TEST TUBE AMERICA: Immigration

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

In 1965, Congress voted to change the laws that had restricted immigration into the United States for more than four decades. The Immigration Act of 1965 resulted in a wave of increased immigration that continues today. How do recent immigrant groups compare with those of the last great wave of immigration a century ago? Are they successfully integrating into American culture or threatening America's cultural stability? Should immigration once again be restricted, or should we concern ourselves with helping immigrants assimilate when they arrive?

Recorded on Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: did somebody turn down the heat on the melting pot?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.

[Music]

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: immigration. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to the United States and get one of these, a so-called green card, but what happens to them after that? We know the immigrants who arrived during the great wave of immigration from about 1890 to 1924, that would include Irish, Italians and Jews, have now assimilated into American life completely. But what about the immigrants who are arriving now? That would include West Indians, Asians and Latinos. Will they be able to assimilate into American life just as completely?

With us today, two guests. Peter Skerry is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. Michael Barone is a Senior Writer at U.S. News and World Report and the author of The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again.

Title: Test Tube America

Peter Robinson: Professor Christopher Jenks: "America's current immigration policy is a vast social experiment. Prudence suggests that we proceed more slowly." Peter, are you with him?

Peter Skerry: Yes, I think I am.

Peter Robinson: Michael?

Michael Barone: I think America's always been a vast social experiment. I don't think so.

Peter Robinson: Okay. The Immigration Act of 1965 is an important moment. In 1924 Congress had essentially shut off immigration, imposing very strict national quotas. In 1965, it opens up immigration, changing the quota system, and from that point forward, '65 forward, we've had large numbers of immigrants. And for the first time in American history, they've come from the third world, not Europe, overwhelmingly, some ninety percent from the third world. If you had been a member of Congress in 1965, would you have voted for that piece of legislation? Michael?

Michael Barone: I would have voted for it although it, in fact, it imposed quotas on the western hemisphere which weren't imposed before. The big Latino immigration has come largely through the mechanism of family reunification provisions.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Skerry: Yeah, I would have voted for it. Sure.

Peter Robinson: You would have?

Peter Skerry: Sure.

Peter Robinson: Really? Even though this is what has opened the doors?

Peter Skerry: Well I assume I wouldn't have been a whole lot more pressured than anyone else at the time.

Michael Barone: Nobody thought that we were going to have a--Bobby Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Attorney General, testified before the Congress that was considering it that there would only be a slow spurt of immigration from Asia and then it would stop. And the general assumption was immigrants had always come from Europe therefore, immigrants could never come from anywhere but Europe.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Well let me then tighten up the question a little bit. If you had known what it would lead to, would you have voted for the 1965 Immigration Act?

Peter Skerry: I would have been much more hesitant clearly.

Peter Robinson: You still would have voted yes?

Michael Barone: I would have voted for it, yeah.

Peter Robinson: No problem. Okay so what I'm trying to get at here is two fundamentally different views of immigration. One is the notion that the United States is a nation of ideals not like other countries based on ethnicity or race so it doesn't matter where immigrants come from. As long as they can subscribe to democracy, they can become Americans. The other view is that it matters quite a lot where immigrants come from. We have Peter Brimelow's book, Alien Nation. We have Pat Buchanan's new book, The Death of the West-- that people are in some ways carriers of culture and if you let in too many, too quickly, who are foreign to our own culture, you risk doing damage to the social and political fabric of the United States. You just don't buy that at all?

Michael Barone: I'd challenge one of your premises, Peter, that this is the first time we've had third world immigration because if you go back a hundred years ago, my book, New Americans, in many ways is a comparison of today's immigration in saying that it resembles that of a hundred years ago. The areas that contributed most of the immigrants in Theodore Roosevelt's day were places like the Czarist Empire of Eastern Europe, Southern Italy, various Slavic countries in Eastern Europe. Those were third world in comparison to the first world of the United States at that time. So getting immigrants from countries that were economically backward, culturally limited, is the common experience in America. It's worked before and it could work again.

Peter Skerry: I think I agree with Michael on this. I mean, we talk about all those immigrants from Europe today as white. They weren't all seen as white at the time. They were seen as different races. I would put my emphasis and this is where I would disagree I think with Michael, on the nature of our political system and the nature of our political institutions today and how we deal with these issues more than I would on where immigrants come from.

Peter Robinson: Okay so you're both fundamentally good liberals in the sense of--small 'l' liberal--you both fundamentally believe that what matters about this country is the ideals, the form of government, and anybody who can subscribe to democracy can become a good American the day he does subscribe to democracy?

Peter Skerry: What's a good American though?

Michael Barone: It's a principle that George Washington had in his letter to the Touro Synagogue in 1790 or '91 where he says anybody who is in line with the civic institutions of the country and gives the government its effectual support can be a good American and they can do so because of equal rights, not because a superior race is giving this to an inferior race. Human beings in Washington's view were all equal.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Michael's gone to the trouble of writing a book on immigration. Let's take a moment to explore his argument.

Title: In Finnegan's Wake

Peter Robinson: Michael, in your book, The New Americans, you write, "We are not in a wholly new place in history," you've been making some of this argument already, "the minority groups of 2000 in many ways resemble the major immigrant groups of 1900. Blacks resemble Irish, Latinos resemble Italians, Asians resemble Jews." Now what I'd like to do is go right down that set of pairings, beginning with you were telling us why Asians of 2000 resemble Jews of 1900.

Michael Barone: Well I think they were both in different ways, persecuted peoples, persecuted by persecution for the Jews, persecuted by war for East Asia, with great traditions of respect for literacy, great experience in commerce. So they've both risen very rapidly when they've come to America except where they've encountered direct obstacles placed in their way.

Peter Robinson: So Asians, no problem, they're going to adapt as quickly as did the Jews and the Jews adapted in a matter of--well by 1950, wasn't it only a half a century until the--the Jewish household income was higher than the average?

Michael Barone: Well the Jewish, in fact, Jewish community leaders in the 1950's wanted the census not to ask a religious question because they didn't want publicity going to how high the Jewish income was as compared to ordinary--other Americans.

Peter Skerry: You could probably argue that the Asians have adapted faster than the Jews because while by and large I accept Michael's comparison, it is also true that the Jews that came here were often socialist communist, Asians are anti-communist. You had elements of Jews in the labor movement very, you know, feisty, aggressive, not always happy campers. I think that's a very different profile for Asians but if we're talking about social and economic advancement, I'd say yeah the comparison is apt.

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Okay so both of these…

Michael Barone: Yeah, I agree with Peter. I mean, the Jews had more obstacles placed in their way. They couldn't get jobs in big corporations. They couldn't get jobs in white shoe law firms. They were barred, quotas in very small numbers to universities. The only one that Asians are facing now is the quotas in colleges and universities. That hurts them. Otherwise, corporations are happy to hire them and they indeed they may be CEO.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Blacks and Irish.

Michael Barone: Blacks I call new Americans only in the sense that they didn't get full rights as Americans until the 1960's. But basically my argument is that the Irish Catholics who came over in large numbers to northern cities starting in the 1840's, the Black Americans who moved to the great northern cities in large numbers from that other country of the rural segregated south starting in the 1940's, were both second class citizens, barred from government and politics, largely barred from the market economy, very little experience in the market economy. So you had initially--you have this habit of mind that says that because the larger society is fundamentally unfair, you don't have an obligation to obey the rules. Of course, those societies they came from were unfair. And you have high rates of crime. You have high degrees of fatherlessness. You also have great traditions in athletics and popular entertainment and so forth. And very--and heavy and effective involvement in politics.

Peter Skerry: The problem with Michael's analogy as he lays out in his book is that he begins his stories for blacks when they move to the northern cities. And sure from then on you can see some strong parallels but the fact of the matter is, the story for blacks doesn't begin when they move to the northern cities, when they become immigrants as it were in his framework…

Peter Robinson: Internal immigrants. Right.

Peter Skerry: Yeah. It begins when they're brought over here as slaves. And, you know, the problem for the Irish immigrants, their enemy was the Brits back home. For many blacks in the United States, the enemy is the regime that enslaved them. You know, you asked the question earlier, we have--we're a country of ideals and anyone can come here regardless of their race and be a good American. But what does it mean to be a good American today? Many of the programs and initiatives that Michael disagrees with and criticizes and I criticize too, affirmative action, voting rights act, regimes of group rights, those are what many of today's immigrants use to become good Americans in their view.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So Michael you've got--Irish Americans assimilate in part because they didn't have--in a certain sense, they didn't have any choice.

Michael Barone: There have been some minds changed over time and the larger society taught the lesson that this was a decent place and you could adapt. I think there is some difference today when we have racial quotas and preferences in this whole regime set in place that encourages a sense of victimhood. And what I think is the problem there is that when you have a sense of victimhood, that gives some life to this habit of mind that says because the larger society's fundamentally unfair, you have no obligation to obey the rules. That produces a lot of dysfunctional behavior like high crime rates. The good news is black crime rates declining sharply in the 90's. Good news is since 1995, the percentage of black children living with two parents has actually started going up after going down for forty years. Don't know how far that'll go but those are movements in the right direction despite…

Peter Robinson: Now just how far is Michael willing to push this comparison of Irish immigrants with African Americans?

Title: Where's Papa

Peter Robinson: Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, in their book examining race in America, make an estimate that the number of black children born in, as I recall, it was 1996, the year their book was published, that would be raised to the age of eighteen in a home in which both parents were present for all eighteen years, would be something like seven percent. I can't believe we have statistics that suggest that there was anything like that level of single parent family structure for the Irish.

Michael Barone: I suspect it wasn't as high but it was very high. I mean, read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That's about--this was a very common pattern among Irish and, in fact, the people that ran charities in New York City would say that any, you know, fatherless child that came there was almost inevitably Irish. You didn't have this among the Italian immigrants at the same time, for example, in other groups where you had higher family solidarity. It was substantial…

Peter Robinson: Even that pattern in black America, that can be overcome?

Michael Barone: Well it's gone up. What you see now--from '95 to 2000, I think, Peter may correct me if I'm wrong, I think we moved from black children currently living with two parents or with two adults, not necessarily the original parent, rose from I think thirty-three or thirty-four percent to thirty-eight percent. That's probably a statistically significant rise. Still under fifty percent and it's not inconsistent with what the Thernstrom's are saying but it does suggest, you know, these social trends that you can graph on maps don't always go on forever. That number, you know, the Thernstrom's seven percent is not going to go to zero percent. At some point they turn around and maybe we've seen the turnaround on that one.

Peter Skerry: We may have but I would still emphasize I find it hard to believe that Michael would disagree that the comparison between Irish and blacks can only go so far. I mean…

Michael Barone: Oh sure, of course.

[Talking at same time]

Michael Barone: At some point, the analogies break down, of course. But the Irish were as you pointed out earlier, not necessarily perceived as white or the same race as most Americans a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. They had some of that problem that black Americans have now.

Peter Skerry: And how did they become white, by differentiating themselves from blacks. It's a piece of our history that you have to pay attention to too.

Michael Barone: Well I think in our more progressive society today, I mean, Orlando Patterson is the Black Sociologist at Harvard suggested that we won't perceive race in fifty years the way we do today. I don't know if it's going to--fifty may be optimistic.

Peter Robinson: Latinos and Italians.

Michael Barone: They are both people from societies with low levels of trust in institutions. You don't trust the government, you don't trust the church, you don't trust businesses, you don't trust rich people. You only trust your family and hard work. And they both have relatively high degrees of family stability. You both have very high workforce participation. Both tend to leave school early and to shun other institutions but if we teach as we did the Italians, the basics of English--of the English language, reading, speaking, reading and writing the English language and if and Peter I think may be in agreement here, if we teach basic civics, the structure of American society the way we're not teaching to most kids of all backgrounds, where our freedoms and liberties come from, where they were first recognized, those were the tools that the Italian immigrants were given and they managed to work their way up. And I think that if we do that again with Latinos, they've got that same opportunity.

Peter Robinson: You're as hopeful?

Peter Skerry: No, but I think this is the best fit of the three comparisons.

Michael Barone: I agree, yeah. That's what I see, yeah.

Peter Skerry: I think in historical, social and cultural terms, there are lots of strong parallels between Italians and Mexicans but this is where I think it's really important to look at the nature of our political institutions today. Given what Michael says which I don't dispute on the social, historical, cultural terrain, immigrants nevertheless, Latino immigrants still have interests, they still have needs, they still have problems. How do they define those needs, interests and problems today? Well they define them, I think the only way our political institutions allow them to, which is to define them in terms of a discriminated against racial minority group essentially to imitate the post civil rights model laid down by African Americans. There's no real other way to go. We don't have political machines anymore. I'm not going to tell Michael Barone that. He knows that better than anyone although I'm an Irish Catholic from Boston so I know something about it too. But so how else do they proceed?

Michael Barone: I think you're really onto something here Peter and I think you've really isolated it because the experience--their real problem is not discrimination. The fact is employers are discriminating in favor of Latino applicants for jobs all over this country. We've got to stop these bilingual education programs that keep them in Spanish language instruction forever. We've got to teach them that they have a civic culture in this country and freedoms that they can trust in a way that the Latin American traditions were untrustworthy.

Peter Robinson: So Michael what you're saying in effect is you're hopeful?

Michael Barone: We're not doing as good a job of those two things as we should be.

Peter Robinson: You're hopeful that they can follow the Italian pattern of full assimilation if we fix our public schools?

Michael Barone: America's elites who have been happy to keep these kids in Spanish language instruction, I mean, the Democrats are basically saying well we're going to listen to these left wing advocacy organizations. The Republicans are saying basically, "hey it's not our kids, so who cares?" Both parties have been criminally indifferent to these kids. They have not given them what they need to become successful Americans.

Peter Robinson: Let me push Michael on this thesis just a little bit more.

Title: Little Italy, Big Mexico

Peter Robinson: The Italians began their assimilation into American life during a period of some four decades when there was very little immigration. From 1924 to 1965, there was very little immigration and Italians were far from home and they did not face continued new influxes of fellow Italians to reinforce their sense of Italian identity. It is completely different with Latino immigrants. The rivers of Latinos coming into the country all the time, furthermore those who are close to--in California, Texas, there's back and forth between them and Mexico. So there are constant reinforcement of their Latino, specifically Latino identity. That's a quite different situation.

Michael Barone: There's some difference. I don't think the difference is overwhelming because the Italians were still in contact with people over in Italy. They were not…

Peter Skerry: Lot of them went back.

Michael Barone: Yeah, a lot of them went back.

Peter Robinson: But you had forty years of very little immigration.

Michael Barone: You have forty years but you also had the maintenance of Little Italy neighborhoods that were kept quite--you know, Greenwich Village in New York, every major city had one of these. There's one that still exists over in the East Side of Cleveland.

Peter Robinson: So you're not bothered by this?

Peter Skerry: Oh I'm bothered by it but I put it differently. I mean, I think the big difference is the education gap between Mexicans and Mexican immigrants and Native American, native-born Americans. It's much wider today than it ever was between Italians and non-Italian native-born Americans a hundred years ago. And that's a real cause for concern.

Michael Barone: Partly because a lot of native-born Americans weren't very well educated a hundred years ago.

Peter Skerry: That's right but they are now.

[Talking at same time]

Michael Barone: I believe you've written this Peter, that Mexicans have come here immigrants with lower education levels than Latino immigrants from other countries typically.

Peter Skerry: They have and there's a persistent gap too with--even the second generation Mexican American youth do not catch up as much as other immigrant youth do.

Michael Barone: I think there are some problems there that we need to address as a society together, educating kids better, giving them more grounding in the English language…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Skerry: When are we going to do that Michael? I don't think you can ascribe all this to bilingual education.

Michael Barone: Well that's one of the reasons I'm talking about this. I don't think you can either.

Peter Robinson: Hold on.

Michael Barone: I think you need to teach basic civics and the so forth. And it's not just immigrants that we're short-changing.

Peter Robinson: I'm quoting you to yourself one more time, "A barrier is the sheer number of Latinos. Italians were never the largest single ethnic group in the major cities they settled in. Latinos are. This has encouraged insularity." Largest immigrant group in major cities. That strikes me as an understatement. From Texas, across New Mexico, across Arizona, through Southern California, you can go about your daily life speaking Spanish, buying Mexican food. You can remain entirely within a separate culture. That's the first time in American history where we've had an entire region that could become, in fact, could develop its own…

Michael Barone: We've had German speaking regions but that's…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Oh but nothing like the entire southwestern United States.

Michael Barone: Well listen to the bandleader Lawrence Welk who had a German accent and grew up in North Dakota. It…

Peter Skerry: He didn't grow up next to Germany though.

Michael Barone: Not but we're not, in some sense, a lot of the Mex…

Peter Robinson: Does this alarm you? Does this concern you?

Michael Barone: Mexican immigrants are mostly not from next door. I mean, you know, they go from Puebla to Corona, Queens, that's about fifty--six--you know, two thousand miles. The biggest Mexican state represented by Latinos in Los Angeles, as I understand is Michoacan. Michoacan is fifteen hundred miles from Los Angeles. They're not just walking across the border.

[Talking at same time]

Michael Barone: Yeah, they're wandering around but I think, you know, when you do have six million Latinos in the Los Angeles basin, six million-plus, I may be running a few years behind on that trend, that's more population than thirty-plus U.S. states. So yes, that is something to think seriously about and yes, we do have to think about promoting them. I am given some heart by the fact that the people that run the Univision TV network, the leading Spanish language network are sort of worried that the--that Latino kids don't want to watch their network as much as the parents do. The kids have some sense of wanting to become Americans. What we must do, the elites in this country, the liberal and the conservative elites altogether is to help them get into American culture, not just the criminal gang culture of America, not just the cruddy part of our popular culture, but getting into the American civic culture, getting into the American higher culture. We have a lot of work to do on that, I think.

Peter Robinson: So far we've been describing the status of immigrants in America today. Now onto what should be done to facilitate their assimilation.

Title: Juan Q. Public

Peter Robinson: What do you do about the immigrants who are already here? How do you--you improve public school education but how do you speak to them about what is good about American culture and what they should aspire to in this country? How do you reach them?

Peter Skerry: I think I'd focus on the educational system. I think Michael's right there. I think we have to think in terms of beefing up early childhood education, looking at programs for Head Starts and how Hispanics articulate with those, really getting serious about what we're teaching these kids.

Peter Robinson: So you'd spend more money?

Michael Barone: You'd spend more money. I think you--it's…

Peter Skerry: Also reform education.

Michael Barone: What you're spending on is more important than whether or not you're spending more money. I think one of the things that may be working out positively here is post September 11th, the new appreciation that however divided culturally we may be in this country, that perhaps all of us except a few professors in odd corners of U.S. campuses, that all of us share many things in common and that we are, for all our differentness, we are one people. Our differentness helps to make us the same. I think there's a strong feeling abroad in the country and I think that we should work on building that. One of the things that really helped Italian Americans assimilate into being full Americans were the experiences of World War II coinciding with the emergence of popular culture heroes like Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. And even though Italy was our enemy in World War II, this helped Italian Americans go forth and then the G.I. Bill of Rights helped them afterwards. So let's work on this…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Skerry: That's a tricky message to put across these days because when Republicans try to do that, they urge Latinos not to talk about being Latino. They talk about us all being Americans. I think that's not a very smart thing to do because I think the fact of the matter is again as Michael lays out in his book, that ethnic and group consciousness is part of our immigrant history. That's different from affirmative action and group rights kinds of claims. That's not a lesson that Republicans I think have understood.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Let me ask a fairly rapid-fire series of final questions here. We still have historically quite high rates of immigration to the United States. Let me just ask sort of yes or no questions. Would you tinker with the immigration law as it now stands to redirect immigration so that we got fewer immigrants from certain regions, fewer Latino immigrants say and more from Asia or more from Europe? Do you care about the composition of the immigrant flow? Would you try to adjust it?

Peter Skerry: Sure I care about it but I'd redirect it in terms of skills. I think we need more skilled immigrants and fewer unskilled.

Peter Robinson: Michael?

Michael Barone: I would listen to proposals to say less emphasis on family reunification, more on skills but I think ultimately you've got to have an immigration law that works in tandem with the labor market.

Peter Robinson: Okay. And what about sheer numbers? We've said several times that from 1924 to 1965, we had a forty year hiatus during which some people, the two of you tend to resist the idea but some people I have read, think that was quite important to the assimilation experience of the immigrants who got here up to that point. Do you want another breather? Peter?

Peter Skerry: Yeah, I mean, I think your point about the hiatus before is well taken. I don't disagree with that necessarily. I don't think we're going to get a hiatus again but I think slowing it down, I mean, Christopher Jenks talks about half a billion Americans fifty years from now. That's Christopher Jenks. I think that should give us pause.

Michael Barone: Sure. Well I'm not going to…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Nothing gives you pause. Nothing gives you pause.

Michael Barone: I'm not going to live that long but I think the idea of five hundred million Americans is a great idea for America and for the world. I think that nothing could be better for world peace, world stability, world freedom, world prosperity, than a larger America. But I think that current immigration levels are okay with me. But I think that, you know, the fact is these people are not coming here for welfare, they're coming here for work.

Peter Robinson: Where do you draw the line? Suppose I said, okay, we're going to do away with any immigration restrictions at all. Beginning tomorrow, anybody who wants to come can come. Would you be in favor of that?

Michael Barone: Well I tend to be sympathetic with that. I don't know if that's going to happen. You know, on this time out and stopping immigration…

Peter Robinson: The hiatus idea?

Michael Barone: The hiatus was followed by something called the Great Depression and one of the reasons for that was lack of aggregate demand. If we'd had more immigrants in this country, maybe we would have had more demand. Anybody think about that?

Peter Robinson: Okay, a century from now, will historians essentially look back and say that Michael was right in his book, The New Americans, that these huge new numbers of immigrants assimilated into American life as smoothly, as finally did the lumps of immigrants who came from 1890 say to 1924? Is it going to be as smooth as that or will they, a century from now, will they see the southwestern United States speaking a different language, behaving in a different way? Peter, what do you think?

Peter Skerry: No, I don't think the southwest is going to be speaking a different language. I think they're going to assimilate. The question is how smooth it's going to be and I think there's lots of reason to be concerned. I think we are in the midst of a huge social experiment that we haven't acknowledged.

Peter Robinson: Michael?

Michael Barone: Well I'm an optimist and naturally I think historians a hundred years from now are going to see that things worked out as I said they would if the things are done that need to be done…

Peter Robinson: Fair comment.

Michael Barone: …as I said need to be done are done.

Peter Robinson: Michael Barone, Peter Skerry, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thank you for joining us.