Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

America's False Conscience
By Chilton Williamson Jr.
Basic Books. 202 pp. $23

The Moral, Economic, Social, and Environmental Reasons for Reducing U.S. Immigration Back to Traditional Levels
By Roy Beck
Norton. 287 pp. $24

Read the First Chapter of The Case Against Immigration

Go to Chapter One

Should the United States Close Its Doors?

By Peter Skerry
Sunday, July 21 1996; Page X04
The Washington Post

MORE THAN most issues, immigration is characterized by a wide gap between elite and nonelite opinion. While poll after poll has for years demonstrated overwhelming majority support for curtailing immigration, our political and economic leaders have just as consistently held the opposite view. And the elites have prevailed, at least in the sense that since the overhaul of our immigration laws in the mid-1960s, legal immigration has steadily increased, from about 297,000 in 1965 to over 720,000 in 1995. With a net annual addition of 300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants, today's influx is equivalent (in absolute numbers if not as a percentage of total population) to the historically high levels immediately preceding World War I.

Does this mean that our immigration policy simply reflects the efforts of manipulative and deceitful elites flouting majority opinion? Many Americans seem to think this way. So do the authors of two new books that challenge this elite pro-immigration consensus in two very different ways. One of these books is an utter failure, the other an earnest but flawed effort. Yet both bring a message from the heartland that deserves to be heard.

Chilton Williamson Jr., a former literary editor for National Review, is currently the Wyoming-based senior editor for Chronicles, a monthly out of Rockford, Ill., that has for years been articulating a cranky but provocative homegrown conservatism. In The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience, Williamson starts off with a resounding critique of the prevailing tendency to reduce immigration to a question of economics. As he forcefully puts it, "Nearly everyone recognizes immigration as a moral dilemma, too present to be ignored, too significant to be fudged, yet because it is an issue of moral as well as of practical complexity, too many people, having allowed themselves to become paralyzed morally and therefore intellectually, fudge it anyway."

Unfortunately, Williamson engages in some fudging of his own. To be sure, he scores some points against the pro-immigration bias of many journalists, who seem incapable of writing about the issue in other than heart-wrenching, human-interest terms. He also astutely identifies the relevant contradiction at the heart of our political culture: Precisely because we idealize America as a haven for those fleeing other nations, we constantly fear its being corrupted by the rest of the world. Finally, Williamson usefully traces out the connections between pro-immigration elites and their postwar view of America's world leadership role -- though from his perspective that role is an ill-considered temptation to empire that has undermined our republican traditions.

But aside from these insights, Williamson wanders aimlessly for 200 pages, getting his facts wrong and making outrageous assertions. At one point, he faults Americans during the 1920s for "responding automatically and indiscriminately to novelties, among them hot dogs, spaghetti, pizza, and oriental food." There's a good critique of an establishment pro-immigration position to be made, but this book doesn't come close to making it.

Roy Beck's The Case Against Immigration comes closer but falls short. Where Williamson is the disaffected literary intellectual, Beck is the policy-wonkish journalist. Like Williamson, Beck self-consciously hails from the heartland and is very much a populist who sees "the rich" benefiting from immigration at the expense of ordinary working Americans. His 1994 Atlantic article about the negative impacts of immigration on the small town of Wausau, Wis., was widely cited. As an editor of the Social Contract, a quarterly journal linked with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Beck has direct ties with the principal restrictionist lobby.

Yet despite such advocacy roots, Beck is a reasonably reliable guide through a mounting body of evidence on the problems generated by immigration. For example, he shrewdly identifies a connection between immigration and the emergence of gated communities. He also marshals the latest research indicating that up to a third of America's troubling economic inequality is traceable to immigration. Moreover, Beck adroitly supplements such statistical findings with case studies of how immigrants have transformed industries once dominated by native-born Americans, such as meat packing and poultry processing.

Always balanced and never strident, Beck argues persuasively that immigration is a relevant but not necessarily primary factor in many of our economic and social problems. Perhaps most cogent is his discussion of the negative impacts immigration has had, historically and contemporaneously, on black Americans.

Yet Beck goes astray when he attributes the breakdown of urban infrastructure, including the need to replace Washington's Woodrow Wilson Bridge, to immigration-induced population growth. Holding up Boulder, Colo.'s slow-growth zoning as a model for the nation, Beck doesn't seem to recognize that such upper-middle-class strategies collide with his populism, excluding less affluent native-born Americans, never mind struggling immigrants. Such strained arguments succeed only in reminding us that the environmental and population-control movements (not organized labor or advocates for the poor) have been important spawning grounds for anti-immigration activists.

Similarly, Beck goes too far when he argues for a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants admitted (down to 250,000 annually) and asserts that "legal immigration could be stopped with a simple majority vote of Congress and a stroke of the president's pen." In fact, we have already had a test of this proposition. In 1965 Congress terminated the Bracero Program, under which thousands of contract laborers had been brought here from Mexico. Yet despite that legislative action, Mexican laborers continued to pour across the border, only illegally. The lesson is that immigration is an entrenched economic and social process that cannot be so easily legislated out of existence.

Beck stumbles again when he observes that "high immigration almost always has reflected the values and served the interests of a small elite at the expense of the national interest." Yet the values he refers to pervade this society. Americans esteem individual liberty, which in this context means that we have consistently rejected policies that would provide the secure means of identification necessary for employers as well as public officials to determine an individual's immigration status.

Without such measures we will never get a handle on our immigration problems. But our failure to do so cannot be blamed solely on elite opinion, however reflexive and simple-minded its pro-immigration bias may be. When it comes to immigration, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Peter Skerry, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of "Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority."

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help