Page 2 of 2   <      

Anti-Immigration Movement Finds an Articulate Voice

His book crackles. Words leap off the page to bludgeon the reader to submit to his views. Analyzing the 1994 passage in California of Proposition 187 that ended welfare benefits to illegal immigrants, Buchanan thunders, "The voters of California were saying that no matter what ideas these illegal aliens brought with them, they were not Americans, they were not part of our nation, they did not belong here, they were not entitled to the benefits of American citizens, and they ought to go back where they came from."

Some books are enlightening, some exciting. This one is exhausting. After reading chapter after chapter of invective, rabid Buchanan-haters may long for a shower. Me? I need a nap.

Buchanan's stridency will tend to turn anyone who picks up "State of Emergency" into either a cheerleader or a debater. And there are a host of assertions in this work that are highly debatable.

In Buchanan's view, immigrants are unleashing a deadly reign of crime on America. While Latino gangs are a violent presence in some cities, most notably Los Angeles, the premise is questionable. After all, as the wave of immigrants has crested, overall violent crime rates have plunged. On a per capita basis, the number of rapes has dropped by 85 percent since the 1970s, robberies by 38 percent. We have the lowest homicide rate since the late 1960s. The murder rate was higher in the 1930s and 1940s -- a time of exceedingly low immigration -- than it is now.

Buchanan argues that today's immigrants maintain a much stronger grip on the culture and language of their homelands than that of previous waves. "There is little evidence that the scores of millions who have come in the last forty years from Asia, Africa and Latin America are assimilating as the European immigrants once did," he writes.

But what's his proof? Are today's immigrants really not assimilating? Did European immigrants meld into the American fabric as rapidly as is assumed in the gauzy and nostalgic view of earlier immigration? No one really knows. There is no hard census or other research data on the assimilation rates of these early immigrants.

Buchanan laments that "of the 9 million living in Los Angeles County, 5 million do not speak English at home." But no one can say with accuracy how many people spoke Italian or Yiddish or Polish at home in the 1920s -- or how long it took for that to stop. German was virtually the official language in Wisconsin, used in public schools, for decades before World War I. "There were more German-language newspapers then than there are Spanish-language newspapers now," said George Borjas, an immigration expert who Buchanan cites often in his book -- though not on this point.

Buchanan argues forcefully that immigration will tear the country apart. He is particularly worried that Mexicans -- the largest immigrant bloc -- are, in effect reconquistas, identifying more strongly with Mexico than with the United States, and bent on retaking the territories of Texas, California and the Southwest that were seized from Mexico in the 19th century. His evidence? The appearance of Mexican flags at rallies, and the writings of some Mexican American intellectuals longing for the establishment of Aztlan, an appendage of Mexico that runs from Texas to Oregon.

But given the opportunity for the first time to vote in last summer's Mexican elections -- a clear chance to show solidarity with Mexico -- only an estimated 41,000 Mexicans out of 4.1 million living here bothered to cast a ballot.

It's easy to quibble with Buchanan, but it would be a mistake to ignore him. New York Times columnist David Brooks posits that our political landscape is increasingly being defined as a fight between what he terms "progressive globalists" and "populist nationalists." The former are multilateral interventionists, placing great faith in market-oriented solutions and holding liberal social values. The latter are distrustful of multinational corporations, conservative in social values, wary at intervening in other countries and angry at immigration and the outsourcing of jobs.

Buchanan may be their most articulate spokesman. We would dismiss him and the anger embodied in "State of Emergency" at our peril.

Holmes is a deputy national editor of The Washington Post.

<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company