LOOK BOTH WAYS

The Right Road to America?

A sign warns motorist of undocumented immigrants crossing Interstate 5, north of San Ysidro Border Crossing, near San Diego, on Thursday, Aug. 8, 1996. The Republican Platform Committee has been meeting in San Diego to set their platform for the 1996 election. Immigration has been a key topic of debate. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) *** Interstate highway immigrant crossing sign
A sign warns motorist of undocumented immigrants crossing Interstate 5, north of San Ysidro Border Crossing, near San Diego, on Thursday, Aug. 8, 1996. The Republican Platform Committee has been meeting in San Diego to set their platform for the 1996 election. Immigration has been a key topic of debate. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) *** Interstate highway immigrant crossing sign (A Sign On Interstate 5 At The San Ysidro Border Crossing Near San Diego; Photo By Damian Dovarganes -- Associated Press)

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By Amy Chua
Sunday, December 16, 2007

If you don't speak Spanish, Miami really can feel like a foreign country. In any restaurant, the conversation at the next table is more likely to be Spanish than English. And Miami's population is only 65 percent Hispanic. El Paso is 76 percent Latino. Flushing, N.Y., is 60 percent immigrant, mainly Chinese.

Chinatowns and Little Italys have long been part of America's urban landscape, but would it be all right to have entire U.S. cities where most people spoke and did business in Chinese, Spanish or even Arabic? Are too many Third World, non-English-speaking immigrants destroying our national identity?

For some Americans, even asking such questions is racist. At the other end of the spectrum, the conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly fulminates against floods of immigrants who threaten to change America's "complexion" and replace what he calls the "white Christian male power structure."

But for the large majority in between, Democrats and Republicans alike, these questions are painful, with no easy answers. At some level, most of us cherish our legacy as a nation of immigrants. But are all immigrants really equally likely to make good Americans? Are we, as the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warns, in danger of losing our core values and devolving "into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups, with little or nothing in common apart from their location in the territory of what had been the United States of America"?

My parents arrived in the United States in 1961, so poor that they couldn't afford heat their first winter. I grew up speaking only Chinese at home (for every English word accidentally uttered, my sister and I got one whack of the chopsticks). Today, my father is a professor at Berkeley, and I'm a professor at Yale Law School. As the daughter of immigrants, a grateful beneficiary of America's tolerance and opportunity, I could not be more pro-immigrant.

Nevertheless, I think Huntington has a point.

Around the world today, nations face violence and instability as a result of their increasing pluralism and diversity. Across Europe, immigration has resulted in unassimilated, largely Muslim enclaves that are hotbeds of unrest and even terrorism. The riots in France last month were just the latest manifestation. With Muslims poised to become a majority in Amsterdam and elsewhere within a decade, major West European cities could undergo a profound transformation. Not surprisingly, virulent anti-immigration parties are on the rise.

Not long ago, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union disintegrated when their national identities proved too weak to bind together diverse peoples. Iraq is the latest example of how crucial national identity is. So far, it has found no overarching identity strong enough to unite its Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.

The United States is in no danger of imminent disintegration. But this is because it has been so successful, at least since the Civil War, in forging a national identity strong enough to hold together its widely divergent communities. We should not take this unifying identity for granted.

The greatest empire in history, ancient Rome, collapsed when its cultural and political glue dissolved, and peoples who had long thought of themselves as Romans turned against the empire. In part, this fragmentation occurred because of a massive influx of immigrants from a very different culture. The "barbarians" who sacked Rome were Germanic immigrants who never fully assimilated.

Does this mean that it's time for the United States to shut its borders and reassert its "white, Christian" identity and what Huntington calls its Anglo-Saxon, Protestant "core values"?

No. The anti-immigration camp makes at least two critical mistakes.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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