This article appeared in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
I'm embarrassed it took me so long to grasp the phoniness of the charge that it's "anti-immigration" to oppose current U.S. immigration policy and the even worse "comprehensive reform" bill, which thankfully failed. I can only plead blind piety. After all, I live in the great immigrant metropolis, lit by the Statue of Liberty's torch, under which all my grandparents sailed a century ago to reach a land that amply fulfilled its promise to them. I feared that my misgivings about today's immigrant flood were but a short step from the nativist know-nothingism that dismissed my forebears and their fellow newcomers as defective both mentally and culturally, sure to debase American society with their ignorance, poverty, and crudity. Isn't the lesson of my grandparents' generation simply this: that American freedom and opportunity have a special magic, an alchemy for transforming tired, poor, huddled masses into free American citizens whose energy and grateful patriotism, and whose progeny, greatly strengthened the nation? However unpromising today's largely uneducated and unskilled immigrants may appear, do they really look any worse than their predecessors?
Such was the consensus among the writers at City Journal, the conservative magazine I edited from 1994 through 2006. But some years ago, when I sent a writer out to see how the magic Americanizing machine was working, he came back dismayed. After several weeks in a heavily Hispanic Manhattan neighborhood, talking to Catholic priests and their immigrant flocks, he concluded that the alchemy of assimilation was fizzling out. The priests saw their duty as signing up immigrants for every possible subsidy, especially the child-only welfare benefit available to American-born kids of immigrant mothers, a munificent sum to a newcomer from a peasant village. The clerics also were pressing local schools to teach the newly arrived kids in Spanish, so they wouldn't "lose their cultural heritage."
Oh dear, my writer thought: Now we have a system that subverts rather than promotes economic enterprise and cultural assimilation, the twin engines of Americanization. That was a story he didn't want to write.
To this unsettling report Heather Mac Donald piled on disturbing anecdotes from her frequent visits to southern California, stories about Mexican gangs and Latino family breakdown. Then Victor Davis Hanson poured out a vivid tale that sharpened these impressions. He grew up in a half-Mexican town in California's San Joaquin Valley, he told me, where he still lived and worked the family farm. With Mexican-American friends going back to his school days, when he was one of five Anglos in a class of 40, and a web of Mexican relatives by marriage, he'd chosen a career teaching the classics to mostly Mexican students, because (among other reasons) he likes Mexicans. But things had changed. In his childhood, Mexicans assimilated. Now -- with multiculturalism stoked up to boiling by armies of Latino advocates and by schoolteachers skeptical of the worth of the American culture that has produced all the advantages that Mexicans have flocked here to enjoy -- they don't. And as the population of Hanson's little town neared 90 percent Mexican, deeper problems emerged. He chased away three Mexican housebreakers at gunpoint at 3 a.m., he said; another time, outgunned, he had to let a carload of Mexicans get away with 100 pounds of oranges from his grove.
I ASKED VICTOR TO TURN THESE reflections into an article, the first of what became a series of City Journal re-examinations of the immigration question by Hanson, Heather Mac Donald, and Steven Malanga, now revised and just published as a book, The Immigration Solution (Ivan R. Dee). It takes a very different position from where we started out.
The issue, we quickly realized, is a lot more specific than we had thought. Though advocates have tried to obfuscate it, the debate isn't about whether immigration in general is good for this nation of immigrants, a truism that's hard to fault. The argument isn't about Indians or Chinese or Poles but about Central Americans, primarily Mexicans, who, because we have lost control of our southern border, have entered the country illegally. The advocates' real point is that these specific 11 or 12 million illegal Central American immigrants, most of them uneducated and unskilled, are a boon to our economy and society, because of their powerful work ethic and willingness to do "jobs Americans won't do," and because of their strong family values. We need them, the advocates contend, and as a practical matter we can't round them up and deport them even if we wanted to, so we'd better face reality with an amnesty program that will integrate them and a guest worker program to bring in still more of them.
Our writers found that none of these claims holds water. Steven Malanga made short work of the claim that this army of the unskilled enriches the nation, hard as many of them certainly work. To begin with, the U.S. economy is hardly crying out for such workers. They are in such oversupply that unemployment among the native-born unskilled is double the overall unemployment rate, and the labor glut has pushed down their wages by about 8 percent, no trivial matter for millions of native-born high-school dropouts, many of them minorities, including Hispanics. Such cheap labor benefits a few industries, such as home repair and the hotel and restaurant business, and it provides prosperous Americans with low-cost babysitters and gardeners. It's a mixed blessing to agriculture, one of the biggest employers of unskilled immigrants, since it has retarded mechanization, without which American growers soon won't be able to compete with foreign suppliers with even cheaper labor forces.
But weren't my grandparents' generation of immigrants also unskilled? In fact, the National Research Council reports, they were slightly more skilled than the native population, and the rapidly urbanizing U.S. economy of that time desperately needed all the tailors, stonecutters, retail clerks, and so on, arriving by the shipload. Unlike today's knowledge-based economy, it also needed plenty of unskilled labor to build its new cities and work its unmechanized and still inefficient farms. In addition, Malanga argues, those earlier immigrants brought with them a rich store of social capital: strong families, self-reliance, entrepreneurialism, a belief in education for their children, optimism about the future and belief in their new land rather than fatalism and cynicism. That's why their children were just as likely to end up lawyers, engineers, or accountants as the children of native-born Americans. By contrast, the American-born children of Mexican immigrants, two and a half times likelier to drop out of high school than the average American-born kid, earn less than the national average as adults.
If the benefit to the U.S. economy of such immigrants is modest, the cost they impose is hefty. Each low-skill immigrant household, whether legal or illegal, consumes some $20,000 per year more in government-funded services -- including education, school lunches, health care, prison guards, and welfare -- than it contributes in taxes, estimates the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector. U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants are twice as likely to be on welfare as the American average, and -- disturbingly -- their children are even more likely to be welfare-dependent. The lack of such programs a century ago meant that only those came here who thought they could take advantage of American freedom and opportunity by their own efforts, the key to the old immigration's success. Today, of course, such benefits attract the un-entrepreneurial and un-self-reliant to these shores, along with the hardworking. That's why Milton Friedman impatiently exclaimed: "It's just obvious that you can't have free immigration and a welfare state."
IF MEXICAN AND OTHER CENTRAL AMERICAN immigrants are a net loss for the U.S. economy, their net benefit to American society is also unimpressive. Just as the nation seems about to solve, or at least stabilize, its native underclass problem, Hispanics are creating a new underclass, even more unassimilated than the old one because of its self-identification as Mexican, not American. As Heather Mac Donald shows in her thickly reported chapters of The Immigration Solution, based not only on the data but also on interviews with gang-bangers, jail inmates, single mothers, cops, teachers, social-service providers, and others from neighborhoods ranging from the Los Angeles barrio to New York's outer boroughs, the prevalence of crime and illegitimacy among Mexican and other Central American immigrants and their children is as troublingly high as the rate of school-dropout and welfare dependency. It appears that these immigrants are forming ethnic enclaves in which social pathology flourishes and gets passed down from one generation to the next.
The crime statistics are stark. Nationally, the Hispanic felony arrest rate approaches triple that of non-Hispanic whites, and 30 percent of federal prisoners in 2000 were foreign-born. In California, home to 40 percent of America's immigrant population, Hispanics, who in 1970 were 12 percent of the state's population and 16 percent of its new prison admits, grew to 30 percent of its population in 1998 and 42 percent of its new prisoners. In Los Angeles, almost all of the more than 1,200 outstanding murder warrants were for illegal aliens. In a heavily Hispanic Manhattan neighborhood, cops estimate that 70 percent of the drug dealers and other criminals are illegal aliens. If, as the widely accepted "broken windows" theory of policing has it, such low-level crimes of disorder as subway fare-beating or public urination encourage more serious crime, since the criminally inclined conclude that no one cares about lawbreaking, then surely our nation's non-enforcement of its immigration laws, Mac Donald concludes, especially in the big cities that have adapted "sanctuary" policies for illegal aliens, is the biggest crime breeder of them all.
But such encouragement aside, Hispanic crime is high because Mexican and other Central American immigrants have brought with them a gang-ridden culture. Even in the high schools, gangs flourish, with names like SOK (Still Out Killing) and HTO (Hispanics Taking Over) in South Central Los Angeles. One Salvadoran kid told Mac Donald that most of his fellow eighth graders were already "locked up or dead"; he himself had done time for "GTA" -- grand theft auto. The gang bangers take violence for granted. "We're amazed at the openness of the shootings," a suburban New York homicide detective told Mac Donald. "When we do cases with Hispanic gangs, we often get full statements of admission, almost like they don't see what's the big deal." And as Hispanics fan out across the country, they bring gang crime in their wake. California's Ventura County, once crime-free, has had to get an injunction against one gang responsible for a murder spree; Virginia police view with alarm the spread of gang violence from suburban Washington down toward Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley.
Social scientists on the right and the left now agree, after decades of argument, that children of unwed mothers do less well on average than kids from two-parent families in every department of life, from education to employment to marriage, and single parenthood, unsurprisingly, is a key marker of underclass status. So it's troubling that, for all the talk of Latino family values, illegitimacy is epidemic among Hispanic immigrants and their grown-up daughters. Hispanic women are having babies at twice the rate of the U.S. average; half those new mothers aren't married; and that extremely high illegitimacy rate is skyrocketing. Like the old underclass, Mac Donald reports, many Hispanics see out-of-wedlock childbearing as normal, a matter for celebration not embarrassment. Like the old underclass too, a significant number of those out-of-wedlock children are receiving welfare benefits, and California is already caring for a second generation of Hispanic foster care children and group home residents.
MEXICAN IMMIGRATION may offer few benefits to the U.S., but it is an immense boon to Mexico, providing a safety valve for that country's unreformed political culture and failed economy, which has seen per capita GDP decline from 37 percent of the United States' in the early 1980s to 25 percent of it now. To workers accustomed to $8 a week in Mexico, $8 an hour in the California fields or Arkansas chicken processing plants looks like a fortune (though it's the low wages of these immigrants that account for much of the apparent uptick in U.S. income inequality). Those low wages, however, give newcomers enough to send money to their families in Mexico, in a stream of remittances that are Mexico's second largest source of hard currency and the lifeblood of entire villages.
It's no wonder that Mexican officials, along with Mexico's consuls in the U.S., vigorously promote the northward flight of their nationals, even providing an instruction manual, in comic-book form, on how to sneak across the border and not get caught later. But when high Mexican officials self-righteously and undiplomatically assert that any U.S. effort to stem Mexican immigration would be a human-rights violation, American officials might quietly encourage them to get their own house in order and foster economic growth, so their citizens don't have to abandon ship.
Advocates are right that the United States needs a new immigration policy, though one along very different lines from what they propose. We need an open and welcoming policy, shaped solely by the interests of our own nation, not by pressure from our neighbors or by passive acquiescence in the illegal status quo. No one, except for scare-mongering amnesty advocates, is suggesting the massive roundup and deportation of the millions of illegal immigrants already here. Instead, The Immigration Solution suggests we start by enforcing the laws already on the books, policing our borders vigorously, and stiffly fining employers who hire illegals. If judges object that the machinery for identifying illegals -- the federal government's system for verifying Social Security numbers -- is flawed, Washington should fix it at once. Without an opportunity to work, illegal immigrants would return home, just as 60 percent of immigrants from the first great migration went home when the Depression dried up jobs here.
Then we should craft an immigration policy that is generous in the number of people we admit, but that chooses newcomers not because they are a citizen's elderly parents or adult child or brother, however needy or unskilled, as at present, or because they successfully snuck into the country some years ago, like the 3 million illegal Mexicans amnestied in 1986, but because they have skills that the U.S. economy needs, including the ability to speak English. Immigrants most certainly do enrich our country, and not just those who are electrical engineers or medical researchers but also those who can fix an engine or run an X-ray machine or manage a small business. Other advanced nations that are immigration magnets, as Steven Malanga recounts in The Immigration Solution, have devised such selective policies with great success. Since we can only admit a fraction of the millions who would like to come and participate in the prosperity and freedom that Americans have built by their own efforts and with the benefit of their uniquely American culture and political system, let's choose our immigrants by asking not what this country can do for them, but what they can do for this country.