The Coming Immigration Debate
An Englishman takes an alarmed look at a quintessentially American issue
by Jack Miles
In the late 1940s, when the Marshall Plan was being debated in Congress, Arthur
Vandenberg, presenting the plan on the floor of the Senate, summoned up a
vision of "270,000,000 people of the stock which has largely made America." He
insisted, "This vast friendly segment of the earth must not collapse. The iron
curtain must not come to the rim of the Atlantic either by aggression or by
Nearly fifty years later Peter Brimelow, an Englishman by birth and a senior
editor of Forbes magazine, has summoned up another vision of danger to the
common European-American stock. Comparing himself to the Thomas Paine of Common
Sense, he warns that the survival of the American nation-state is in peril to a
degree scarcely seen since revolutionary days. Unless radical corrective
measures are quickly taken, he says, unchecked Third World immigration will
overwhelm the United States--its culture, its economy, and its ethnic
identity--within a matter of a few decades. European-Americans will be just one
more minority group in a nation that few of today's Americans, whatever their
ethnicity, would any longer recognize.
Brimelow's vision of Europe and the United States (and, in particular, Britain
and the United States) as ethnic brethren may seem as dated as Vandenberg's in
the multicultural America of today. But in the national debate on immigration
that may well dominate the 1996 presidential campaign, Euro-American
nationality could be championed as the American nationality par excellence
(rather than by default) by a majority that has belatedly discovered it wants
to remain a majority. For that campaign Peter Brimelow has written what may
prove to be an indispensable book.
This is so in part because of the highly contentious form the book takes.
Brimelow serves up one imagined debaters' duel after another, with the final
thrust invariably delivered by the author's side. Consider, for example, the
You hear a lot about PhD immigrants working in California's Silicon Valley
computer complex. Just under 3 percent of recent immigrants had PhDs, as
opposed to just over 1 percent of native-born Americans. But that's only, say,
30,000 immigrant PhDs a year. And have you heard that surveys show some 10
percent of Mexican illegal immigrants . . . were totally illiterate in any
Of his eristic method Brimelow writes,
You haven't? Oh.
Part of the cultural diversity I bring to the United States from Britain is a
certain (ahem) contempt for American debating technique. I can't help it. It's
What Americans feel toward the English high style in debate is, I suspect,
rather like what the English feel toward the clever French: we admire the
biting humor, the hard brilliance, but we doubt the underlying substance, and
we recoil in particular from the emphasis on wittily destroying an opponent
rather than patiently and dialectically exposing all aspects of some important
subject. This is why in the long run William F. Buckley Jr.'s faintly English
accent and acid English wit have limited rather than enhanced the trust he
enjoys even among his ideological allies. In these matters, for better and
worse, America is Roundhead and plain, England Cavalier and fancy.
American competitive debaters are given their topics in advance and earnestly
learn all the arguments by heart. But British competitive debaters are told
their topics, and which side they must take, only at the last moment. They are
expected to succeed by quickness of wit and whatever facts they can dredge (or
Ironically, however, Brimelow has produced a Cavalier briefing book well suited
to the needs of Roundhead controversialists who, in the plodding American
manner, will want to be prepared for anything the coming immigration debate may
require of them. Brimelow calls the contending parties, with polemical panache,
"immigration enthusiasts" and "patriots." Others have used the more neutral
terms "admissionists" and "restrictionists." But either party may profitably
imbibe this bottled brio. One side will be confirmed, the other forearmed.
Some of Brimelow's claims seem unproved, however intriguing--for example, his
observation that America's ethnic groups are sorting themselves out by
California . . . is being abandoned by lower-income whites in particular,
exactly the group that would appear to be most vulnerable to competition from
unskilled immigrants. Much of this white flight is flocking to the
intermountain West, which seems likely to emerge as part of America's white
Brimelow might have added that some blacks are returning to the South. Still,
if it is difficult to maintain the character of even an ethnic neighborhood in
a highly mobile society, will it not be all the more difficult to establish and
maintain an entire ethnic region?
Less noticed, minorities are polarizing too. Asians move to
California's Bay Area--they now make up 29.1 percent of San Francisco
County--and to the Los Angeles megalopolis, even if they originally settled in
other parts of the United States.
A more serious issue, though amusing enough in Brimelow's telling, is
immigration reciprocity. Brimelow formally inquired into the possibility of
emigrating to several of the countries that send the most immigrants to the
United States, and shares with us what he was told. Here are some of the
China: "China does not accept any immigrants. We have a large enough
Mexico: "Unless you are hired by a Mexican company that obtains a temporary
work permit, or a retiree older than sixty-five who can prove financial
self-sufficiency, you must get a six-month tourist visa and apply in person to
the Ministry of the Interior in Mexico City."
South Korea: "Korea does not accept immigrants."
Jamaica: "You cannot simply immigrate to Jamaica."
Egypt: "Egypt is not an immigrant country."
But if, as so many claim, immigrants contribute more to the economy than they
cost, Brimelow asks, why are these countries not eager for
immigration--particularly for a highly skilled, well-capitalized immigrant like
him? The size of the population should have nothing to do with it.
One admissionist response might be that these countries should indeed encourage
immigration and would be economically better off if they did so. A likelier
admissionist response would be "America is different": these countries may
rightly claim that they are not nations of immigrants, but America has a
different tradition. Historically, however, as Brimelow effectively shows, the
United States has experienced intermittent rather than continuous immigration.
Twice in the past we have deliberately interrupted the flow. We could do so
SHOULD we? This is the central question of the book and of the upcoming
national debate. Before that question is asked, however, the mistaken belief
that large-scale legal immigration to the United States is a purely natural
phenomenon should first be corrected. Heavy immigration has not just happened.
It has come about through political decisions. Many Americans remember the
Civil Rights Act of 1964. Too few remember the Immigration and Nationality Act
Amendments of 1965. At the time, proponents of the new law, which ended
national quotas and introduced the family-reunification principle, confidently
predicted that it would bring about neither any dramatic increase in
immigration nor any significant change in the ethnic makeup of the United
States. Had either change been predicted, the law would not have passed.
Both changes, however, are now accomplished fact. In 1990, Brimelow reports, a
staggering 1.5 million legal immigrants were admitted, of whom only eight
percent came from Europe, including some en route from Asia or the Caribbean by
way of Europe. In 1960 the U.S. population was 88.6 percent white. By 1990 the
percentage of whites had dropped to 75.6, and the Bureau of the Census
forecasts a further drop, to 64 percent by 2020 and to 53 percent by 2050.
Without congressional action this would not have happened. Do we want it to
In other words: let's suppose that it would indeed be impolite to raise the
question of ethnic balance--if a shift were occurring due to the unaided
efforts of one's fellow Americans, resulting in different birthrates for
If by decision or inaction this process continues, then America will indeed be
different--not just different from what it has been but different from every
other nation in the world in its radical openness to immigration. No other
nation, as Brimelow's queries about emigration make clear, permits immigration
by the hundreds of thousands annually on criteria no more compelling than
"family reunification." None would dream of countenancing a tremendous
demographic transformation for that reason alone.
But how can it be impolite to mention it when the shift is due to the arrival
of unprecedented numbers of foreigners--arbitrarily and accidentally selected
by a government that specifically and repeatedly [in 1965] denied it was doing
any such thing?
If the United States chooses to make itself truly the great exception, the
implications are virtually endless, one of them being a potentially profound
transformation of black-white relations, as "now, suddenly, there are new
minorities, each with their own grievances and attitudes--quite possibly
including a lack of guilt about, and even hostility toward, blacks."
In this regard Brimelow may be saying more than he realizes. Within living
memory virtually all who immigrated to the United States became citizens, and
all who became citizens took on American history as their own. Numerous poems
and stories have been written over the years about the comedy and poignancy of
this process. But more-recent immigrants, by no means excluding immigrants from
Europe, evince little enthusiasm for what Lincoln called the "unfinished work"
of building a nation on "the proposition that all men are created equal." They
hold or divest U.S. citizenship on the basis of tax-savings yield just as some
native-born Americans have done. Their attitude bodes ill for the United States
as other than a business arrangement and particularly ill for what Gunnar
Myrdal called the "American dilemma" of race relations after slavery.
Perhaps a few Americans formally espouse the view that their country is not
truly a nation but only a political system, a kind of inherited calculus for
reconciling the interests of a group of nations (or ethnic groups, to use the
domestic designation) occupying a single territory. But even if we wish the
United States to be no more than that, can we get away with it? Can the
American political system--the polity, the state--survive the demise of the
American nation? The state has survived past peaks of immigration by relying on
the nation to assimilate the immigrants culturally. But if the nation can no
longer assimilate new groups because it has itself become no more than a group
of unassimilated, contending cultures, how will the state survive a continuous
Assimilation itself has come into some disrepute. Proponents of
multiculturalism want to preserve the immigrant cultures and even languages
rather than see them absorbed by a host culture. Even the mutual assimilation
or accommodation of native-born groups one to another, though it continues, is
questioned. The melting pot, once celebrated, is now sometimes reviled. Other
metaphors--the mosaic, the salad--are preferred. True, some foresee a less
separatist, more mutually appreciative multiculturalism--a new cosmopolitanism,
if you will--on the far side of multiculturalism as we now know it. But will
the new cosmopolitanism mature soon enough to guarantee the minimum cultural
coherence that political coherence requires?
If there is any question about that, and, more important, if there is a serious
question about whether immigration confers any economic benefits whatsoever,
shouldn't the United States sharply curtail immigration, just to be on the safe
side, given the other risks and stresses that accompany it?
UNSURPRISINGLY, Brimelow believes that there is indeed a serious question about
whether immigration confers any economic benefits. Surprisingly, however, and
perhaps prudently, he goes no further than this. He attends to no single topic
at greater length than he does to economics, but he concludes that the economic
case against the status quo in American immigration must be built into the
cultural case against it. In the last paragraphs of the second of his two
chapters on the economic consequences of immigration, he summarizes as
It's a simple exercise in logic:
Brimelow is a financial journalist and a political conservative. He knows
perhaps better than many liberal journalists that conservatives are divided
about the economic consequences of immigration. Robert Bartley, the editor of
The Wall Street Journal, notoriously favors open borders. Last November,
William Bennett and Jack Kemp, conservatives who had campaigned against
California's Proposition 187, gave the endorsement of their organization,
Empower America, to an "Immigration Index" produced by the conservative Center
for the New American Community. The index purports to show that, as Kemp put
it, "immigrants are a blessing, not a curse."
1. Capitalism (and no doubt every other economic system) needs specific
cultural prerequisites to function;
2. Immigration can alter the cultural patterns of a society. THEREFORE--
3. Immigration can affect a society's ability to sustain capitalism.
Let's leave the last word with [the economist] George Borjas . . . : "The
economic arguments for immigration simply aren't decisive," he says. "You have
to make a political case--for example, does the U.S. have to take Mexican
immigrants to provide a safety valve?"
Brimelow sees more curse than blessing. He observes, for example, that most
Third World immigrant-sending countries are without income-redistributing
social welfare. Accordingly, the ablest, richest people in those countries have
little reason to move to highly redistributionist Europe or the moderately
redistributionist United States. By the same token, the European poor have
reason to stay home and the Third World poor have reason to come here.
Arguing against the importance of imported labor at any level of skill,
Brimelow points out that Japan's extraordinary economic development has come
about without the benefit of immigration. In a population of 125 million Japan
has perhaps 900,000 resident foreigners; in a population of 260 million the
United States has 23.4 million. And rumors to the contrary notwithstanding,
Japan is not about to change its policy. Here is the response Brimelow got to
his inquiry about emigrating to Japan:
ANONYMOUS JAPANESE OFFICIAL. (complete surprise and astonishment) "Why do you
want to emigrate to Japan? . . . There is no immigration to Japan. (Asked if
there aren't political refugees or asylum seekers) There might be three people
a year who become Japanese (chuckles). And even they don't stay long, they try
to emigrate elsewhere, like the U.S."
The Japanese have achieved economic success without immigration secondarily
because their high savings rate has assisted capital formation but primarily,
Brimelow says, because technical innovation is more important than either
capital or labor.
Brimelow implies, however, and surely he is right, that Japan's immigration
policy is ultimately dictated by cultural rather than economic considerations.
When immigration policy comes down to dollars and cents alone, policy
formulation may be postponed indefinitely. Each side will have its economists,
and each month will provide new numbers to be crunched. Borjas (to whom
Brime-low's intellectual debt is enormous) is probably right: what politics has
done, politics must decide either to undo or to continue doing.
BRIMELOW himself is blunt about the political course he would have the nation
follow. Here are some of his recommendations:
I strongly agree with Brimelow that American immigration law needs to be
reformed severely and quickly. And many of his proposals make good sense.
However, his call for a new version of Operation Wetback--the hated federal
program that forced a million illegal Mexican immigrants to return to their
homeland in the 1950s--is worse than reckless. In a 40 percent Hispanic,
heavily armed city like Los Angeles, the mass expulsion of illegal Mexican
immigrants could not come about without a violent disruption of civic,
economic, and even religious order, and probably not without provoking a major
international incident. Such an operation could be implemented only at
gunpoint, and it would be resisted the same way. Its announcement would be a
virtual declaration of civil war.
- Double the size of the Border Patrol.
- "Urgently" increase the size of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
- Institute a new Operation Wetback to expel illegal aliens.
- If necessary, establish a national identity card.
- Go beyond employer sanctions to the interdiction of money transfers by
illegals to their home countries.
- Make it clear that there will never again be an amnesty for illegal
- Discontinue immigration for the purposes of family reunification. If family
reunification is permitted at all, confine it to the nuclear family.
- Move the INS from the Justice Department to the Labor Department, and make an
immigration applicant's skills the criterion for admission.
- Institute an English-language requirement for immigrants.
- Ban immigration from countries that do not permit reciprocal immigration from
the United States.
- Cut legal immigration from the current one million or more annually to
400,000 (the 1972 Rockefeller Commission recommendation), 350,000 (the 1981
Theodore Hesburgh Select Commission recommendation), or 300,000 (the
recommendation of the Federation for American Immigration Reform), or to an
annual quota set by the Labor Department in response to the perceived needs of
the economy (the approach taken in Canada and Australia).
- Cut back such special categories as refugee and "asylee."
- See to it that no immigrant is eligible for preferential hiring, set-aside
college admission, or other forms of affirmative action aimed at historically
- Replace the omnibus census category "Hispanic" with national-origin or racial
classifications as appropriate.
- Consider repealing the citizenship-by-birth rule and lengthening the time of
legal residence before naturalization to five or ten years "or even to fourteen
years, as it was from 1798 to 1801."
Since the American Revolution was a civil war, this Tom Paine redux may know
only too well what he is calling for. Returning to his hero in his closing
pages, he writes,
It is simply common sense that Americans have a legitimate
interest in their country's racial balance. It is common sense that they have a
right to insist that their government stop shifting it. Indeed, it seems to me
that they have a right to insist that it be shifted back [emphasis added].
In that passage the first two sentences may pass muster as common sense; the
last is pernicious nonsense.
IMMIGRATION as a political issue changed the course of the last gubernatorial
election in California, the nation's most populous state. In the next three
most populous states--New York, Texas, and Florida--the issue is only slightly
less salient. Among them, these four states virtually guarantee that the
immigration debate will play a central role in the next presidential election.
President Clinton and the new Republican leadership in Congress are proposing
different, rapidly evolving versions of a "National 187," imitating the
California citizens' initiative that seeks to deny most government services to
illegal aliens. Taking a further large step toward militant restrictionism, the
American Immigration Control Foundation, whose honorary advisory board is heavy
with retired military men, is distributing a questionnaire that includes the
America cannot control its borders because the U.S. Border Patrol has only
4,000 officers. That's not nearly enough manpower to control the flood of 3
MILLION illegals every year. Experts have proposed assigning 10,000 troops from
military bases near our borders (out of a total armed services of nearly
2,000,000) to assist Border Patrol officers in stopping the invasion of
illegals. Do you favor such a proposal?
The Border Patrol itself would probably prefer to see the Armed Forces reduced
slightly and its own forces enlarged. But the same huge California majorities
that supported Proposition 187 would probably support the full militarization
of the border if asked--particularly if the recent devaluation of the peso
produces, as expected, a new flood of economic refugees from Mexico. But if
such an armed force were to cross over from guarding the border to rounding up
aliens for Brimelow's new Operation Wetback, I am confident that there would be
Experts believe if Congress would assign as little as 2,000 military personnel
who have been forced to retire early because of defense cuts, but who still
want to serve our country, they could give tremendous assistance to our
seriously undermanned Border Patrol. If such legislation was introduced in
Congress, would you favor passage of it?
Has Brimelow completely forgotten the Rodney King riot? His suggestion that the
proportions of the population be shifted back (Back to just what? one asks)
strikes me as incendiary. I agree with him, as I have already said, that
current American immigration law is worse than unwise. It can and must be
revised, and the rate of immigration can and must be reduced. But even if, with
luck, the further effects of a bad law can be checked, we have no real choice
but to live with the effects to date of that law. And to do that we must create
a national culture that does not define any large portion of the citizenry as
American by sufferance.
Brimelow manages to combine fear-mongering and tear-jerking when he
The U.S. government officially projects an ethnic revolution in America.
Specifically, it expects that American whites will be on the point (53 percent)
of becoming a minority by 2050.
But little Alex and his kind already constitute only 75 percent of the
population. And if the boy takes after his dad and lives in dusky New York
rather than in that intermountain refuge for displaced palefaces which Brimelow
sees taking shape, then Brimelow fils will belong to an ethnic minority,
locally, long before 2050. How is he going to make his peace with that?
My little son Alexander will be fifty-nine.
Not, I fear, with much help from Brimelow pere, whose view of American culture
from its very origins is almost truculently Anglocentric. The black proportion
of the American population was greater at the time of the Revolutionary War (20
percent) than it is today. But Brimelow, who generally stresses the nation over
the state, defines blacks out of the revolutionary nation because at the time
they were defined out of the state. About the native population he has not a
word to say. One may grant the unwisdom of swamping the current American
population in new immigrants and yet insist that this nation is not now and
never has been culturally as English as Brimelow wants to believe. The
multicultural assignment, accordingly, is not one that this nation has taken on
gratuitously. From the start we have had no choice about it.
Alexander, when he grows up, will have no choice about it either. It lies at
the heart of the ongoing American nation-building enterprise. American
(increasingly, even British) national identity is not a given. It is endlessly
constructed. And it is the multiculturalists, with all their faults, who have
taken this constructive enterprise in hand.
Writing in a splendid twenty-year retrospective issue of Parnassus: Poetry in
Review, the poet Rita Dove offers a critical essay on the poet Derek Walcott
under the title, borrowed from Walcott, "Either I'm Nobody, or I'm a Nation."
The challenge that Walcott has faced, personally and artistically, is the
challenge of mixed identity; but if a black man born as a British subject on a
Caribbean island may be said to face the challenge of mixed identity in an
intense form, none of the rest of us, and certainly not Alexander Brimelow, can
hope to escape it.
Culturally speaking, the key deformation of the oppressed is their confinement
in a merely private life. As regards the collective, public life, they are, to
borrow from Ralph Ellison, invisible men and women. But an artist may set
himself the nation-building task of embodying the invisible, private lives of
the minority and so delivering them into the visible, public life of the
majority. His goal, however, will be not just the incorporation of the minority
but also the reincorporation of the majority. The challenge is as much
intellectual as moral, and it is not mastered by sentimentality or
self-indulgence. Dove quotes an early autobiographical Walcott poem in which
the poet's surrogate "vows not to make his life 'public' '[u]ntil I have learnt
to suffer / In accurate iambics.'" By keeping his vow, Walcott has revised and
enlarged the Caribbean and the British identity alike.
Brimelow has little truck with any of this. Few economists do. Unfortunately,
since he rests his case against continuing heavy immigration on cultural rather
than economic considerations, the omission matters considerably. Brimelow is
not entirely silent on this topic. He urges on his readers David Hackett
Fischer's huge Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. But a more
revealing moment comes when he comments on the question of whether a million
Zulus would assimilate to American culture more easily than a million
This question was one of Pat Buchanan's contributions to the 1992 presidential
campaign. Addressing it, the Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot wrote,
"The Zulus . . . would probably work harder than the English." To Gigot, the
line was clearly a moment of sardonic humor. But Brimelow fairly foams in
It should not be necessary to explain that the legacy of Chaka, founder of the
Zulu Empire, who among other exploits killed all his concubines' children,
sometimes with his own hands, massacred some seven thousand of his own subjects
to mark his mother's death, sliced open a hundred pregnant women to satisfy a
fleeting interest in embryology, and ordered executions at whim daily until his
assassination . . . is not that of Alfred the Great, let alone that of
Elizabeth II or any civilized society.
One would think that Gigot had been denouncing the uxoricides of Henry VIII
rather than chuckling over British work habits. The emotion in Brimelow's
reaction suggests, I believe, that an insufficiently examined personal agenda
has compromised the author's public agenda; and given the special intensity of
this issue, I fear that this personal agenda will do the public agenda no good.
I say this with regret, however, for the central legal reform to which Brimelow
calls his adopted country is one that desperately needs to be made.
At his best, Peter Brimelow is an inspired controversialist, determined to
storm the enemy's redoubt where it is strongest, not where it is weakest. At
his worst, he manages to be sentimental and brutal at once, holding little
Alexander aloft on every tenth page while proposing a new Operation Wetback
that would tear hundreds of thousands of Mexican Alejandros and Alejandras from
hearth and home. Most at ease arguing the economics of the matter, he has the
courage to admit that the matter can have no economic resolution and the
greater courage to step forward as an apologist for the received Euro-American
I regret that, having thus brought the matter to a cultural point, he goes no
further than he does in cultural analysis. But for all that, he makes a
powerful--indeed, nearly overwhelming--case against the status quo. And if his
book is at times uncomfortably personal, it is also painfully honest. Sometimes
it takes a personal book to make a public debate finally and fully public. This
could, just possibly, be one of those times.
Jack Miles is a book columnist and an editorial writer at the Los Angeles
Times. His most recent book is God: A Biography.
Copyright © 1995, The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1995; The Coming Immigration Debate; Volume 275,