Panel Transcript: The Cultural Impact of Immigration


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Event Summary

The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel discussion entitled, "The Cultural Impact of Immigration". The conversation began with a discussion of NYU Professor Lawrence Mead's book, "Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power." He was joined on the panel by Ramesh Ponnuru, editor of National Review, and Peter Skerry, a professor of political science at Boston College.

Culture is often dismissed entirely from debates on immigration, but this panel faces it head-on. With more than 47 million immigrants now living in the country, more than triple what it was as recently as 1980, the need to think about this topic is more important than ever.

Mead argued that many immigrants struggle to adopt to America’s individualistic and "inner-driven" culture, which is the key to success for the individual as well as for society. He argued that a large number of today’s immigrants come from collective societies that tend to create passive, conformist citizens who are more deferential to authority than Americans. This leads Mead to support a reduction in immigration and a larger investment in assimilation efforts. Ramesh Ponnuru, editor of National Review, Peter Skerry, a professor of political science at Boston College, and Steven Camarota, the Center’s director of research, pushed back on some of Mead’s arguments despite agreeing on the need for less immigration and more assimilation.

The cultural dimension of U.S. immigration policy is often disregarded, but Ponnuru reminded the audience that culture is an important topic. He said, “My chief concern is that the country have cultural cohesion, not to say conformity, but that we are all fellow citizens who have common interests and that we can deliberate about those common interests together which helps if we all, or almost all, speak the same language and have a shared sense of belonging…” Skerry highlighted the importance of culture in public policy debates and lamented that it never gets addressed in a serious or thoughtful way. He argues that Mead paints with too broad a brush and that American individualistic values have changed and been pushed to excess, corroding our institutions. He too talked about assimilation saying, “We do not spend much time or effort to try to assimilate immigrants to our norms partly because we cannot agree on what those norms are.”


Larry M. Mead is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University. His previous books helped define the thinking behind the welfare reform of the 1990s, which required many recipients to work as a condition of aid. His most recent book, "Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power", presents a "new and radical interpretation of America and its challenges" and deals with the difficulty that many of today's immigrants have in adopting America's individualistic and "inner-driven" culture.

Ramesh Ponnuru is editor of National Review, where he has covered national politics and policy for more than 25 years. He is also a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, which syndicates his articles in newspapers across the nation. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and serves as a contributing editor to National Affairs, a quarterly journal of conservative ideas.

Peter Skerry is professor of political science at Boston College and a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is also a contributing editor at American Purpose and a member of the editorial board of the journal Society. He was previously a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is author of “Counting on the Census: Race, Group Identity, and the Evasion of Politics” (Brookings) and “Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority” (Free Press/Harvard University Press), which was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Steven A. Camarota, the Center's director of research, moderated the panel.

Date and Location:

October 6, 2022

Washington, DC

STEVEN A. CAMAROTA: I’ll start. Hello. I’m Steven Camarota. I’m the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies and we’re the ones hosting this event. I would like to thank you all for coming here in person or those of you who are joining us online.

We are here today to discuss Lawrence Mead’s recent book, “Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Differences and American Power.” Here it is. It’s available on Amazon and in all the other usual places.

Professor Mead is a professor of politics and public policy at NYU, and among his many accomplishments is that he was one of the most influential thinkers during the 1990s welfare reform debate. The book we are discussing today I would say is of moderate length – only about 350 pages – but it does cover a lot of ground.

The discussion today, however, will focus on a key aspect or argument in the book that deals specifically with contemporary immigration. That’s not the only topic in the book but it’s an important one, I think it’s fair to say. To paraphrase Professor Mead: To the extent that immigrants struggle in the United States it is not primarily because of racism, though that does exist, but rather it is because many of today’s immigrants have difficulty in adopting America’s individualistic, inner-driven culture, which in his view is the key to American success as a country and also success for immigrants once here.

Now, joining us on the panel today are two distinguished scholars.

To my far left – which does not represent his political orientation of anything of that nature – is Ramesh Ponnuru. He’s an editor at National Review and also a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and is one of the most astute commentators on national politics and policy in the country today.

Also on the panel – and a little bit closer to me on the left, on the other side of Professor Mead – is Professor Peter Skerry. Dr. Skerry is a professor of political science at Boston College and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He was previously a fellow at both the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. I think it is fair to say that perhaps more than any other immigration expert in the country his writings on immigration always reflect the complexity of the issue and are extremely well-balanced and nuanced, which is something that is often lacking when it comes to discussions of immigration and its implications.

Now, the way this will work is that Professor Mead will speak first about his book. He has a PowerPoint presentation. Then he’ll be followed by Professor Ponnuru and then – I mean, Mr. Ponnuru – and then Professor Skerry. And then we’ll open it up for comments. With that, take it away.

LARRY M. MEAD: Yeah. Great. Well, first of all, let me thank CIS very much for putting on this panel. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, and it’s the first – in fact, the first significant public discussion we’ve had of what I’m going to be talking about today. And that’s an indication of how important it is and also how radical it is from certain points of view.

What we hope is to bring a new perspective to the immigration question so it will be understood as involving a cultural issue of an important kind, which we need to address. And what we have to do, in fact, is take on – take seriously the fact that immigration does involve cultural differences in a way which we not normally have addressed.

What I’m going to do here is just set out the basic ideas, and then we’ll hear from our colleagues, and then we’ll come to discussion. In fact, I’ve experienced that essentially discussion is crucial for getting across the many dimensions of cultural difference. It is, in fact, a very far-reaching idea with many, many implications. Today we’re just talking about immigration, which is one of the most important.

So here’s the basic idea. Groups with origins outside the West, as Steve has said, often have difficulties in America’s free society. Racism is one cause, but more important is cultural difference between immigrants coming in and the mainstream culture. And what we seek primarily is that immigration policy should take more – pay more attention to this difference and, in the end, also promote assimilation. Assimilation is the key to a successful immigration policy.

Now, so what is the cultural difference? Well, the United States has an individualist culture found only in the West. You have to appreciate the fact that Western culture is not universal, not sweeping the globe. It is, in fact, exceptional. It’s the only culture which has placed individuals at the center of society. What we’re hoping is to address that difference in a way that will take seriously the other approaches we’ve found outside the West.

When people come to America, they typically do not have an individualist viewpoint and their great struggle is to assimilate to a society in which freedom is taken for granted. In a free society, they must now take – they must seek advancement and also avoid trouble in their personal lives, and they have to do it on their own. That means they have to govern themselves without the outside direction which they typically get in the countries they came from. So they’re coming from a world in which – in which society is fundamentally, in a pervasive sense, unfree into a society where there is freedom. But the forces of order are still present, but they are within the self. And let’s look at what that means concretely.

The United States is the most individualist country, but many poor immigrants are coming from collective societies. That doesn’t mean that they favor big government, necessarily. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, but rather that they’re coming from a society in which individuals do not think of themselves as separate from social groups of various kinds. In the individualist world of America, assertive people seek to achieve inner goals and they seek change outside themselves to realize those goals. So life is lived from the inside out.

In fact, most people in this room are individualists and we have lived lives – we’re aiming to achieve certain things in our lives. Everyone on this panel has spent their lives doing that. They’re inner-driven, and that is what makes the West exceptional.

But it isn’t all assertiveness, because also there are moralistic ideas in the West about right and wrong which are seen as principles that people internalize early in life, and then they live by those principles and expect other people to do the same and expect government to do the same. And that means that the culture of freedom is partly an assertive one, but also a culture loyal to these inner obligations.

Now, the collective world is very different. It’s a much more passive culture where people adjust to the outer demands made from outside themselves – typically, from government, from culture, from society and tradition, necessity of various kinds. They bear what I call the burdens of necessity whereas the West bears the burdens of freedom, which are very different. So it’s a very passive culture.

In moral – in moral terms, there is a moral structure in the non-West but it’s conformist in character. People typically do what other people expect them to do and not necessarily what any general principle would tell them to do. So it’s conformist. It depends on context, on the situation, and people do what others expect of them rather than what is generally true.

So that is – these are the basic contrasts.

Now, there are many scholars who basically contrast West and non-West like this. And here are a number of names – some of which you will recognize, some of which like Hegel and Daver (ph) are famous figures. Others are more recent. But they all contrast West and non-West in essentially these terms. And what’s amazing to me is that that fundamental difference has made essentially no impact on American public culture and also on policy reasoning.

All right. Now, here’s a couple of examples. Geert Hofstede was a Dutch sociologist who was one of the first to contrast attitudes about what life’s about across a broad range of countries. And here you can see that the most Western countries – the U.S. and U.K. – are the most individualist and other countries in the West are also highly ranked, but the non-West is much lower. In the non-West, we don’t find incidents of individualism very high at all. Quite the contrary, people like that in those countries are exceptional. They are not normal, whereas in the U.S. they’re pervasive.

And here’s another study by Inglehart and one of his co-authors which contrasts cultures in terms of whether they are on the – on the vertical axis whether they are secular or religious, but on the horizontal axis – more important for us – is the ideas of whether cultures are expressive or not rather than – that really is a synonym for individualism, for people who see life in terms of expressing their own goals. And what you see here is that the Western countries – the most Western countries – meaning especially Western Europe, Northern Europe, and I think I – that one – yeah, this would be English, yeah, English-speaking – those countries are the most individualist.

And the countries from which immigrants are coming from are mostly well to the left. They’re coming from the societies where life is about survival; it’s not about achievement. And when they come to America, that is initially their perspective, to think about survival. But America is a lot more than that. America is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is something much more ambitious.

OK. So, for successful immigration, assimilation is crucial. We don’t really perceive this because the immigrants of the last large immigrant wave, which was about a century ago in the early 20th century, they immigrated quickly because that was because mostly they were coming from Europe, and therefore they already had a fair amount of individualism in their makeup, their idea of what life was about before they came here. So the assimilation problem was quite limited. And also, in the mid-20th century immigration virtually halted for several decades, and that allowed – that promoted assimilation within the U.S. Whereas today’s immigrants are much more distinct from an individualist society than was the case of the earlier immigrants, and also the flow is much greater. They’re coming in and it’s not stopping. Certainly, under current policies the border is essentially open. Anybody can cross the border and stay in America, virtually.

Now, there’s an image that Asians are an exception because they excel at school and they don’t have the same social problems found among Blacks and Hispanics. But in fact, they have their own problems dealing with freedom. They also have problems asserting their own goals and views, taking risks, becoming leaders. And research has shown this. There’s a study that was published, comes out of Harvard Business School, and it contrasts shares of various groups that assume leading positions in business.

And what you see here is the leading group is actually South Asians, and the reason is these are Indian Indians coming from that subcontinent, India and Pakistan. They’re coming from an education system that is highly individualized because it was founded by the British. So they end up often in leading position in business; they are in fact quite assertive in a way that Americans recognize.

The East Asians, however, which are the dominant group in terms of numbers of immigrants, they’re doing much worse and the reason is – and you see this in class because they’re not willing to be leaders. They want – they prefer to have somebody tell them what to do, somebody in higher authority, and in that way they’re typical of the non-West. The non-West is highly diverse in lots of ways but it shows almost all of it is highly deferential to authority, whereas in America you have much more complicated ideas about authority. We defer to authority when it’s proper; we’re also ready to challenge authority and we can do that because the moral structure is internalized in the American people, whereas in the non-West it’s external.

OK. Implications are that the main problem with immigration isn’t the things we most often discussion, about crime, welfare, cost to government, so on. Those are all important questions, but the really big issue is cultural difference. The danger is that immigration at current rates would simply overwhelm the individualist norm in the rest of the society and society would become a society in which only a minority of the public are in fact committed to the individualist way of life. And so my fundamental recommendation in the book is that immigration should be reduced by half, and there are various ways to do that. Immigration is still a good thing and I’m in favor of a multicultural society, but we must also remain an individualist society, because from those features most of American prosperity and political freedom derive, from that culture, and we have to keep it.

So this means we should end illegal immigration, we ought to limit legal immigration more than we do, and we should invest much more in assimilation to promote individuals moving from their passive, more reactive stance towards life to the more ambitious view of an individualist society.

So that’s where I come out. And this is the book, which we hope to have some copies for you here. I don’t know where they are; they’re probably lost in the building somewhere, but you can get your own copy. We have a QR code there and you can just go right to Amazon and get your own copy.

OK, so that’s pretty much where I come out. So, good.

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, thank you, Larry.

So, Ramesh, take it away.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you. I appreciate that Steve elevated me to the ranks of the professoriate earlier. That was much easier than actually going through a Ph.D. program. (Laughter.) So thank you for that.

I picked up this book with a lot of interest because I think that the topic raised is an extremely important one, and it seemed to me, as it seems to Professor Mead, that the cultural dimension of our immigration policy and our immigration arguments is too often scanted. And I think he is fundamentally correct in thinking that it is more important than some of the other elements of immigration that we tend to talk about more, such as economics, where I think the – there are overblown claims, both pro-immigration and anti-immigration, about the economic impact of immigration, when in fact the effect on the standard of living of people who are already here of increasing or decreasing immigration is pretty small.

But as much as I think that the cultural dimensions matter, the idea of thinking through those dimensions is in some disrepute, and I think that’s partly a kind of – maybe a methodological prejudice is the right way to say it, a sense that culture is a kind of catchall; it’s the residual when you’ve explained other things, a prejudice against things that can’t be precisely defined and measured as being therefore unimportant. But also I think there’s something more than that; there is a sense that there’s something immoral, discriminatory, wrong about considering cultural issues.

This really has come up quite a bit when we’ve had big political debates about immigration. So the last time that the Congress seriously took up immigration legislation, I think it’s coming on nine years now, and there were – the Congressional Budget Office came out with a report on the economic dimensions which was I think sort of widely misunderstood, but a lot of – but it was taken to be an argument that immigration was, in some unambiguous way, just a positive for the economy and you had a number of commentators who were in favor of expanded immigration and in favor of legal status for illegal immigrants on both the left and the right who were saying, well, this report shows that the real – you know, motivates people’s concern about immigration is not economics, it’s not the rule of law, it’s something much darker than that, and in fact, if I remember correctly, Commentary magazine ran a post which said, you know, their concerns are cultural, which is deeply unattractive.

Well, it seems to me that there is a reason for seeking restraint on immigration policy, seeking a different immigration policy than we have that has to do with culture. I would frame it a little bit differently than is done in this book. It seems to me that the – my chief concern is that the country have cultural cohesion, which is not to say uniformity, but a sense on the part of everybody here that we all are fellow citizens, that we have common interests, that we can deliberate about those common interests together, which has certainly helped if we all – or almost all – speak the same language, and so a sort of shared sense of belonging that embraces both newcomer and long-timer alike. And when I think about the sort of cultural dimensions of immigration policy, it’s not fundamentally or exclusively about the cultural predispositions that immigrants bring to the United States but also the effects on native-born Americans.

So, for example, one of the things that has always bothered me about proposals for guest worker programs is this idea that we’re going to have our economy depend on a large class of laborers who we don’t want to participate in our society, our politics, or our culture, or even to stay here, that that has an effect on our sense of ourselves as Americans and our sense of one another as Americans, which is not to say that the concern about individualism raised here is wholly mistaken or is something that we should ignore. It’s to say that my own thinking about this has taken a different form.

Now I don’t think that the concern about individualism and the effect of immigrants is entirely persuasively argued by Professor Mead, for a number of reasons. One is that I think that what individualism is, what its pluses and minuses are, the different kinds of forms it can take – these things are underexamined in this book.

To the extent that there is a clear definition of individualism in the book it’s not an intuitive one, so a number of times in the book we hear about problems of single parenthood or drug abuse. These things, it seems to me, could just as easily be treated as manifestations of an excess of individualism as manifestations of a deficit in individualism, and that’s not really dealt with here. I think actually, you know, it is more naturally or intuitively understood as these are people who are following their own life projects, who are rejecting the idea of external authority or conforming to social expectations in ways that are problematic, both for them and for others.

I think the centrality of the family and really the nuclear family to American culture historically is not something that gets a great deal of emphasis in this book. I think family and marriage receive their first, glancing mentions after about the 200-page mark in the book. The way in which family shapes individualism and individual identity I think deserves more attention.

One feature of immigration that gets just the most glancing mention and doesn’t really affect the larger analysis in the book but should, I think, is the extent to which immigrants, by uprooting themselves from their home society and making the effort to come to the United States, have already shown a degree of individual initiative, and thus could be taken to be more individualistic than the average for the cultures from which they are coming. It seems to me that that’s a pretty important element not to discuss in a book about the impact of immigrants on American individualism.

I think that there is much more emphasis than warranted on the supposedly different character of today’s immigrants from the immigrants of yesteryear. It’s not just that immigrant waves in the past were denounced or feared, just as immigration today sometimes is denounced and feared; it’s that the reasoning was often very similar, and the reasoning was – so Professor Mead talks about today’s immigration being non-Western to a much, much greater extent than previous waves of immigration, but those previous waves were treated as problematic because they weren’t Anglo-Saxon, right, and that they weren’t – they weren’t from cultures – so the Southeastern Europeans were not from cultures that had the same commitment to the rule of law and individualism. And it seems to me that – so Mark Krikorian, who is here in the audience as the head of the organization that’s sponsoring this – the Center for Immigration Studies – has said, and I find this much more persuasive, the problem isn’t that the immigrants have changed; the problem is that the society to which immigrants are coming have changed. And I think that’s true in a lot of respects having to do with government policy, having to do with the structure of the economy, having to do with transportation costs – that that’s the fundamental reason why immigration today shouldn’t simply be analogized to immigration yesterday.

And then finally I’d say that the book is marred by a tendency toward gross generalizations that do not have adequate support. So, for example, “the majority of Black Americans” – I’m quoting from the book – “still display a passive and reactive temperament more typical of the non-Western world.” Well, that’s an arresting sentence. I would – it doesn’t match my experience but, you know, different people have non-representative experiences – this is anecdotal. What’s the backup for it? There’s no footnote. You know, it seems to me that that’s the kind of sentence you’d want to have some pretty serious support before you said it.

Or, turning to class, a page later, “the disadvantaged tend to remember past defeats, to play safe, to resist change. In this way they can preserve what little security they have rather than gambling it on some better future.” Again, a very broad generalization, an interesting one. This one does have a footnote, but the footnotes go to sources from 1969 and 1984.

He goes on to talk about the cautious world view that’s a legacy of the non-Western world. Well, when I read sentences like this I wish that some of that more cautious, non-Western perspective had informed the book because I think that there are – there’s an excess of boldness.

Immigration is turning America into a mainly Asian and Latin American society – not a projection that I’ve seen elsewhere, not a projection that his own chart, two pages later, bears out. It seems to me to be a wild overstatement. Asians in America typically do better in school than they do afterward – no footnote.

So I think that the subject is important. There are some insights here.

Oh, I should also say one other thing on this subject. It does seem to me that because of the sort of, I think, somewhat loose thinking that informs this cause of individualism, you get these kind of double-binds that get deployed. So Hispanics, for example – Hispanic immigration is problematic in the book because Hispanics tend to do worse than non-Hispanics in schools and in the workplace. But Asians do well in both of those settings, but that’s still a problem because Asian-Americans aren’t creative and don’t show initiative. When they succeed in the schools and in the workplace, that’s a sign of their questionable conformity.

So it makes you wonder: So, what’s the standard here? What are the measurements? Where’s the actual social science to back any of this up?

Important subject, and unfortunately the taboo in thinking about culture has impeded our thinking about this, but I don’t think that this book can or should be anything like our last word on this subject.

MR. CAMAROTA: Thank you, Ramesh.

Professor Skerry?

PETER SKERRY: OK, thank you, Steve, and thanks to my fellow panelists. It’s a pleasure to be here.

So I come here today not to praise Larry Mead, nor to bury him, but perhaps to reform him – (laughter) – which, given my background in Irish-Catholic and Massachusetts politics, would cause great dismay among my forebears who raised me to detest reform. But I guess I have assimilated, and I’m not sure Larry measures up to the standards that he has set for us in his prior work. As Steve mentioned, he played an enormously important role in welfare reform in the 1990’s. And while I am extremely sympathetic and, in fact, agreement with his perspective – as also voiced by Ramesh – about the importance of culture in our public policy debates – or the importance of culture to the issues that get addressed in public policy debates, but culture never really gets addressed in any serious or thoughtful way.

So in that sense I am grateful for Larry’s initiative in this direction, but I find it very wanting. I find Larry painting a picture that is much too broad-brushed. And that – and I’ll just telegraph a couple of points I’ll elaborate on briefly – I don’t think he addresses how our individualist values have changed and been pushed to excess such that they have begun to corrode our institutions. I don’t think he, at the same time, pays enough attention, for example, to how we do not spend much time or effort – partly because they are changing those in our values and institutions – to try to assimilate immigrants to our norms, partly because we can’t agree on what those norms are. So that’s the general thrust of my criticism of Larry’s work. Now let me try to unpack a few specifics.

First of all, the groups that he focuses on as non-Western – Ramesh has talked about the Asians; I won’t go there in the interest of time. I’m struck that Larry puts together in the same category as two groups that are non-Western in their orientation, not partaking of the sort of individualism which he is writing – he puts Hispanic immigrants and Black Americans in the same category, and I find this to be just much, much, much too broad a brush; that these two groups, their histories are so fundamentally different. They don’t bear a whole lot of elaboration right now it seems to me, but the history of a group that has been brought here under slavery and endured slavery, Jim Crowe and its aftermath, and all the complications and permutations of how we’ve been trying to address those problems very directly in the last 50 years creates an entirely different set of circumstances, problems, and opportunities for African Americans, and their cultural response, and changes thereto, that greatly distinguish the culture and values of Hispanic immigrants.

And Larry, this doesn’t pay any attention to that difference. He puts them both in this non-Western category that I find much too broad and unhelpful. So that would be the first point I would make.

I’d also suggest that he has a much too bowdlerized view of our past. We talked a bit about this with Larry. I’m struck, as I said – as the product of an Irish-Catholic background and teaching at an institution that is essentially Irish-Catholic, although changing in many ways – that he lets my Catholic forbears off the hook much, much too easily. Somehow Larry contrasts the present in very negative terms – the present with the past; it’s much more positive than I think it should be. I think the threats that Catholic immigrants posed to emergent American Democratic-Republican values of individualism, as Larry would emphasize, were much, much more profound than he acknowledges. I don’t know quite why he does that. He doesn’t hesitate to slay any other monsters, but he certainly doesn’t touch that one.

When you consider the orientation of large numbers of Catholic immigrants to the United States, the position of the Catholic Church – which was explicitly and actively anti – small R – republican, that was supportive of monarchism; the silencing of the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, throughout the 1950s into the 1960s and was not – freedom of religious conscience was not acknowledged by the Catholic Church until the very end of the Vatican II in 1965.

You didn’t have to be a bigot – believe me, I don’t say this easily – you didn’t have to be a bigot in 1960 to have questions – questions about John F. Kennedy being the first Catholic in the White House. Again, I don’t think Larry deals with that complexity at all.

So, finally, let me talk about – for a moment or two about today’s – my understanding of today’s Puritan WASP elite culture, the culture of mastery that Larry writes about. It’s a little hard to place. He himself identifies himself as a Puritan. I’m not quite sure what he means by that. I’m sure he’s happy to explain it to me.

But I don’t know what that label means but I know the ethos of which he’s talking partly because I married into it. But that’s another story. But I think he goes much, much too easy on that cultural ethos. That cultural ethos – I think he is correct – has brought us marijuana legalization, which he approves of. I find that stunning.

To me, this – what he categorizes as acceptance of diverse lifestyles is an example of a – of a once-proud ethic in people who either have succumbed to their own indulgences, their own pleasures, or just as likely have proved incapable of imposing any constraints not only on themselves but on those on whose behalf in the past they would have been concerned to better and reform.

I think this reveals a lack of vigor and confidence within the realm of this very Puritan mastery-oriented culture that Larry is extolling. That culture, I think, is greatly weakened if not moribund, and to the extent that Larry would argue in return that it should be reinforced and reinvigorated I might be inclined to agree with him.

But he seems relatively blind to the debility of the very cultural values that he’s extolling. I think we’re now left with some amalgam among our elites of entrepreneurial greed, hedonistic individualism, and either indifference or timidity vis-à-vis the challenges posed to us by the disadvantaged or, quote/unquote, “people of color.” And, again, I’d like to hear what Larry has to say about that.

So I will end up with two – one or two minor points that might help crystallize what I’m trying to suggest. I’m struck that in the debates we’ve been having over immigration for most of if not all of my adult professional life at this point we still can’t agree on any notion of what assimilation ought to be or can’t agree, really, among ourselves on what we want immigrants to conform to.

When I was leading the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Reform Table about a decade ago we couldn’t agree – this disparate group of highly knowledgeable individuals – on immigration policy. We couldn’t come to any kind of agreement on what it would be that immigrants ought to be taught or encouraged to learn – that’s rather stunning – and I don’t see much effort. To some extent disagreement, is to be expected but I don’t see much effort to come together to do that still, and one fallout from that might be that one could point to if there’s one thing many Americans could agree on, but I know from experience not all, certainly, not among academic realms, might be to encourage immigrants to learn English.

But, lo and behold, we’ve done very little to teach immigrants English. ESL programs, if you haven’t looked lately, are abysmal and kind of pathetic, and the federal funding for them has been steadily going down over the last 20 years. No attention is paid to that.

So, to me, that reflects an elite culture that’s in trouble and doesn’t know enough or doesn’t know how to assert itself. And with that, I’ll stop and eagerly hear Larry’s responses.

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, thank you, Peter. Thank you, Ramesh.

I think it’s only fair that we give Professor Mead at least five minutes to respond. I know you might want to have longer but maybe there are other issues we’ll cover. Go ahead.

MR. MEAD: All right. No. No. No. There’s no – I couldn’t cover – I think both our discussants have spoken well and cover a lot of ground, and I won’t try to cover everything I might say in response.

For Ramesh, I think the main thing I want to question is the idea that the seriously poor, who tend to be from immigrant groups, or the groups with origins outside the West in the case of Blacks that they are in some ways expressing an individualist culture when they deviate from standard norms.

On the contrary. What research shows quite clearly and it also confirms my own field experience, in fact, the poor are not bohemians seeking to live out a liberated life in the midst of an uptight society. No. They actually have very orthodox values, and the central problem in poverty research is to explain how their actual lifestyle can differ so greatly from the values which they themselves affirm, including marriage, including obeying the law, the things that their actual culture, their way of life, violates.

So we don’t really know how to reconcile what people say their values are and the way they live and that, I think, is an expression of the conflict in the culture between an individualist and a non-Western way of life. So we can’t expect moral consistency and that is something that shows us that we have a problem.

Now, the other thing to say – and this in response to Peter – I think at some level he’s correct that there has to be overgeneralization, certainly, about conflating Blacks and Hispanics. I agree with that.

But remember, the book is not intended to really get into those differences but rather to draw the general contrast between the West and the non-West, which is, in fact, pervasive, I think, in America and elsewhere, and we haven’t faced it and we haven’t faced it for fear of racism, basically.

I think in Peter’s own work the focus on inner differences among groups and nuance and so on is exemplary and that’s the kind of research that he’s doing and I honor that. I think that’s great.

However, the big picture is still important, and when dealing with immigration policy we have to look at what is generally the case and now we simply have to say it’s too much, the people coming in are too many to assimilate, and that’s the big picture.


MR. CAMAROTA: Sure. Go ahead, Peter. It’s a discussion.

MR. SKERRY: Yeah. OK. Well, I appreciate Larry’s response and consideration, as always. But what about my other larger point that the culture of mastery that you point to is not in very good shape and is, in fact, not behaving the way you might expect it would?

MR. MEAD: I’m not sure that’s the big picture there either. I think you’re right to say that WASP culture, elite culture, has become permissive in many respects and, as Charles Murray has said, the elites are not prepared to advocate what they themselves observe in terms of orthodox behavior. They won’t preach what they practice. He wants them to, you know, of course, to practice what they preach but also to preach to other people to be more upstanding. That’s true. There’s a great deal to that.

But at the same time we have to look at the fact that America is, in fact, in much better shape in terms of moral order than was the case in the ’60s and ’70s. There has been a major turn to the right in terms of cultural expectations within the society. We are in very many ways enforcing the traditional values, especially in law enforcement – although there’s been, certainly, a retrogression in that area in the last couple of years. But before there was a huge decline in crime. We’ve also reformed the welfare system so many fewer people are now on welfare than they used to be and that system is dedicated to promoting employment.

There’s a lot of conservatism in recent cultural trends. And I think that reflects maybe not the elites who are maybe too liberated for their own good, but as – for the society as a whole that represents the moral convictions of the middle class, and those convictions are individualist.

MR. CAMAROTA: All right. Well, I’m going to now open it up to questions. But since I’m the chair I will exercise my prerogative and ask my first question. But I just want to give one other comment.

I guess I found it jarring in the book also to put together Hispanics and Black Americans. To argue that one of the main problems that African Americans have is the fact that they come from non-Western societies originally it seems – just it seems wrong to me. The fundamental problem is they were brought here as slaves originally and discriminated against and the general animus of society against them makes them unique in American history and they should never be grouped with voluntary migrants, even desperate voluntary migrants, into the United States, which is what makes up, you know, a huge fraction of the rest of the pie. African Americans’ history in the United States is so unique that I don’t think that’s the way to think about it. But that’s that.

But I want to press Larry on a slightly different question. Look, let’s assume that a large share of the immigrants are coming from countries that have a very distinct culture from the United States. That seems a reasonable point, I suppose. But it does not follow that the immigrants who actually come are representative of the countries from which they come, right. Isn’t that the big question here, right, if you’re interested in immigration?

So the best example of that is Indian immigrants to the United States. At least 80 percent have a college degree. So that’s more than double or, roughly, double the rate of the general population. So there’s no way one can argue that whatever the culture of India might be, which I’m certainly not an expert on, that Indian immigration is, roughly, reflective of India. It’s just a very unusual group in that sense.

But remember, now, it looks like India is about to overtake China as the top sending country to the United States at somewhere around 2.7 (million), 2.8 million. So that seems really important that it isn’t just where people come from but it’s those people.

And let me add one other thing. Look, take even a person, you know, say, from Haiti who was living in Chile, right, and had a job and a life in Chile. The person now realizes that the Biden administration has changed policy. So they trek through nine different countries including some pretty dangerous places like the Darien pass in – the Darien Gap, I should say, in Panama. Come all the way up to the U.S. border to try to apply for asylum. That person also seems very much self-selected, very much inner driven by something. It’s risky. It’s dangerous.

So, again, although – and actually, if you look at Haitian immigrants in the United States, they also are not representative of the Haitian population in terms of educational attainment and other measures of socioeconomic status.

So it seems to me that it isn’t enough to talk about their countries of origin. The immigrants themselves matter a lot.

MR. MEAD: I agree with that. On the Indians, I referred to this slide earlier. Yes, the East Asians – sorry, the South Asians are very successful but they come from a society that’s profoundly non-Western and where you don’t find anything like that same dynamism that you associate with them in America. No, not at all. The South Asians are exceptional and they are not normal for their own society.

And as for the – I give you the Haitian case that you mentioned, but the average Haitians are living lives that are very much involved in survival, and their society is very, very unfortunate. It’s been true for as long as it’s existed, basically. And if those people – see, many of them are getting on boats, and if the Coast Guard didn’t turn them around they would land in Florida. And they would be a very different story from the people coming up from Latin America, where I agree there’s a heavy element of selection.

MR. SKERRY: If I can –

MR. MEAD: Yeah.

MR. SKERRY: Look, so the question I want to put to Larry is that he advances what we all can – at least those in this room can agree is a moderate policy. But you do it in such immoderate ways. You have to acknowledge there’s a gap between what you analyze and then what you end up proposing, and it’s not good enough to tell me that I’m down in the weeds and you’re taking the bigger picture. I’m sorry.

But let’s opt for the bigger picture for a second. I want to pick up on your point that some – that today we’re in better shape than in the 1960s. I find that an astounding comment. I’m not quite sure what you mean. You can help – you can elaborate.

MR. MEAD: Well, the social order.

MR. SKERRY: Let me – let me finish. So if you’re suggesting that conservative values are more prevalent today in society, well, maybe. They’ve got a hearing. But this – what this raises for me is something I’ve long wanted to ask you. You know, you invoke Hegel. You talk about Teddy Roosevelt. Are you a modern capital-P progressive?

MR. MEAD: Uh –

MR. SKERRY: Let me pose the question, OK? Are you shooting for – I think many of us are just sort of, you know, mild – I’ll speak for myself. I’m a sort of modest reactionary. I’m trying to regain some ground that I thought we had 20, 30, 40 years ago. But I have the feeling you’re not interested in the status quo ante. You have some sort of progressive future in mind where, apparently, marijuana legalization is part of it, where more, you know, sort of – so, you know, where are you coming from, Larry? That’s what I’m asking.

MR. MEAD: OK, OK. (Laughter.)

MR. SKERRY: Let’s, you know –

MR. MEAD: All right. All right.

I think it’s fair to say I haven’t entirely worked out a personal view on the moral issues that are now very dominant. I’m thinking of abortion, of course, or the drug question. On those matters, I don’t really have rigid views and I think some of them can be, shall we say, abandoned in the political process, that in fact the country has settled collectively about what it views as proper and improper behavior.

I think that that can still occur on many questions and I think it’s going to occur on abortion, and I favor that. I think the – it was a mistake, long term anyway, to vest the abortion question in the Supreme Court. It should have been fought out politically and it will now be fought out politically at the state level. I think that’s proper. And there are many other issues where – of the kind that Peter mentions.

I, personally, don’t have definite views on that. I do, however, believe that the collapse of the family, especially among low income groups, is a profound problem, and I’m writing a book now and, indeed, I already wrote a paper in which I advocate for restrictions on marriage.

I think we should make it harder to get married and harder to get divorced than we do now and because the maintenance and, indeed, the recovery of the family is crucial to solving the poverty question. The implications of that we really don’t address in this talk because we’re talking about immigration. But the family question is absolutely fundamental to solving poverty, and also improving the condition and output of the schools.

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, I was – all right. Ramesh, go ahead. I’ll let you get in here.

MR. PONNURU: Yeah, sure. I want to get back to the immigration policy question. It’s, certainly, true in principle that people with different starting points can agree on the bottom line policy. But it’s not true in this case.

So the very first policy that Professor Mead suggests in his immigration chapter which he calls essential is sending 11 million illegal immigrants home, and I’m not in favor of that policy and I think that the discussion of it is simplistic.

The discussion in the book suggests that the main resistance to that is businesses wanting cheap labor. I’m sure that is an important component of the political resistance to it. But it’s also the case that polls quite consistently find that most people are not in favor of that policy and there’s a range of reasons why people wouldn’t be including the enormous disruption to many communities that would be entailed, the way in which a lot of legal immigrants are implicated through family and other relationships with many of these 11 million.

And so, yeah, I think that it would be nice to have a consensus on policy but I’m not sure that the basis for it is in this book. Oh, and I’m sorry. Let me also say –

MR. CAMAROTA: Go ahead.

MR. PONNURU: – that an argument against family reunification that is based on the idea that we’ve got so many spaces that we want to fill in this country, that, you know, we’ve got so much absorptive capacity and among the many, many millions of people who want to come here we should be a little selective in terms of what is advancing the U.S. interest as opposed to who just happens to have siblings here, that’s one argument. I think it’s a persuasive argument.

The argument that we should get rid of family reunification because these cultures are less individualist and, therefore, maybe the people we’d be getting from them would be less individualist than we want I think would be – is radically less persuasive and would be much, much less politically successful as a result.

MR. MEAD: (Inaudible) – that I advocate in the book. I advocate the Jordan Commission, basically, which cuts back –

MR. PONNURU: The section on family reunification – all right. You want to make it just spouses. Again, that’s a perfectly reasonable argument.

MR. MEAD: And minor children.

MR. PONNURU: But the fundamental reason for this is based on this underdeveloped argument about individualism and the effect of immigration on it.

MR. CAMAROTA: OK. So let’s go with the audience. You have a question over here, sir.

Q: Yes, sir. First of all – first of all, I really appreciate a conversation of a panel on immigration that’s very, very civil, I must say.

Personally, I grew up in a 1980s that was devastated by single parenthood and the influx of crack cocaine into the inner city. And I actually agree with a lot of – (though I haven’t ?) read the book – I mean, disclaimer – I agree with the passiveness and self-defeatist attitude of people in our community. But, as Mr. Steven pointed out, Black Americans – and I think we probably did this a little bit to ourselves. We refer to ourselves as African Americans, but we do not refer to ourselves as immigrants because, when you talk about immigrants, you talk about opportunity. We didn’t come to this country with an opportunity, and I really thank you for pointing that out.

At the same token, I think, Mr. Mead – and I’m definitely going to – the first thing I’m going to do, I’m going to get the book on Amazon. Don’t you think – my question is: Don’t you think that Black Americans did assimilate? I mean, when you go to our churches –

MR. MEAD: Well, I didn’t get a chance to say that –

Q: OK.

MR. MEAD: – because we’re not focusing on that in this panel. But my overview – my general view of the Black story in America is positive; indeed, confident. What I see in the Black story is, first of all, a prodigious contribution to the country despite slavery and Jim Crow. The impact of Black America on the rest of the country is a hugely positive force, especially in developing the culture in lots of ways.

MR. CAMAROTA: But I’d like to get back, though, to the topic of immigration, immigration to the United States.

MR. MEAD: Yeah, I know. I’m just responded to this –

MR. CAMAROTA: So we have questions specifically – go ahead.

Q: Oh. Why do you think that political leaders, even conservatives, are so reluctant to discuss culture in the context of immigration?

MR. MEAD: It’s believed to be a symbol of racism and – or it’s a euphemism for racism. Now, that’s not true in my analysis. I explicitly and overtly deny any connection between culture or race and that’s what my sources say as well. So it’s not a racial argument. But the fear that it is has, essentially, buried what we’re talking about today.

MR. CAMAROTA: Did either of you want to add? I mean, you know, you wonder why a politician couldn’t say, well, you know what, I feel like it would make good sense to bring down the numbers in order to facilitate the assimilation of people already here – that kind of generalized statement. A large fraction of the country might not like it but a large fraction would say, yeah, that sounds right. Why do you think there’s – I can’t think of one public figure in America who would utter that phrase. Anyone who matters anyway.

MR. SKERRY: I’m not sure I can either. But let me pick up on this in a slightly different angle maybe, responding to what Larry just said. Given the opprobrium with which cultural arguments are met it behooves us, it behooves you, to make much more fine-grained arguments than you do. It really does.

And, again, I have to say I don’t appreciate your suggesting that my focus on details is somehow missing the point. If you aren’t honest to the facts on the ground and acknowledge them when you’re talking about cultural phenomena, you lay the groundwork for the kinds of know-nothing response about cultural arguments that we’re all against and that we all have to push against.

MR. MEAD: The fear I have – the greater fear – is that by not making – the upshot of your perspective is, ultimately, to allow people to maintain resumption of sameness, which I criticize many times through the book. America would be much more comfortable if you just forget about the cultural arguments entirely because sameness is the orthodoxy which we’ve used to smother all such issues ever since civil rights, and the trouble with an over sophisticated appraisal like yours, which is well informed, based on research, and all that, is that we never actually get away from sameness.

MR. CAMAROTA: I want to – Ramesh is dying to say something. Go ahead.

MR. PONNURU: So to the question of the disinclination of people to articulate concerns about immigration on cultural grounds, I think that it’s sort of a subset of the larger question of why is opposition to immigration so often dismissed as being rooted in racial bigotry –

MR. MEAD: Yeah.

MR. PONNURU: – and I think that one part of that answer is simply – it’s just an obvious one, which is that there are bigots who are against immigration and they are vocal about it, and sometimes you have the same people who will make sort of bigoted arguments but also non-bigoted arguments and they associate these things. It’s sort of a – you know, it’s not crazy for people to make these associations and I think it’s important for people to nudge people into making better arguments and to articulate nonracist arguments.

I don’t think – and I don’t think that the proper care is taken in this book. When you say, for example, that most Blacks never achieve the control over their lives that previous generations of immigrants have done, you know, which is almost a verbatim quote from the book, I think that is the kind of thing that encourages that association and weakens the case for immigration reform.

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, with that, we’re going to have to let Ramesh have the last word. I want to thank everyone for coming or watching online. I just want to point out that our next event is over at the Capitol Hill Club on October 13th at 9:30. It’s on the Ukrainian war and its impact or potential impact on immigration. And I’ll just add it’s always important to listen to our podcast “Parsing Immigration,” which you can subscribe to at all the usual places. Thank you again for coming. (Applause.)