Too Many Foreigners 
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By Nicholas Lemann

New York Times, April 16, 1995

ALIEN NATION Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster. By Peter Brimelow. 327 pp. New York: Random House. $24.

IMMIGRATION is one of those issues that split American conservatism in two. In the libertarian wing of the conservative mansion can be found the only people anywhere in our political debate who favor completely open borders—like Robert L. Bartley, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, and the economist Julian L. Simon. But the most intense opposition to immigration is also located in the conservative movement, over in the cultural and populist areas, whence came much of the impetus for California's Proposition 187, denying most government services to illegal immigrants. Although there is an anti-immigration tradition within liberalism too, in the main liberals seem to have settled into a sentimental, optimistic, celebratory view of immigrants.

It is this view that Peter Brimelow aims to pick mercilessly apart in  Alien Nation,  which is an expanded version of a 1992 cover story in National Review and a book-length articulation of an anti-immigration position that has been bubbling up in more obscure places for several years. Mr. Brimelow, a senior editor of Forbes and National Review, treats his fellow conservatives who support immigration, especially Mr. Simon, as admirable but sadly mistaken—while he goes after the liberals with scornful glee.

One by one he sets up the liberal arguments and knocks 'em down. The United States was not originally conceived of as a nation of immigrants, or even as multiethnic: Mr. Brimelow reminds us that the Declaration of Independence contains a rarely quoted attack on "the merciless Indian Savages." Rather than having been continuous, large-scale immigration to the United States has come in concentrated bursts, which have been followed by long, relatively immigration-free adjustment periods. Rather than being fundamentally multiethnic, the United States was, as late as 1960, just short of being 90 percent white (though how Hispanic Americans were counted at that time seems to be ambiguous).

Today, immigration is at one of its historic highs: counting illegals, well over two million people a year come to the United States, and, compared with past immigrants, far fewer of them ever leave. Immigration accounts for 37 percent of our population growth. Instead of generating economic growth and tax revenues, immigrants, Mr. Brimelow says, are a net drain on the country, crowding public schools, welfare rolls, jails and hospitals. And by their mere presence they exacerbate ethnic tension.

Mr. Brimelow describes this situation in the direst language imaginable: "There is no precedent for a sovereign country undergoing such a rapid and radical transformation of its ethnic character in the entire history of the world," he writes. Possibly the result will be "the snuffing out of the American nation—like a candle in a gale." If that doesn't happen, at the very least, during the next century "American patriots will be fighting to salvage as much as possible from the shipwreck of their great republic."

Buried within the apocalyptic rhetoric is a much more specific complaint, namely, that the 1965 immigration law (the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments) led to a much higher level of immigration than its authors anticipated and needs to be corrected. In an uncharacteristically calm passage, Mr. Brimelow suggests that legal immigration be cut by about two-thirds.

Passed at the height of the civil rights era, the 1965 law was meant to undo the Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted immigration and also gave most of the slots to people from northern and western Europe. Much of contemporary conservatism revolves around the idea that some time in the 1960's the country took a disastrous wrong turn. Mr. Brimelow believes that the wrong turn was specifically the 1965 law, which he blames for ills ranging from the long-term slowdown of the economy to the creation of the urban underclass.

One could hold the position that the nondiscriminatory spirit of the 1965 law was laudable, but that its emphasis on admitting immigrants on the principle of family reunification as well as skills was misguided, and that the sheer number of people coming in now has moved beyond our capacity for absorption. Mr. Brimelow, however, takes an extra step. He wants to keep the immigration flow not just limited, and not just higher-skilled, but also mostly white. A waiting room of the Immigration and Naturalization Service reminds him of the New York subway: he finds each to be "an underworld that is not just teeming but also is almost entirely colored."

Most industrial nations are essentially monoethnic states that allow hardly any immigration at all. Mr. Brimelow admits that the United States has been more successfully multiethnic than any other country, but at bottom he just doesn't believe in the "American idea" that people here can transcend ethnicity through allegiance to abstract national principles like democracy and opportunity. What is required for the successful functioning of a nation, he insists, is "a link by blood."

Even "model minorities" that aren't white arouse Mr. Brimelow's suspicions. Reports of the success of Asian-Americans may be "just another immigration myth." Recently arrived Cubans "in fact participate heavily in welfare." West Indians? "It must be said that nowadays part of their enterprise goes into drug 'posses' and car-theft rings." Judging from a couple of asides, Mr. Brimelow doesn't consider Jews to meet his definition of "white" either; for example, he refers to the Clinton Administration as "a black-Hispanic-Jewish-minority white (Southerners used to call them 'scalawags') coalition." Elsewhere he points out that Jews played a major role in the passage of the hated 1965 immigration law. On the other hand, he calls it "a profound tragedy" that we don't relax our immigration restrictions to let in hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans.

Mr. Brimelow is more an energetic pamphleteer than a reporter. He has done a good job of assembling printed material but, aside from one nocturnal visit to the Border Patrol station south of San Diego, he has not gone out in search of firsthand, irrefutable evidence that immigration actually is eating away at the very core of the country in the way he says it is. At one point he brings up a few pro-immigration arguments and then concludes, disarmingly, "I'm sure I'm right." The reason he's so sure is that it seems impossible to him that any society can remain strong for very long while allowing in large numbers of immigrants from a wide variety of ethnic groups.

When Mr. Brimelow tries to provide tangible details (as opposed to statistics) about the deteriorating fabric of life here caused by immigration, they often have an exaggerated or unproved feeling. He takes it as a given that immigrants no longer want to assimilate. In the near future, he says, Atlanta, Miami and San Antonio "will be communities as different from one another as any in the civilized world." Bilingual education is to him so obviously a program to keep people from learning English that he doesn't even bother to bring up and knock down the official rationale for it, which is that it encourages non-English speakers to stay in school while they learn the language. He views the creation of a secessionist Mexican-American state called Aztlan, a favorite cause of Southwestern student radicals in the 1960's, as a live possibility. Mr. Brimelow is right when he says that there is more risk from too much immigration than from too little, but he doesn't establish that the current situation justifies his level of alarm—and the reason is that he finds the simple fact of substantial nonwhite immigration to be sufficiently alarming.

Several times in Alien Nation Mr. Brimelow mentions as one of the dangers of immigration that a significant percentage of immigrants will feel alienated from America—the implication being that we ought not to let in too many people who are going to run down the country. This from a man who is himself an immigrant, from England, and who accuses "the American political elite" of "a species of treason"!

Mr. Brimelow's definition of "alienated" is political (it applies to complaints from the left but not the right) and his definition of "America" is racial. The amazing absence of euphemism and disingenuousness in his book helps make it clear why the immigration issue is so difficult: there is often a lot more in the opposition to immigration than straightforward policy-wonk concerns about whether we are letting in the right number of people.

  • Nicholas Lemann is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America.
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