Critics of immigration argue that today's newcomers are changing the character of America for the worse. Sure we're a nation of immigrants, they'll allow, but the past waves of immigrants came from European stock and were assimilated. Today, they're convinced, the melting pot has gone cold.
Journalist Michael Barone, America's leading applied political scientist, disagrees. "Many savants predicted a hundred years ago that the immigrants of their day could never be assimilated," he writes in his recent book The New Americans (Regnery). "History has proven them wrong."
Barone, who rejects fixed notions of race and ethnicity, notes that earlier waves of immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and Eastern Europe were no more considered "white" or "American" than are today's sojourners from Latin America or Asia. Just as the Irish somehow managed to become "white," today's immigrants will transform themselves and change America for the better.
National Correspondent Mike Lynch talked with Barone in March.
Q: How is the war on terror affecting immigration as a political issue?
A: It has put proposals for change in immigration rules, particularly with respect to Mexico, under a cloud. What it has not done is create a huge political demand for shutting down immigration.
Q: Does that surprise you?
A: No, because I don't think the country is as anti-immigrant as some people believe. We have seen proposals to change the way we handle immigration, particularly from Middle Eastern countries, and proposals to keep better track of people with student visas. All of those make sense to some degree. But the country hasn't been swept by a demand for a "time out" on immigration.
Q: Will immigration be an issue in the 2002 elections?
A: It won't be a big issue in most elections because there's not a sharp partisan difference on it. Bush's proposal to allow immigrants to reapply for legal status in the United States instead of having to return to their home country got more support in the House from Democrats than from Republicans.
Q: Are immigrants still assimilating?
A: On the whole, immigrants are assimilating, as they did in the past. To some extent they encounter less overt bigotry than they did in the past. In some respects we are not doing as well as a society in promoting assimilation. In particular, so-called bilingual education programs that keep kids in Spanish classes and out of English classes have made it harder for many Hispanics to assimilate.
Some on the left would say that promoting assimilation is a form of bigotry. That's baloney. On the contrary, it's opening up a culture and opportunities to people who come here.