Rich O'Keeffe on Immigration

"We see millions of hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy," President Bush said in his State of the Union address this January. "Our nation needs an immigration system that serves the American economy and reflects the American dream."

 

While mortal flaws exist in his legislation's design, it's a remarkable symbolic victory for immigration advocates that an American president so loudly acknowledges the existence of the underground labor economy.

 

Not that he's the first to notice. Others have seen the millions of mostly Latino immigrants entering the U.S. each year, but have been considerably less sanguine about it. Among their disgruntled number is Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. His status as academic rock star clinched with his vaguely notorious Clash of Civilizations, the realist counterpoint to Francis Fukiyama's Panglossian discourses on the shape of the post Cold War world, the iconoclastic scholar now focuses on the possible cultural outcomes of today's immigration with his essay "The Hispanic Challenge."

 

Excerpted in a recent number of Foreign Policy from his book Who Are We?, the essay argues that Hispanic immigration in general (and Mexican immigration in particular) poses an unprecedented threat to America's Anglo-Protestant culture and the dominance of the English language. Professor Huntington, needless to say, has riled folks with this piece, which seemingly extols the exclusionist and nativist impulses currently best exemplified by former California governor Pete Wilson and rabid demagogue/publisher Pat Buchanan.

 

He begins by attributing the origins of the American "creed," as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, to the Anglo-Protestant culture of the nation's founders. This creed, enriched by past waves of immigration, the enfranchisement of native born blacks and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminating quotas on immigrants' origins, now fully trumps race, ethnicity and religion as the basis of what it is to be American.   It is under assault, though, by the usual suspects: the rise of multiculturalism, group identities of race and gender and the cosmopolitanism desired by cultural elites are undermining traditional nationalism, and fueling a move toward more immediate "blood and belief" affiliations.

 

To this point the essay is fairly unobjectionable and in fact mainly descriptive.  What has people's backs up is his argument that while America's "core Anglo-Protestant culture" and the creed from which it springs are being undermined by the above-named forces, Hispanic immigration is posing the greatest threat to Anglo culture's hegemony by forming huge ethno-linguistic enclaves in California and throughout the Southwest, thus stunting or even halting assimilation.  This will, he claims, have all sorts of ominous consequences.

 

California and the Southwest obviously have a rapidly expanding Latino population. Whether this foretells America's cultural apocalypse is hardly as certain as Huntington makes it to be.  His argument is based on three factors, none of which really make much sense.

 

First, Huntington sees in Hispanics an unnerving unwillingness to assimilate instead of desiring to engage with their adopted homeland, though he admits that English acquisition among Hispanic-Americans roughly follows the patterns of earlier immigrants. What he really finds fault with is the survival of ancestral language among successor generations. 

 

Put differently, he's angry that Hispanic immigrants have refused to eradicate their language and heritage. Typically, he bemoans findings that Miami households speaking English only average incomes of $32,000 while bilingual homes come in at $50,000, finding in this data evidence of cultural erosion rather than seeing is as evidence of justly earned rewards for the more highly skilled and educated.  

 

Second, Huntington sees significant, even grave differences between earlier European and contemporary Latin influxes. The shared frontier with Mexico and the income disparity between two contiguous nations has led to, in Huntington's eyes, immigration of unprecedented scale and persistence. He cites such evidence as the fact that Mexicans in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s made up 14, 23 and 25 percent, respectively, of total legal immigration.

 

Such figures are not nearly equal earlier percentages of Irish and German immigration, but when accounting for the more diverse sources of immigration prior to the First World War, they comprise a greater percentage of the total population of immigrants than those earlier groups--hence the unprecented nature of the influx of Mexicans.  Also significant is that almost all, barring the relatively small fraction of immigration by indigenous peoples, share the Spanish language.

 

As the argument goes, be they citizen or not, legal or illegal, these immigrants and their descendents will by raw numbers (an estimated one quarter of the total U.S. population will be Hispanic by 2050 if trends continue) and high regional concentration soon come to dictate how government is run.  This will create in time a de facto split into two cultures with two languages, English and Spanish.

 

Even this, though, is just a brick in the cathedral of theory the good professor is erecting.  We gain a glimpse of his real fears when, reaching Know-Nothing heights of paranoia, he cites his third factor--Mexican "historical presence" as a fatal hindrance to acculturation and evidence of sinister irredentist motives for immigration. He attaches particular significance to an argument advanced by Boston College's Peter Skerry, who believes that Mexicans who "settle predominantly in a region that was once part of their homeland enjoy a sense of being on their own turf that is not shared by other immigrants."

 

Huntington's faith in this argument is, frankly, evidence of nothing more than his own foolishness.  As Roger Daniels, of the University of Cincinnati put it in a letter to Foreign Policy, "The notion that any substantial numbers of Mexican Americans have irredentist claims...is preposterous, although some Chicano intellectuals say so largely to wind up gullible Anglos."  The much-bandied prophesy once made by the University of New Mexico's Charles Truxillo that by 2080 we would see La Republica del Norte, an amalgam of the northern Mexican territories and south-western states, is significantly less plausible than, say, the establishment of a Palestinian state from the river to the sea.

 

This is all a chain of unsupported assumptions which lead into one another.  If Mexicans assimilate poorly (which he fails to demonstrate) then they might come to dominate American government (by which he seems to mean they would seek representation in proportion to their political power) and then take great parcels of American territory and help Mexico annex them. Fear of this unlikely scenario leads Huntington to what can most charitably be described as a permissive attitude toward the possibility of white nationalism; one suspects that were it not for his famous name he would have mimeographed this essay and ended up handing it out in Greyhound stations.

 

While Huntington's focus is admittedly upon possible cultural outcomes, he utterly ignores the economic consequences that shutting out Hispanics would bring. Citing the disparity in fertility rates among Latinos and non-Hispanic whites (3.0 and 1.8 respectively) Huntington sees cause for panic instead of an opportunity to solve the crisis of an aging American population. Not welcoming youthful, energetic immigrants and their offspring and offering opportunities to use their hard work and talents to engage in the pursuit of the American dream (not to mention refreshing the U.S. tax base with new workers) abandons pragmatism in the face of oncoming fiscal crises, not to mention the damage it would do to our traditional inclusiveness.

 

Such omissions are beneath a man whose career has served clear-eyed realism so well and put him in the company of knaves like James Staudenraus of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbyist group seeking greater enforcement of the border at the Rio Grande. He and his organization believe that stopping illegal immigration is possible given the deployment of state of the art technologies. Tamar Jacoby of the New Republic disagrees.

 

Visiting Laredo, Texas' U.S. Border Patrol outpost there, she found a professional, well-funded unit equipped with all the technology in which Staudenraus puts his faith--all of which is for naught. The task of strict border enforcement is proving only more Sisyphean with each passing year, and simultaneously helping make immigrant smuggling a growth industry.  This lucrative black market is monopolized by violent gangs only accumulating capital for expansion into their more traditional narcotics trafficking. Providing capital for and incentive for organized crime, zealous border enforcement is an ultimately self-defeating position rather than a solution to any kind of problems.

 

Instead of fretting over how newcomers will wreck the values and institutions of their new homeland like latter-day Ostrogoth hordes, the real solution is to show some faith in America and broaden the path to citizenship.

 

Unfortunately, President's Bush's proposed legislation is absurdly insufficient, a crude play for Hispanic votes rather than a serious policy.  Workers are allowed to enter and stay legally for a three-year period, which can be renewed once, as long as they are sponsored by their employer and continue to be employed.  (No matter if that means extremely long hours without overtime pay, and the legitimization of a labor underclass.) Considering that not even the faintest glimmer of a green card is held out, one wonders who in their right mind would opt for such a program.

 

The President's proposals, like Huntington's essay and like the ideas of such madmen as Buchanan, offer nothing fresh to help us confront the challenges brought by persistent, large-scale Hispanic and Mexican immigration.  That such solutions as the untenable and repulsive welding shut of the American-Mexican frontier and the creation of a slave-labor caste are even considered by serious people is an indictment of an entire intellectual class.

 

As a nation of mostly immigrants--I would wager that few of New Partisan's readership and staff are of the Anglo-Protestant stock Professor Huntington so admires--we have, simple as it is to say, an obligation to offer means to advancement to our society's most recent and most vulnerable members. Anything less would be un-American.  



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