Commentary Magazine


Alien Nation, by Peter Brimelow

Closing the Door

Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster.
by Peter Brimelow.
Random House. 327 pp. $24.00.

A few years ago I was present when a University of California vice president browbeat an unsuspecting undergraduate into silence. The offending student had innocently asked if California’s emerging budget crisis was traceable to population pressures stemming in part from immigration. “No,” the usually smooth but now ruffled administrator shot back, “there is no connection whatsoever between immigration and population growth in California, and linking the two smacks of bigotry and racism.”

This exchange occurred well before Governor Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 transformed the immigration issue into a national political controversy. Today, not only would that student be less vulnerable to such treatment, he might well be brimming with confidence, particularly if he were armed and ready with arguments from Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, a sassy but uneven anti-immigration polemic by Peter Brimelow.

Brimelow, a senior editor at both National Review and Forbes, and an immigrant (from England) to this country himself, has been ringing alarm bells about immigration for several years. Indeed, an article he wrote in 1992 helped launch the current debate. In Alien Nation, Brimelow draws liberally on the work of his colleague, John O’Sullivan, National Review’s chief editor (another immigrant from England), who has argued that the United States is not the exception among nations that Americans like to believe it is; that Americans are bound together not only by devotion to a shared set of abstract principles but by the organic ties of language, history, and culture so important to other nations; and that immigration puts these ties under threat.

Brimelow marshals an impressive array of demographic and economic data to press this case, stressing in particular that today’s immigrants differ significantly—for the worse—from those who came in earlier days. Thus, he presents evidence that over the past few decades the level of skills and education which immigrants bring to the United States has been in a steady decline. He also draws attention to the fact that in the same period the flow of immigrants has increased steadily from year to year independently of economic growth, whereas in the past immigration fluctuated with the cycles of the economy. Brimelow suggests that this decoupling can be attributed to the expansion of the American welfare state, which enables immigrants to remain even when jobs are scarce. The net effect of these trends, he concludes, is that immigration brings few if any economic benefits to the United States.

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It is not, however, the economic drag caused by immigration that appears to trouble Brimelow most. Rather, it is the dramatic increase in the non-European share of the total immigrant mix. During the 1950′s, he notes, 26 percent of legal immigrants came from Mexico and other Latin American countries. By the 1980′s, that figure had grown to 30 percent, while the share of Asians coming as legal immigrants jumped from 6 to 45 percent.

As a consequence of this shift in composition, writes Brimelow, anyone riding the New York City subway or sitting in an Immigration and Naturalization Service waiting room will find himself “in an underworld that is not just teeming but is also almost entirely colored.” He points with dismay to demographic projections indicating that one day in the next century, whites, who have always constituted the “specific ethnic core” of the “American nation,” will be a numerical minority in the United States.

Brimelow would have it otherwise. He advocates policies that will result in fewer immigrants overall; and of those who are admitted, he wants more “who look like me.” To this end, he favors limiting illegal immigration with such measures as: doubling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol; sealing the U.S.-Mexico border “with a fence, a ditch, and whatever other contrivances that old Yankee ingenuity finds appropriate”; reviving Operation Wetback, the controversial 1954 campaign that rooted out and summarily deported thousands of illegally resident Mexican nationals (along with a few Mexican-American citizens); and eliminating all public benefits to illegal immigrants, including public education, as now mandated by the Supreme Court and challenged by California’s Proposition 187.

Brimelow also insists that there must be no more amnesties for illegal aliens, and he suggests that Americans “may eventually” have to carry national identification cards. Finally, he advocates repeal of the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to anyone born on American soil (including the offspring of illegal aliens).

The proposals for dealing with legal immigration in Alien Nation are equally sweeping. Brimelow suggests we should entertain an “immediate temporary cutoff of all immigration.” Short of that, he advocates cutting legal immigration by as much as two-thirds, and replacing the current criteria for admission—based primarily on family unification—with criteria based on skills. He would eliminate affirmative-action benefits for all immigrants, legal and illegal, and would also do away with special categories of immigrants like refugees, who should wait in line, he says, like everyone else.

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How strong is Brimelow’s case against immigration? And do his proposals for curtailing it make sense?

About some things Brimelow is certainly right. Larger numbers of low-skilled, poorly educated immigrants from Asia and Latin America are coming to the United States than ever before. A growing number of immigrants are relying on the welfare system. And immigration is placing real strains on American society, particularly in places like California where the debate’s epicenter lies. But about much else, Brimelow is either wrong or, at best, half-right.

Thus, his discussion of the economic effects of immigration is one-sided and ignores evidence that contradicts his case. He pays virtually no attention, for example, to the many ways that labor performed by immigrants—as farm workers, janitors, maids, factory operatives, nurses, not to mention doctors and scientists—serves the economic interests of ordinary Americans. Of those professional economists who have examined the question, most do not share Brimelow’s negative appraisal of the contribution immigration makes to the national balance-sheet.

As for Brimelow’s warning that immigration is degrading the character of American society, the alarm bells he sounds on this score do not ring in harmony with the firm data we have on the pace at which assimilation—linguistic, cultural, and economic—is proceeding among most immigrant groups today. His argument is so broad-brush that a number of important details are obscured.

Thus, he lumps together Hispanics, whose progress is admittedly problematic, with Asians, who are generally doing quite well. He does not address the implications of the high rate of intermarriage between whites and “people of color.” He refuses to take seriously the fact that a majority of Hispanics identify themselves racially as white, a category-blurring phenomenon he only grudgingly acknowledges. He also ignores abundant evidence that individualism, an important dimension of the national culture he seeks to protect, is thriving among immigrants today.

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Even if Brimelow were to consider and somehow refute all of these objections, one would still be left wondering about his openly racialist vision of our society, which, ironically enough, has something in common with the position advanced by multiculturalists and many immigrant leaders who see our country not as an imperfect melting pot, but as a nation of rival tribes.

Brimelow’s policy proposals are also troublesome, not least because he never addresses, or even acknowledges, the monumental difficulties of realizing most of them, or the economic consequences of doing so. It is one thing, for example, to call for sealing our southern border, and quite another to reconcile that goal with the desire of American citizens to travel to and from Mexico with a minimum of disruption and delay. It is similarly doubtful that most Americans, much less Mexican-Americans, would tolerate anything like a revival of Operation Wetback with its round-ups and deportations. As for a national identification card, this is a proposal with some merit but, again, one that faces political opposition from both ends of the spectrum and is thus a long way from becoming law.

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Though Brimelow’s racial preoccupations are wrong-headed and his solutions unrealistic, reasonable people do have grounds to be concerned about the undesirable and long-ignored ways in which immigration has meshed with the welfare state and with such unfair social policies as affirmative action. Brimelow deserves much credit for getting discussion of these issues under way, even if immigration and the heterogeneity it brings are much more woven into the warp and woof of American society than he seems to understand or is ready to concede.

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