Immigration and America’s Failure of Nerve

How a nation abandoned the principles and habits that made immigration work for it in the past.

brThe number of unaccompanied children from Central America into the U.S. has reached 47,000 since October, and may hit 90,000 by the end of this year. The official story is that they are fleeing drug-gang mayhem and political violence in their home countries, and so are refugees and asylum-seekers. But the Guatemalan ambassador has said they are seeking economic opportunity and the “American dream.” It’s hard, however, not to see a connection with Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Arrivals Program, which defers deportation for illegal aliens who are minors. Obama enacted by executive fiat––and just recently extended for 2 years––this open invitation to illegal minors when Congress proved unwilling to pass the Dream Act legislation.

This sudden surge of illegal immigrants couldn’t help but remind me of Jean Raspail’s 1973 dystopian novel The Camp of the Saints. In the story millions of impoverished Third World people, starting in India, highjack ships and begin sailing to the south of France. Once they land they swarm the rich Côte d’Azur while the French flee in panic to the north. Most interesting are Raspail’s descriptions of why this mass invasion happened––as the inevitable suicidal response of a people who no longer believe in their own civilization’s ideals or principles. The French consul in India, for example, chastising the Catholic bishop who approves of the mass immigration and says he is proud to be “bearing witness,” retorts, “Bearing witness to what? To your faith? Your religion? To your Christian civilization? Oh no, none of that! Bearing witness against yourselves, like the anti-Western cynics you’ve become. Do you think the poor devils that flock to your side aren’t any the wiser? Nonsense! They see right through you. For them, white skin means weak convictions. They know how weak yours are, they know you’ve given in.”

For nearly 3 decades we have undergone a slow-motion version of Raspail’s parable. In 1969 there were an estimated half a million illegal immigrants in the U.S.; today the low-end estimate is 11,500,000. There are many explanations for this increase. Perverse incentives such as the 1986 amnesty and Obama’s Deferred Action for Arrivals Program, the need for cheap workers for jobs Americans don’t want to do, and the Democrats’ hunger for political clients all explain this increase. But as always, bad policies are created by bad ideas. The problems of immigration, whether legal or illegal, are in part created, and definitely worsened, by the erosion of national and civilizational identity and pride that Raspail dramatizes in his novel.

As with the Europeans in Raspail’s story, these problems reflect a civilizational failure of nerve. We Americans enjoy the material and cultural capital of our ancestors even as we embrace a fashionable self-loathing and guilt over presumed Western crimes like imperialism, colonialism, and racism. No longer believing that our political, social, and cultural orders are better than the alternatives, we too have “given in,” surrendered to the specious cultural relativism that proclaims all cultures equally valuable even as it demonizes our own as the font of all oppression and injustice. As a result, we have abandoned the principles and habits that made immigration work in the past.

Around the turn of the 20th century America was inundated with millions of immigrants from countries that many Americans believed were alien to our cultural and political order, and yet most successfully assimilated and enriched their new homes. Some 30 million immigrants entered the U.S. between 1870 and 1930, most of them Slavs, Italians, and Jews from Eastern Europe. By 1890 15% of Americans were foreign born, compared to 13% today. This admission of what some Americans considered people alien to the Northern European ethnic foundations of the country led to the Emergency Quota Law of 1921. This bill limited the number of immigrants to 350,000 and set nationality quotas, with immigration from a country capped at 3% of the population of that nationality based on the 1910 census. The effect, given the ethnic origins of the majority of Americans in countries like England and Germany, was to reduce immigration from eastern and southern Europe in favor of immigrants from Northern Europe.

This obsession with race and ethnicity, which reflected the Darwinian and Progressive racist “scientific consensus” of the 1920s that also created the eugenics movement, confused and distorted the issue of immigration. For as the descendants of that great wave of immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries show, race or ethnicity was not as important as culture. For just as anybody can learn any language, any human can learn to live by the mores, customs, principles, and laws of any culture. My maternal grandparents were some of those southern Italians that many Americans thought were alien invaders unfit to be Americans. My grandfather came through Ellis Island in 1906, and was officially designated by the U.S. government as an illiterate peasant. Yet all his progeny are unmistakably American, indistinguishable from their compatriots descended from Northern Europe.

The difference between then and now is that we have adopted a variation of 1920s racialist ideology––the multicultural identity politics that demonizes assimilation to American identity while it demands reparations for historical crimes against and public celebrations of immigrant cultures as superior to American. Back in my grandparents’ day things were different. Immigrants were expected to work at becoming Americans, which meant learning English, American political principles and virtues, American history and heroes, and American customs and mores. Whatever their private beliefs and practices, in their role as citizens immigrants had to acknowledge that America was not just different from their homes countries, but in some crucial respects––political freedom and economic opportunity, to name a few–– superior. Otherwise, why did they make the difficult and traumatic journey to America?

To speak this way now, however, is to be called xenophobic, jingoistic, or racist. Being proud of your country is bad form for native-born Americans, so why should immigrants be expected to prefer their new home to their old? As victims of our crimes, they deserve for us to cater to their cultures, instead of them adjusting to America’s. And so we come back to the central pathology underlying not just immigration but much of our foreign policy as well––too many of our elites doubt the goodness of America, sneer at any claims of its superiority, and are guilty over its alleged global crimes and oppression. We have institutionalized in our popular culture, media, and schools a failure of nerve that saps our cultural confidence and leaves us unable to defend our way of life and demand that those who come here legally or otherwise embrace our political ideals and social mores. As a result, we ignore our own immigration laws, and contemplate yet another blanket amnesty that would spur even more illegal immigration.

Any sort of immigration cannot work in these conditions. Indeed, millions of immigrants, including illegal ones, are assimilating and becoming Americans all on their own, without the cultural support our public institutions used to give. The problem is, millions more aren’t, without suffering any consequences, including deportation if they are here illegally. Meanwhile politicians from both parties keep pushing “immigration reform,” i.e. amnesty, without addressing the critical question of how are we going to sort out and help those who have shown they want to become Americans, from those who prefer to keep their old identities no matter how incompatible or with, or even hostile to, America’s political and social order. Until we answer that crucial question, which will require a renewed confidence in what it means to be an American and a restored willingness to enforce that vision, illegal immigration will remain a festering problem.

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