Mexifornia by Victor Davis Hanson
Mexifornia: A State of Becoming
by Victor Davis Hanson
Encounter. 150 pp. $21.95
Immigration is changing the nation, and nowhere more rapidly than in California. My state is home to about 40 percent of all immigrants, half of whom are from Mexico. Or at least half of the legal ones are from Mexico: since we have no idea how many illegal immigrants have also arrived, the best we can say is that about ten million Mexicans live in California. Even that number involves a lot of guesswork; many people born in Mexico do not list themselves as such on census returns, and many children of Mexican parents intermarry with people born here. Altogether, it is likely that by 2050, one-half of the population of California will be Mexican; in Los Angeles, something like half already are.
But what does it mean to say that immigration is changing the nation? As Victor Davis Hanson is well aware, we have had waves of immigration—from England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Asia, and Eastern Europe, to say nothing of the coerced immigration of black slaves from Africa. Nevertheless, the newest wave, Hanson suggests in Mexifornia, is quite different.
Unlike previous immigrations, Hispanic and especially Mexican immigration is a continuous, never-ending process. Mexicans pour across our 2,000-mile-long southern border not simply because it is very difficult to guard but also because life in Mexico has been miserable for the great majority of people for many generations and is likely to remain so for generations to come. Whereas we had a burst of English immigration due to political and religious motives, Irish and German immigration for (relatively) short-lived economic reasons, Jewish immigration on account of economic and religious oppression alike, we now have Mexican immigration because, for the better part of a century, conditions for Mexicans in Mexico have been very poor.
Hanson’s book is an effort not only to state these facts baldly but to argue that the future of California, and by implication of the country as a whole, is in the hands of Americans who are not making the right decisions. The right decision, he says, would be to maintain our traditional commitment to assimilation. For two centuries, we turned immigrants into Americans; whatever their family heritage or religious orientation, they became people who spoke English, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, worked hard in school, learned American history, accepted American culture, and joined the American workforce.
But no longer. Instead, according to Hanson, we have experimented with all sorts of unworkable strategies—bilingual education, revisionist history, affirmative action, generous welfare programs—many of which are aimed not at assimilation but at encouraging a multicultural or separatist identity. In California, this anti-assimilationist position has been propagated by academics who teach courses in the field of “Chicano studies” and by ethnic separatists who defend “La Raza,” arguing that California is a racist state, stolen from Mexico. The result, Hanson charges, has been to make progress less, not more, likely for young Mexicans; they are being victimized by a culture that praises the misery they have escaped and criticizes the opportunities America offers.
The strength of this book lies in the unique perspective Hanson brings to his material. To most readers of this magazine he is surely known primarily as a military historian with a passionate interest in the success of our war against terrorism. But he also happens to be a professor of classics at a campus of California State University and, along with his family, to manage a raisin farm in Selma, an agricultural town in the Central Valley where Mexicans are a majority. Hanson has lived his whole life with Mexicans: youngsters with whom he went to school, workers his farm has employed, undergraduates to whom he has taught Latin, his own Mexican-American nephews, nieces, and sisters-in-law. He admires his Mexican relatives and friends, despairs over crime and disease in the Mexican community, is encouraged by his Mexican students, and worries about Mexicans who take courses in identity politics instead of in real subjects.
Unfortunately, much as I admire Hanson as a skilled writer and an active participant, and much as I am sympathetic to a great deal of what he has to say, this volume is less a book than an expanded magazine article (which is how it originated). It has no footnotes, no references, no index, and almost no discussion of the substantial literature that already exists on the patterns, economics, and demographics of Mexican immigration. You will certainly learn from it that elite thinking about immigration is muddled, misguided, and possibly harmful. But if you want to learn more about what facilitates and what prevents upward social mobility for Mexican immigrants, you will have to look elsewhere.
Hanson does show what some Mexicans have achieved in this country and what many others have failed to achieve, and he has a balanced view of both progress and retrogression, making his argument rest carefully—if precariously—on his own experience. But he does not explain why some immigrants become assimilated and others do not, nor does he measure whether social mobility has gone up or down in the last half-century and, if it has gone down (as I suspect it has), why.
Similarly, when he derides, I think correctly, the more radical enthusiasts of identity politics, Hanson makes no mention of the fact that, by sizable popular majorities, California has approved new laws discouraging bilingual education and banning racial and ethnic preferences. He does not say much about how the state’s new commitment to learning English has helped thousands of immigrant students or explain why, if our universities cannot be trusted, the voters can be. On the question of a common culture, he acknowledges that on the popular level the American media do rapidly draw almost everyone into a shared national experience regardless of particular background, but then he leaves us worrying that, somehow, Mexicans will lose out.
The central issue raised by Mexifornia is whether Mexican-Americans should be viewed as an ethnic group aspiring for assimilation or a racial group maintaining a separate identity. On this subject, no better book exists than Peter Skerry’s Mexican-Americans: The Ambivalent Minority (1993). On the basis of detailed empirical study, Skerry demonstrates how most Mexican-Americans have struggled with the demands of daily life even as their elites have tried to define them as a racial group for whom separate identity is more important than material progress. I wish Hanson had taken up Skerry’s argument, showing whether and how it works itself out in his classroom and among his neighbors.
Then there is the complicated question of upward mobility. At one time, scholars held that recent immigrants were like older ones, talented and energetic people who soon cashed in on the opportunities of life in America. But that has changed. The economist George Borjas of Harvard has produced evidence suggesting that the continuing flood of Mexican immigrants has depressed the wages of native-born blue-collar workers while also preventing the immigrants themselves from catching up. As recently as 1970, Borjas contends, immigrant workers earned about as much as native workers, but by 1998 immigrant income had fallen to only three-fourths of native income.
Moreover, as Christopher Jencks has pointed out, this relative decline in immigrant income has occurred even though American employers like Mexican workers—they may not speak much English, but they work harder and more dependably than native workers in the same jobs. The bottom line is that the economic gap between immigrants and native workers is wider today than it was a century ago. One grim measure of this, according to Jencks, is that California now has the lowest rate of home ownership in the nation.
The way immigrants are treated by others is not the whole story. Cultural factors are at work as well. Although the strong familial ties of Mexican immigrants serve to keep down the rate of illegitimate births, they also reduce the freedom given to children, especially girls, to make progress on their own. The lure of nearby Mexico contributes in another way to retarding assimilation: only a little over one-fifth of Mexican immigrants become American citizens, as compared with half of all Asians.
Finally, on the issue of ethnic identity, there does seem little doubt that politicized universities can make matters worse. Skerry reminds us of the “Diversity Project” at the University of California at Berkeley, which studied how undergraduates experience “ethnic and racial diversity on campus.” What it found was “racialization,” a process through which human connections once defined in personal terms are transformed into racial ones. You may graduate from high school as a young American, but college teaches you to be a Chicano instead.
Hanson writes movingly about the legions of Mexican immigrants who grow up under the idea that “so-called Chicanos can find parity with whites only through government coercion, income redistribution, and racial chauvinism, rather than by the very hard work of traditional education that once ensured that Mexican kids knew as much about math and science as members of any other ethnic group.” This change leaves young Mexicans in “a destructive in-betweenness, often the pawns of those who play the parlor game of identity politics.”
This is not just a problem for liberals. Many conservatives routinely condemn any effort at maintaining a separate culture, forgetting, I think, the lesson of Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted (1951): namely, that almost every immigrant develops an ethnic identity just by being here and by living among both fellow immigrants and American strangers. Nor is identity politics always wrong; rather, as Skerry points out, it is wrong when the commitment to one’s racial or ethnic identity dominates every other perspective one brings to bear on the world, especially concerning such matters as progress, income, family, opportunity, and sociability. As for university professors who agitate in their courses for returning California to Mexican control—Hanson seems to have run into a lot of them—it would be interesting to figure out just how important such courses are in the lives of the students who take them.
Addressing what should be done about all of this, Hanson proposes that the nation “adopt sweeping restrictions on immigration and put an end to separatist ideology along with the two-tier legal system for illegal aliens.” How exactly we are to enforce such “sweeping restrictions” is a tough question. No less hard is how we are to “put an end” to the postmodernist commitment to extreme forms of identity politics. And still another puzzle is whether the imported familial culture of poor, rural Mexicans can be expected to adapt to America as rapidly as the urban culture of Asians and Europeans. It would have been helpful if Hanson had developed these ideas; perhaps in his next book?