Wretched Refuse


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.

As a direct result of these reforms, Brimelow argues, the United States is headed toward "dissolution." If current trends continue, he prophesies, the country will divide into Quebec-like enclaves based on race and ethnicity: "[A]n Anglo-Cuban society like Greater Miami is going to have little in common with an Anglo-black society like Atlanta or even an Anglo-Mexican society like San Antonio. These will be communities as different from one another as any in the civilized world. They will verge on being separate nations."

But Brimelow's scare scenarios are neither particularly plausible nor particularly frightening. For a preview of our nightmarish future, for instance, Alien Nation turns to contemporary British Columbia. It seems that in Vancouver, "wealthy Chinese families are buying choice Victorian houses in wooded residential areas" and cutting down all the trees. They apparently do this because a Chinese superstition says that evil spirits live in the trees, writes Brimelow. Whatever the reason, "This behavior is deeply shocking to Vancouver standards." It represents "a genuine conflict of values….And it would not have happened without immigration." (Brimelow learned about this grave situation, incidentally, from participating in "a radio-call-in show.")

There's much more at stake with assimilation than suburban plant life, of course. The rise of multicultural and bilingual education is a distressing sign. Group entitlements can't peacefully coexist for long with individual rights. Despite the best efforts by the government to promote divisiveness through its public policies, however, today's newcomers give plenty of reasons to have faith in their assimilative capacity. Intermarriage rates are high. One-third of U.S.-born Hispanics marry non-Hispanics, and similar rates prevail among Asians. They're having lots of kids. More than 1.5 million children have one Hispanic and one non-Hispanic parent. In 1989, there were over one-third more births to exogamous Japanese/white couples than there were to endogamous-Japanese couples.

Demographers regularly remind us that the United States will become a "majority-minority" nation in the next century. But our concepts of race and ethnicity won't fit for much longer into the neat little boxes devised by Census bureaucrats. They will implode under the mounting pressure of Americans claiming unique combinations of ancestors from places such as Cambodia, El Salvador, and Senegal. Just as the Croatians, Czechs, and Poles of the early 1900s eventually broadened our notions of pluralism and identity, so will today's newcomers. According to a poll taken last year by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, many immigrants already feel like they're fitting in. When asked with which racial or ethnic group they shared most in common, both Asians and Hispanics picked whites—"the American majority" whose erosion so worries Brimelow.

Complete assimilation might take a couple of generations, it might seem to stall from time to time, and it will surely come with plenty of rough spots. But it will happen, just as it always has. By the time 2050 rolls around, today's furor over immigration will seem like nothing more than another episode in the long series of fusses Americans have had over every group of strangers at our gate. If we're still using terms like "majority-minority," they will probably mean something entirely different and unexpected.

Instead of grappling with these issues, however, Brimelow fantasizes about "America's white heartland" in the "intermountain West" and even "the Pacific Northwest going off with an independent British Columbia and Alberta." His belief that multiracial and multiethnic societies cannot work eventually turns into demands for ending immigration entirely, pleas for a national identity card, and pitches for restrictionist groups like the Carrying Capacity Network, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and Negative Population Growth.

We've seen declinist anxieties over immigration come and go before. Brimelow simply trumpets their arrival once again, parroting much of what's been said in the past and occasionally updating it for the 1990s. Even if immigration enthusiasts have not always won their political fights, they can at least take comfort in knowing that history has typically vindicated their thinking. Immigration to the United States has been, to borrow Brimelow's phrase, "a triumphant success." It remains so today. And there's no reason to impose a moratorium on our optimism about it now.

John J. Miller is vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C. He recently compiledThe Index of Leading Immigration Indicators.