Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2107
The passage by the United States Congress of the Immigration and Nationality Act in November, 1965, together with rapid population growth and political upheaval in the world beyond U.S. borders, set the stage for a dramatic increase in American immigration levels in the three decades that followed. Until 1991, a pro-immigration consensus united liberals, who valued ethnic and racial diversity, with conservatives, who saw America’s attractiveness to immigrants as a propaganda asset in the Cold War against Soviet Communism. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the American economy slid into recession, however, controversy replaced consensus. Political commentator Pat Buchanan demanded immigration restriction in his unsuccessful campaign for the 1992 Republican presidential nomination, and the June 23, 1992, issue of the conservative magazine National Review published “Time to Rethink Immigration?” by Peter Brimelow, a British-born financial journalist for Forbes. Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, a book-length expanded version of that article, appeared in print shortly after Californians voted for Proposition 187, denying certain public services to illegal aliens, and just before Congress began to consider proposals to restrict immigration.
To stop illegal immigration across the Mexico-U.S. border, Brimelow advocates an increase in the size of the border patrol, physical sealing of the border, rounding up and deportation of all illegal aliens in the United States (questions about the legality and practicality of such an operation are not addressed), denial of all public benefits (including education of children) to illegal aliens, and the adoption of a national identification card. The number of legal immigrants permitted into the United States, he argues, should be cut back drastically, the basis for selecting immigrants should shift from family reunification to skills, and the special category of refugee should be abolished. Legal immigrants should be denied the right to benefit from affirmative action programs; the Hispanic category should be removed from the protections of affirmative action; bilingualism should be eliminated. Brimelow’s policy recommendations are found in the next to last chapter; in most of the rest of the book, he tries to persuade the reader of the need for such draconian measures.
Brimelow ridicules the benign generalizations and heartwarming success stories often found in media coverage of immigration. He points out that some post-1965 immigrants, far from being Nobel Prize-winning scientists and inventors, are completely illiterate; some are involved in organized crime, including the drug trade; some bring exotic diseases into the United States; some are on welfare rolls. The percentage of immigrants receiving various forms of public assistance in 1990 was, he points out, slightly higher than that of the native-born. He cites the Long Island Railway massacre of December 7, 1993, in which Jamaican-born Colin Ferguson tried to kill as many white passengers as possible, to bolster his argument for immigration restriction; he does not explain, however, how any conceivable system of immigrant selection could weed out all potential mass murderers.
Economist (and advocate of open immigration) Julian L. Simon argues that the American economy has benefited from post-1965 immigration, but Brimelow, relying heavily on research by the Cuban-born American economist (and advocate of immigration restriction) George Borjas, vigorously contests Simon’s assertion. The growth rate of the American economy, Brimelow points out, slowed in the three decades after 1965. While conceding that immigration does not increase unemployment of the native-born in the aggregate, he argues that it can lead to the displacement of unskilled workers.
Brimelow’s economic reasoning can be challenged on several grounds. The slowdown in economic growth after 1965 was clearly a result of many factors; it is entirely conceivable that growth would have been even slower without immigration. A drastic lowering of immigration levels might exclude from the United States not only potential welfare recipients and competitors for existing jobs but also scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs who could create new jobs. Americans, Brimelow forgets, are not only workers and taxpayers but also consumers, and work done by low-skilled immigrants benefits not merely the affluent elite, as he implies, but anyone who purchases California-grown strawberries (picked by illegal aliens) in the supermarket.
One powerful argument used by foes of immigration restriction was derived not from economic theory but from historical analogy. The Italian, Jewish, and Eastern European immigrants who arrived between 1890 and 1924 seemed frighteningly unassimilable at first; yet their descendants were assimilated into the white American middle class linguistically and economically. Similar progress, it was said, would ultimately be achieved by the descendants of post-1965 immigrants.
Brimelow contends that significant differences between past and present render such an optimistic prophecy unreliable. Between 1924 and 1965, a forty-year lull in immigration enabled the United States to assimilate the pre-1924 influx; the post-1965 immigrant flow, by contrast, remained uninterrupted even in 1995. The author believes that the welfare safety net led post-1965 immigrants to remain in the United States regardless of the state of the American economy; between 1890 and 1924, by contrast, unsuccessful immigrants often returned to their homelands. He points out that those post-1965 immigrants who were officially classified as refugees did not migrate to the United States at their own risk (as did all pre-1924 immigrants) but actually received subsidies from the federal government; many refugees, including such relatively well-respected groups as Soviet Jews and pre-1980 Cubans, long remained more dependent on public assistance than the native-born American.
Brimelow is especially alarmed by the fact that the majority of post-1965 immigrants came from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and even Africa; such a heavily non-European immigrant stream, he thinks, threatens the future cohesion of the United States and its very identity as a nation. In a particularly far-fetched historical analogy, he compares post-1965 Third World immigrants to the barbarian tribes who infiltrated and then destroyed the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Further demonstrating a lack of historical perspective, Brimelow labels as “visible minorities” not only blacks from the Caribbean and Africa, but also Asian and Mexican immigrants. Yet, as political scientist Peter Skerry and historian David Montejano have pointed out, Mexican Americans have sometimes been perceived as white and sometimes as nonwhite depending on the era, the region of the country, and even the particular county within a single state (citing Texas as an example). Brimelow himself admits that nearly one-half of all Hispanics called themselves white on the 1990 census returns, but he does not recognize the doubt that such a fact casts on his alarmist prophecies. In the final chapter, while grudgingly conceding that Asian Americans and Mexican Americans often intermarry with English-speaking whites, the author still insists that his fears about resistance to assimilation by Asian and Mexican immigrants may be warranted.
Brimelow, who once lived in officially bilingual Canada, contends that officially sponsored bilingualism and multiculturalism—unheard of before 1965—were retarding the assimilation of immigrants to the United States in the 1990’s. Vastly exaggerating the influence of the few Mexican Americans who have expressed separatist sentiments, the author perceives the danger of a Quebec-style secessionist movement in the U.S. trend toward bilingual education and toward accommodation of the needs of the non-English-speaking by government agencies. Like Brimelow, many journalistic and academic experts on education view bilingual education programs as inefficient and wasteful; unlike Brimelow, they do not accuse advocates of bilingual education of wishing to foster permanent cultural and political separatism. The failure of many adult immigrants to learn English in the 1990’s probably arose not from disloyalty to the United States, as Brimelow implies, but from the practical difficulty of combining learning and earning; in the mid-1990’s in many American cities, there were long waiting lists for taxpayer-funded classes in English as a second language.
Brimelow, attacking one interpretation of Christian morality, denies that the United States has a duty to admit everyone fleeing persecution or poverty. An entire chapter is dedicated to the making of the 1965 immigration law, yet it offers little information on the history of that policy. Examining it more closely would have shown that the admission of many Third World immigrants had more to do with unforeseeable circumstances, and with Cold War ideology, than with guilt feelings of the American elite toward nonwhites in general. The admission of large numbers of Cubans and Vietnamese, for example, is—though Brimelow fails to make this clear—inconceivable without the triumph of Fidel Castro in Cuba and of the Communists in the Vietnam War. Brimelow views the advocates of immigration restriction as “patriots” devoted to aiding their own ethnic and national kin rather than to a vague universal benevolence; he fails to note the extent to which successive American administrations saw those fleeing from communism as America’s ideological (if not racial or ethnic) kin.
Because he often jumps from one topic to another, and because he is trying to persuade rather than simply to enlighten, Brimelow’s treatment of many key immigration-related issues is quite superficial. He deplores the high percentage of American federal prisoners who are aliens, without mentioning one cause: Castro’s reluctance to take back those who, after fleeing Cuba in 1980, were found guilty of crimes in the United States. Opposing the argument that the American economy relies on cheap immigrant labor, he discusses the restaurant industry and professional lawn mowing, while neglecting the Midwestern meat-packing industry and the garment industry in New York City and Los Angeles. To avoid addressing the claim that post-1965 immigrants have revitalized American cities, Brimelow accuses those who make such claims of contempt for native-born black American city-dwellers. He asserts, without offering any real proof, that African Americans have been hurt economically by post-1965 immigration; a quantitative test of this assertion can be found, however, in Thomas Muller’s Immigrants and the American City (1993).
Although Brimelow is a reporter, Alien Nation bears little evidence of journalistic legwork. He visited the California-Mexico border area, but no other areas where post-1965 immigrants have settled; instead he relies heavily on accounts by other journalists for facts about specific groups in specific localities. Brimelow interviewed government officials and economists, but no post-1965 immigrants (except for Borjas, the economist). To learn more about the post-1965 immigrants as individuals, one should read journalist Sanford J. Ungar’s Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants (1995), which covers many different immigrant groups in many American localities. The scholarly essays in Structuring Diversity: Ethnographic Perspectives on the New Immigration (1992), edited by anthropologist Louise Lamphere, help illuminate, at the local level, the influence of post-1965 immigration on both economic change and interethnic relations.
Brimelow is fond of hyperbole and vivid imagery: Illegal immigration is “a demographic buzz saw” threatening to slice off California and Texas; uncontrolled immigration might cause “the snuffing out of the American nation—like a candle in a gale.” In a crude attempt to grab the reader by the lapels, the author makes frequent use of exclamation marks and question marks, sometimes several in a row. Eschewing the impersonal style of the scholarly monograph, Brimelow interrupts the argument to discuss such marginally relevant matters as the history of his own involvement in the immigration debate, the role of Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley in gaining him the right to stay in the United States, the personal idiosyncrasies of Julian L. Simon, the effect of Brimelow’s astrological sign on his opinions, and even the behavior of his infant son Alexander.
Eye-catching graphs are inserted in the text to alert the reader to the immigrant menace in the most gripping fashion possible. Appendices include a table on rates of welfare dependence among various immigrant groups, tables on the leading countries and regions of origin of recent immigrants, and an explanation of a key concept in Borjas’ research on immigration, the Harberger Triangle. There is also a list of key dates and a helpful index.
Brimelow distills the sometimes arcane ideas of economists and makes them accessible to the layperson. He makes clear the inherent tension between the welfare state and open immigration, two ideals often espoused simultaneously by political liber- als, and he reminds readers of the environmental costs associated with immigration-fueled population growth. Nevertheless, such services do not atone for the book’s basic flaw: the failure to offer a balanced discussion of the pros and cons of a highly emotional public policy issue. Although some telling points are made, many of his arguments will convince only those who already have their minds made up.
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXXII, April 22, 1995, p. 6.
Foreign Affairs. LXXIV, July, 1995, p. 140.
Human Events. LI, May 5, 1995, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 21, 1995, p. 4.
Migration World Magazine. XXIII, May, 1995, p. 49.
The New York Times Book Review. C, April 16, 1995, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LXXI, April 24, 1995, p. 107.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 27, 1995, p. 95.
The Wall Street Journal. April 18, 1995, p. A18.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, April 2, 1995, p. 1.
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