“Immigration IS Transforming America, For Nothing”: VDARE.com's Peter Brimelow On IMMIGRATION AND THE AMERICAN IDENTITY
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James Fulford writes:

Chronicles Senior Writer Pedro Gonzalez has been reading Immigration and the American Identity, edited by Thomas J. Fleming, published in 1995, a collection of Chronicles articles (including VDARE.com editor Peter Brimelow’s own The National Question, June 1993) that Chronicles had been running for ten years at that point. Chronicles’ editors could fairly say: you read it there first.

He’s right, it’s full of good stuff, including the never-before-on-the-Internet Afterword by Peter Brimelow, below.


Peter Brimelow, June 1995

Sam Donaldson, ABC News: “[Native-born Americans] don’t have any more right to this country, in my view, than people who came here yesterday.”

Cokie Roberts, National Public Radio: “That’s right.”

—From ABC’s This Week With David Brinkley,

July 25, 1993

As an immigrant to the United States, for years I believed that only immigrants could be persuaded to pay attention to immigration. They actually knew something about it, after all, unlike most Americans. So I am delighted to say that the collection of essays in this book brings home the extent to which I can finally abandon my gloomy conviction. For a decade, writers in Chronicles have been grappling with this elemental and nation-breaking force in their brilliant, often literary, sometimes histrionic, invariably idiosyncratic but undeniably diverse way. The presence in this volume of California’s Governor Pete Wilson, easily reelected since his essay “Citizenship and Immigration” first appeared in Chronicles’ November 1993 issue and now widely mentioned as the possible catalyst of the immigration issue in presidential politics, is only one reason Chronicles’ editors can fairly say: you read it here first.

Why has immigration taken so long to get into politics? The reader of this volume will already be aware of several factors. But if I had to pick the most important, it would be this: current immigration policy is Adolf Hitler’s posthumous revenge on America. The United States political elite emerged from the war passionately, even neurotically concerned to cleanse itself from all taints of racism or xenophobia. Eventually it enacted the epochal Immigration Act of 1965, abolishing the preference (“discrimination!”) that had been previously given to the Northern and Western European countries from which most Americans came.

This legislation, quite accidentally, triggered renewed mass immigration—so huge and so systematically different from anything that had gone before as to transform, and ultimately to destroy, the one unquestioned victor of World War II: the American nation, as it had evolved by the mid-20th century.

Hitler’s Revenge also meant that open discussion of this disaster progressively became impossible. As late as 1965, the Immigration Act’s sponsor, Senator Edward Kennedy, had felt able to discuss the question of America’s ethnic balance quite candidly, predicting that the bill would not alter it. (He was totally wrong, but that’s another story.) After the bill passed, the subject was quickly rendered taboo.

All this influenced, and was influenced by, the prolonged national trauma over civil rights. The Civil Rights Act was another piece of Great Society legislation, passed in 1964, just one year before the Immigration Act. Eliminating the national-origins immigration quota system was part of the civil rights battle’s aftermath—like shooting the wounded. Or, in this case, since the national-origins system had no historical connection to Jim Crow and segregation, like shooting some innocent civilian bystanders.

From my perspective as an outsider, the crippling psychological wounds inflicted during the civil rights battle on a generation of American conservative leaders cannot be overstated. They simply never want to go through anything like it again. And I thought this even before Newt Gingrich celebrated his election as House Speaker by singling out liberal Democrats for praise on their long-standing commitment to civil rights. Gingrich) not coincidentally, is reported to be saying in private that immigration will never be an issue in American politics.

We’ll see.

A second reason for immigration’s slow entry into political debate also reflects human weakness. It is this: very few people can absorb new realities after the age of 21. And political leaders now in their fifties, like Gingrich, spent their formative years in one of the greatest of the many pauses in the history of American immigration—the result of the restrictive quota legislation favoring Northern Europe in the I920s, followed by the Depression and World War II.

Amazingly, only about 500,000 legal immigrants entered the United States in the whole of the 1930s. (In those days, there was virtually no illegal immigration.) Only about a million entered in the I940s—including World War II refugees. By contrast, the United States accepted over 1.5 million immigrants, counting only legals, in 1990 alone.

Thus when my twin brother and I reached the United States in 1970, to study at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the provisions of the 1965 act had just become effective and were already beginning to bite. But I remember a fellow student, a battle-scarred Goldwater veteran, brushing aside our news from the INS waiting rooms. The United States, he said, was far too big for immigration to have any but the most marginal effect. When later I showed him a news item about the rapid buildup of Caribbean immigrants, he was astonished.

The inflow from the former British West Indies had quintupled to over 25,000 annually. These numbers add up: by 1973, over 220,000 West Indians lived in the New York area alone. And that was just the beginning. For example, Jamaica is one of the 15 or so countries which, under the absurd workings of the 1965 act, have been able to commandeer the bulk of legal immigrant slots. By 1980, the number of Jamaicans who had immigrated to the United States over the previous 30 years amounted to more than a tenth of the island’s population. By 1990, almost another tenth of Jamaica had arrived—the highest proportion from any country in the world.

It could be argued that immigrant-questioning immigrants like John Lukacs, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and myself are just plain insensitive to key aspects of the American political tradition. The problem with this argument is that it concedes that immigrants may possibly undermine the host community’s political tradition. I prefer to look at it this way: Immigrants are always said to do the dirty work that native-born Americans shun. Well—here we are!

In fact, there is a long American tradition of immigrants worrying about immigration. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a former British Army officer, Major Pierce Butler of South Carolina, was prominent among those delegates wanting a 14-year residence requirement for United States Senators, although he himself had only arrived in 1773. A century later, an Irish immigrant, Denis Kearney, was a leader of the agitation that halted Chinese immigration into California. (His—probably apocryphal—slogan: “Americay for the Americans, Begorrah!”) At the end of the 19th century, the struggle for restrictive legislation was led by Samuel Gompers, born in England and a labor leader in an age when the labor movement was not dominated by public unions and professional liberal bureaucrats.

Recently, right on cue, the New York Times (October 18, 1993) has reported an Empire State survey showing that a solid majority (51 percent) of immigrants thought immigration was bad for the city. Their view was shared by 66 percent of native-born New Yorkers. Similarly, Hispanic Magazine (April 1994) reported the Latino National Political Survey’s finding that the proportion of Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans “agreeing or strongly agreeing” that “there are too many immigrants” was actually higher (75 percent and 79 percent) than the proportion of non-Hispanic whites (74 percent). Still more striking, this feeling was most intense among Hispanics who were not United States citizens, i.e., who were immigrants themselves. For example, noncitizen Mexicans approved the proposition that there were too many immigrants in this country by an astounding 84 percent.

All of which adds an ironic footnote to the result reported by American Enterprise magazine (January-February 1994): In nine surveys taken since 1955, no more than 13 percent of Americans have ever said they wanted immigration increased; recently, the proportion has been as low as 4 percent. But immigration was increased anyway. This may look clever in Washington, D.C., but it must ultimately jeopardize the principle of consent upon which the legitimacy of democratic government depends.

Major Butler’s concern about the assimilability of immigrants was shared by many of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as other writers in this volume have pointed out. These apprehensions were not unfounded. Fortunately, there occurred another great pause in American immigration history, which made assimilation possible. From the Revolution to the 1830s, there was virtually no immigration at all. When it resumed, the new nation was well established.

This pattern of pauses extends well back into colonial times. Thus, Benjamin Franklin’s famous lament 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?”) was not proved groundless. Instead, German immigration was halted—in the short run, by the French and Indian War (1756-1763); in the longer run, by the post-Revolution Great Lull. This allowed assimilation to take place.

The historical reality of periodic pauses, it seems to me, is at the core of the immigration critics’ case. Immigration is not the American tradition—intermittent immigration is the American tradition. At the very least, it is time for another pause.

What about the American tradition of immigrant-questioning Americans? Mention of this inevitably evokes the magic word “nativist!”—another of the exorcists’ spells cast by immigration enthusiasts against anyone who dares question current immigration policy. Clearly, in the minds of many immigration enthusiasts, “nativists” are no different from the Black Hundreds—the anti-Semitic gangs implicated in the pogroms that accelerated emigration from Czarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Well, to adapt the song “The Farmer and the Cowman” from the musical Oklahoma, I’d like to say  a word for the nativists.

In important ways, this common view of them is a myth. The original nativists were a genuine American phenomenon: members of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, a secret patriotic society about which its members were instructed to deny knowledge—supposedly the origin of their famous nickname, the “Know-Nothings.” Organizing themselves as the American Party in the early 1850s, they scored stunning but short-lived successes on the eve of the Civil War.

But the Know-Nothings were far from an ignorant mob, as immigration proponents, probably misunderstanding the nickname, tend to assume. Recent research has shown that they were a cross-section of solid middle- and upper-middle-class citizens. In fact, the Know- Nothings never actually proposed restricting immigration. They simply urged the country, in the words of Know-Nothing Governor of Massachusetts Henry J. Gardner, to “nationalize before we naturalize” any new immigrants. Nor were the Know-Nothings anti-Semitic. They were even fervent Abolitionists, including in their fraternity the future general in chief of the Union armies, Ulysses S. Grant.

The Know-Nothings were indeed deeply suspicious of Roman Catholicism—at a time when enormous Irish Catholic immigration had begun, after the potato famine of 1846. But this needs to be set in the context of the time. No doubt bigotry played a part. But so did a quite rational concern that Roman Catholicism, with its hierarchical structure, unlike Judaism with its self-governing congregations, was not a “republican” religion—one that would be compatible with democracy, free institutions, law, liberty.

After all, Pope Pius IX was fervently denouncing “liberalism,” by which he meant all free thought and free institutions, and supporting the despotisms that had crushed liberal revolutions all across Europe in 1848. Indeed, in 1853 enraged native-born Americans and immigrant “Exiles of 48” united to riot against the visit of Papal Nuncio Gaetano Bedini, called the “Butcher of Bologna” because of his role in suppressing the revolt against papal rule there.

The nativists were not Nazis: they were nationalists—culturally and politically. They saw their American national identity as inextricably involved with what President John F. Kennedy, assimilated descendant of that Irish influx, would later call “the survival and success of liberty.” Their concern about immigration and slavery were different sides of the same coin. They may well have been overzealous. But their descendants need not feel ashamed of them.

And the nativists’ suspicion of Roman Catholicism was a natural concomitant of American nationalism for a reason that is overlooked, if not deliberately obscured, in the current immigration debate. In 1790, white Americans were 60 percent English, almost 80 percent British, 98 percent Protestants. (Of course, some 20 percent of the population were politically voiceless black slaves.) This was the nation Tocqueville saw in 1831 and described in Democracy in America. It was still the same when the Irish began arriving in the next decade.

Nevertheless, an exhibit at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration has a notice reading: “By 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated President, we were already a multi-ethnic and multi-racial society.” This assertion is a lie. It may be a “Noble Lie,” the kind that Plato thought rulers should tell in order to keep their subjects happy. But it is still a deliberate falsehood.

America at the time of the Revolution was biracial, not multiracial, containing both whites and blacks. But the political nation—the collectivity that took political decisions—was wholly white. And that white nation was multiethnic only in the sense that stew can be described as half-rabbit, half-horse if it contains one rabbit and one horse. There were a few unusual fragments in the American stew of 1790, but for better or worse, it tasted distinctly British.

With their opposition intimidated by Hitler’s Revenge, immigration enthusiasts have been able to get away with treating American immigration history as a sort of Rorschach blot, into which they can read their personal preoccupations. Thus a recent cover story in American Heritage magazine (February-March 1994) proclaimed:

What is at stake here is nothing less than the essential nature of the United States of America . . . only the United States takes special pride in describing American nationality as, by definition, independent of race and blood—as something that is acquired by residence and allegiance regardless of birthplace or ancestry.

A Nation of Immigrants, by Bernard A. Weisberger, February/March 1994

Of course, this is plainly absurd, for what about Australia and Canada today? But it is also ludicrously false as a description of America’s historic “essential nature.” This was highly specific—racially, religiously, culturally—right until modern times, reinforced when necessary by legislation. For example, the first naturalization law, in 1790, stipulated that an applicant must be a “free white person.” Blacks became full citizens only after the Civil War. Restrictions on Asians becoming citizens were only finally dropped after World War II. How much more specific can you get? Maybe America should not have been like this. But it was.

Over time, later immigrant groups assimilated to this Anglo- American ideal, a process well described in this volume by Thomas Fleming (“A Not So Wonderful Life”). However, the continuing contribution of the colonial stock is too easily overlooked. It remains true that if there had been no immigration at all after 1790, the population of the United States would still be just under half of what it is now. And even with immigration, there was never any doubt about America’s “essential nature.” Until now.

Myth-manufacturing of this Ellis Island/American Heritage–type amounts to an intellectual shell game. Americans (including, no doubt, many immigration enthusiasts themselves) are being tricked out of their own identity.

The immigration policy reviewed in this volume is the greatest social engineering experiment in the history of the world. Current demographic projections suggest that, if it were left to Americans, the United States population would level off somewhere in the 250-270 million range. Instead, the Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the United States population will reach nearly 400 million. Over 130 million will be post-1970 immigrants and their descendants. Virtually all will be nonwhite.

A government policy of this scale naturally invites curiosity as to its true purpose. Immigration is generally justified in economic terms, and as a financial journalist, I am professionally inclined to find the economic argument about immigration compelling. But I know from experience that it is not the justification.

Though people often rationalize their immigration preferences in economic terms, what really motivates them are a wide range of ethnic, moral, and even psychological agendas. These agendas are not necessarily illegitimate (although I suspect most Americans would find some of them rather startling if they realized what they were). However, they should be discussed.

Americans are incessantly told “Immigrants built America!” Again, as an immigrant, I do not agree. Immigration is, and probably always has been, much less important to American economic growth than is conventionally assumed. America took off, economically as well as morally, in the Colonial Era. That momentum continues, albeit now increasingly obscured.

Note that I am not saying that immigration, particularly selected immigration, is always without value—just that it is at most a luxury, rather than a necessity. For example, I am arguably displacing an American-born worker as a Senior Editor at Forbes magazine. I naturally like to think that my employers would miss my unique contribution. However, I am fairly sure that they would survive.

Although no one really cares about economics, one point needs to be made. The years covered by the contributions collected in this volume saw a sea change in the economic debate about immigration. Census data emerged that made it clear that many of the post-1965 immigrants were doing significantly worse in the economy than earlier immigrants. This was happening not least because the 1965 act, in another of its perversities, had skewed skill levels downward. A reassessment of the fiscal burden of immigration suggested that immigrants probably were a net drain on government. Above all, a new analysis of the positive benefit of immigration to native-born Americans by Professor George J. Borjas [PDF] of the University of California at San Diego showed that it is quantitatively nugatory—maybe a tenth of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Clearly, immigration is not economically necessary. It achieves no purpose that the Americans could not easily replicate for themselves.

“We are transforming ourselves,” says Doris Meissner (approvingly), the Clinton administration’s Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner. The possibility must be faced that the 1965 immigration disaster is transforming America, for nothing.

Peter Brimelow [Email him] is the editor of VDARE.com. His best-selling book, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, is now available in Kindle format.

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