Posted: October 17, 2017
illiam Voegeli’s “Diversity and Its Discontents” (Summer 2017) offers a thoughtful critique of much that is wrong with the latest incarnation of multiculturalism, the push for so-called diversity. But as a guide to what immigration policy is best for America and who should decide it, the essay comes up short. Voegeli paints with too broad a brush those who favor an expansive legal immigration policy as open-border types who would destroy any meaningful notion of national sovereignty. More disturbing, Voegeli and CRB more broadly in its various defenses of Trumpism over the last two years ignore the implicit racial appeals made in the name of restricting immigration.
I favor robust legal immigration to the United States, not because it is good for immigrants but because it is good for Americans. We are not a country like others. Our geography encompasses a huge land mass between two oceans and north of the Rio Grande that was largely unpopulated when, first, Spanish and then English colonists arrived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Our geographic boundaries expanded through exploration, conquest, and purchase; but our population, both in size and composition, is what it is today because of immigration in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries. Through much of our history, immigration was unrestricted—anyone with the heart and will to get here, to use Ronald Reagan’s formula, was free to do so. However, immigration has never been popular with the native population, and the efforts to restrict it have frequently been motivated by racial and religious animus, going back to colonial times.
Voegeli accepts that previous generations of immigrants assimilated, but cautions that “past performance is no guarantee of future results, as the brokerage firms’ ads say, particularly given that the biggest single source of immigration today is an adjacent nation.” He gets it wrong on several counts. First, the single largest source of new immigration today is China, followed by India, and only then Mexico, with net migration from the latter below zero since 2013; and Asians have outnumbered Hispanic immigrants overall among new arrivals since 2011. Second, there is no evidence that the current crop of immigrants and their children are assimilating more slowly than previous generations and a plethora of data demonstrating the opposite. Assimilation has always been slow and messy. Immigrants rarely fully assimilate, but their children and grandchildren do. Second-generation Americans universally speak English today, including those whose parents were born in Mexico; and among young adults 21-25 years old, second-generation Mexican Americans are about as likely as whites to be enrolled in post-secondary education, 24% compared with 27% for whites according to Current Population Survey data.
Voegeli summarily dismisses the economic arguments in favor of more immigration, including the benefits of admitting low-skilled immigrants, with an outdated and misleading anecdote about a meat processing plant in Greeley, Colorado. I have some experience in this field, not just as a public policy analyst but as a former director at Pilgrim’s Pride, formerly the largest poultry producer in the country. The description of long lines of native-born applicants willing to take jobs at a Swift meat plant after an immigration raid makes for nice imagery, but the facts on the ground are quite different. Pilgrim’s also experienced raids on its plants in Texas, despite being an early adopter of E-Verify, a voluntary federal program meant to root out non-legal job applicants. But neither Swift nor Pilgrim’s—now both owned by JBS, a Brazilian company—filled those jobs on a permanent basis with American workers, who rarely lasted more than a few weeks, despite better pay. Swift’s Greeley plant now employs mostly Somali refugees—not working-class whites or Mexican Americans who eschew such jobs—and Pilgrim’s ended up in bankruptcy before being bought by JBS.
Last, and most important, current efforts to restrict immigration aren’t being driven by economic factors but cultural fears. The cover of the CRB’s Summer issue, in which Voegeli’s essay appeared, depicts a bug-eyed Uncle Sam surrounded by a horde of sombrero-wearing Mexicans; Asians in coolie hats; turbaned, veiled, and saber-wielding Middle Easterners; a bearded, skull-capped Jew; and a robed Buddhist monk. The image is meant to convey the strangeness—and racial difference—of immigrants, and in the case of Arabs, the danger they pose. The image was repugnant and more suited to a cartoon on some racist website than a respected intellectual journal. A more accurate depiction would have shown new immigrants holding college diplomas (41% in 2013 compared with 30% of all Americans) or displaying professional graduate degrees (18% to 11% for Americans), as well as less educated immigrants doing difficult, dirty jobs that Americans largely shun.
All immigrants are, by definition, foreign—but they don’t threaten American culture today any more than they did in 1848 or 1913—arguably less so. “A high rate of immigration jeopardizes social cohesion, on which republics are more dependent that any other regime,” Voegeli writes. Tell that to the 200,000 German and the 150,000 Irish immigrants who fought to save the Republic in the Civil War, or to the sons of Italian, Jewish, Polish, and Mexican immigrants who stormed the beaches of Normandy and Anzio, or the more than half million current veterans and 80,000 immigrants who joined the military between 1999 and 2010. Does America have the right to admit and exclude people depending on who, in Voegeli’s words, are “most conducive to the existing citizenry’s security, prosperity, domestic tranquility, and social cohesion”? Yes. But race, color, or religion should never be the basis for making immigration policy. We’ve gone down that path before in American history, to our dishonor. Nor should we be worried that too many immigrants are coming now, regardless of where they come from. The number of newly arrived immigrants to the United States peaked in 2005 and has been declining ever since. The U.S. population is rapidly aging and, but for immigrants and their offspring, would be declining as well with white birthrates now below replacement level. Immigrants are our future as well as our past. By all means, we can debate our current immigration policy—which is outdated and should be reformed. But not on the basis of fear, misinformation, and prejudice.
Center for Equal Opportunity
Falls Church, VA
William Voegeli replies:
In “Diversity and Its Discontents,” I argued that decent and reasonable people can hold different opinions about how restrictive American immigration policy ought to be. To establish that commonsensical proposition, it was necessary to d