A review of Assimilation, American Style by Peter D. Salins (New York: BasicBooks, 1997, 259 pp.)
pp. 14-15 in Immigration Review no. 28, Spring 1997
Peter Salins' Assimilation, American Style may be seen as the fourth book in an unplanned and serendipitous series of recent works on immigration. Peter Brimelow's Alien Nation was a conservative critique of high immigration, Roy Beck's The Case Against Immigration a liberal critique, and John Isbister's The Immigration Debate: Remaking America a liberal defense of immigration. There remained only to write a book-length conservative defense of mass immigration, and this is what Salins has done.
His book seeks to justify high levels of immigration while decrying the multiculturalism and divisiveness that many of his fellow conservatives see as inevitably linked to modern immigration. Salins, provost of New York's State University system in Albany and a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, attempts to do this by describing a traditional American paradigm for assimilation, one which makes high immigration compatible with national unity. His "assimilation, American style" requires only three things of immigrants: that they accept the public primacy of English, embrace the American Idea embodied in its liberal democratic and egalitarian principles, and live according to the Protestant Ethic of hard work, thrift and sobriety. The assimilation contract did not require cultural conformity of the immigrant or proscribe whatever ethnic traditions he chose to maintain.
Salins goes on to describe how that model has broken down, how the cultural revolution of the 1960's has negated each of the elements of the assimilation contract: "Bilingualism eroded English's monopoly as the only language of school instruction and government. Historical revisionism discredited the American Idea as a hypocritical myth. The welfare state superseded the Protestant Ethic." (p. 8)
He acknowledges the danger of combining high immigration with anti-assimilationism: "It is disheartening to contemplate the long-term outlook for America's large new immigrant communities ... if they remain unassimilated. ... The United States' two-hundred-year history of maintaining national unity while accommodating ethnic diversity may be robust enough to withstand a temporary defection from the ethos and practice of assimilation, but it cannot withstand it for long before a host of unhappy consequences is unleashed." (p. 16)
One might expect, then, that Salins would recommend a prudent pause in immigration while the nation attempts to put its own house in order. After all, if it is increasingly difficult to maintain national unity, if the nation's elite derides and laughs at the very notion of assimilation and patriotism, common sense would argue against the introduction of additional challenges to this dysfunctional system.
Salins will have none of it. For him, mass immigration is a given, a requirement for America to continue to be America. He articulates two related reasons for admitting "the largest possible number of new immigrants" (p.18), even at a time when he admits immigrants are not being successfully assimilated. The first is that our nation is "the land of the new beginning" and, as such, must necessarily continue to admit immigrants: "As the land of the new beginning, America has no choice but to be made up of immigrants. That was the whole idea." (p. 105) Immigration, in his understanding, is America's raison d'etre, and to stop (or, apparently, even reduce) immigration would snuff out America as we know it.
The second, related, justification appears to be that mass immigration is necessary to prevent ethnic homogenization, and thus ensure that the United States remains an ethnically variegated "civic nation," rather than allow the various strands of our population to fuse into a more traditional "ethnic nation." (pp. 220-221) Here is the root distinction between Salins and Brimelow; while Brimelow puts perhaps inordinate emphasis on the ethnic component of American nationality, Salins denies it altogether. In this, Salins is at one with the multiculturalists he reviles, in that he also seeks to actively promote increased ethnic diversity, and a reduction of the majority percentage in the population, as the route to a better society. From page 40: "Immigrants have always seemed alien initially, but Americans have always gotten used to them, and the experience has nurtured their tolerance and given them more cosmopolitan views." More than just a description of the past, this is a prescription for the future, holding up immigration as an instrument to be used by the State to shape American society.
Salins' view of assimilation and American purpose shapes his outline of an "assimilationist immigration policy," which has four building blocks: 1) a high, but stable, level of immigration; 2) closing the door to illegal immigration; 3) awarding most immigration slots by lottery; and 4) encouraging immigrants to become citizens.
While items two and four are unremarkable, one and three are telling. He calls for the annual immigration level to be set as a percentage of the population, suggesting .4% (today around 1 million) as a possible target. He says the level should be "well within America's absorptive capacity but high enough to offer immigration seekers some hope of success." (p. 211) The illogic is palpable; not only has he spent an entire book ridiculing the notion that immigration could ever exceed America's absorptive capacity, but with hundreds of millions of people around the world considering immigration to the United States, no number could ever be high enough to offer "some hope of success." Last year, 7 million people applied for the tiny Diversity Lottery, 4 million people were on waiting lists to immigrate, 900,000 people entered legally and 400,000 illegally — would a 1 in 12 chance qualify as "some hope of success"? What about 1 in 50 or 1 in 100? — the odds would surely mount as word spread of hundreds of thousands of visas available by lottery. And as the number of frustrated applicants grew, the number of illegal immigrants would also grow, as scores of millions begin considering what was previously beyond their reach.
The author's view of immigration as a good in itself, unconnected to any specific goals, is also made clear in his criteria for selecting immigrants. He would abolish employment- and skills-based immigration altogether (much to the consternation, no doubt, of the traditional corporate defenders of mass immigration, including Ron Unz, who underwrote the book), grudgingly accepts the need to allow in some refugees, and would limit family immigration to the spouses and minor children of citizens (much to the consternation of the traditional ethnic defenders of high immigration).
But beyond that, he prefers to select the majority of immigrants on a first-come-first-served basis, screening them "to determine their motivation for immigrating," selecting "the most highly motivated candidates from the most diverse pool of applicants, by the fairest and most objective criteria." (p. 214) Motivated to do what? Criteria which fairly and objectively judge what? What this is supposed to mean is anyone's guess, but it is indicative of his breezy and superficial treatment of the actual details of immigration policy.
Simplistic and two-dimensional as his description of assimilation is, Salins correctly identifies the anti-assimilationist ethos that has prevailed in the United States for the past generation. He also is correct in pointing out that Americans, not immigrants, dreamed up and propagated the multicultural assault on the American polity. But his prescriptions for reinstating assimilation amount to little more than hopes and wishes. And his quasi-religious attachment to high levels of immigration, even at a time when the engines of assimilation appear to be stalling, is profoundly irresponsible.
Salins would appear to be saying that the American polity cannot exist without high immigration. This is a curious view, considering the great achievements which occurred during periods of low immigration, such as the post-World War II blossoming of the middle class or the victory of the civil rights movement, not to mention the War of Independence and the Constitution. There is nothing in this book to suggest that Salins could reconcile himself to low immigration even if it could be demonstrated that such a reform would help suppress multiculturalism and restore the body politic to health. If this book has made any contribution to the current national debate over immigration, it is in making plain this perverse preference among some on the Right for high immigration above all else.