Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, by Peter Brimelow, New York: Random House, 329 pages, $23.00
Peter Brimelow never comes right out and says it, but he clearly thinks that today's immigrants threaten America's future more than southern secession, the Great Depression, or the Cold War ever did. "America has never faced a greater challenge," he claims in Alien Nation. Indeed, the very first sentence of this scaremongering book outlandishly invokes the image of goose-stepping Nazis: "Current immigration policy is Adolf Hitler's posthumous revenge on America," writes Brimelow. He never really explains why this is so, but that's fairly typical for this disappointing book of half-explanations and half-truths.
It had promised to be so much more. As a writer for Forbes, Brimelow for years has deservedly earned high marks for his reporting on the environment, regulation, and other issues. His exposés on teacher unions are classic. So when he penned an issue-length essay for National Review in 1992 arguing to cut back on immigration, Brimelow was taken very seriously by the free-market conservatives who intuitively oppose such measures. He set off a fierce debate on the right and quickly became a standard-bearer for anti-immigrant forces. Alien Nation is ostensibly a set of marching orders, a book that could do for immigration what Dinesh D'Souza did for political correctness or what David Brock did for Anita Hill.
It won't. Alien Nation spends so much time blaming so many things on immigrants that it rarely bothers to stop, take a deep breath, and focus on one matter at a time. To Brimelow, just about every aspect of the current wave of immigrants represents an unmitigated tragedy for the United States. Today's newcomers, he argues, fracture American culture. They hurt the environment. They bring diseases. They have the curious habit of both stealing jobs from Americans and going on the dole. Pick a problem--any problem--and somewhere in this book Brimelow will find a way to blame it on immigrants.
This tendentious fault finding pervades Alien Nation. Consider, for example, how Brimelow cites the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute's 1990 poll of leading economists. In this survey, 80 percent concluded that the United States has profited from 20th-century immigration and another two-thirds thought that increased immigration would boost U.S. living standards. Brimelow's spin: "[I]mmigration is a subject that much of the American elite gets emotional about" and "economists are part of the elite benefiting at the expense of their fellow Americans." Both of these points may be absolutely true, but they hardly negate the opinions of a group that included James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and John Kenneth Galbraith.
To engage its topic seriously, Alien Nation would have to dispense with its ad hominem cynicism and deliver a full-blown discussion of the good, bad, and unquantifiable impacts of immigrants on our economy, culture, and society. It never does. Like a kid with a short attention span, it's too eager to rush off for more fun somewhere else. The book's arguments mimic a blunderbuss as they blast scattershot in a dozen different directions at once; most miss their targets entirely or just fizzle into failure.
Brimelow fritters away far too many pages discussing how he came to write his book, comparing himself to Thomas Paine, and revealing his astrological sign (he's a Libra). He also relates many irrelevant details about the personal lives of other people, especially pro-immigrant economist Julian Simon. (Brimelow refers to Simon's odd sleeping and working habits, talks about how Simon went through a long period of severe depression and contemplated suicide, etc.) These details tell us nothing about immigration, which Brimelow is ostensibly writing about. Brimelow tries to cast Simon as a slightly odd person, which in turn is supposed to detract from his pro-immigration views. It's strictly ad hominem stuff, and rather repugnant. Upon finishing the last page, with its allusions to flying pigs and the French Revolution, one conclusion is certain: Alien Nation isn't a struggle to think through, it's a struggle to get through.
Perhaps the worst thing immigrants do is fuel Brimelow's feverish prose. "The nearest thing to a precedent" for today's influx, he argues, is the 5th-century Roman empire, which was overrun by Vandals, Visigoths, and other assorted villains. Yet we moderns actually have it much worse than the Romans ever did: "[T]he Germans were Western Europeans. They were virtually identical to the populations they conquered and with whom, in most cases, they proceeded quickly to merge." Americans should be so lucky! The dusky hordes of Mexico won't go nearly as easy on us. (The Huns, by the way, weren't exactly "Western Europeans.")
This sentiment--white barbarian armies aren't as bad as nonwhite migrants--highlights the unsettling racialist vision underscoring Alien Nation. America, says Brimelow, has a "specific ethnic core" of "white" people. What he seems to forget is that this supposed core is actually made up of many ethnicities. They may seem more or less alike today (don't tell my Irish-American father-in-law!), but only by way of a certain historical blindness.
When boatloads of Greek, Italian, and Jewish people arrived on American shores around the turn of the century, they didn't all embrace each other like long-lost cousins. They came from Europe, a place where there are no "whites"--only Bulgarians, Norwegians, Spaniards, Welsh, etc. They viewed themselves as profoundly different from one another, as well as from the largely Anglo native population. Most had very mixed feelings about assimilation, and they struggled both to cling to their old ways and to adapt in a new land. What their descendants share today is a culture distilled mainly from the British Isles, but with distinctly American peculiarities.
Today's newcomers may seem as strange to us as many of our grandparents did to Woodrow Wilson, who once accused "hyphenated Americans" of divided national loyalties. About 85 percent of immigrants to the United States over the past 25 years have come from nontraditional source countries in Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. To Brimelow, this remarkable diversity of people boils down to a simple "Us vs. Them" equation. Immigrants from such disparate places as Korea, Haiti, and Guatemala all hail from "one area," namely, the "Third World."
For Brimelow, they are people like Colin Ferguson, the Jamaican-born madman who opened fire on a crowded Long Island Rail Road train in 1993. Ferguson is an archetype, argues Brimelow, an immigrant everyman. His "particularly instructive" case raises the question "in any rational mind" of whether it's "really wise to allow the immigration of people who find it so difficult and painful to assimilate into the American majority."
Follow that reasoning? It goes something like this: Colin Ferguson is an immigrant. Colin Ferguson is bad. Therefore, all immigrants are bad.
There was a time when they weren't all bad, Brimelow admits. "Let's be clear about this: the American experience with immigration has been a triumphant success," he writes. But he's disturbingly clear about something else, too: "Then, immigrants came overwhelmingly from Europe, no matter how different they seemed at the time; now, immigrants are overwhelmingly visible minorities from the Third World."
This sounds very much like the anti-immigrant rhetoric of roughly 80 years ago, when Southern and Eastern Europeans were also "visible minorities." It doesn't take much effort to track down hysterical quotations from respected public figures panicking over how Hungarians would deracinate America. Many scholars used to split Europeans into three different groups: Nordics (best), Alpines (so-so), and Mediterraneans (wretched). Today we can laugh at this pigeonholing. But these ideas undergird the 1924 National Origins Quota system, which made it very hard for immigrants from anywhere outside Northern Europe to gain admission to the United States. This law essentially shut off the flow of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose numbers peaked in 1907. It remained more or less in place until 1965, when racism became unfashionable and Congress overhauled immigration policy.