A 'Nation of Immigrants' no More

GEORGE F. WILL

July 29, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Los Angeles. -- Nativism, a noun denoting some nasty history, is now an epithet distorting debate about this nation's policy regarding immigration.

Nativism, meaning irrational and mean-spirited partiality toward native-born people and hostility toward immigrants, is as old as the Republic. Before the end of the 18th century German immigrants were stigmatized as an unassimilable ethnic group because of their language and Catholicism. Religious and racial prejudice greeted, among others, Irish immigrants on the East Coast and Chinese on the West Coast.

But xenophobia and greediness -- the desire to slam shut the golden door -- do not explain all or even most of today's opposition to current immigration policies, particularly here. America is, as the Economist magazine says, ''the only First-World country that shares a 2,000-mile border with the Third World . . . dirt roads up against bright lights.'' And the most luring lights are those of Southern California.

In the 1980s about 9 million people immigrated to the United States legally, another 2 million illegally. Today one-third of all immigrants come to California, where the population, currently 31.5 million, rose by 570,000 last year and is expected to rise another 600,000 this year. Most of the growth is from immigration from Mexico, Central America, Asia, or from births to recent immigrants.

Concern about immigration is approaching monomania in this state where the recession has approached the depths of a depression. Here, as elsewhere, immigration is discussed first, and too much, as an economic issue.

The argument about immigration -- what kind of people should come, and in what quantities -- is actually two arguments. One is TC economic, but the more important and interesting one is cultural.

The economic argument concerns immigration's costs. Is immigration economically injurious? Or do immigrants constitute a net addition to the nation's wealth -- if not immediately and in every location, at least over time and to society generally?

Resolution of this argument requires complex calculations that quantify, among many other variables, the economic value of the infusion of entrepreneurial energy from those who travel sometimes 10,000 miles in search of entry-level American jobs. Such industrious immigrants may, or may not, have a depressing effect on some American wages; if so, that may, or may not, make American industry more suited to an increasingly competitive global economy.

Many immigrants, particularly very new ones, cost more in welfare, health and educational services than they pay in taxes. (All immigrants pay sales taxes; many pay income taxes.) However, their economic activity -- earning and spending -- makes them, I believe, substantial net contributors to national wealth. (Twenty-five percent of immigrants in the 1980s had college degrees.) But that positive economic fact does not settle the argument about the net effect of, and proper policy concerning, immigration.

The cultural argument about immigration begins with this fact: Immigration at the end of this century occurs in a social context different in two crucial ways from the context at the beginning of the century.

Today immigrants are received into a welfare culture that encourages an entitlement mentality. That mentality weakens the mainspring of individual striving for upward mobility. A generous welfare state such as the United States, and California especially, can be a ''magnet'' for migrants. To the extent that the welfare culture has such enervating effects, the argument for immigration as a source of social invigoration fails.

The second difference in the context of immigration, another difference that makes problematic the tradition of liberality regarding immigration, is the weakening of the ideal of assimilation. But it is unclear the extent to which immigrants themselves are hostile to or even ambivalent about assimilation.

The anti-assimilationist impulse may emanate primarily from those native-born intellectuals who believe America is a sick, racist, sexist, exploitative, oppressive, patriarchal, etc. society into which no self- respecting person would wish to assimilate. Furthermore, say some intellectuals, ''diversity'' is an inherent good: the more the better because it is good to weaken a sick community's sense of community. In addition, individual ''authenticity'' requires adherence to ethnic identity. And ethnicity should be the basis of a civic life built around group rights and entitlements. (Here is an immigration policy: for every 10 immigrants, deport an unhappy tenured professor.)

Such home-grown intellectual fruit can poison the debate about immigration, and perhaps can spoil immigrants. Debate should begin with this premise: America is not just an economy; it is more than an arena for wealth-creation. It is a culture. The high rate of immigration since 1960, combined with the high fertility rate of immigrants relative to that of native-born Americans, is producing rapid change in the nation's ethnic and cultural balance.

Peter Brimelow, a contributing editor of National Review and senior editor of Forbes, says, ''The onus should not be on the critics of current policy to explain their motives. Instead, supporters of current policy must explain why they wish to transform the American nation as it had evolved by 1965.''

True. And accusations of ''nativism'' are not explanations.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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