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Immigration has been a hot issue for years, sometimes boiling, sometimes simmering on the back burner. Now it’s heating up again, thanks in part to President George W. Bush’s latest proposal for a new “temporary worker” program, but thanks also to a controversial new book by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. There are, roughly speaking, three stances on immigration: The first is that having lots of immigrants is not a problem for the United States and that we should not worry much about their assimilation. The second is that having lots of immigrants is not a problem, but only if we have sound policies that encourage assimilation. And the third is that having lots of immigrants is a problem, that they are unlikely to be assimilated very well, and that, therefore, we need to take decisive steps to cut back on their numbers. The first camp is largely liberal, I’m in the second, and Huntington is apparently in the third — at least when it comes to Mexicans, the largest single group of immigrants today. Huntington’s thesis (which was also previewed in a hotly debated article in the March/ April issue of Foreign Policy magazine) is that America’s identity — and its success — is rooted in “Anglo-Protestant culture.” And the problem, as Huntington sees it, is that if huge numbers of people who lack that culture are admitted, then that identity will be changed — and American political, economic, and cultural success will be jeopardized. WHEN CULTURES CLASH The crux of Huntington’s book is Page 254, where he lists the differences between Mexican/Catholic culture and American/Protestant culture. According to the experts that he cites (all themselves apparently Hispanic), Mexicans generally (1) are less meticulous and prompt, and more lackadaisical, in their work; (2) are more fatalistic and, thus, less proactive in their planning for the future, with an attendant lack of initiative, self-reliance, and ambition; (3) place less weight on education; (4) mistrust those outside the family; and (5) accept poverty as a condition of salvation. Now, the fact that these characteristics confirm an unflattering stereotype is not to say that they may not, in the aggregate, contain some truth. It is the frequent veracity buried in stereotypes that makes them so cruel. Nor are these characteristics necessarily or at least entirely unflattering, if you look at them the right way. Thus, Mexicans might characterize their culture as less materialistic and money-grubbing, more relaxed and less frantic, more family-oriented, and more spiritual. This kind of cultural clash is not new: It’s similar to our own indigenous Yankee versus Southerner. The United States is, no doubt about it, a free-market, highly individualistic society where those who study and work hard are much more likely to succeed than those who don’t. Of course, there are many sluggards who somehow become (or, more likely, stay) rich, and many conscientious folks who never catch a break and whose only luck seems to be bad. Nonetheless, it cannot be seriously disputed that the cultural dichotomy set out above will favor the stereotypical Yankee or gringo over the stereotypical Southerner or Mexican, at least in terms of worldly success. There is a price for being soulful. On the other hand, those Mexicans who have left home and often family to cross the border, in some cases literally risking their lives, have by that very fact shown rather decisively that they are not bound by this stereotype. A relaxed work ethic, a reluctance to plan, or an acceptance of poverty do not burden these people. An Asian friend who lives in Los Angeles makes the observation that the panhandlers downtown are inevitably black or white; the Latinos set up a stand and sell oranges. As Michael Barone notes in his 2001 book, The New Americans, “The Hispanic male workforce participation is 80 percent, the highest of any measured group.” And the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that Mexican males outparticipate Hispanic males generally. True, these laborers may still place less weight than do most longtime Americans on formal education and may — relatedly — put familial loyalty ahead of individual considerations to such a degree that they forgo college, or even finishing high school, in order to go to work. Indeed, the data seem to bear this out. This tendency helped prompt Barone to draw parallels between Latino immigrants today and Italian immigrants of yesteryear. Because American success is so closely tied to education, addressing this problem is a legitimate priority for Mexican-Americans — but the Italian example suggests that it is hardly insurmountable. HOW DO WE CHOOSE? Whether one agrees with Huntington’s basic conclusions or not, the reader of Who Are We? is bound to be frustrated with his lack of specific policy guidance. He suggests that too many Mexican immigrants are coming to the United States, but he does not explain how to calculate the right number, or how to enforce it once calculated, or how to determine precisely who should get in and who shouldn’t. The first two omissions might be excused as too nitty-gritty for his big-picture approach, but the latter highlights a significant flaw in his argument. It is consistent with neither realism nor idealism to think that the United States will today enact policies that restrict immigration on the basis of religion, race, or ethnicity. Those days are past. It would also be odd were Huntington to support such policies, when elsewhere in his book he rightly criticizes the use of racial and ethnic preferences in the affirmative action context. How can it be right to discriminate among people on the basis of race or ethnicity before they enter the United States, but wrong afterward? The better approach is to decide what characteristics we would prefer individual immigrants to have, and then to prefer those individual immigrants. For instance, we might prefer immigrants who speak English, and if so it would be appropriate to weigh this factor. But there is no reason to assume that no Mexican speaks English, or that all Europeans do. Now, this preference will undoubtedly have a disparate impact on immigrants from some nations, but that ought to be unobjectionable. The parallels with employment discrimination law are obvious. An employer who wants to hire only English-fluent employees is not allowed to assume that anyone with a Latino surname is nonfluent. On the other hand, if English fluency is necessary for the job, the fact that his policy has a disparate impact on Latinos does not make it illegal. Another, not mutually exclusive, approach is to admit immigrants who lack some desirable characteristics, but to push them to acquire those characteristics afterward: That’s how we define successful assimilation. But what are these characteristics, exactly? Put it this way: What exactly are people worried about now when they say that the country is going to hell? Set aside complaints from those who look down on Caribbean music or Asian cuisine. Those are not the things that worry thoughtful people like Huntington. The real worries are about people’s behavior. There would be few concerns if everyone followed these 10 simple rules for living in a multiethnic America: • Don’t disparage anyone else’s race or ethnicity. • Don’t hold historical grudges. • Be polite to all. • Respect women. • Respect the law. • Speak and write English. • Don’t bear children out of wedlock. • Don’t demand favors based on race or ethnicity. • Embrace working and studying hard as part of your culture. • Be proud of being American. Encouraging assimilation to these norms — by immigrants and nonimmigrants alike, by the way — is not solely the government’s job. Much of the work in the past was done by Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” — the churches, civic groups, unions, and other voluntary associations that mediate between us and the wider world. The government does have a role, of course, but a principal one is to do no harm. ETHNIC DIVISIONS Unfortunately, one of the worst things that the government — and the private sector, too — does is to encourage people to think of themselves as members of ethnic groups first, and Americans only as a distant second. (On this point, Huntington is perfectly correct.) When this is done through racial and ethnic preferences, it is not only bad for the social fabric, but also completely unfair. Someone who has just entered the country can hardly claim a right to favored treatment to make up for past discrimination against him by American employers or the government. Yet, amazingly, many recent immigrants are being taught to benefit from our bizarre system of racial and ethnic preferences. Consider, for instance, the use of contracting set-asides. Definitive data are hard to come by, but there is abundant anecdotal and statistical evidence that a very high percentage of the companies that cash in on their “minority” status to gain contracts are owned by recent immigrants. Some of this evidence was collected by the late Hugh Davis Graham in his 2002 book, Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America. He noted, for example, that at one time “two wealthy immigrant brothers from Europe, certified as Hispanic by the [District of Columbia], received 63 percent of the city’s road and sewer contracts.” When Congress gets around to reforming the immigration laws, it should bar giving racial preferences to immigrants — and nonimmigrants, too, since we are all equally American. Huntington is right to be patriotically protective of American values and right to be critical of those who would put ethnic identity ahead of national identity. But he is wrong to be so pessimistic about the willingness and ability of individuals of all races and all ethnicities to become good Americans. Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Sterling, Va.-based think tank. He can be reached at [email protected].

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