Republished in VDARE.com - October 01, 2003
Orange County Register (California) June 20, 1995 Beyond the immigration debate
'Resolved: All Immigration Should Be Drastically Reduced. " This was the resolution debated during a recent taping of "Firing Line" at Bard College in upstate New York. Three interesting things happened over the course of the debate. The first was that, as Peter Brimelow—a recent immigrant like myself—was arguing for the resolution, his wife was giving birth to a new American citizen, a little girl named Hannah Claire Katherine Brimelow.
The second interesting thing was that the television lights were so bright, the auditorium so packed, and the air-conditioning so non-existent that the atmosphere of heavyweight wrestling was accentuated by rivulets of sweat running down the combatants' faces, including that of the eternally cool and composed Bill Buckley. The third interesting thing was that the most important debate was not between the two sides, but within the two sides. Ed Koch, arguing against the resolution, parted company with the rest of his team by coming down solidly in favor of Proposition 187 (the winning California initiative, which denies state welfare, education, and health benefits to illegal immigrants). And I, arguing for the resolution, vigorously disagreed with my teammate Peter Brimelow over his preoccupation with the ethnic origins of those immigrating to our shores. Frankly, I couldn't care less what Americans will look like in the year 2050; but I do care very much what they will be like. My concern, in fact, has less to do with the immigrants immigrating here than with the America they are immigrating to.
It is not an accident that the Immigration Act of 1965 coincided with the launching of the Great Society—the welfare, bilingual education, and affirmative action policies and the multicultural experiments that have created an America very different from the America of the past. Instead of being an opportunity society, where hard work, enterprise, and commitment are rewarded with success, or at least a decent living, America has become an entitlement society, fostering a culture of rights, subsidies, and dependence that has infected millions of new immigrants as it has trapped millions of native-born Americans in an ever-growing "underclass."
America today is a nation in crisis, incapable of absorbing and assimilating the 2 million immigrants—legal and illegal—who make their way across our borders each year. The problem is not immigration in and of itself, but rather the combustible combination of high levels of immigration and the bankrupt social policies of the last 30 years.
As a Greek immigrant and a recent American citizen, I know that there is such a thing as an American identity, and it consists ironically of the very same virtues that have enabled millions of immigrants to succeed—hard work, family, faith, responsibility, and giving back. It is this identity that we are in danger of losing when multiculturalism shatters the ideal of One Nation Under God into a secular set of warring tribes and competing ethnic claims.
After three passionate and sweltering hours in the auditorium of Bard College, it dawned on me that the debate over immigration—whether on "Firing Line," in Congress, or in coffee shops around the country—is a microcosm of the larger debate over what kind of America we want to leave to our children.
I realized this as Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, and I argued about bilingual education. After spending five and a half billion dollars, in one year, on such programs, dropout rates and English literacy skills among immigrant students are a national disgrace. In Los Angeles County alone, students are schooled in a dizzying array of foreign languages, including Cantonese and Tagalog, while New York City public schools are coping with a shortage of Albanian-speaking teachers.
Confronted with this mounting evidence of failure, Botstein, without skipping a beat, replied that what we need is a better bilingual education. It is the classic liberal defense of all bankrupt Great Society programs: Let's reinvent them, let's make them better, and all will be well.
I am a Greek immigrant, but I do not want my children taught Grrek in school. I want them to learn English. And a growing number of Hispanic and Asian mothers feel the same way, and are, in fact, banding together to oppose well-intentioned but misguided programs that are depriving their children of a basic building block of success—the English language. Don't worry—if we want our children to learn the language of the old country, we'll teach it to them around the kitchen table.
Looking around the "Firing Line" set, it occurred to me that all the participants belonged to the top 1 percent of society in terms of affluence, education, and the privileges that come with them.
Everyone there has been only favorably impacted by immigration—more Korean delis, more Chinese cleaners, more Filipino maids. Under these circumstances, why not wax lyrical about the joys of unrestricted immigration?
Those who have really been affected are working-class Americans who are being pushed off the ladder of opportunity by illegal immigrants representing an unending source of cheap labor, or who feel it's unfair for then to pay for illegal immigrants on welfare while they themselves can barely make ends meet. What the debate made clear was the profound disconnect between the liberal elite that created the entitlement society and extended its rights to all immigrants, legal and illegal, and the majority of hard-working Americans who pay the bills.
Toward the end of the debate, Ira Glasser, executive director of the ACLU, received a hearty round of applause when he passionately proclaimed that "I am in favor of a poor pregnant woman—whether a legal or illegal immigrant—being able to get prenatal care anywhere she goes. It is a mark of civilization not to turn people like that away. " How could a reasonable person disagree?
But what is at issue, both in the immigration debate and in the larger political debate about the role of government, is the assumption that government is the only source of goodness in our lives. It is an assumption radically at odds with our historic American identity—optimistic, compassionate, generous, overcoming all odds. Until we resurrect the vision and this spirit we are not equipped to continue the most successful immigration experiment on Earth.
Ms. Huffington is an author and a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C., and chairwoman of its Center for Effective Compassion.