By Reed Ueda
Wall Street Journal
April 18, 1995
As the great example in world history of a country built from international migration, the U.S. has experienced recurrent public debates over immigration, most notably in the early decades of this century. In the 1990s, this debate has burst out once more. Defenders of immigrants' contributions to our national progress advise that we hold our gates open to newcomers, while critics, citing immigration's ill effects, argue that we should slam the gates shut. "Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster" (Random House, 279 pages, $24), by the political journalist Peter Brimelow, is a new broadside from the camp of the gate-closers.
Mr. Brimelow offers up a jeremiad about the "evils" and "disaster" of America's immigration. He contrasts his "rational" case for immigration restriction with the emotional arguments of "immigration enthusiasts," whom he dismisses as blindly sentimental. Mr. Brimelow poses as an American "patriot" unflinchingly exposing the deceptions underlying the "species of treason" that opened U.S. floodgates to world-wide immigration. He thinks the friends of immigration slight its problems. These include, in his view, immigration's downward push on wages, its drain on government funds, its association with criminality and its connection to the rise of political multiculturalism.
It is true that large-scale immigration is not without its problems. But Mr. Brimelow's book is far from reasonable and objective. It is a fervent and obsessive polemic. Ultimately, his analysis of immigration pivots on a crudely deterministic and tribalist view of American society.
Mr. Brimelow asserts that "race is destiny in American politics," and policies that assume universal capabilities for humanity are based on myths. He argues that "it is simply common sense that Americans have a legitimate interest in their country's racial balance" and "to insist that it be shifted back." Mr. Brimelow compares a host nation to an "extended family," adding that we should recognize the moral obligation "to protect our own family." He assumes sweepingly that the "new immigrants are from completely different, and arguably incompatible, cultural traditions."
Mr. Brimelow's statements echo the rhetoric and logic of previous nativists who sought to keep out immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—Italians, Greeks, Slavs and Jews. His alarm over an "alien nation" in the 1990s—replete with unassimilating Latino, Asian and Caribbean immigrants—is reminiscent of restrictionists' outcries in the 1920s against "the shibboleth of the 'melting pot.'" Mr. Brimelow admits that he is no longer troubled by his predecessors' "sheer extremes of pessimism" because they obtained a desirable "cut-off" of immigration. He prophesies that, due to current immigration patterns, "America will become a freak among the world's nations because of the unprecedented demographic mutation it is inflicting on itself." Though perhaps somewhat more artfully phrased, this assertion vaguely resembles late-19th-century forecasts of Anglo-Saxon "race suicide" formulated by the immigration experts of the day.
Mr. Brimelow, who is an immigrant from Britain, proclaims he is an American nationalist. Yet he advocates abandoning the traditional American conception of nationhood for an alien, old-world definition. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson stated, rightly, that the U.S. commitment to accepting immigrants was "the long-established policy of this country, a policy in which our people have conceived the very character of their Government to be expressed, the very mission and spirit of the Nation." Mr. Brimelow seeks to replace this American tradition with an ethnic nationalism that has been the historic anchor of European states.
Mr. Brimelow embraces what the immigration historian Oscar Handlin once described as the "one fundamental premise" of earlier restrictionists: that "the national origin of an immigrant was a reliable indication of his capacity for Americanization." Indeed, he holds the same assumptions about the explanatory power of collective identities as do the multiculturalists he criticizes.
Despite many arguments to the contrary, Mr. Brimelow concludes dogmatically that immigration detracts socially, culturally and politically from the life of the nation, while yielding little economic benefit. If immigration cannot be terminated, he advocates tests for admission that will select the more advantaged groups.
Such tests, however, would subvert America's historic position as a society of opportunity, in effect penalizing applicants who have lacked opportunity in the past. Our forebears were pioneers who embraced great challenges and surmounted inherited limits to discover a newer, freer world. By contrast, Mr. Brimelow counsels withdrawal into a safe haven of the familiar and the homogeneous. His message is a call for national retreat.
In Mr. Brimelow's eyes, America is for those who have settled in and who keep the old ways fixed. It is not for those in the process of assimilation who bring the new. His book is a blueprint for a resurgent isolationism, for the return of a fortress mentality.
Mr. Ueda is a history professor at Tufts University and the author of "Postwar Immigrant America" (1994).