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Transforming America, for better and for worse

At NRO’s Corner, an argument has been raging all day over the consequences of the current pattern of legal immigration. It began when John Derbyshire spoke of an “invasion” of Hispanics into the U.S. and quoted this passage, among others, from Samuel Huntington:

The continuation of high levels of Mexican and Hispanic immigration plus the low rates of assimilation of these immigrants into American society and culture could eventually change America into a country of two languages, two cultures, and two peoples. This will not only transform America. It will also have deep consequences for Hispanics, who will be in America but not of it.

John Podhoretz responded by pointing out, among other things, that in 1904 the percentage of the population of the U.S. born outside of the U.S. was greater than that percentage is now, and “the nation that resulted had the greatest century in the history of mankind.”
How much comfort can we take from Podhoretz’s argument? Not much, I think. First, the fact that early 20th century immigration didn’t change the U.S. into “a country of two languages, two cultures, and two peoples” doesn’t argue strongly against Huntington’s claim that the current immigration pattern threatens to accomplish this. Unlike 100 years ago, legal immigration today is overwhelmingly weighted towards a group that speaks one language and has a common culture of its own. Moreover, the evidence is strong that, as Huntington says, this group has a low rate of assimilation as compared to other groups, both past and present. Nor, given the strength of their numbers and the prevailing multi-cultural imperative of our society, are the incentives for Hispanics to assimilate nearly as powerful as those that existed 100 years ago.
But even absent a “two languages, two cultures, two peoples” scenario, there is reason for concern. Early 20th century immigration changed our culture and our politics. European immigrants gave the Democrats a major boost and were a strong force for the leftward lurch of that party. For approximately 50 years, the U.S. did not elect a conservative president. When it finally did, the reason had much to do with “Reagan Democrats.” Who were these Democrats? Generally, they were the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who had placed so much faith in FDR. Arguably, then, it took 50 years for our politics to absorb the wave of immigration and return to “normal.”
Hispanic immigrants are also extremely likely to vote en masse for liberal Democrats. Their level of income alone points powerfully in that direction. Republicans, of course, have some say in the matter. President Bush pushed hard for Hispanic votes and, the second time around, was able to capture approximately 40 percent of them. But to maintain even that underwhelming share, and certainly to expand it, Republicans will have to hold up their end of a bidding war for Hispanic votes. That probably means supporting programs that tend to distribute income and benefits to Hispanics. Republicans may be able to prosper in this manner, but conservatives can’t.
On the other hand, most conservatives would agree with Podhoretz that, the welfare state notwithstanding, early 20th century immigration was a great boon to this country. That’s because, whatever their politics, these immigrants injected vitality, creativity, and genius into our society. So will the current wave of immigrants. But will they do so to the same degree? Not, almost surely, in the “two languages, two cultures, two peoples” scenario, and maybe not even in a less pessimistic one.
In sum, the current pattern of legal immigration very likely will transform our politics in ways likely to displease conservatives. What we don’t know is whether the benefits of such immigration will outweigh this cost. I’m fairly confident of this, however: a pattern of legal immigration less heavily weighted in favor of a single ethic group from a single region, whose members tend to be low-skilled, would be more likely than the present pattern to satisfy this cost-benefit construct.
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