A Flawed Jewel

By Mark Krikorian on July 1, 1995

A review of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, by Peter Brimelow, (New York: Random House, 1995)

pp. 14-16 in Immigration Review no. 22, Summer 1995

Peter Brimelow sees himself in the tradition of Irish servants, Chinese railroad men, Italian factory workers, Mexican fruit pickers — he is an immigrant doing America's dirty work. The dirty work in this case is airing the often-distasteful reality that our nation's immigration policy is broken.

As an immigrant, he was not raised on the poetry of Emma Lazarus and her "huddled masses." He feels free to say that, with regard to our nation's immigration policy, the emperor has no clothes.

At the same time, his European birth affects his vision in another way — he sees American nationality in excessively ethnic and racial terms. While this is a useful antidote to the breathless claims by neo-conservatives and others that America is merely an idea rather than a nation, Brimelow unfortunately goes overboard in claiming that ours is a nation like any other, like Japan or Denmark or Swaziland, and thus necessarily defined by an ethnic core.

Along the way, he gleefully eviscerates the whole panoply of immigration myths. Brimelow, a financial writer for Forbes, describes the harm done by mass immigration in a first-person, conversational tone that conveys his outrage without sacrificing his good humor. This is a gem of a popular book that provides a non-academic, easily digestible source of information which ought to make unthinking acceptance of mass immigration impossible for anyone who reads it. He calls it a "toolkit of arguments for ordinary Americans."

He reviews the historical record on the making of immigration policy, and exposes the mendacity of those who lobbied for the 1965 changes that have led to today's crisis. He devotes two chapters to immigration's economic consequences, in which he good-naturedly dissects Julian Simon's The Economic Consequences of Immigration, and bases much of his thinking on the work of Prof. George Borjas. Interestingly for a conservative, he even takes seriously the environmental consequences of rapid population growth driven by immigration.

These points alone would be enough to pop the balloons of immigration enthusiasts. Unfortunately, Brimelow's extraordinary concern with racial issues in his discussions of assimilation detracts from the rest of the book. At public appearances, like a recent debate with Ben Wattenberg sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies, Brimelow claims that he is not arguing that Asian and Latin American immigration is a racial threat to (white) America. Maybe; but the plain language of the book would seem to argue otherwise.

Brimelow writes that "the massive ethnic and racial transformation that public policy is now inflicting on America is totally new — and in terms of how Americans have traditionally viewed themselves, quite revolutionary." This is the main point of the book — and is simply incorrect. America has been ethnically transforming itself continually, and the claim that Irish and Italians were more similar to 19th century American natives than today's immigrants are to us is unhistorical and anachronistic.

He uses a graphic device he calls "pincers" to claim that America is being racially overwhelmed by immigration. The pincers, based on familiar statistics from the Census Bureau, show growing percentages of our population comprised of people with Hispanic and Asian ancestry, while non-Hispanic whites will be squeezed down to little more than half the national population by 2050. This, of course, is caused by immigration, which now consists primarily of "visible minorities" from Third World countries instead of Europeans.

He makes this point quite insistently. For example: "Race and ethnicity are destiny in American politics. The racial and ethnic balance of America is being radically altered through public policy. This can only have the most profound effects." Or: continuing mass immigration will make America "a freak among the world's nations because of the unprecedented demographic mutation it is inflicting on itself." Also: "Just as when you leave Park Avenue and descend into the subway, when you enter the INS waiting rooms you find yourself in an underworld that is not just teeming but is also almost entirely colored."

He is, of course, correct that throughout our history the overwhelming majority of our people have been what we now would call "white." The difficulty lies in his claim that current immigration is "systematically different from anything that had gone before."

On the contrary, the changing ethnic makeup of the immigrant flow can be seen as a further unfolding of a process started long ago, as the definition of those deemed fit to be part of the nation has expanded. The people of Massachusetts and Virginia, after all, originally considered Anglicans and Congregationalists, respectively, to be unfit for membership in their communities. Later, non-British northern European Protestants, such as the Huguenots and Dutch, were accepted (grudgingly) as potential Americans. Still later, Catholics, at first suspect because of the hierarchical and seemingly anti-republican nature of their church, were included.

Brimelow anticipates this objection: "the American experience with immigration has been a triumphant success. It has so far transcended anything seen in Europe as to make the application of European lessons an exercise to be performed with care."

He performs the exercise anyway. He says all the groups accepted heretofore were "white," and therefore could be accommodated, even though Americans at the time somehow didn't realize it. Now, on the other hand, immigrants are not "white," and the ethnic changes they are bringing about are more serious.

But what is white? The Portuguese, who first arrived in New England in colonial times, certainly weren't considered white; nor were the Sicilians. Even Armenians, now laughably classified as "Anglos" in California, were, until after World War II, included in restrictive covenants along with Asians, blacks and Mexicans.

And the concept of "whiteness" is becoming ever-more fluid. Brimelow's racial pincers are being dissolved by the fact that intermarriage is at historically high levels, with large percentages of people with Asian and Hispanic backgrounds marrying whites.

His response to this fact is limp. He says that even with a higher number of intermarriages, if large numbers of people continue to immigrate, the proportion of various ethnic groups that intermarry will decline. A good point — but if numbers are the key, why the talk about ethnic origin and "visible minorities"? Secondly, he claims that the products of mixed marriages may still assimilate into the minority culture rather than the majority. This is not going to happen on a mass scale.

His chief fear is that America is in the process of deconstructing itself, such that our people "will no longer share in common what Abraham Lincoln called in his First Inaugural Address the 'mystic chords of memory ...'" It is a legitimate, even urgent, concern. But it is a problem that we as a people have brought upon ourselves and must solve ourselves. It may be accurate to argue that mass immigration exacerbates the fraying of our national fabric — by providing cannon fodder for the multiculturalists and biligualists — but the simple fact that today's newcomers are Mexican or Chinese as opposed to German or Greek is a non-sequitur in this cultural conflict.

Brimelow's assertion of a white America suffers from another small problem — blacks. He rightly decries the harmful impact of immigration on poor black Americans, and relishes exposing the hypocrisy of many liberal cheerleaders for immigration. But he never quite admits that blacks are actually Americans. He says that blacks, though they made up 20 percent of the American population in the 1790 census, were not part of the "political nation" — but then neither were Indians or white men who didn't own property or, for that matter, women.

This problem with the presence of blacks is implicit elsewhere, as well. He complains that immigration is upsetting the racial balance by reducing the white share of the population, as newcomers arrive from the Third World but not Europe. But if immigration should reflect, and not change, the nation's racial balance, shouldn't we make sure that 12 percent of immigrants each year are black, reflecting their share of the population? Somehow, this never comes up. This ambivalence about the American-ness of black Americans is disturbing and further evidence of Brimelow's feeling that "white" and "America" should be synonymous.

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the current policy of mass immigration — economic, fiscal, demographic, political, environmental, and others — and Brimelow adroitly identifies them. Even his objections based on assimilation would be legitimate, if the core of the concern were the difficulty of assimilating large numbers of foreigners into a society which promotes ethnic division and snickers at the idea of Americanization. But unease with the simple fact of immigrants' "brownness" or "yellowness" just isn't convincing — and distracts attention from the rest of Brimelow's valuable book.