Thursday, November 13, 1997

Peter Brimelow, author, Alien Nation, and media fellow, Hoover Institution, and David Kennedy, professor of history, Stanford University, air their divergent opinions on immigration.

Recorded on Thursday, November 13, 1997

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, "Immigration". During the enormous wave of immigration that took place around the turn of the century, the great majority of immigrants to the United States, to the American melting pot, came from one region of the world- Europe. There were the English, beef. The Polish, kielbasa. The Irish, what else but potatoes. The French, consommé. The Italians, a little olive oil. And people from elsewhere in Europe. These people mixed together, learned English and over time became something quite distinctive. If you will, an American stew. Now, in 1955, a new immigration law was enacted that changed the mix of immigrants to the United States. Since then, 85 percent of immigrants come not from Europe, but from the Third World. There are people from China, rice. Koreans, garlic. And those from Latin America, especially Mexico, hot sauce. Now the birthrate among these immigrants is much higher than that among the native-born American population so it will only be a matter of a few decades before the new immigrants change the ethnic make-up of the entire country. One of our two guests, the journalist Peter Brimelow, believes that these new immigrants will change America so much that we, in turn, need to change our immigration law. The other of our two guests, David Kennedy, a Professor of History at Stanford, disagrees. He believes the United States can absorb these new immigrants without any danger to our institutions or way of life. But both of our guests agree on one thing. These new immigrants are making the country- different.

ROBINSON What did the immigration act of 1965 do?

BRIMELOW Peter, prior to 1965 for about 40 years was a period where there was very little immigration but the little immigration that there was public policy attempted to be sure that it came from countries from which most Americans had traced their roots. And after 1965 they decided that all countries should be treated equally because it was a great society before, they were obsessed with a need extirpate discrimination. Of course, it's not worked that way because in fact a half a dozen countries have pretty well high jumped all the legal immigrant flow quite arbitrarily slighted. And of course the numbers vastly higher than anybody anticipated so that we see really one of the great waves in American immigration history already under way.

ROBINSON So from 1920 to 1965 relatively little immigration but such immigration as took place tended to be from Europe.

BRIMELOW Yes, they tried to, it's called the National Origin System and they tried to make sure that immigrants came from the countries from which most Americans historically had come.

ROBINSON All right, so the...

BRIMELOW Basically the Northern and Western Europe and less from Southern, Eastern Europe.

ROBINSON And the 1965 Act then accomplishes two things. It increases the number of immigrants coming to the country quite dramatically. That's a fair statement? And it changed the ethnic makeup of the immigrant flow quite dramatically.

BRIMELOW Yes. Well, completely.

ROBINSON Completely?

BRIMELOW But it was accidental, I should say. And I do...

ROBINSON Hold on. But does it change? It changes the ethnic inflow from primarily European to what?

BRIMELOW Well, predominantly Third World and overwhelmingly Third World- 90 percent of immigrants have been from the Third World.

ROBINSON 90 percent of immigrants from 1965 and continuing today come from the Third World?


ROBINSON All right, now you are a professor of history. Is it not the case that the United States is a nation of ideals, not as so many Europeans nations are nations forged on the basis of ethnic identity? And, if that is the case, what difference does it make where immigrants to the United States come from?

KENNEDY Well, theoretically, it shouldn't make any difference at all, and though we haven't had more than three decades or so experience with this current immigrant wave there's no particularly persuasive reason to believe that it will assimilate at any different rate than immigrant groups did in the past.

BRIMELOW I dissent from that.

KENNEDY With one conspicuous exception.

ROBINSON I suspected you would dissent. We'll come back to you in a moment.

KENNEDY With one conspicuous exception which I think is the migratory stream from Mexico and Central America which is maybe what you want to dissent about. But before we get to that part, I'd like to return to another assumption that underlaid the first discussion between you two about the 1965 legislation. It's true that the volume and the demographic mix of immigrants changed rather dramatically after 1965 but I think it would be a mistake to ascribe that solely or even primarily to the effect of that legislation. The fact that people immigrate to the Untied States today from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe is a function of the fact that Europeans, in general, are no longer migrating in substantial numbers. Those great historical processes that shake people loose from traditional ways of life are now working their way through Third World sites rather than Europe.

ROBINSON Population boom is taking place in Mexico...

KENNEDY You bet.

ROBINSON ...the population of which has tripled since the Second World War and the Industrial Revolution is busting up the traditional way of life. You're point is the demographic change would have taken place regardless of public policy, American public policy?

KENNEDY No, that's not quite my argument.

ROBINSON Not quite?

KENNEDY I think the engines of this change are primarily in these great, global economic and demographic transformations, more so than they are in the adjustment to American law in the mid-1960's.

ROBINSON And you...

BRIMELOW Obviously there is a push factor in immigration. There's a push factor. People are more or less willing to emigrate from different areas but the fundamental point is that they can't get into a country that won't let them in. For example, there's no significant immigration to Japan although Japan has expanded far faster than the U.S., grown at a much faster rate and has a much more serious demographic problem in terms of a shortage of young people. But the Japanese do not want to have immigration and they don't have it. So the critical factor as to whether the American authorities want to allow people in and whether they're prepared to enforce the law on the southern border which remains the most important part of illegal immigration and the answer is that they're not prepared to do that. They don't want to do it.

ROBINSON So millions of people are immigrating to America from the Third World, so what? Isn't this country the world's great melting pot?

ROBINSON David said theoretically it shouldn't matter what kind of people come to this country because the country is a nation of laws and ideals and anybody can assimilate to the American dream, the American idea. Right? So who cares if the population coming to the country is Mexican rather than English or French.

BRIMELOW That strikes me for historians as a staggeringly a-historical sentiment. I mean that's certainly not the way the country was run in the past. It was, Theodore Roosevelt would have been astounded to hear that there wasn't there was no ethnic and cultural basis to the U.S. And I think so would the Founding Fathers. It's true that there isn't laws, a system of laws and the courts and so on and that individuals of any race no doubt can acculturate to that. But, you know, this isn't unique in the world. The French believe the same thing about themselves. As a matter of fact the English in the 18th century believe the same thing about themselves.

ROBINSON A professional historian at this table has just been accused of being a-historical.

KENNEDY Well this same historian also takes a little outrage at citing Theodore Roosevelt as an authority on the racial makeup of American society. His views are notoriously extreme, even for the age in which he lived.

BRIMELOW Well that doesn't mean they weren't right. I mean the fact of the matter is that the U.S. was an ethnically race-specific society.

KENNEDY Yes it was, but I think the deeper truth of this matter is that the whole project of American history is to represent, institutionalize, embody those great enlightenment ideals that are stated in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, "All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." There is no racial or ethnic specification in that document.

BRIMELOW Well, the first citizenship law in 1798 specifically said that citizenship shall be restricted to whites. I mean, it may not have said it, it may not have been a good thing to say but it did say it. Well similarly when Asian immigration started in the 19th century it was instantly chopped off.

KENNEDY The argument isn't about whether or not we've had a perfect legislative and political history in terms of honoring those kinds of ideals but the core project of this nation's national history, it seems to me, is to embody those ideals and we've been very reluctant ever to say that on racial or ethnic grounds someone in categorically ineligible for participation in this polity.

BRIMELOW Well, you know, that may be the case for the Stanford faculty but it is certainly not the case of the Founding Fathers. That's not what they thought at all. Maybe they shouldn't have thought that but that's what they did think.


BRIMELOW They thought that, as you know the opening to the Constitution, the preamble, actually says the purpose of the constitution is to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, not posterity in general, our posterity. The posterity of the people who were living in the U.S. at the time. And that was a nation which was, which was, you know the political nation, of course, was entirely white and it was also very heavily, overwhelmingly Protestant: 98 percent Protestant.

ROBINSON Okay, hold on, hold on. When you say...

BRIMELOW I'm not saying this is an normative sense. I'm not saying that's the way it should be.

ROBINSON Well, let's move now to a normative...

BRIMELOW What I'm saying is that it's a mistake to think that American order has come about because a bunch of people got - came here from all over the world and agreed on things. They didn't. It was a nation like any other. It evolved as a national culture unit was found a political expression.

ROBINSON David argues that ethnic diversity is our nation's strength. Why does Peter disagree?

ROBINSON What is it that concerns you about the change in the demographic, ethnic makeup of the immigrant flow to the United States? What is it that you are concerned about or afraid of?

BRIMELOW What fundamentally concerns me about this great society program, this immigration policy that is at work at the moment is the numbers. If the numbers go down, everything goes away. The problem of the skill levels go away and the problem of the dramatic skew towards the Third World and specific parts of the Third World goes away. But more generally, as I said, I think it's a question of American order. Do you think the society is going to hold together when it's no longer the people who, you know- when it's dramatically altered in such a dramatic way and it seems to me...

ROBINSON And you don't?

BRIMELOW I thinks it's incumbent on the people in favor of this to explain why they want to do it. Why do they want to transform America? I mean, the numbers are very radical. At the moment, Americans of all races have stabilized the population growth so the population in 2050, according to centers, will be like 278 million absent immigrant but with immigrant it would be 400 million; 130 million people will be decedents of post-1970 immigrants and their descendants. Almost all of them will be non-white with a result that the white population, at that point, will be slipping into minority and this is an ethnic transformation without precedent in the history of the world. There's never been a sovereign state that's gone through this kind of experiment and it's incumbent on the people who want to see this happen to explain why.

ROBINSON Do you want to see it happen or do you, are you merely not worried that it's going to happen?

KENNEDY Well, I some have worries about how the future might play out, to be sure, particularly with regard to, again, to this fact that we keep referring to, to the concentration of a single immigrant group in the American southwest which is a group which is Hispanic and mostly Mexican But that's a discrete issue.

ROBINSON And we'll come to that. What, look, you're saying, you are now treading on territory that is extremely dangerous here, namely...

BRIMELOW The immigrant doing the dirty job.

ROBINSON Right. We can no longer delay the entry of the "R" word which is racism. White, white, white, white, and you seem to be saying you're afraid precisely because the white population is going to shrink relative to the non-white population. Well, the answer is unless somehow or other whiteness per se has a value, what are you worried about?

BRIMELOW Well, as I say, I think it's incumbent on the people who are doing this to explain why they want to do it. I think the historic America that existed in 1970 when I came here should be preserved unless there's a good reason not to preserve it.

KENNEDY At this stage in the history of this country immigration is scarcely an experiment. It's what's peopled the country for the last 200-plus years.

BRIMELOW No, that's quite wrong. We've never had immigration which was so divergent from the host population in the past and furthermore, the history of immigration is one of waves followed by pauses and those pauses have been essential to the process of assimilation.

ROBINSON But here's what I ...

BRIMELOW And they're very long. I mean, there's 50 years in the middle of this century, there was 50 years after the revolution, many of the pauses ride the wave through. And also rotation.

ROBINSON Rotation meaning what?

BRIMELOW Well, immigrants came from different areas. This tremendous flow and continuous flow from Mexico, there's no end in sight.

ROBINSON You get a few from northern Europe then from some from Germany then some from others then there will be a real long pause. The populations would be digested...

BRIMELOW Look at the great distress about Irish immigration in the 1850's, in the 1840's and 1850's. This was a great shock to a society which was overwhelmingly Protestant at that time and they got these tremendous numbers of Irish coming in and they started the Know Nothing Movement. Well then, quite abruptly, they ran out of Irish. Irish immigration in the 1850's collapsed and they never resumed at those high numbers that is from the point of view of the Know Nothing's. They were right to be concerned. They had a lot to worry about. They were running a republic and they were faced with Pious the Ninth who was an extreme, authoritarian pope and they were very, they had genuine concerns about the survival of republican democracy at that time.

ROBINSON Okay, so your worry is that the people coming into this country are going to undermine our democratic institutions?

BRIMELOW Well, for one thing, I think it's perfectly clear that we are going to see the development of fractionalized politics. I mean, we are, public policy is building a Hispanic faction here.

KENNEDY What's new about that?

BRIMELOW It's new in...

KENNEDY You live in New York. That's the way New York works and it has worked that way for a century and more.

BRIMELOW It didn't work...

ROBINSON But the question isn't whether New York works.

BRIMELOW Well that's really the problem and also we didn't have the institutionalization of of factionalization, in the sense of voting right acts and voting rights which is moving towards a proportional representation system where everybody gets everybody gets represented political representatives in proportion to their ethnic numbers.

ROBINSON David admitted that today's immigrants may have questionable effects on at least one region. Let's go into that a little more deeply.

ROBINSON You argue that immigration in the Southwest is different from any other kind of immigration previous to this. Why?

KENNEDY Well, for a couple of reasons. Because of the size of the immigrant streams that have settled in the American Southwest from a single cultural, national, linguistic source.

ROBINSON Which is?

KENNEDY Which is essentially Mexico and there is some footnotes to that. I mean, some of it is from El Salvador and from Nicaragua and so on, but essentially, it's from Mexico. There's no precedent in American history for an immigrant group in those numbers settling in that large a region and retaining a kind of internal cultural coherence possibly over several generations which may render them capable, perhaps, this is not a prediction but just the raising of a question, but are then capable of sustaining a kind of cultural autonomy and thus driving a political agenda that would be, I agree, extremely fractious in the future if the process of assimilation fails to work with them as it has in the past. In my view, most immigrant groups in the past had no alternative other than to accommodate to the norms of the already pre-existing culture.

ROBINSON Learn English, go to American public schools...

KENNEDY Learning English...

ROBINSON Spread out in various regions across the country so that any city would have its German population, its Eastern European population, its English population whereas in Southern California particularly and in portions in Texas there is a huge Mexican population...


ROBINSON Speaking Spanish, retaining its own culture, and that worries you?

KENNEDY Well, it worries me if it develops into the kind of scenario such as we see diagonally opposite in the other corner of North America which is Quebec which is the example I think that is closest to home for us that raises for us the kinds of problems that can be attended upon, the long-term persistence within a national polity like ours of a group that distinguishes itself on grounds of language and culture from the majority and insists on doing business differently. We've never seen anything like that with respect to American immigration history in a venue any larger than a given city: Boston or New York. Let me say...

BRIMELOW There is a power which is, in fact, the Quebecois immigration into New England and that did look like at one stage it was going to have serious impact on New England and Quebec intellectuals seriously argued which made serious and various noises about taking over New England, but what happened was...

ROBINSON Also, there was a period in American history when Maine looked as though it might become French. Did you...

BRIMELOW There was heavy immigration into northern New England...

ROBINSON All right.

BRIMELOW Yeah, until the Sax-Tartans stopped it.

ROBINSON And what stopped it?

BRIMELOW The Reform of the 1920's stopped it. They just cut off...

ROBINSON American public policy in the 1920's simply stopped that immigration.

BRIMELOW And the result of that is that that francophone population is totally assimilated.


KENNEDY That's true because there were no restrictions in the 1920's. Legislation on immigration in the Western Hemisphere...

BRIMELOW What they did was they got out, you see it's not just a question of the right to enter but there were also labor, work restrictions. You'd have to have a job for all practical purposes. You had to show that you'd got a job and they were able to cut that down in the early '30s and that's why there was very little immigration from Mexico.


BRIMELOW Nominally, there was supposed to be a, you know, there was no ceiling on the amount of immigrants from Mexico in the 30's putting- as a practical matter they had to show, had to show they had a job.


BRIMELOW So the right to enter

ROBINSON Peter's worried about the amount of immigrants period. David's worried about immigrants in the Southwest. But they're both worried. What should we do?

ROBINSON You have just depicted a quite plausible scenario in which California, Texas, perhaps bits of Arizona and New Mexico become Spanish speaking and distinctive from the rest of the United States. If that's plausible and if what's at stake here is the United States of America, why don't we shut down the immigration for a period of 5 or 10 years and let those populations assimilate? Is that such a horrible notion?

KENNEDY No, it's not a horrible notion but, I think as a practical matter, it's very difficult to effect, particularly with respect to Mexico.

ROBINSON Okay. First of all, normatively, would you support it?

KENNEDY Support?

ROBINSON Shutting down the immigration, if there were a switch in the middle of that table you could flip it and stop immigration from Mexico as of the moment of flipping that switch would you flip it?

KENNEDY Let me answer it historically. I think Peter Brimelow is absolutely correct that among the factors that historically construed over two centuries of national history have enabled us as a country to relatively peacefully and easily assimilate lots of immigrants have been these periods of lulls when immigration largely shut down.

ROBINSON Lulls are good things.

KENNEDY Yes, but the biggest lull, the one effected by the 1920's legislation is only partly effected by the legislation itself. There are also some big historical events that intervened on the world stage in that period like the Great Depression and World War II which throttled immigration without respect to American legislation.

ROBINSON What I'm trying to get it is whether your humane and liberal impulses are at war with your assessment as a historian that there's trouble abuilding.

KENNEDY There's potential trouble abuilding. Whether the right approach to it is to think about ways to seal the border, isolate the immigrant community that's already here, and further replenishment by other persons from its source nation, given the practical difficulties of doing that in the age of easy communication and transportation across that border, I just think that that is a probably ineffective and needlessly confrontational way to address this issue.

ROBINSON Okay. So what do we do?

KENNEDY I think the objective of whatever set of policies we adopt, I don't think there's a single silver bullet here that will solve this issue magically, I think that we are going to need to grapple with a whole array, a whole pallette of policy tools, but I think their general burden should be to create a situation in which we, conduces to the relatively easy assimilation into this larger culture of those immigrants already here and those likely to come in the future which is why I am very nervous about the kind of approach that starts first with talking about sealing the border and then starts goes secondly to points about the cultural distance of present immigrants from our existing cultural norms and the difficulty of closing that gap.

ROBINSON So what do you say we should do?

BRIMELOW Look, I mean it's like there's a faucet overflowing and there's a famous test actually. You put a fellow in a room with a faucet that's overflowing and a mop and you see whether he switched off the faucet or goes to the mop and tries to mop up the water. I mean, obviously there should be a real effort to assimilate the people who are here now as there was in the 1900's. There was a serious Americanization campaign that Theodore Roosevelt made a living going around making speeches about the need for Americanization and it was very tough. I mean, they made people attend classes and all kinds of things and they actually required them to speak English before they became citizens which is a criteria that has completely collapsed now. But it won't work unless that faucet is switched off. You have to switch the faucet off.

ROBINSON Close the borders.


ROBINSON Close the borders.

BRIMELOW And I agree that we need a lot of different policy tools which is why I think the need for a moratorium, the need for a moratorium of 5 or 10 years while Americans consult with themselves about what they actually want to do because they have not been consulted up to now. In 1965, the most explicit assurances were given that none of this which has happened would happen including the domination of the immigrant flow by any one group.

KENNEDY Think through the practical and political implications of a serious move to seal the U.S.-Mexican border.

BRIMELOW Why? Why? Why do I have to do that?

KENNEDY What would be the effects of that?

BRIMELOW Why do I have to do that? I'm a journalist.

KENNEDY What would be the effects in Mexico?

BRIMELOW You know, fundamentally I don't care what the effects in Mexico are. I'm interested in the U.S. and the...

KENNEDY Well, to the extent that there are exacerbated problems of social and economic unrest in Mexico I think we have a tremendous interest in that matter.

BRIMELOW Well, but disintegrating the American nation is not a way to solve the problem.

KENNEDY Well, I'm not willing to yield to your premise that what we're doing is disintegrating the American nation.

BRIMELOW But you do think...

ROBINSON But you are worried about the...

KENNEDY I think we're raising problems about the future evolution of this community, in particular, that need our serious attention.

BRIMELOW The U.S. is not an empire.

ROBINSON Will our immigration policy change? Time for predictions.

ROBINSON The year is 2003. Five years from now, we will have gone through 3 election cycles for Congress and a new presidential election. We'll have a new President of the United States. Will, five years from now by the year 2003, immigration law have been substantially changed?

BRIMELOW I have been through 360 degrees on this, Peter. When I started writing my book I thought it would take 20 years. Then you in California passed Proposition 187 which was an attempt to get the welfare crisis under control and that really frightened the professional politicians and in '95 and '96 it looked there would be immigration reform along the lines proposed by the Jordan Commission which was, after all, a Congressional committee that was commissioned that was set up to review the workings of immigration law and recommended a fairly substantial cutback. But then, under the impact of special interest and ethnic groups and so on, the politicians broke and run and so now there's no practical form of immigration reform on the horizon. I don't know when it's coming but there is going to be a massive explosion in this country on immigration. The longer it's delayed and the more people who try to discuss it are beaten down with the usual cries of racism, the more ruthless and violent the final cut off will be.

ROBINSON David, are we talking about an issue that can come to a political head in this country within 5 years or not?

KENNEDY Well, I don't know about the 5 year horizon but I am not as pessimistic as Peter Brimelow is. I think we need a national discussion of this issue. We've had it in fits and starts over the last several years. It's necessary that it continue. I was just thinking in my mind this morning the, in fact, there have been two recent efforts to liberalize the immigration laws: IRCA, Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to a lot of illegals, and then the 1990 lottery provisions. Those were two efforts in the direction of liberalizing law. Then through the mechanism of welfare reform in 1996, we began to tighten certain incentives to immigrate, I think the wrong incentives, that is that become parasitic in the welfare system. But just yesterday or the day before, Congress relaxed that again.

BRIMELOW Right now, the Congress is in the business of increasing immigration-

ROBINSON Increasing immigration?

BRIMELOW Through various backdoor methods.

ROBINSON David, final question. You said we need a national conversation. Is this man Brimelow doing the nation a favor or is he entirely too confrontational in his approach to this issue?

KENNEDY I think both of those things. I think he is doing the nation a favor by raising the issue. I think in the longer run this confrontational approach, though it does serve the purpose of stimulating discussion, is the wrong attitude that should inform the policies that we eventually adopt.

ROBINSON David Kennedy, Peter Brimelow, thank you very much.

Peter Brimelow wants a moratorium on immigration. David Kennedy is more well-disposed toward immigration, but even he has reservations about the southwestern United States, and meanwhile, back in Washington, for the time-being at least, nothing much is happening. You might say this is an issue that is going to simmer. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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