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The Intellectual Activist - An Objectivist Review

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America's Real "Assimilation" Dilemma


Robert Tracinski is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIA Daily. This article appears in The Intellectual Activist, Vol. 19. Nos. 7 & 8.

The first and most fundamental argument in favor of unrestricted immigration is a moral argument. Immigration is about the individual's right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," a right that is universal and applies to all men, whether they were born in America or not. That includes a foreigner’s right to come to the United States, to rent or buy a home from an American, and to accept a job from an American employer—his right to pursue "the American dream." (See "Americans Against the American Dream," TIA, Vol. 19, Nos. 5 & 6.)

If the government proposes to interfere with these voluntary transactions, then the burden is on advocates of these restrictions to say what gives them a moral right to do so. Note that no one in the current anti-immigration movement ever bothers even to ask that question.

There is no conflict between the moral and the practical, and so immigration is not just required by the principle of individual rights—it also provides powerful economic benefits.

It is easy to see the value of those immigrants who bring exceptional talents to this country, the Albert Einsteins and Ayn Rands. The same is true of immigrants like the Indian computer programmers who are granted special visas set aside for highly skilled workers. But America also benefits from Mexican day-laborers who bring no special skill other than the capacity for hard work. After all, Emma Lazarus didn't say, "send me your artists and Ph.D.s"; she asked for the "wretched refuse of your teeming shore"—knowing that people considered "refuse" in the Old World would become productive citizens in a free society.

This is confirmed by the facts about Mexican immigrants, which refute the slanderous caricatures that have been spread by anti-immigration activists.

Have you heard that illegal immigrants don't "contribute their fair share" of taxes? In fact, 62 percent of illegal immigrants pay income taxes, not by filing returns, but through the taxes withheld from their wages by their employers. Two thirds of these immigrants also pay Social Security taxes, even though they will never be eligible to collect benefits.

Do Mexicans come here to mooch off our welfare system rather than to work? The unemployment rate for Hispanic workers is 5.5 percent; the national average is 4.7 percent, while the rate for blacks is 9.3 percent. Hispanics start new businesses at a rate three times higher than the national average; in 2002, 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses generated $222 billion in revenue. As for welfare and other "social services," only 5 percent of Mexican illegal immigrants receive food stamps or unemployment benefits, while only 10 percent have children in the public schools.

Have Mexican immigrants caused a crime wave? A survey of national crime statistics concluded that "immigrants are generally less involved in crime than similarly situated groups."

The view that Mexican immigrants, legal or otherwise, are bad for America is worse than an economic falsehood—it is an injustice to millions of productive individuals.

There is only one interesting practical objection against immigration: the fear that an influx of immigrants will "change our culture." The crudest version of this objection, offered by disreputable "paleo-conservatives" like Pat Buchanan, is the objection that immigrants will change the racial makeup of America. The only legitimate answer to this argument is: so what? The glory of America is that it is based on universal ideas—the ideas of individualism and liberty—not on a racial identity.

A less crude, more respectable version of this argument, popular among mainstream conservatives, is the fear that immigrants will not assimilate into American culture, that they will not accept the ideas that form the essence of America. But this fear is ultimately based on the same mistake as the crude, racial variant: the idea that culture is determined by racial or ethnic background. Conservatives have never fully absorbed the fact that America is based on universal ideas. For them, our country is based on tradition, traditional customs, traditional institutions, traditional religious affiliations. This last is crucial. Conservatives refuse to acknowledge that this nation was founded on the philosophy of the secular British Enlightenment; they insist, instead, that it was founded on Christianity. But people tend to accept whatever religious affiliation they grew up with. It is ingrained in them by tradition. In this view, an influx of people who come from other traditions—especially Muslim immigrants from the Middle East—dooms us to the watering down of our culture, which cannot really be transferred to anyone who didn't grow up here.

Immigration is the issue on which the right confesses a failure of what columnist Mark Steyn calls "civilizational confidence." While conservatives like Steyn call for a display of this confidence in reaction to controversies like the "cartoon jihad," it is they who lack confidence in our civilization’s ability to absorb and assimilate immigrants. This was honestly confessed in a March 30 column by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, in which she wrote that opposition to immigration springs less from "fear about 'them'" than from "anxiety about us."

There is a grain of truth to this fear about the failure to assimilate immigrants. The phenomenon of "political correctness" and the corruption of the teaching of American history in our schools—most notably, the attempt to portray slavery and racism, not the fight for liberty, as the essence of our history—are real threats to the process of assimilation.

But the issue of political correctness only incidentally connects to immigration. If the ability of our culture to induct people into the values of our civilization is in doubt, then 11 million illegal immigrants are a relatively small problem. What we really ought to be worried about is a group of 75 million people who desperately need to be assimilated into America's culture of individualism, taught the essential facts about America's history, and encouraged to appreciate the virtues of our political system.

These are 75 million people who are, you might say, on an automatic track to citizenship, and all of them will become newly eligible to vote in the next two decades.

I am referring to the 75 million Americans under the age of 18.

One of the key evasions of the anti-immigration crusade is that all of the scrutiny it imposes on immigrants is dropped when looking at native-born Americans (or "native Americans," to re-appropriate a previously misappropriated phrase). Thus, for example, Mexican immigrants are blamed for allegedly coming here to take advantage of America’s welfare state—but equal outrage is rarely summoned for the much larger number of native-born Americans who live off the welfare system. Or critics intone sanctimoniously that immigrants ought to be expected to comply with all of the Byzantine requirements and onerous expenses imposed by the INS—while native-born Americans are somehow entitled to complain bitterly about strangulating red tape every April 15, when we are forced to deal with the IRS. And so we have to ask: if our culture is so weak that it can't induct immigrants into American culture—how is it going to induct the next generation of native-born Americans, a group at least three to four times as large?

When thinking about the "cultural effect" of immigrants, Noonan is right. It's not about them, it's about us. If we are not promoting our values, that's our fault, not theirs.

For example, when an immigration reform bill was pending before the Senate this Spring, anti-American leftist groups organized large pro-immigration rallies at which some illegal immigrants waved Mexican flags—an odd way to make the case for becoming a citizen of this country. But who was behind these rallies? The American anti-war, pro-communist group ANSWER. (As for how well this group represents the views of most Hispanic immigrants, columnist Ben Wattenberg noted that "Mexican-American GIs have been awarded proportionately more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other sub-group in the American military.")

Or consider a radical fringe of Hispanic activists who advocate "la reconquista," calling for Mexico to "reconquer" America's Southwest and holding up signs at pro-immigration rallies declaring, "Uncle Sam Stole Our Land!" The advocates of this bizarre "Chicano" fascism include Jose Angel Gutierrez, political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Professor Charles Truxillo of the University of New Mexico. Their home base is not Mexico, nor are they supported by illegal immigrants. They are based in American universities, with the acquiescence and support of the administration and faculty.

In short, if we are worried about a failure to sustain our culture, there is no point projecting that threat onto Mexican immigrants. We must grasp where the threat truly originates: with our high-school teachers, our college professors, our political commentators, our Hollywood screenwriters.

It is also important to remember that though we do have reason to be worried that America is not projecting its best cultural legacy vigorously enough, this concern has been exaggerated.

I am reminded of a European imam who proclaimed several years ago that Muslim immigrants will overtake Europe demographically, because Muslims bear children at a higher rate than native Europeans. Muslims will conquer Europe, he boasted, "with the wombs of our women." It is revealing that a religion which makes preposterous claims about its spiritual superiority would seek to spread its influence through the crudely physical means of breeding.

Such tactics might experience some success in Europe, where Western culture is far more dispirited and uncertain of itself, and other tools of assimilation, such as a free economy, have been stifled. But the basic American idea—the freedom of the independent mind and the freedom to pursue one's own happiness—is so appealing and so directly, personally rewarding to those who encounter it that it still makes converts everywhere in the world that it reaches. The Muslims, who have arguably the most insular and xenophobic culture on earth, are already complaining that America is stealing their youths in their own homeland. They have even coined a term for this: “Westoxication”—intoxication with the West.

To that imam—and to all those who either boast about or fear a "demographic" assault on American culture—the proper answer is: let them have the wombs of their women, because we will claim the minds of their children.

That is a goal that can be promoted only by supporting better teachers and better cultural voices—not by driving away the very people who are coming here to enjoy the benefits of a free society.

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