Too Much Like Us

August 11, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

SAN DIEGO — San Diego. -- Here, hard by Mexico, and with the surf's concussions rhythmically reminding natives of the ocean across which Asian immigrants now come as Europeans once did across the Atlantic, the debate about immigration rages. It is silting up with misunderstandings, according to Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

He believes one of today's problems may be too much rather than too little ''assimilation.'' Certainly the nightmare of many immigrant parents is that their children are becoming too much ''like us'' -- like the native populations they are closest to.

The alleged failure of, or resistance to, assimilation is the basis of the cultural, as distinct from the economic, criticism of current immigration. But Mr. Cornelius asks, suppose today's immigrants were importing a dangerous culture value -- say, advocacy of authoritarian government.

Or, more pointedly, he says: Suppose native-born Americans today had the 1960 rate of illegitimate births and immigrants were importing the soaring illegitimacy rates that native-born Americans now have (68 percent for African-Americans, 30 percent for society as a whole). Then the cultural critique of immigration would be understandable. But one problem concerning today's immigration, says Mr. Cornelius, ''is with domestic minorities,'' a conclusion supported by other research on the other side of the continent, among Haitian and other immigrants in Miami.

In their essay, ''Should Immigrants Assimilate?'' in The Public Interest, Alejandro Portes of Johns Hopkins and Min Zhou of Louisiana State University note that children of non-white immigrants usually live at close quarters with inner-city minority youths who have an ''adversarial stance'' toward the white mainstream culture. And ''joining those native circles to which they do have access may prove a ticket to permanent subordination and disadvantage.'' The subculture of marginalized native-born youths often instills ''skepticism about the value of education as a vehicle for advancement, a message that directly contradicts that from immigrant parents.''

Mr. Cornelius concurs. ''Pick your indicator,'' he says. School dropout rates? Involvement in gangs? Indicators are apt to become worse as ''assimilation'' of young inner-city immigrants becomes ''better.'' He says America's aversion to immigration rises as the ''first generation effect'' wanes among immigrants. That effect is the shaping of young people by conservative families with faith in education and the work ethic. Indeed, immigrant parents in cities are terrified of what their children are apt to learn at school -- sex, drugs, petty crime.

The idea that millions of immigrant parents are resisting assimilation is, Dr. Cornelius says, a myth. ''Cultural maintenance'' of the immigrants' old identity is more apt to be a goal of Anglo intellectuals than of immigrants. ''Lack of English,'' he says, ''is the single most important factor working against improvement of immigrants' economic condition -- and they know it.''

Immigrant parents who remain monolingual do so primarily for two reasons. Working dawn to dusk, they are too exhausted to attend ''ESL'' -- English as a second language -- classes. And there is an acute shortage of such classes.

The rising aversion to immigration masks Americans' ambivalence about immigration, ambivalence rooted in economic rather than cultural calculations. There always will be, Mr. Cornelius says, jobs that ''Americans do not raise their kids to do.'' It is rare to see an Anglo working in a car wash. Chances are, a non-Anglo will serve you in a Southern California restaurant.

There are similar realities in other industrial nations. Japan's 300,000 illegal immigrants are less than 0.5 percent of the work force but are indispensable to Japan's economy because Japanese parents, even more than American parents, do not want their children performing some work that society wants performed. In Spain child care is done largely by Dominicans and Peruvians.

As America's population ages, the shortage of entry-level workers, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, will deepen America's ambivalence about immigration. But Mr. Cornelius argues that if by ''effective control'' of immigration we mean equilibrium between the supply of immigrants and the demand for their labor, we may have that now. There may be places (e.g. Los Angeles) and sectors (e.g. agriculture) where equilibrium does not exist, but nationally there is no large pool of unemployed immigrant labor.

Americans, says Mr. Cornelius, would prefer that immigrants do their jobs and then disappear at the end of the day. But they won't, and Americans won't do without the work the immigrants do. So Americans, conflicted and with slightly guilty consciences about immigration, will, he says, continue to be wrong -- sometimes willfully -- about facts and their inferences from them.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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