Commentary Magazine


Immigration and Multiculturalism

To the Editor:

Linda Chavez’s assertion that “both recent immigrants and America itself would have much to gain if fewer Latinos were admitted” would seem to represent a welcome and long overdue shift in her thinking on the subject of immigration [“Our Hispanic Predicament,” June]. However, Miss Chavez’s article is rendered less than fully persuasive by her astonishing failure to explain—or even to mention—her former opposition to the views she is now espousing.

Take the question of assimilation. When I remarked in National Review four years ago that the way to lessen the Hispanic separatism that Miss Chavez disliked was to reduce the mass Hispanic immigration that she supported, Miss Chavez in a letter to the editor (May 2, 1994) called me an “expert complainer” and insisted that Mexican immigrants are rapidly assimilating. “Immigrants themselves desperately want to become Americans,” she concluded. “How ironic that Mr. Auster lines up with the multiculturalists and tells them that they just won’t fit in.” Yet now she writes that large-scale immigration from Mexico “is unquestionably a factor inhibiting the successful assimilation of Mexicans already here.” In other words, Miss Chavez is now conceding a point that she and other pro-immigration conservatives have resisted for many years: that third-world immigration itself, not just government-sponsored multiculturalism, is a major cause of cultural balkanization in the U.S.

In support of this idea, she cites low rates of naturalization and English acquisition among Hispanics and recounts the shocking anti-American riot by 90,000 Hispanic soccer fans at the Gold Cup match in Los Angeles this past February. But these and similar indicators of Hispanic non-assimilation have been manifest for years. Why did Miss Chavez not draw the same conclusion from them earlier? In “What to Do About Immigration” [COMMENTARY, March 1995], she herself referred to a march by 70,000 mostly Hispanic demonstrators through downtown Los Angeles in which they denounced proposed cut-offs in public assistance for illegal aliens while waving Mexican flags and shouting “Viva la Raza.” Yet this event, shocking as it was to many Americans at the time, did not lead Miss Chavez to question the will and ability of Hispanics to adopt American cultural identity. Instead, she dismissed such concerns. “[N]early half of all Hispanics consider themselves white,” she wrote, and “by defining themselves as white, Hispanics are identifying with the majority.” Any failure of Hispanics to assimilate, she opined, was exclusively America’s fault: “[I]f we . . . cease to believe that being an American has any worth or meaning, we should not blame immigrants, most of whom entertain no such doubts.”

Miss Chavez has also used scare tactics aimed at silencing immigration reformers. Writing in the November 18, 1996 New York Times, she argued that Republican support for limiting welfare benefits to legal immigrants and denying welfare benefits to illegal aliens (measures that Miss Chavez herself had suggested in her March 1995 COMMENTARY article) had convinced Hispanic voters that the GOP is “anti-immigrant.” And she advised Republican congressional leaders “to resist those who want to continue the fight to cut back legal immigration.”

Given the above record, an intellectual accounting by Miss Chavez would seem to be in order. If the convert on the road to Damascus is to have any credibility in her future pronouncements on this issue (and I hope she will), then she needs to admit that she is in fact a convert, take responsibility for her past attacks on views and people she now seems to be agreeing with, and explain what has made her change her mind—if indeed she has changed her mind. The problem is not merely academic. In the absence of a principled retraction of her earlier statements, how can Miss Chavez expect Republicans to commit themselves to the restrictionist policy that she now says she favors, but that—just two years ago—she characterized as morally wrong and politically suicidal?

Lawrence Auster
New York City

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To the Editor:

Linda Chavez claims that there is a “complete absence of empirical evidence that [bilingual education] does any good at all.” This is not what the published research says. Those who have reviewed the research on the effectiveness of bilingual education can be divided into three groups: (1) those who have concluded that children in properly organized bilingual programs impressively and consistently out-perform those in English-only programs on tests of English-language development (the group of which I am a member); (2) those who have concluded that bilingual programs provide a slight advantage over all-English alternatives; and (3) those who have concluded that “structured immersion” is more effective than bilingual education.

While there is still controversy, there is also considerable empirical evidence showing that bilingual education is effective in helping children develop English literacy.

Miss Chavez claims that Hispanic parents are not enthusiastic about bilingual education. But Hispanics voted against California’s Proposition 227 by a two-to-one margin, and most polls show that they support bilingual education (see my review-paper in the Bilingual Research Journal, 1996). A poll that does not show this is the one conducted by Miss Chavez’s group, the Center for Equal Opportunity, which asked the following question:

In your opinion, should children of Hispanic background, living in the United States, be taught to read and write Spanish before they are taught English, or should they be taught English as soon as possible?

This question presupposes that learning to read and write in Spanish will not help children learn to read and write in English “as soon as possible.” But learning to read in the first language is a short-cut to second-language reading because it is easier to learn to read in a language you already understand, and literacy transfers rapidly across languages.

Finally, Miss Chavez claims that “As of 1990, three-quarters of Mexican immigrants who arrived in the 1980’s still spoke little or no English.” In 1990, I examined data on the English-language ability of immigrants from Mexico who arrived in the U.S. between 1980 and 1990 and who said they spoke a language other than English. Among those who became U.S. citizens, 53 percent said they spoke English “very well” or “well.” Among those who did not become U.S. citizens, 37 percent spoke English “very well” or “well.” For children ages five to seventeen, the respective figures were 75 percent and 58 percent.

Stephen Krashen
University of Southern
California
Los Angeles, California

_____________

 

Linda Chavez writes:

I suppose I should count it a testament to the levelheadedness of my own position to count among my critics those at both extremes of the debate over immigration and multiculturalism—Lawrence Auster and Stephen Krashen.

Despite Mr. Auster’s gloating eagerness to welcome me into the restrictionist camp, I remain an enthusiastic supporter of continued high levels of immigration to the United States. My support has never been unconditional, however. As I made clear in my March 1995 COMMENTARY article, “What to Do About Immigration,” I believe that the United States would be better off admitting fewer low-skilled immigrants, whatever their race or ethnic group, because they offer fewer economic benefits to the U.S. and are also likely to have a more difficult time assimilating. And I have consistently supported giving preference to immigrants who already know English, regardless of where they come from. But I have also warned in the past that because their homeland is so close and the number of their co-ethnics in this country so great, Mexican immigrants pose a greater challenge in terms of assimilation than other ethnic groups. Nonetheless, Mr. Auster is correct to point out that my anxiety on this account is growing. In this connection, the Mexican government’s recent action to encourage dual-nationality status for naturalized American citizens of Mexican origin as well as U.S.-born Americans of Mexican ancestry is indeed troubling.

For years I have cautioned that the policy of providing government services in Spanish as well as in English threatens the cultural assimilation of Hispanic immigrants, even as other factors—such as a strong work ethic, upward mobility, and a healthy family life—ensure that Hispanics are unlikely to become a permanent underclass. I was not surprised, however, by Mr. Krashen’s defense of bilingual education, coming as it does from the foremost proponent of the theory that children cannot learn to read and write properly in a second language until they become proficient at those tasks in their first language.

Mr. Krashen favors programs aimed at teaching youngsters in their native language for three to six years, or more. Unfortunately for him, and in spite of his assertion to the contrary, there is almost no empirical evidence that this method works. For example, Christine Rossell of Boston University examined every study of bilingual education that meets minimal standards of validation and concluded that only 7 percent of them show bilingual education to be better than doing nothing at all for children who do not know English, while 64 percent show bilingual education to be worse than doing nothing. And none of the studies examined by Rossell shows bilingual programs to be better than either English-as-a-second-Ianguage or English-immersion programs.

In closing, let me cite from a brief prepared by Keith Baker for the Center for Equal Opportunity in support of a court challenge to Proposition 227, the California ballot initiative banning bilingual education. Baker, a social scientist who oversaw the government’s largest longitudinal study of bilingual education, noted the following:

Bilingual-education programs that make extensive use of a language other than English typically harm limited-English-proficient children’s learning English, which makes it impossible for them to participate fully in American society.

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