Fleming_03-1989
Perspective

The Real American Dilemma

America is a nation of immigrants. How often is that declaration trotted out to explain why it would be immoral to do something about controlling immigration, as if every country were not a nation of immigrants. If Britain ever had an indigenous population, it was overrun by Celts, Germans, Danes, and Normans—to say nothing of the Hollanders brought over and ennobled when Dutch William drove his father-in-law from the throne. Almost any country, excepting the poor benighted Scandinavians, could tell a similar story, and the present condition of Sweden is as good an argument as I can think of against a restricted gene pool. (It is also a total refutation of the hilarious idea of Nordic supremacy.)

It is conventional to speak of the great contributions made by immigrants and at the same time to deplore the unpleasant reception they were given by the WASP population. No one ever seems to carry the argument back to the reception the Indians usually tried to arrange for European settlers pushing into their territories. We are all, even the Indians, descended from immigrants, and it is hard to pick which group has contributed most to the fabric of our civilization.

In some sort of descending order one would have to include the various British stocks, the Germans and Dutch, the French (especially the Huguenots), and the more recent arrivals from eastern and southern Europe. In addition, no account of American culture could leave out the strange and often strained relations between European Americans and the American blacks whose ancestors were brought here by force. Jazz, the blues, and rock music, all hybrids of the two stocks, could stand as a metaphor for our "peculiar" relationship.

In recent years, however, while the main focus in the polite media has remained on the contributions and sufferings of hyphenated Americans, ordinary Americans are more concerned with the problems caused by the virtual flood of arrivals from the Third World. For some years now, legal immigration has been at an average rate of over 600,000 per year, while the number of illegals in this country is anybody's guess. In 1985 Richard Lamm and Gary Imhoff (The Immigration Time Bomb: The Fragmenting of America) estimated eight and a half to eleven million, mostly from Latin America.

Immigration reform was the great issue of the Reagan years that never really took shape, and it will be up to Mr. Bush, the Congress, and above all to the opinion industry to settle the future of the United States. There was a debate, of course, and one celebrated bill that didn't make it (Simpson-Mazzoli) as well as the version that did, but most of the discussion was safely trivial: whether or not to tighten up the border controls and send back (temporarily) a certain number of illegals, and how merciful to be in granting amnesty. Ultimately—and this is a sign of how low we have fallen—most of the conversation was about money. Think of the jobs that need to be done, the fruit that needs to be picked, the houses cleaned. Think of the contributions to science and industry made by talented immigrants.

After we've done thinking about what's in it for agribusiness and electronics, we just might begin to wonder what is in store for the American people. Not too long ago, I had a chance to go over the whole ground with one of the brightest defenders of free trade and open borders in the country. He waxed eloquent over the family values of the Mexicans and the high intelligence of the Orientals. Finally, I asked him: suppose we could set off neutron bombs all over the United States, wipe out the current citizen population and replace them with brilliant and hardworking Chinese. From his perspective, wouldn't that be a plus? I'm still waiting for an answer.

The trouble began with treating the nation as an abstraction: the land of the free and the home of the brave was turned into the land of opportunity for what the Statue of Liberty's plaque so quaintly calls "the wretched refuse" of the world. A real country, with its own history, its own particular set of virtues and vices, its own special institutions was reduced to cheap slogans and loyalty oaths. (I don't know which is worse: requiring children to mouth the Pledge of Allegiance or, once we have instituted such a form of petty fascism, refusing to require it. What an election.)

The truth is, we have to confine our discussion to abstractions, including that abstraction that serves as a metaphor for an entire way of life—money, because what some Americans worry about cannot be spoken to the network reporters doing on-the-street interviews for the evening news. Despite the risks, some people are incautious enough to sign letters to the editor or call in to the radio talk shows that are increasingly the only form for free expression. What these simple folk are saying is that they do not care how smart the Chinese are or how religious the Mexicans are. If they're so smart, virtuous, and diligent, how come the countries they are leaving are in such a god-awful mess? The old question, "If you so smart, why ain't you rich?" applies to nations as well as individuals.

In his essay "Immigration and Liberal Taboos" (in One Life at a Time, Please), Edward Abbey sums up the situation with his customary restraint and discretion: "They come to stay and they stay to multiply. What of it? say the documented liberals; ours is a rich and generous nation, we have room for all, let them come. And let them stay, say the conservatives; a large, cheap, frightened, docile, surplus labor force is exactly what the economy needs. Put some fear into the unions: tighten discipline, spur productivity, whip up the competition for jobs. The conservatives love their cheap labor; the liberals love their cheap cause."

Abbey concludes by asking, "How many of us, truthfully, would prefer to be submerged in the Caribbean-Latin version of civilization?" Stripped of its anger. Abbey's question is worth asking. If we can judge from his novels. Abbey actually likes Mexico and its people. But for better or worse, he likes his own country more, and not necessarily because it is better (although he obviously thinks, as I do, that it is). But a nation, as the word implies (from nascor, be born) is a fictional extended family. Like members of a family, the citizens of a nation prefer each other's company and will sacrifice for the common good, not because they think their family or nation is superior to every other, but simply because it is theirs. The Germans may have better music, the English a clearer prose, the Russians a deeper spirituality, but Americans have, on occasion, been willing to shoot any of them in the defense or even the interest of the United States. And, it goes without saying, that all of these European people have displayed a marked capacity for becoming Americans.

There's the rub. Do Abbey's liberals and conservatives believe that there is anything particular about the American identity? After all, most of us don't blame the French for wanting to be French, and we all profess to sympathize with the desire of black Africans to rule their own countries and develop their own traditions without interference from white Europeans. Why is it only America that is denied an identity?

There is, after all, an American story that is primarily a saga of enterprising men and women who came here from Europe. The language and culture, as well as the legal and political systems, were derived from Britain. This way of life of ours is not the result of any general principle; it is the legacy of our forebears and a civilization that goes back to Greece and Rome. It is vastly creative and has shown an enormous capacity for transforming immigrants from somewhat differing cultures. This capacity is not infinite, and a United States dominated by Third World immigrants will be a very different nation in its cultural and its economic life.

Part of the problem is a question of numbers. Talented immigrants are, for the most part, highly assimilable, but mass migrations are disruptive and threaten social cohesion. Between 1976 and 1986, the number of immigrants from Africa doubled, while the numbers from Asia, Mexico, and Haiti all quadrupled. (Haiti, by the way, was on the low side for the Caribbean: Jamaica was up 700 percent). The big winner, however, was India, whose stock rose an impressive 2,000 percent.

Like most Americans since, Thomas Jefferson firmly believed that this country should provide a haven for talented and freedom-loving people. He was also aware of the risks. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson pointed out that the American form of government was derived from "the freest principles of the English Constitution." It was diametrically opposed to the absolutisms that ruled over most of Europe. Emigrants from such countries, he warned, "will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave . . . or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another."

What would have especially aroused Jefferson's fears is the current reigning assumption that special arrangements have to be made for "refugees" from political oppression. Conservatives want to open the door to Cubans and Nicaraguans, while leftists give shelter to Salvadorans and South African blacks. What both groups are saying, in essence, is that they would like the United States to turn into Nicaragua or Haiti. Of course, all humane people sympathize with the victims of political oppression; wherever possible we would like to do something for them. But we must never forget that immigration policy is the most significant means of determining the future of our nation, and we owe it to our children not to squander their birthright in spasms of imprudent charity.

One frightening dimension to American charity is the curious notion that aliens and immigrants have rights. Once upon a time, it was clearly understood that no one had anything like a "right" to enter the United States, and that aliens who were allowed in possessed only such benefits of the legal system as Congress and the various state governments chose to give them. Of course, illegal aliens could be routinely rounded up and interned pending their deportation, but even legal aliens were routinely denied state charity, government jobs, and even such government-licensed activities as commercial fishing and the operation of pool halls. These restrictions were routinely upheld by the Supreme Court.

After World War II, however, the federal courts have increasingly recognized—invented would be a better word—the rights of aliens. In a 1948 case (Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission), the Supreme Court declared that California's restrictions on off-shore fishing were invalid, and in 1971 the Court declared that a state could not deny welfare to aliens, finding that aliens were a discriminated against minority deserving of special protection. In other words, they were to be given more rights than citizens.

One by one all the barriers have fallen, and legal aliens enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizenship, except for voting and holding office. Until recently, the one privilege the government did retain was the ability to detain and intern illegal aliens, but that too has come under fire. In late 1987 Cuban illegals staged a riot in two prisons where they were being held. The US Court of Appeals in Atlanta did find—regretfully—that unadmitted aliens had no rights, but the effect of the riots was to blackmail the government into granting hearings on the rioters' cases. In the political debate that broke out, politicians and judges alike demanded a recognition of aliens' rights. Georgia Republican Pat Swindall—and I hope our Georgia readers will take note—argued that the Cubans actually had (not even ought to have) Fifth Amendment rights, Swindall is not entirely off the wall, since he has the support of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose reverence for the Constitution is a matter of public record. In a number of dissenting opinions, Marshall has insisted that in criminal cases unadmitted aliens are entitled to all the protections of the Bill of Rights.

Of course, we could go on as we are doing, whittling away at our definition of citizenship, letting sovereignty slip through our fingers, but if we refuse to control immigration, our options are severely limited. The least unattractive solution would be to implement the federal principle on a state and regional level, recognizing Hispanics and Orientals, in states where they form a majority, as the dominant group—much as the French are given special status in Quebec. (We must not imitate the disastrous Canadian policy of nationwide bilingualism.) Descendants of the old settlers that fought and won the land from Mexico will be quite rightly indignant with what many Mexicans are already calling the Reconquest, and we shall probably have far more trouble than Canada in adjusting to a multicultural situation. Perhaps after a century or two we can evolve into a safely neutered society of consumers—like Switzerland. It is just as likely to be a bloodbath.

A far less attractive scenario than either Switzerland or tribal civil war Nigerian style would be a forced Americanization on the grand scale. It didn't work all that well the last time we tried it, when Catholics were hectored and bullied out of the officially Protestant public schools, and considering the sort of people who run the federal bureaucracy today, we will in effect be writing the death sentence on republican self-government. Only an empire, with a vast machinery of manipulation (including some form of state religion) could succeed in creating order out of such a Babel, and the best we could hope for would be either a military junta or a fascist welfare state—Sweden with a führer.

What then, if anything, can be done? There are several obvious changes in immigration policy that need to be made. First of all, we need to put an end to the mass migrations to the US. It was the Volkerwanderungen of the Germans and Huns that brought the Roman Empire down, and we shall be in even worse straits if we fail to control our Southern border and do not adopt a more hard-nosed approach to refugees fleeing the political turmoil, high population growth, and economic chaos of the Third World.

We also need to reexamine our priorities. From the 20's to the 50's, American immigration law made it very clear that we intended to be what we had always been: a European nation. The quota that took effect in 1929 was based on the ethnic background of the existing population of the US and allotted 85 percent of the total to northern and western Europe and 12 percent to the rest of Europe.

The Immigration Act of 1952 did preserve the national origins quota (not abolished till 1965), but within the system a separate set of ordered priorities were established. Preference was given first to immigrants with desirable (i.e. marketable) skills, second to relatives of citizens and resident aliens. Along with the abolition of national quotas in 1965 came changes in the preference system. Now unmarried children of citizens come first, spouses of resident aliens second, and exceptional and talented immigrants third. Other relatives of citizens and resident aliens come fourth and fifth, while workers with needed skills come sixth.

The result is the all-too-familiar scams by which undesired aliens contrive to give birth on US soil or arrange marriages of convenience. In either event, one unskilled alien can end up bringing "all his sisters and his cousins (whom he reckons up by dozens) and his aunts." The figures tell the story. Despite a total quota of only 270,000, the special categories have accelerated the rate of legal immigration to almost three times that. Ted Kennedy, by the way, is primarily responsible for the difference. In 1965, he served as floor manager of the legislation in the Senate, and in 1980 he sponsored amendments that removed the ceiling on admission, promising no more than 50,000 additional immigrants as a consequence.

What should come first is not the interest of the alien or even of US businesses, but the interest of the historical population of the country. Family members must, as Lamm and Imhoff among others insist, be included under a comprehensive total. We should continue, as Jefferson wished, to open our doors to talented emigrants not because they will make money for IBM, but because bright and able people are a precious and scarce commodity. More fruitpickers we do not need. Cut off the welfare payments and we shall be surprised at how many agricultural workers are living right now in Chicago and New York. The most pressing need, however, is the reestablishment of national quotas. These need not be based on the formulas of the 1920's, but nonetheless should give first priority to the population base of the nation.

One doesn't wish to be unkind, but cultural pluralism is not the most attractive legacy we can leave to our children. As a nation, we have barely survived the existence of two separate populations, black and white, and we have a long way to go in working out better relations between those two groups. What shall we do when the whole of America becomes a multiracial Alexandria? As the Romans realized, citizenship implies certain very concrete rights and duties: the right to trade and make contracts, the obligation to serve in the army, the right to intermarry. While it is true that there are no laws restricting marriage between the races, such unions are very uncommon. According to census figures, less than two percent of existing marriages are of mixed race, and even projecting a modest rate of increase over the next few decades, it is highly unlikely that we shall realize anything approaching a homogeneous population in the near future.

The problem, if it is a problem, is not simply one more case of white intolerance. The pressures against mixed race dating and marriage are every bit as strong in the black and Oriental communities. This is not a question of ought, but a case of is, and the result will be a nation no longer stratified simply by class but by race as well. Europeans and Orientals will compete, as groups, for the top positions, while the other groups will nurse their resentment on the weekly welfare checks they receive from the other half Perhaps such an arrangement can be worked out, but whatever emerges will not be a nation, certainly not the United States.

The situation is quite as serious as even the most frightened alarmists have suggested, but we cannot begin even to speak seriously about changes in the law until we are willing to violate the code of silence that the left has imposed upon the topic. There is a pressing need for plain speech and open discussion in which those who happen to agree with the overwhelming majority of Americans throughout our history are not stigmatized as xenophobes and racists. If the notion of aliens' rights really takes hold, we are in danger of losing the entire concept of American citizenship. Above all, we have to quit lying to ourselves about who we are and what we face. If sober and sensible people cannot solve the immigration problem through an orderly process of debate and legislation, then there are genuine crazies out there only waiting for the chance to use such an issue as a springboard to power.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Flemingis president of The Fleming Foundation (fleming.foundation).

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