IN PRINCIPLE, any immigrant who arrives in America can embrace her ideas, join her institutions, assimilate to her Anglo-European culture, and contribute to the economy — just as many Gauls, Goths, and even some Huns settled down and became good Roman citizens. Speaking abstractly, the entire population of the world could move here and become good Americans. Theoretically, everyone on earth today could live in his own comfy house, situated inside Texas, with room for a backyard.
So should we just bring everyone here? Invite the world’s rich and poor to swell our tax rolls and salute our flag? It would simplify foreign policy, render the U.N. superfluous, and get all those “diplomatic” license plates off the streets of New York City.
If you answer “No,” then you already understand the difference between theory and practice, ideology and institutions. You’re halfway towards being a Burkean conservative. You realize that even if every individual you meet on the Greyhound Bus is your moral equal, made in the image of God, possessing indefinite potential — that doesn’t mean you’re going to room with him. Every soul was made for heaven, but not every person is qualified to babysit your kids.
Just because something good could happen theoretically, that doesn’t mean it will happen, statistically. That’s why most policy arguments are about probabilities, rather than moral certainties. The whole world could come here and become as classically American as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Hey, it could happen. But it isn’t a very good bet.
Since America isn’t Heaven, but simply a country — albeit one with a pretty good ideology — we can’t be as generous as almighty God about throwing open the gates to our many mansions. We must establish some criteria — some of them functional, some civic, some seemingly arbitrary — for choosing how many immigrants and which we wish to admit each year.
If you agree that there ought to be some limit, that some people applying for entry should be turned away, if only because of sheer numbers — congratulations, you’re an immigration restrictionist! Now all we have to do is dither about the numbers we wish to admit, the criteria for welcoming them, and the means for assimilating them.
Do you feel uncomfortable yet? Is that some acrid taint you sniff in the air, like old cigarette smoke at the OTB, suggesting there’s something faintly unclean about being “anti-immigration”? Something nasty, something unsophisticated, something (worst of all) blue-collar? Don’t mention it on a first date, let me tell you right now. (Maybe don’t mention it ever.)
There’s a good reason you might feel antsy, just now. Major media have spent the past 30 years drumming that feeling into your head, and now you sense it in your gut. But there’s more to it than that. Most of your encounters with individual immigrants were probably positive (as virtually all of mine have been). You’re generally relieved to see ethnic bistros open up instead of McDonald’s; like mine, your heart may warm when you see large, intact immigrant families filling the aisles in church and the desks at school.
But you acknowledge that there must be a limit to how many immigrants America can assimilate at once — a limit not imposed by our ideals (which theoretically apply to anyone) but by some other constraint. What is it? Well, first there are the resources of our environment. The “carrying capacity” of our country is very much open to debate, so we’ll leave that one aside for the moment. There’s another factor which makes us uncomfortable at the idea of, say, 20 million newcomers arriving each year from Asia or Africa — or Poland, for that matter. We know that our institutions have a limited capacity as well.
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, American republican government does not function so well because of our Constitution, or the abstract ideals that underlie it; similar constitutions, based on those very ideals, have been tried throughout South America, and failed. American attempts at nation-building typically founder. Russian efforts to build democracy and capitalism have been a tragic failure. Even France has a hard time maintaining a Republic worthy of the name — reverting periodically to elective dictatorship, between gory revolutions and craven surrenders. (Just now, France is hurrying to hand over its sovereignty to the European Union, a bloated bureaucratic German empire in the making.) Let’s not even talk about poor, tragic Mexico, which just got its first really freely elected president — this, in a country whose first university was founded before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock!
No, the vitality of American democratic government derives from its institutions, most of them non-governmental, through which individuals cooperate to promote the common good — school boards, churches, charities, Boy Scouts — and through the traditionally intense involvement of Americans in their local governments. The concentration of power in America, from the Founding up through the New Deal, was at the local level—close to the people, open to private influence. This fact encouraged the development of civic-minded citizens; as immigrants trickled in, they gradually made their way into these local elites or (if excluded) formed their own, bringing their own particularities to bear through local institutions. Thus Catholics who felt their children’s faith imperiled founded their own school system; they generally did not attempt to sabotage or subvert the existing, de facto Protestant public schools.
Most immigrants have respected these institutions, recognizing that they are what make freedom possible. And these institutions are of fundamentally Anglo-Saxon and Celtic origin, deriving as they do from English Common Law and the customs of decentralized, Protestant churches. That doesn’t mean that only WASPs can be good Americans; it does mean that immigrants are called to renounce the political heritage of their homelands, in favor of the system created by the Scots-Irish who fought and won the Revolutionary War. (Hey, we Zmiraks had to sacrifice our allegiance to the Habsburgs. How much did you pay?)
But when large numbers of immigrants begin to endanger the delicate balance of our institutions, when their elites engage in identity politics that undermine civic unity, invoking the bureaucratic power of the Federal government to override the vital privileges of local communities, then the system has begun to break down. This is what has happened in California and many other immigrant-receiving communities. Bilingual education, affirmative action, Chicano separatism—and the very ideology of multiculturalism—all these are symptoms of a more fundamental disease, which if unchecked is fatal to freedom. It is the loss of spontaneous, orderly community, without which only tyrannies can function.
Just as our governing class has lost faith in Western culture and American institutions, we have invited an historically unprecedented number and variety of immigrants into our country. As our capacity and our will to assimilate newcomers break down, their numbers continue to increase. If I could use a very Manhattan metaphor, it’s as if America had the flu, and we decided to go out for sushi. Our feeble immune system isn’t ready just now for this exotic diet.
As local governments attack the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church struggles with the numbers and morals of her clergy, the “mainline” Protestant churches continue to hemorrhage adherents, divorce afflicts one marriage in three, and illegitimate births outnumber births in wedlock among many minority groups — one might safely say that the building blocks of civic order are a little shaky. Perhaps this is not the time for bold social experiments — such as importing large segments of the developing world, and hoping that they transubstantiate into civic-minded Americans. To whom would they look for example?
Some say that virtuous, family-loving immigrants will turn the tide, by replacing the decadent stock which populates America. A perversely appealing idea — but a naive one. People who come to America hoping to join its prosperous mainstream are exquisitely vulnerable to the very social pathologies that afflict us. Detached from their old communal ties and uprooted from church and village — frequently transported, as one Mexican immigrant wrote, from the 16th century to the 21st — these peasants and laborers are in no position to redeem American culture. They work too hard just trying to survive. Their children, as they prosper, are more likely to abandon their parents’ social mores for the hyperactive hedonism proffered them in the media. What’s to dissuade them?
For better and worse, we are not the vigorous, self-confident, moralistic WASP America of 1900; our elites no longer produce leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, who will insist on “unhyphenated Americans.” Instead, too many elite Americans stumble in Spanish and fawn over foreign leaders who openly disdain our sovereignty — while insisting on their own country’s dignity and laws. Even as our schools decline in quality, and our children spend ever less time with their mothers, growing ever less civil, we expand each year the sheer variety of bewildering diversity which teachers must accommodate — then soothe ourselves that it’s okay, because all the kids use cell phones and watch MTV. As if America boiled down to nothing more than capitalism and sex, a corporate menage of Hustler and Enron.
If we go on breaking up the family, undermining the basis for national unity, and dissolving the institutions that make liberty possible, soon America may mean no more than that. That will be the ultimate betrayal of our children, and of our immigrants too.