow: You need to build a serious physical barrier—some sort of a fence. There's only about 250 miles where the border can be crossed. Most of the rest is impassable deserts and mountains.
There are probably 4.5 million illegals in the country. They should be thrown out, just as they were in the 1950s. I mean, the illegal immigration problem in the '50s was very serious, and they decided to solve it. The Eisenhower administration stopped it in about six months.
Legal immigration has to be curtailed until the numbers have been gotten under control. I mean net immigration of about 200,000 people, which roughly equals the number of people who leave. So if you have 200,000 immigrants coming in each year, that would be no net immigration. They wouldn't be driving population growth. You could take care of most hardship cases and the need for particular skills from that pool.
Carroll: Good heavens. You are serious about this.
Brimelow: Once the situation has been gotten under control, then Americans, if they wanted to, could let immigration resume at much reduced levels. You could allow immigration to resume with more emphasis on skills, because only skilled immigrants have shown to benefit the native born, which is the fundamental criterion. It may well be that we just have to recognize that the U.S. frontier is closed.
The worst thing about this is that we know from experience, the experience of the turn-of-the-century inflow, that where you have a very disadvantaged and unskilled group coming in, their children tend to be unskilled, and their grandchildren. Borjas estimates that it has taken four generations for the effects of these differences to merge, for these people to assimilate economically. So essentially what we're doing now is degrading our workforce, as a practical matter, for the next hundred years.