Bringing Diversity to the Debate

By Mark Krikorian on August 27, 2007

The American Conservative, August 27, 2007

Debating Immigration grew out of papers presented at a conference held at Princeton in 2005, plus some additional contributions. The book is thus not animated by a single hypothesis and is therefore perhaps even more difficult to review than is usually the case with collected volumes.

The question becomes, are there enough essays with something useful to say to make it worth reading? The answer in this case is yes.

Given the academy’s parochial leftism, such an answer would seem improbable. But the editor, Carol Swain, now at Vanderbilt University, is not your conventional academic. Born in a rural shack without running water, a high school dropout who married and had children while still in her teens, and a devout Christian, she was never successfully socialized into political correctness. While not quite a conservative, her views are decidedly heterodox, even heretical, in the context of an elite university. She’s argued in previous books that black-majority districts are not good for blacks and that affirmative action and mass immigration should be ended in part because they fuel the growth of white nationalism.

The makeup of this volume is more evidence of Swain’s heterodoxy. Sure, the open-borders left is represented, as it should be in a book entitled Debating Immigration, and Swain got some of the top academics of that ilk, including Doug Massey, Linda Bosniak, and Rogers Smith. But if you read the New York Times, you already know what they’re going to say.

There are also offerings that don’t just regurgitate the elite consensus and these are not just from immigration restrictionists, who are also represented here, including my own director of research, Steven Camarota. More novel are the essays by those, like Swain, who can’t really be counted in the restrictionist camp but whose intellectual honesty forces them to confront reality in a way their colleagues do not.

Swain’s own chapter builds on her earlier work on black representation and explores how the Congressional Black Caucus fails to represent the economic interests of black Americans on the immigration issue. As she writes, “In the case of immigration reform, African Americans must look beyond the CBC for effective representation. Ironically, white members of Congress have been more of a voice for working people than the CBC, which sometimes operates out of self-interest and embraces a politics of symbolism.” You can say that again.

Along the same lines is an essay by Jonathan Tilove, who has covered race and immigration for more than 15 years. He writes “indifference to the fate of black America, or in some quarters a passive-aggressive hostility toward African Americans, has become an animating feature of support for a liberal immigration policy.” He recounts the angry reaction to his collaborations with demographer William Frey in documenting white flight from immigrants, a reaction very different from the response to his reports about white flight from blacks. His interpretation is priceless:

My reading of the unspoken, even unconscious thinking at work goes like this: Of course there was white flight from blacks. Who wouldn't run? But white flight from immigrants? Why would someone run away from immigrants? Blacks are scary. Blacks lower property values. Immigrants aren't scary. Immigrants rehabilitate property values. Immigrants have great restaurants. And so on.

This attitude has been enabled by affirmative action’s assumption that “everyone of color is more or less fungible,” leading a black activist to tell Tilove “I was struck by the number of times employers said to me directly, ‘We want to phase out our blacks and bring in Asians. It keeps us clear in EEO [equal employment opportunity] and gets us better workers.’”

This example brings to light another aspect of the issue: the speaker, then research director for the Chicago Urban League, supported affirmative action for immigrants anyway. It’s not just a matter of the black elite being handcuffed by its liberalism; Tilove’s sense – and I think he’s right – is that “support for immigration feels right for many blacks on account of color and their own history of challenging oppression.” The result is what Tilove evocatively calls “a circle of unrequited racial affinity,” in which blacks see themselves has having the most in common with Hispanics, but both Hispanics and Asians see themselves as having the most in common with whites. In other words, “While blacks were chasing the Rainbow, Hispanics and Asians were chasing whiteness.”

The book is not all about race, though. The chapters are grouped by broad topics - philosophy and religion, law and policy, economics and demographics, race, and cosmopolitanism - and two of the essays on the moral foundations of immigration policy are notable. One is on a facet of the issue that you won’t see in any other academic treatment of immigration- “A Biblical Perspective on Immigration Policy.” Authored by James Edwards of the Hudson Institute, the chapter marks a sincere attempt to discern general Biblical principles that should guide the thinking of Christians and Jews in making immigration policy, as well an implicit rebuke to the facile use of Scripture by open-borders advocates.

Edwards notes that “the Bible speaks much more about the treatment of immigrants – that is, the treatment of the stranger, the sojourner, or the foreign resident in our midst – than it does about immigration policy in the sense of the laws and customs that should regulate the influx of foreigners into a settled community.” This confusion of immigrant policy and immigration policy leads many politically active clergymen to misinterpret, for instance, Exodus 22:21, in which God tells Moses at Sinai “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”

Edwards criticizes the use of Scripture by the open-borders advocates for three reasons: they fail to acknowledge the special obligation we have to those close to us, the obligation that the civil authority has to protect the community in its care, and the harm that open borders would cause. Though Edwards doesn’t put it quite this way, the Christian auxiliary of the open-borders movement is not engaging in Biblical exegesis to help inform its views, but rather “eisegesis,” reading into the text things that aren’t there.

Another essay approaches the moral parameters of the immigration issue from a secular perspective. Stephen Macedo from Princeton examines the thinking of John Rawls and Michael Walzer in making a case for our having an obligation to our fellow citizens that’s greater than our obligation to humanity as a whole. The chapter is a sensible, accessible, and worth reading. What’s remarkable is not his conclusion, which is simply taken for granted by most normal people, but rather his defensive crouch. Edwards doesn’t face the same problem because what I call post-Americanism, the notion that nationhood-is-passé is rare in Christian circles outside the pink fringe of the mainline religious bureaucracy. Academia, is something else all together, making it necessary for Macedo to warn that his commonsensical conclusion will be “controversial” and to reassure the reader that he really, truly is a left-winger.

Another worthwhile contribution is by political scientists Noah Pickus of Duke and Peter Skerry of Boston College. Their claim is that the legal/illegal and citizen/non-citizen dichotomies aren’t as important as they might seem from the public debate. The immigrant’s formal legal status is a matter between him and the state, a “vertical” relationship, as the authors put it. Important though that is, Pickus and Skerry argue that what’s being overlooked is the “horizontal” relationship the immigrant has with his neighbors. And that horizontal relationship colors much of the debate, even though it’s expressed in vertical terms. In other words, politicians and the public will complain about “illegal immigration” but then list a variety of problems (hospitals, schools, community disorder) that are caused by immigrants of all kinds, both illegal and legal:

“Most Americans are less worried about immigrants having proper documents or being able to answer questions about American history and politics than their behaving like responsible members of the community. Are immigrants making too much noise? Are they attempting to communicate in English? Are they parking their cars where there is supposed to be grass? Are they crowding too many people into their living quarters? Are they cluttering the neighborhood with abandoned shopping carts or cars? In sum, we believe that when Americans complain about immigrants, their concern is less about immigrants failing to be good citizens than about their failing to be good neighbors.

The broad point that the legal/illegal issue isn’t as important as it’s made out to be strikes me as correct, though it can be taken too far – part of being a good neighbor is not sneaking into my house and then demanding that I accommodate you. Likewise, the authors go too far in their policy suggestions by endorsing a proposal floated in California that what amounts to a state-run amnesty for illegal aliens. Nonetheless, Pickus and Skerry look at immigration from a perspective not usually found in the debate, and one can’t help but learn from their essay.

These are the highlights, but there is more in the volume. Yale law professor Peter Schuck looks at the large gap in the views between elites and the public on this issue from the perspective of a supporter of mass immigration who nonetheless takes seriously the concerns of the public. Communitarian guru Amitai Etzioni disappoints with a wrong-headed discussion of how Hispanic and Asian immigrants “are reinforcing the weakened communal elements of the American society” and how they will blur the color line and move us away from identity politics. Nathan Glazer wrote the wrap-up essay, seeming to conclude, a la his book We Are All Multiculturalists Now, that probably nothing we are willing to do can stop immigration, so we “might do well to consider how we can guide it rather than staunch it.”

Be all that as it may, this is a useful book for the concerned citizen who knows the basics about immigration and wants to hone his thinking. Carol Swain should be applauded for daring to gather a genuine diversity of views at an elite university and then publishing it at an elite academic press. If the concerns of the public over immigration are trickling up, ever so slowly, not just into the halls of Congress but into academia itself, maybe there’s hope for America yet.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.