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One Nation, Inhospitable?

Round Two -- Concluding Remarks
Posted November 20, 1996

If you missed Round One, or feel the need to refresh your memory,
see the Forum Overview.


I must admit that I was stunned when Professor Kennedy asked me to discuss exactly how affirmative action and immigration are related. Let me show the ways.

We have to begin by realizing that affirmative-action programs typically distinguish only on the basis of race or ethnic background (e.g. Hispanic or Asian) and not on the basis of where a person was born. So, for example, a firm can hire a newly arrived black man from a Caribbean country and partly fulfill its racial quotas. A university can admit a wealthy black student from Nigeria and show that it has "affirmatively" tried to increase its share of black students. Newly arrived Hispanic immigrants can qualify for minority-business set-asides, and so forth.

Host: Jack Beatty
Senior editor, The Atlantic Monthly

George J. Borjas
A professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Borjas is the author of Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy (1990) and Labor Economics (1996). His article "The New Economics of Immigration" appears in the November, 1996, issue of The Atlantic.

Peter Brimelow
A senior editor at Forbes magazine and The National Review, Brimelow is the author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster (1995).

David M. Kennedy
The Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University, Kennedy was the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in the past academic year. His article "Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?" appears in the November, 1996, issue of The Atlantic.

Surely, none of these outcomes represent what the framers of affirmative-action quotas had in mind when these programs were first proposed and developed. Regardless of how one feels about these programs in general, I think most of us would agree that the specific outcomes described above are a perversion of their original intent. Part of the legitimacy (or, depending on your point of view, part of the pretense of legitimacy) of these affirmative-action programs arises from the argument that the programs are righting prior wrongs. In what sense has U.S. society done a historic wrong to wealthy black foreign students, or newly arrived Mexican immigrants, or Cuban entrepreneurs?

In my mind, the political connection between welfare and immigration resembles the political connection between affirmative action and immigration. In principle, both affirmative-action and welfare programs are designed to address certain social and economic problems. These programs often find their strongest support among those whose ideological leanings are left-of-center. It is ironic that these programs, which are presumably designed to help the less fortunate, might also be the programs that undo our current immigration policy. A generous welfare state cannot sustain our current immigration policy. Similarly, a political system with affirmative-action programs and minority set-asides cannot be compatible with an immigration policy that admits ever more minorities who qualify and make use of these programs.

Mr. Atkinson wonders why I did not like using the "externality" concept to explain why having a large immigrant influx could impart all kinds of benefits on us -- a more vibrant literature, spicier foods, and so on. I have nothing against the concept of externalities. But a positive externality to Mr. Atkinson might well be a negative externality to Mr. Atkinson's neighbor. Though some of us might prefer spicier foods, our neighbors might be disturbed by the strange smells coming from the new restaurants in town. More to the point, there is simply no empirical evidence that externalities from immigration generate sizable gains for the United States. I am willing to change my mind on this, but I must see the evidence first.

As for Mr. Benito's reminder that foreign trade will introduce the same type of competition as immigration, let us not forget that there are both traded goods and non-traded goods. True enough, if immigrants do not come in to harvest our tomatoes in California's fields, imported tomatoes will probably find their way to the local supermarket.

A lot of immigrants, however, work in industries where the possibility of substitution through foreign trade is much less likely: think of restaurants, dry-cleaning services, and, in fact, most of the personal services provided by immigrants. In these types of jobs, immigrants will have a direct impact on the economic opportunities of native workers who could have performed those same jobs. Yes, we would pay more for those services, but many native workers would be better off.

So what do we learn from this exchange? Any discussion of immigration is controversial -- and raises all types of emotional and ideological red flags that often clutter the debating field, so much so that the opposing sides tend not to see each other's arguments.

I think it is crucial that we all recognize that, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, immigration is not a free lunch. Yes, there are benefits from immigration, but there are also costs. And the benefits and costs typically go to different people.

Are those who benefit greatly from immigration willing to see some of their income redistributed to the losers? If so, let's go ahead and do it -- and if the redistribution is sufficiently large, even the initial losers will see that immigration is not so bad after all. If not, then we had better prepare for the tone of the coming debate.

If recent history is any guide, I suspect that the types of restrictionist policy proposals that lie just around the corner are far more draconian than anything discussed so far. Just think of what the immigration debate was like as recently in 1990, when Congress actually voted to increase the number of immigrants: there was no talk of barring illegal aliens from public schools, or of prohibiting many legal immigrants from receiving many types of public assistance. Yet that is where we are today. Where will be in 2000?

Return to the top of Round Two -- Concluding Remarks.


Naturally, I am dismayed that Jack Beatty, whom I respect, is repelled by my "sulfurous certainty" on immigration. But I have to point out that my chemical reaction derives in part from having taken the trouble to read (and also having reproduced in my book Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster) the technical literature on the subject -- which, frankly, neither Mr. Beatty nor Professor Kennedy appears to have done. Thus Beatty, in his opening, confuses my reporting of the fiscal burden of immigration with Professor Borjas's estimate of its economic contribution to the native-born -- two quite different concepts (although both calculations, as it happens, are Borjas's). He fails to realize that what Borjas and I are both talking about is the net benefit (weighing the financiers against the failures -- although simple arithmetic indicates that only a few of the latter will quickly cancel out the former). And he instances the one dubious study cited by Professor Kennedy to conclude that "experts differ"; that is, we can all go ahead and indulge our romantic impulses. Similarly, Professor Kennedy apparently just hasn't recognized the paradox that immigrants arriving today -- today! -- are eligible for affirmative-action quotas at the expense of native-born Americans who do not belong to the so-called "protected classes." He seems not to understand that no economists argue that immigration is economically necessary.

Maybe it's because I have to shovel a lot of facts and statistics in my day job as a financial journalist, but this lack of rigor -- entirely typical of dogmatic immigration enthusiasts, among whom I certainly don't count Mr. Beatty or Professor Kennedy -- drives me nuts.

I am also sorry to see Mr. Beatty repeat the claim that "diversity has also been the genius of American culture." As I argued at great, painstaking length in Alien Nation, this is the type of ahistorical hogwash that eastern-seaboard urban intellectuals have served up since the Second World War to glorify themselves and rationalize their fear and loathing of middle America -- which is, however, the America that wrote the Constitution, won the West, and fought the Civil War (and, incidentally, the Second World War). The insult to ordinary Americans is so gross that it makes me, as an immigrant, cringe. Fortunately, they don't seem to have noticed -- yet.

It is just not true that immigration "literally made America." The population of the United States would have been half of what it is today -- bigger than France, bigger than Japan -- if there had been no immigration at all after 1790. But it is absolutely true that immigration is "remaking [America] today." My question: has anybody asked Americans if they approve?

Mr. Beatty and I agree that the Jordan Commission made excellent recommendations, disgracefully ignored by the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress. It is indeed a strength of American society that it can absorb immigrants. But immigration is a luxury, not a necessity. The "lesson of the American past" is that this luxury can only be consumed with frequent pauses for digestion.

I know, I know -- the romantic affection that many Americans have for immigration is often (not always) derived from genuine benevolence. In fact, I've benefitted from it. But we're talking here about the fate of a nation and the lives of our children. Benevolence is not enough -- even if it's "sulfurous" to point this out.

Incidentally, like Professor Kennedy (and unlike most immigration restrictionists), I am intrigued by the idea of guest-workers. In fact, I think they made up quite a lot of the 1890 - 1920 immigration, even apart from the "bracero" program, which seems to me to have been quite successful.

It sulfurously irritates me that Martin Burch thinks we're "academic pabulum" who have ignored the question of population growth and overcrowding, since I did point out that public policy will drive the U.S. population to 400 million by 2050; the American people seem to have elected to stabilize at 270-290 million. But of course his implied point is powerful.

To David Lopez-Zayas: I have no doubt that individuals of any background can assimilate; the problem arises with large numbers. And the real question for Americans is: why take the risk?

To Carlos Benito: What is the relative impact on unskilled workers of trade versus immigration? Isn't it cheaper to import goods rather than to import immigrants? Plus, we can always raise or lower tariffs. Immigration is forever.

Thanks to all.

Return to the top of Round Two -- Concluding Remarks.


Reviewing the exchanges among the several panelists, as well as the comments from readers, I'm struck by how preoccupied we all are with the question of future immigrant flows, and the costs or benefits associated with them. Surely our reflexive focus on that question reflects our quite justifiable concern with the most familiar policy tool in the history of the immigration debate -- regulating the number of immigrants, or, in the higher-temperature idiom preferred by Mr. Brimelow, seizing control of our borders.

But there is another issue that we have left largely undiscussed: the question of what will become of the more than 22 million immigrants who are already in the country. The major burden of my article in this month's Atlantic was simply to suggest that this society cannot confidently rely on the laissez-faire attitudes of the past to do the work of assimilation in the decades ahead. For one thing, we daily breathe in an atmosphere of ethnic and racial particularisms that threatens to throw the historic assimilationist project into disrepute, if it hasn't already. "Laissez-faire" in this climate may well mean passively acquiescing in the entrenchment of separatist ideologies and watching the crystallization of more-or-less permanent ethnic sub-communities niched into the larger polity. While what Professor Borjas not unfairly calls my poetic temperament is to a certain degree enchanted with the idea of such a patchwork society, colorfully paneled with all sorts of distinctive cultures that carefully preserve their historic patrimonies, my knowledge of the history of attempts to sustain such societies quickly sobers me up. One need only think of Bosnia and Chechnya and Rwanda in our own time, not to mention the depressingly long historical litany of such unhappy cases. From this perspective, the example of Quebec that I cited in my article actually looks quite benign!

I once heard a wise instructor artfully impart to his California audience a sense of the intractability of the historic ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. "Imagine," he said, "that the kinds of issues that divide northern and southern California -- issues like water allocation, transportation, and tax policy, not to mention all the value-laden social issues like abortion and school prayer -- were overlayed and invested with divisions along ethnic and religious lines, divisions perpetually rubbed raw by the grindstone of memory and ancient resentments. How governable would California then be?"

I'm quick to agree with Mr. Brimelow's assertion that no culture is infinitely elastic. We would make a grievous mistake if we were to assume that there are no limits to which this or any society can stretch the fabric of its shared values and even, at a more mundane but scarcely less consequential level, its common habits. But it has been the great good fortune of this society to maintain its cultural fabric in the past by incorporating new elements within it rather than by perpetuating their differentness. This, it seems to me, is a particularly challenging task in the present cultural climate; its difficulties remind us of what might be called the dark side of multiculturalism. And nowhere is this task likely to be more challenging than with respect to Mexican immigration to the southwest, which by virtue of numbers, density, and contiguity with Mexico raises issues that, as I've tried to argue, have no precedent in our national history.

We do have precedent for forced mass repatriation of immigrants, notably "Operation Wetback" in the Eisenhower Administration, which returned several thousand people to Mexico, against their will. But though one still can hear the "why don't you go back where you came from" argument on occasion -- it reverberates not far below the surface in Mr. Brimelow's contributions to this forum -- few sensible commentators take it seriously. Those 22 million immigrants, and their children, are going to be here for a long time to come. A generation hence will they be Americans? Or will America then be reaping the wretched harvest of confrontation and recrimination and be living what I confidently believe would turn out to be the nightmare, not the dream, of multiculturalism? That, to my mind, is the most important question.

Return to the top of Round Two -- Concluding Remarks.


A Political Coda

While we were debating the existence of and reasons for the tough new mood on immigration, a major political development took place that was a reaction to that mood and that bears crucially upon the immigration issue. No, I don't mean the reelection of Bill Clinton. I mean the counter-mobilization of Hispanic voters away from the GOP wither they had been moving for some time. In what looks to be a major strategic error in coalition management, the GOP frightened away Hispanic voters with Brimelow-style rhetoric and policy. Pete Wilson supported plucking the children of illegals out of California's public schools. In the GOP House, Elton Gallegly, of Simi Valley, sponsored an amendment that would have denied federal aid to school systems educating illegals. Any hope that the issue of legal immigration could be split off politically from illegal died with proposals like these. Any hope that the GOP has of capturing the potentially pivotal Hispanic vote -- concentrated as it is in key states like California, Texas, and Florida -- may have died with it. What looked to be a risk-free use of immigration as a wedge issue to appeal to Anglo voters was not risk-free in the end.

Return to the top of Round Two -- Concluding Remarks.

Forum Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted November 6, 1996

Round Two -- Posted November 20, 1996

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