After the Deluge (Review: Immigration and the American Future)
It should be obvious to anyone who has taken the slightest trouble to examine the immigration question that America is faced not with an immigration “problem,” or even a “crisis,” but with a massive demographic invasion that, if not soon addressed by radical means, will permanently alter the nation’s social, economic, political, and cultural landscape. Currently, nearly 40 million Americans are of “foreign-born” stock. Of these, more than 50 percent are Latin Americans (over 30 percent Mexican). Current projections show that, by 2025, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority in at least nine states; by 2050, this number will have increased to 16 states.
Only once before in our history has the percentage of foreign-born stock been higher, and that was in the decade before 1920, when it was just under 15 percent. We are likely to surpass that figure within a few years. Moreover, immigration today differs in kind from that great wave which preceded the Immigration Act of 1924. As Samuel Huntington and Pat Buchanan, among others, have taken pains to demonstrate, never before has the immigrant population been so overrepresented by a single ethnicity, nor has the integrity of our national borders been threatened. In addition, thanks to the priority given to family reunification in the Immigration Act of 1965, the United States is now besieged with new immigrants who have little to offer the nation other than their poverty and their willingness to do grunt labor for the predatory capitalists who are the primary beneficiaries of the naive or cynical politicians who have underwritten this national-suicide scenario.
In Immigration and the American Future, Chilton Williamson has compiled 13 essays and one interview that cover what he describes as “the total effect of mass immigration in its various aspects,” ranging from immigration’s impact on national security, its economic consequences, and its political ramifications to its cultural and environmental transformations, as well as its ethical challenges. All of the essays were commissioned specifically for this book, though shorter versions of two of them appeared earlier in Chronicles. And while there is certainly a diversity of perspective, the collection does not pretend to debate the fundamental question. To a greater or lesser degree, all the authors concur that present levels of immigration are unsustainable and that they imperil our national future. Of course, after years of being ignored by the political and media mainstream, the immigration threat has recently become an approved subject for discussion. However, the contributors to this volume are not johnny-come-latelies. Most have written extensively on immigration for a decade or more.
One of the great myths of the immigration debate is that immigrants continue to be an asset to an ever-expanding U.S. economy. They take jobs that Americans are unwilling to do; they pay taxes; they broaden the consumer base; and they bring skills that are sometimes in short supply. The problem with these popular assumptions is that they are either wholly false or merely half-truths which require a good deal of qualification. Several of the contributors to the present volume challenge such assumptions. For instance, are immigrants really an asset to the economy because they take jobs that shiftless (so it is implied) Americans are no longer willing to do? As Edwin S. Rubenstein argues (“Immigrants in America: A Statistical Overview”), “nothing could be further from the truth.” Examining the job displacement of American workers by illegals, Rubenstein notes that unemployment rates among U.S.-born workers are highest in precisely those occupations that have the greatest concentrations of illegal workers—construction trades, domestic service, landscaping. To take just one example, the unemployment rate among construction laborers was, as of 2004, 13 percent, tripling the national unemployment average. Are native-born workers abandoning these jobs because they no longer wish to engage in “menial labor”? In fact, they have not abandoned these jobs at all. They are simply laid off and replaced with illegals or recently naturalized workers (Hispanic, more often than not) who will work for much less. David Hartman (“The Economics of Illegal Immigration to the United States”), whose Hartman Foundation funded this volume, provides the most telling number: In the construction trades, between 1972 and 2005, average hourly and weekly earnings dropped by 21.6 percent. Is it a coincidence that, during the same period, the number of immigrants (both legal and illegal) from Mexico alone rose by more than 350 percent?
Defenders of “amnesty” and of present levels of legal immigration argue that, as long as unemployment rates nationwide remain low, all is well. As for those workers who are displaced, it is often suggested, they should take advantage of the opportunity to obtain retraining in some skilled or semi-skilled occupation where the compensation is sufficient for their needs. This is cold comfort for those with hungry mouths to feed at home. In the first place, even with retraining, the competition workers face for good jobs is increasingly fierce. Many thousands of high-paying manufacturing jobs have simply gone overseas (or across the border), while others have been eliminated as a result of the flood of cheap imported goods entering American markets. In those manufacturing industries that remain, wages have been steadily declining. Drawing on U.S. Department of Labor statistics, Hartman shows that, since 1972, the “average real compensation per unit of output” in the manufacturing sector has plummeted by half. He is careful to note that several factors have contributed to this state of affairs but does not hesitate to assert that an “excessive labor supply” driven by immigration numbers is a primary one.
What about the oft-heard canard that immigrants contribute to the nation’s wealth through tax payments? Of course, it is true that naturalized workers pay state and federal income taxes like everyone else, and even illegals pay sales taxes. But this simplistic argument overlooks several negative factors. Immigrants entering the United States in recent decades are far more likely to be impoverished and to come from countries in which a culture of poverty is deeply ingrained. Rubenstein reveals that, as of 2004, more than 17 percent of all immigrants were impoverished; of these, the rates were far higher among immigrants from Latin America (e.g., 26 percent of Mexicans, 20 percent of Guatemalans). Immigrants of Asian origin, by contrast, are impoverished at rates either below the national average for native-born Americans (12 percent) or slightly above (e.g., Koreans, at 13.2 percent). Thus, most immigrants today are more likely to pay less in taxes than native-born workers and to become welfare dependent. Welfare dependency among immigrants from Third World countries has, in fact, become a chronic problem. It is true that the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act curtailed most disbursements of federally provided welfare to new immigrants (requiring them to wait five years after naturalization before becoming eligible). But the states have often filled the gap. Drawing on information provided by a 2004 Census Bureau survey, Rubenstein notes that almost 30 percent of all immigrant households are dependent upon “at least one major welfare program,” as opposed to 18.2 percent of native households. Among Latin Americans exclusively, the numbers are much higher. Forty-one percent of Hispanic immigrants receive some “means tested cash benefit.” One of these is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Although it is not technically a “welfare” program, the EITC subsidizes the incomes of impoverished workers with children. Rubenstein notes that the EITC is supposed to be disbursed only to workers with legal status, but “the IRS, with its celebrated kind-heartedness, allows immigrants to claim EITC benefits retroactively for up to three years before they obtain legal work status.” Thus, IRS policy rewards illegals for breaking the law and for doing work for which “they may very well not have paid taxes.” EITC, by the way, is a $30-billion annual program.
Other entitlements that are enjoyed by immigrants include public education and medical treatment. While illegal immigrants are not entitled to Medicaid, they cannot legally be denied emergency-room treatment, a service that, as Hartman argues, “includes much of what Medicaid would cover (at twice the cost).” Steven Greenhut, in “Greetings from Ground Zero,” an essay on the detrimental effects immigration is producing in Southern California, reports that
Southern California’s hospitals are being inundated by illegal immigrants who use them for all their health-care needs, from immunizations to check-ups to true emergency services. They do not pay anything for any of this.
In fact, more than half a dozen emergency rooms in the greater Los Angeles area have shut down in recent years, and a number of others are at risk of being forced into closure because of the enormous financial drain incurred by providing services to increasing numbers of patients with no health insurance. Other cities around the country report similar problems.
The costs of education are simply staggering. Most Americans are aware that, under the prevailing interpretation of the 14th Amendment, children born to illegal aliens automatically become U.S. citizens and are thus eligible for public education; few Americans seem cognizant, however, of the 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler v. Doe, which stipulates that the illegal siblings of those children also have rights to a public education. The Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) estimates that there are at least 1.5 million school-aged illegal immigrants in the United States, in addition to at least 2.5 million of their U.S.-born siblings. According to FAIR, if the cost of educating both groups is combined, the total K-12 expenditure in tax dollars nationwide is over $28 billion. In Texas alone, according to James Bernsen (“The Costs of Illegal Immigration to Texas”), the expenditure in 2004 was $3.6 billion, roughly 10.5 percent of the state’s entire K-12 education budget.
The overall economic effect of immigration is, without question, a fiscal loss. As Rubenstein reports, immigrants (legal and illegal) contribute roughly $12.5 billion annually to the economy (one tenth of one percent of GDP). On the deficit side, the drain on taxpayers amounts to over $200 billion annually; thus, the net fiscal result is a $187.5 billion burden on the public coffers. Confronted with such figures (which are widely available for those who care to look), it is difficult to see how anyone can still defend the present immigration status quo.
Washington is infested with pro-immigration lobbyists, however, so clearly, someone benefits. Peter Brimelow, who minces no words on this subject, argues (in “Big Business and Immigration: Inside the Mind of the Corporate Elite”) that
current immigration policy lends itself to explanation in the crudest Marxist terms. Quite simply, it is a savage attack by the American rich on the American poor (and middle class) . . .
George J. Borjas (in an interview with Brimelow) estimates that two percent of GDP is transferred annually from labor to capital as a result of the lowered wage rates made possible by immigration. (To put this in perspective, Washington currently spends 3.7 percent of the U.S. GDP annually on defense—a total of $439 billion.) The numbers would seem to justify Brimelow’s characterization of this plunder as a “savage attack,” yet elsewhere in the same essay, his analysis is somewhat less belligerent. Having worked as an editor at Forbes for a number of years, he is all too familiar with the self-justifications of the business class. In his view, their support for current immigration policy reveals a “state of prelapsarian innocence about their activities.” They ignore the displacement of native workers caused by their hiring practices, or they rationalize such practices by pretending to believe that importing foreign workers is essential for the greater good of the economy. This same innocence, Brimelow would have us believe, allows them to overlook the fact that a veritable “cornucopia of government subsidies” underwrites all this cheap labor.
Yet, sooner or later, the business class “will start to be alarmed by a policy which is destroying the country in which they live, and in which they hope their children and grandchildren will live.” This sanguine view owes something to Brimelow’s conviction that “[c]lass politics are relatively rare in American history” and that, in time, “there will be divisions within the business elite.” Such divisions, presumably, will help to foster a change in immigration policy. I hope, of course, that Brimelow is right about this, but some might argue that he, too, is suffering from a degree of “prelapsarian innocence.”
While economic indicators are important, the cultural transformations wrought by immigration are even more critical. Statistics are easily packaged for news broadcasts, but cultural change cannot be quantified and is often embedded in historical contexts that few in the mainstream media can be bothered to examine. In one of this volume’s key essays (“Up Mexico Way: The Cultural Transformation of America”), Thomas Fleming examines perhaps the most profound problem raised by mass immigration. “Any culture,” he writes, “that expects to absorb . . . a large population of aliens must have a coherent sense of itself.” It must be unified by a common language, by shared moral and religious traditions, by a deep sense of its own history. A collective belief in abstract “democratic values” and a passion for material affluence are not nearly enough. How is an authentic national identity transmitted? Does America still possess such an identity? Fleming insists that
strong institutions and traditions are required: a national literature and an accepted set of classics, effective schools that reflect and reinforce the moral and social outlook of the nation, a self-confident church . . . [and] some form of adolescent initiation such as universal military training.
By this standard, America has perhaps been fatally weakened, not only by the influx of foreign cultures and traditions, but by the erosion of her own cultural traditions and by the crumbling of those institutions that define her “common life.” Indeed, what binds Americans today is, ironically, the “mass culture that is destroying the American character.” By “mass culture,” Fleming presumably means a culture that is no longer rooted in regional and local custom, in networks of kinship, deference, and duty—a culture disseminated largely by the electronic media and shaped by a small but powerful deracinated elite consisting of capitalist profiteers, Hollywood producers and their hirelings, the advertising and entertainment industries (forgive the redundancy), and the better part of our academic intelligentsia, not to mention the music producers who provide the soundscape for our vacuous collective fantasies.
Such a “culture” is little prepared to withstand the unprecedented immigration onslaught that now faces us. In the past, an America with a much stronger sense of her own traditions and a more vigorous confidence in her shared moral convictions was able effectively to assimilate large numbers of immigrants without serious damage to her core identity. Today, however, a vast number of new immigrants belong to a culture that differs profoundly from the European culture planted here by the colonists. This is especially true of Latin Americans—of Mexicans, in particular. Delving at some length into Mexican history, Fleming reminds us of the “prevalence of the Indian element in the Mexican gene pool.” Though the Mexican elite class has “a great deal of European blood,” Mexico sees herself “as an indigenous nation”—one that has long harbored a good deal of hostility toward her gringo neighbor to the north. Moreover, hers is a culture in which violence and corruption are endemic. In one of the most eloquent essays in this collection, “Dystopia Unlimited: Or, The Flowers of Regress (and Catastrophe),” Chilton Williamson worries about the potential for the “Mexicanization of the American political system—that is to say, its destruction and barbarization.” The much-admired stability of the American system is rooted in Anglo-American respect for the rule of law, in a centuries-old antipathy toward tyranny. It is not difficult to see what a reconquista of the territories that once were Mexican will mean for such states as New Mexico and California, for there (and elsewhere), the Mexican tradition “of self-indulgent violence, sadism, lawlessness, intemperance, intolerance, and irresponsibility” is already much in evidence. Fleming suggests that, if we wish to see the face of an America overrun by Mexican immigrants, we should look at border cities such as Juárez and El Paso, which are “ugly hybrid[s] of the worst of American and Mexican cultures.” All along the border, “Mexico and America are redefining themselves and each other in a cultural equivalent of Spanglish.”
Many of the contributors to Immigration and the American Future do not provide much reason for optimism about that future, and with good reason. Still, there are signs that Americans may be waking from their demographic slumber. Roger D. McGrath (“National Sovereignty Goes Local”) surveys what might well be called a grassroots rebellion against the federal government’s “dereliction” of duty. In Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia, or in states as far from the Mexican border as Pennsylvania, state legislators and local authorities are becoming the avant-garde in this new resistance. Arizona’s Proposition 200, passed in 2004, has been a bellwether for similar legislative action elsewhere. Among other stipulations, it threatens with criminal penalties any public employee who fails to report illegal aliens or to verify the immigration status of those who apply for benefits. In Georgia, the Security and Immigration Compliance Act (2006) requires “employers to access a federal database to verify the legal residency of their workers, [and further requires] recipients of state benefits to prove that they are in the country legally.” Recent reports suggest that this is producing results. According to McGrath, “the once strong Latino home-buying market has declined precipitously since Governor Perdue signed the act into law.” And, of course, most Chronicles readers will already be familiar with Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, who has organized a posse for rounding up illegals and their “coyotes.” But Arpaio is hardly alone. All across the Southwest, county sheriffs are organizing. The Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, for instance, formed in 2005 and has, since 2006, met with sheriffs in New Mexico, Arizona, and California to establish the Southwest Border Sheriff’s Coalition, in order to coordinate efforts in apprehending illegals.
These are just a few of the many signs of constructive revolt brewing in the heartland, but this revolt, since it is focused almost exclusively on the problem of illegal immigration, lacks the scope to deal with the larger immigration threat. In the years since the 1990 Immigration Act capped legal immigration at 700,000 per year, there have been only two years in which legal immigration has fallen below that number. Even worse, the 1990 cap exempts the additional foreigners who are brought in legally under the “immediate family” mandate of the 1965 Immigration Act. In 2006 alone, over 580,000 immigrants were admitted on that basis. Thus, well over a million new legal immigrants per year are taking up residence in a country that has virtually lost the will to assimilate them; even if the will were there, the immigrants are clearly too numerous for assimilation efforts to have any significant effect. More radical action is required.
Back in 2003, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) introduced the Mass Immigration Reduction Act. As the late Sam Francis predicted at the time, the act was smothered in its cradle, but Tancredo has continued to call for a moratorium on legal immigration—and clearly, this is an idea whose time has come. A moratorium (for, let’s say, 20 years—a biblical generation) would not solve all our immigration problems. Reducing the numbers, however drastically, would not undo the damage already done, but it would buy us some desperately needed time to ask just who we really are. In one of the final essays in Immigration and the American Future, Guido Vignelli (“False Rights, Real Duties, Prudent Rules: A Christian View of Immigration”) argues vigorously that a proper understanding of the Christian moral tradition permits a “preferential option for the nation.” As Pope John Paul II affirmed in 1985, a nation is a “spiritual heritage,” and, as Christians, we are obligated to “confirm, maintain, and develop it.” This is an “important task,” said the Pope, “in particular for those which must defend their own existence and essential identity . . . from the risks of a destruction generated from outside or of a decomposition from inside.” Let those who have ears hear.
Immigration and the American Future
Chilton Williamson, Jr., ed.
Rockford, IL: Chronicles Press; 307 pp., $29.95
Jack Trotter writes from Charleston, South Carolina.
This review first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.