One of the reasons for the success we've enjoyed in Afghanistan is that our viceroy -- pardon me, ambassador -- there, who saw the country through the founding of a democratic government, was not just a serious thinker and a skilled diplomat but also spoke the language and understood the culture. Why? Because Zalmay Khalilzad is an Afghan-born Afghan American.
It is not every country that can send to obscure faraway places envoys who are themselves children of that culture. Indeed, Americans are the only people who can do that for practically every country.
Being mankind's first-ever universal nation, to use Ben Wattenberg's felicitous phrase for our highly integrated polyglot country, carries enormous advantage. In the shrunken world of the information age, we have significant populations of every ethnicity capable of making instant and deep connections -- economic as well as diplomatic -- with just about every foreign trouble spot, hothouse and economic dynamo on the planet.
That is a priceless and unique asset. It is true that other countries, particularly in Europe, have in the past several decades opened themselves up to immigration. But the real problem is not immigration but assimilation. Anyone can do immigration. But if you don't assimilate the immigrants -- France, for example, has vast, isolated exurban immigrant slums with populations totally alienated from the polity and the general culture -- then immigration becomes not an asset but a liability.
America's genius has always been assimilation, taking immigrants and turning them into Americans. Yet our current debates on immigration focus on only one side of the issue -- the massive waves of illegal immigrants that we seem unable to stop.
The various plans, all well-intentioned, have an air of hopelessness about them. Amnesty of some sort seems reasonable because there is no way we're going to expel 10 million-plus illegal immigrants, and we might as well make their lives more normal. But that will not stop further illegal immigration. In fact, it will encourage it, because every amnesty -- and we have them periodically -- tells potential illegals still in Mexico and elsewhere that if they persist long enough, they will get in, and if they stay here long enough, they can cut to the head of the line.
In the end, increased law enforcement, guest-worker programs and other incentives that encourage some of the illegals to go back home can go only so far. Which is why we should be devoting far more attention to the other half of the problem: not just how many come in but what happens to them once they're here.
The anti-immigrant types argue that there is something unique about our mostly Latin immigration that makes it unassimilable. First, that there's simply too much of it to be digested. Actually, the percentage of foreign-born people living in the United States today is significantly below what it was in 1890 and 1910 -- and those were spectacularly successful immigrations. And there is nothing about their culture that makes it any more difficult for Catholic Hispanics to assimilate than the Czechs and Hungarians, Chinese and Koreans who came decades ago.
The key to assimilation, of course, is language. The real threat to the United States is not immigration per se but bilingualism and, ultimately, biculturalism. Having grown up in Canada, where a language divide is a recurring source of friction and fracture, I can only wonder at those who want to duplicate that plague in the United States.
The good news, and the reason I am less panicked about illegal immigration than most, is that the vogue for bilingual education is waning. It has been abolished by referendum in California, Arizona and even Massachusetts.
As the results in California have shown, it was a disaster for Hispanic children. It delays assimilation by perhaps a full generation. Those in "English immersion" have more than twice the rate of English proficiency than those in the old bilingual system (being taught other subjects in Spanish while being gradually taught English).
By all means we should try to control immigration. Nonetheless, given our geography, our tolerant culture and the magnetic attraction of our economy, illegals will always be with us. Our first task, therefore, should be abolishing bilingual education everywhere and requiring that our citizenship tests have strict standards for English language and American civics.
The cure for excessive immigration is successful assimilation. The way to prevent European-like immigration catastrophes is to turn every immigrant -- and most surely his children -- into an American. Who might one day grow up to be our next Zalmay Khalilzad.