Immigration dilemmas.

Reading between the lines.
June 4 2004 1:45 PM

Identity Crisis

Why we shouldn't worry about Mexican immigration.

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It is not politically correct today to say that America is fundamentally a Protestant country, or that a specific form of religion is critical to its success as a democracy. Yet as historical facts, these statements are undoubtedly true, and they are the premise of Who Are We?, Samuel Huntington's new book. The United States, he argues, is a liberal democracy based on certain universal political principles regarding liberty and equality, summed up traditionally as the American Creed. But the country's success as a free and prosperous democratic society was not due simply to the goodness of these principles or the strength of America's formal institutions. There was a crucial supplement: cultural values that Huntington describes as "Anglo-Protestant." Had America been settled by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics rather than British Protestants, it would not have been the United States we know, but more like Quebec or Mexico.

Huntington is following in the path of innumerable observers of the United States, from Tocqueville and Bryce to Louis Hartz, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Huntington himself in earlier books like his 1981 work American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. All of these authors have noted that the dissident, sectarian nature of the Protestantism transplanted to North America was critical to shaping American values like individualism, antistatism, tolerance, moralism, the work ethic, the propensity for voluntary association, and a host of other informal habits and customs that augment our Constitution and legal system. Who Are We? is also perfectly consistent with Huntington's previous best seller, The Clash of Civilizations, in arguing that liberal democracy is less a universalistic system for organizing political life than an outgrowth of a certain northern European Christian culture, the appeal and feasibility of which will be limited in other cultural settings.

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Huntington goes on to argue that globalization and immigration are threats to that traditional American identity. In his view, the American elite, from corporate executives to professors to journalists, sees itself as cosmopolitan, secular, and attached to the principle of diversity as an end in itself. That elite no longer feels emotionally attached to America and is increasingly out of touch with the vast majority of non-elite Americans who remain patriotic, morally conservative, and Christian—indeed, increasingly so as the Fourth Great Awakening unfolds at the beginning of the 21st century.

On no issue are elites and ordinary Americans further apart than on immigration, and Huntington takes the latter's concerns about the threat posed by Mexican immigration very seriously. This is because of the numbers involved (almost 8 million people in 2000, or 27 percent of the total immigrant population), the concentration of Mexican immigrants in a few Southwestern states and cities, and the proximity of their country of origin. The wave has occurred, moreover, at a time when American elites have lost confidence in their own cultural values and are no longer willing to use the public school system to assimilate these new immigrants to Anglo-Protestant culture. Huntington worries that unchecked immigration will sow the seeds of a later backlash, and may even lead one day to something new in the American experience, an ethnolinguistic minority with strong ties to a neighboring country that could potentially make territorial claims on much of the Southwest.

I am glad that a scholar like Huntington has raised these issues, since they deserve serious discussion and should not be left to the likes of Pat Buchanan and worse to promote. Huntington poses some real questions about whether the large Mexican immigrant population will assimilate as other immigrant groups have done before them. The most troubling statistics are those showing them moving up the socioeconomic ladder more slowly in the third generation than other groups have. He is right that "culture matters" (the title of one of his previous books), and he is right that the thoughtless promotion of multiculturalism and identity politics threatens important American values. But his book, ironically, offers grist for a rather different perspective on the problem: Who Are We? suggests that the more serious threat to American culture comes perhaps from its own internal contradictions than from foreigners.

Let's begin with the question of who the true bearers of "Anglo-Protestant" values are. For all his emphasis on religion, Huntington does not approach the question from the standpoint of a believer who thinks Protestant values are important because they are inherently true, but rather because they lead to good effects like democracy or development. It thus becomes clear that "Anglo-Protestant" values can and have become deracinated from their religious and ethnic roots. His chapter describing "core" Anglo-Protestant values ends up focusing almost entirely on the work ethic: "from the beginning," he writes, "America's religion has been the religion of work." But who in today's world works hard? Certainly not contemporary Europeans with their six-week vacations. The real Protestants are those Korean grocery-store owners, or Indian entrepreneurs, or Taiwanese engineers, or Russian cab drivers working two or three jobs in America's free and relatively unregulated labor market. I lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, and remember passing groups of Chicanos gathered at certain intersections at 7 a.m. waiting for work as day laborers. No lack of a work ethic here: That's why Hispanics have pushed native-born African-Americans out of low-skill jobs in virtually every city where they compete head-to-head.

The actual Anglo-Protestants, on the other hand, are a complex group. The old mainline Protestant denominations—Congregationalist, Anglican, and Presbyterian—were at the forefront of all of the liberal causes like multiculturalism and affirmative action that Huntington dislikes. There are still country club WASPs around, but their cultural hegemony in elite institutions from Wall Street to the Ivy League came to an end about 50 years ago. And then there are the descendants of the Scotch-Irish, heirs to what Walter Mead calls the Jacksonian tradition in American politics, who have settled in a band stretching from the Carolinas through the Bible Belt to Southern California. This group ranks relatively low among identifiable American ethnic groups, immigrant and native, in terms of income, education, and other measures of socioeconomic status.

There are a number of grounds for thinking that the United States will assimilate Hispanic immigrants just as it has earlier ethnic groups. Most important is the fact that they are Christian—either Catholic or, to an increasing degree, Evangelical Protestant. When controlling for socioeconomic status, they have stronger traditional family values than their native-born counterparts. This means that culturally, today's Mexican immigrants are much less distant from mainstream "Anglos" than were, say, the southern Italian immigrants or Eastern European Jews from mainstream WASPs at the beginning of the 20th century. Their rates of second- and third-generation intermarriage are much closer to those of other European groups than for African-Americans. And, from Gen. Ricardo Sanchez on down, they are serving honorably today in the U.S. armed forces in numbers disproportionate to their place in the overall population.

The problem, as Alejandro Portes, a professor of sociology and immigration studies at Princeton, has pointed out, is not that Mexican and other Latino immigrants come with the wrong values, but rather that they are corrupted by American practices. Many young Hispanics are absorbed into the underclass culture of American inner cities, which has then re-exported gang violence back to Mexico and Central America; or else their middle-class leaders have absorbed the American post-civil rights era sense of victimization and entitlement. There is a sharp divide between elites—organizations like the National Council of La Raza, or the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund—and the general population of Hispanic immigrants. The latter, overall, tend to be socially conservative, want to learn English and assimilate into the American mainstream, and were even supportive initially of California's Proposition 187 (denying benefits to illegal immigrants) and 227 (ending bilingualism in public education).

Who Are We? puzzlingly makes no concrete policy recommendations concerning levels of immigration, qualifications for legal admission, means of enforcing rules against illegal immigrants, and the like. It is thus very hard to know whether Huntington would support something as drastic as the 1924 cutoff of non-Western European immigration. It is hard to believe that such a policy would be politically feasible today, given the changes in technology, communications, economics, and demography that have been driving migration not just in the United States but all over the world. If it is the case that high levels of immigration are inevitable for developed societies, then what we need to do is to shift the focus from immigration per se to the issue of assimilation—something that most conservative supporters of immigration like John Miller, Tamar Jacoby, Ron Unz, and Michael Barone have long argued.

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