New York Times (Opinion)
By Ross Douthat
January 13, 2016
My Sunday column argued, fairly strenuously, that mass immigration on the scale of the last two years will put more stress on the politics and culture of Germany than any prudent statesman should accept, and that the German government should do everything in its power to not only limit migration but actually restrict asylum rights and begin deportation for some of the migrants who have already arrived.
This is unlikely to happen; even less likely is the resignation of Angela Merkel, which I concluded the column by suggesting would be appropriate at this point. But whatever comes in Germany it seems very likely that immigration, and with it what the former National Review editor John O’Sullivan calls “the national question,” will dominate European and American debates for at least as long as the refugee emergency continues in the Middle East and North Africa. And since the immigration debate has long been dominated at the elite level by voices that blend an economistic view of immigration as always and everywhere a net plus with a cosmopolitan-utilitarian view of open borders (or something close) as a humanitarian obligation, it seems worth laying out some premises that I think ought to underly the conservative alternative to that consensus.
First, though, two links, one on the European debate and one on the American, which I think provide a useful survey of the issues that ought to matter to the right (and not only to the right). First, this Ben Schwarz essay in the latest issue of The American Conservative, arguing that mass immigration is unraveling English customs and norms and identity with unforeseeable results. Second, this Reihan Salam essay in National Review on U.S. immigration policy, making a case for “a new melting-pot nationalism … to counter the ethnic and class antagonisms that threaten our society today.”
Now to my own premises:
1. The nation-state is real, and (thus far) irreplaceable. Yes, the world of nations is full of arbitrary borders, invented traditions, and convenient mythologies layered atop histories of plunder and pillage. And yes, not every government or polity constitutes a nation (see Iraq, or Belgium, or half of Africa). But as guarantors of public order and personal liberty, as sources of meaning and memory and solidarity, as engines of common purpose in the service of the common good, successful nation-states offer something that few of the transnational institutions or organizations bestriding our globalized world have been able to supply. (The arguable exception of Roman Catholicism is, I fear, only arguable these days.) So amid trends that tend to weaken, balkanize or dissolve nation-states, it should not be assumed that a glorious alternative awaits us if we hurry that dissolution to its end.
Nor should it be assumed that immigration can save nation-states from their own internal difficulties, because …
2. Immigration is a perilous solution to demographic decline. One of the common right-of-center cases for mass immigration, offered by politicians like Jeb Bush and optimistic economists alike, is that in an age of falling birthrates the West needs migrants to sustain its economies and support its welfare states. (“New Germans who are today being fingerprinted as their asylum claims are processed will tomorrow care for the elderly and pay the taxes that fund a generous welfare state,” The Economist promised last fall.)
This is true up to a point, but its logic assumes that immigrant assimilation goes reasonably well — that immigrants find it relatively easy to learn the language, to adapt (at least up to a point) to Western social norms, to find and hold jobs in a post-industrial economy, and that they don’t simply become another set of clients of the welfare state they were supposed to save. And under conditions of demographic decline the pressure to adapt will necessarily be weaker, because there are simply fewer natives around to define the culture into the new arrivals are expected to assimilate. (In the German case, as my column suggested, a few more years of migration at this pace could forge a rising generation in which Middle Eastern and North African immigrants are actually a near-majority.) In which case the odds of fragmentation and balkanization go up, because …
3. Culture is very real, and cultural inheritances tend to be enduring. Present-day America attests to that fact: We pride ourselves (justifiably) on our success assimilating immigrants, but centuries after their arrival various immigrant folkways still define our country’s regions and their mores. The Scandinavian diaspora across the upper Midwest still looks a great deal like Scandinavia — hardworking, gender egalitarian, with high levels of civic trust, higher-than-average educations and incomes, etc. The cavaliers, servants, and slaves migration to Tidewater Virginia obviously still shapes the Deep South’s entrenched hierarchies of race and class. The Scots-Irish migration to Appalachia and its environs is still heavily responsible for America’s sky-high-by-Western-standards murder rate. And of course the wider world is full of similarly striking case studies.
What this implies is that accepting immigrants from a particular country or culture or region involves accepting that your own nation, or part of your own nation, will become at least a little more like their country of origin. With small or slow migrations this may only happen at the margins and it may be swamped by other effects; with large or swift migrations it may happen in more significant ways. But whether the immigrants are coming from Asia or Latin America or the Middle East or North Africa, you will be able to see in those regions at least some foretaste of their impact on your own society. And what you see matters, because …
4. Cultural commonalities help assimilation; cultural differences spur balkanization. That is, the more a foreign-born population has in common with the nation it’s entering — in terms of everything from language to religion to family structure to education levels to cultural habits — the more easily it can make itself truly at home in its adopted country.
And these commonalities are a complex, in which no single variable is necessarily a trump. For instance, race and racism are obviously potentially powerful obstacles to assimilation. But as Schwarz points out, the English experience suggests that racial differences need not preclude immigrant success in cases where other cultural variables favor integration:
Take a black immigrant from Jamaica in the 1950s. He—the first New Commonwealth immigrants were overwhelmingly men—was probably Anglican, likely cricket-playing, and quite possibly a wartime veteran of the British armed forces or merchant navy. Had he been schooled, he would have learned England’s history and been introduced to its literature. (Probably owing to these commonalities, today’s black Caribbean population has the highest rate of intermarriage with British whites of any minority group.) The cultural distance that separated him from a white British native was almost certainly smaller than is the chasm that today separates a white British resident of, say, Sheffield from her new neighbor, a Roma immigrant. Yet that immigrant, having almost certainly arrived from Bulgaria, Slovakia, or Romania, would be classified by UK immigration authorities as a European Union migrant—EU citizens enjoy the unfettered right to live and work in Britain—and would therefore be presumed “white” by researchers making extrapolations from immigration data.
Likewise, immigrants whose ethnicity (or race or religion) looks similar on a bureaucratic spreadsheet can have very different trajectories depending on where they’re actually coming from. A “South Asian immigrant” immigrant fleeing Idi Amin’s purge of Uganda’s Indian petit-bourgeoisie is not a “South Asian immigrant” from rural Kashmir. A “Muslim immigrant” from Istanbul is not a “Muslim immigrant” from eastern Syria is not a “Muslim immigrant” from Afghanistan.
This means, in turn, that the “multicultural” vision of society beloved of the contemporary left can take an almost infinite varieties of forms —and the crucial question for determining the shape and direction of that society is not necessarily how many cultures are represented and welcomed, but which ones, in what numbers, and at what pace. Which matters because …
5. Punctuated immigration encourages assimilation; constant immigration limits it. Salam’s essay makes this point well:
In Replenished Ethnicity, Stanford sociologist Tomás Jiménez argues that one of the main differences between the Mexican-origin population in the U.S. and the white-ethnic descendants of immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s is that because mass European immigration ended more than 80 years ago, Italian Americans do not generally find themselves in social worlds dominated by recent Italian immigrants. The result is that Italian-American identity is largely symbolic and optional, and Italian Americans are perceived as indistinguishable from other white Anglos. The end of immigrant replenishment led to sharp increases in inter-ethnic marriages for Italian Americans and other white ethnics. Mexican Americans, in contrast, are part of an ethnic community that until recently was constantly being replenished by new Mexican arrivals, which in turn has sharpened the distinctiveness of Mexican identity.
This dynamic applies to other ethnic groups as well. In 2007, Zhenchao Qian of Ohio State and Daniel T. Lichter of Cornell found that over the course of the 1990s, the percentage of Asians marrying whites, and Hispanics marrying whites, fell sharply, a development they attribute to rising immigration. As the size of an ethnic group increases, in-group contact and interaction increases. This in turn strengthens in-group ethnic solidarity while reducing intermarriage.
This effect is particularly strong, as Schwarz notes, when marriage itself becomes a transmission belt for migrants, as it has been for many people (especially women) passing from the Muslim world to England:
Two-thirds of British Muslims only mix socially with other Muslims; that portion is undoubtedly higher among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis specifically. Reinforcing this parallel life is the common practice of returning “home” for a few months every two or three years and an immersion in foreign electronic media. Integration into a wider national life is further hindered—and the retention of a deeply foreign culture is further encouraged—by the fact that most Pakistani marriages, even if one spouse is born in Britain, essentially produce first-generation-immigrant children: the one study that measured this phenomenon, conducted in the north England city of Bradford, found that 85 percent of third- and fourth-generation British Pakistani babies had a parent who was born in Pakistan. (Incidentally, that study also found that 63 percent of Pakistani mothers in Bradford had married their cousins, and 37 percent had married first cousins.)
This pattern applies to economic assimilation as well: The one place where even the most pro-immigration economists generally concede that new immigration drags down low-skilled wages is among the previous cohort of immigrants. Thus the faster immigrant populations replenish themselves, the more slowly they can hope to gain ground economically relative to natives.
When critics of open immigration raise this point, the rebuttal is often that well, the immigrants themselves tend to favor more immigration, so we should defer to their ethnic solidarity rather than trying to impose our view of their economic best interests. But deferring to their ethnic solidarity is a good way to ensure that assimilation happens very slowly, because …
6. Cosmopolitanism is unusual; tribalism comes naturally. The Western way of life – economically individualistic, voluntaristic in religion, defined by nuclear families rather than extended clans – was already unusual (WEIRD, in the jargon of sociologists) by human standards before the current era of mass migration. But it did not aspire to a pure cosmopolitanism: the “individualistic” Westerner in 1960 could still rely on various commonalities (religious, linguistic, social, sexual) handed down from the pre-liberal French or English or Teutonic past. (Schwarz notes the fascinating research showing that English schoolchildren had been playing the same games since the 12th century A.D.)
Now, though, there is a palpable sense in the liberal circles that in the ideal society everyone would be a true citizen of the world, a dilettante of culture and religion, equally comfortable around neighbors of any race or faith or background, with no unchosen preferences or loyalties.
One need not delve into, say, Robert Putnam’s research on diversity and the decline of social trust to see that this is not in fact how most people wish to live. (The recent statistic, somewhat shocking to the creative class, that even in our highly-mobile and deracinated America most people live within eighteen miles of their moms, should tell you something about the resilience of tribe even in a late-modern WEIRDo society like ours.) And if the only model of assimilation you offer new arrivals to your society is a cosmopolitan ideal that’s both unattainable and unattractive to many people, and if at the same time your immigration policies make it relatively easy for them to reject that ideal and build a permanent tribal enclave instead – well, you shouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they choose to do.
Nor should you be surprised that this, in turn, provokes greater tribalism among native dissenters from a pure cosmopolitanism – be they stark dissenters like Trump voters or Le Pen supporters, or milder dissenters like the sixty-three percent of German women who now feel that Germany’s has welcomed too many migrants in the last year. Which brings us to the next point:
8. Native backlash against perceived cultural transformation is very powerful, and any politics that refuses to take account of it will fail. Even if you suppose, that is, that mass immigration would be an unalloyed good in a world where Western populations could manage to overcome their (or what you think of as their) bigotry and nativism and racism, in the world that actually exists politicians have to account for those forces and not simply assume that the right Facebook rules and elite-level political conspiracies can perpetually keep a lid on populism. If you make choices that very predictably empower the National Front or Pegida or Trump, you cannot wash your hands of those consequences by saying, “oh, it’s not my fault that my fellow countrymen are such terrible bigots.” The way to disempower demagogues is not to maintain a high-minded moral purity that’s dismissive of public opinion’s actual shape; it’s to balance your purity with prudence, so as to avoid handing demagogues issues that might eventually deprive you of power entirely, and render all your moral ambitions moot.
In this vein, Tyler Cowen has suggested that because it courts backlash so brazenly, the open borders movement might not necessarily be good for open borders in the long run. But one could go further and say that extremely liberal immigration policies might not be good for liberal norms, period, in the long run. Which matters because …
9. Liberal societies are not guaranteed survival. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” is an excellent descriptive frame for the contemporary developed world, but it is not an infallible prophecy. The liberal order has been remarkably resilient, the alternatives still look deeply unappealing – but one cannot assume that this pattern will continue indefinitely, or make political choices as though liberalism, pluralism and democracy are fixed features of the modern landscape, rather than still-contingent things.
Which does not mean that liberal societies should be governed in an apocalyptic mood, or that a perpetual “one percent doctrine” should guide leaders facing any policy dilemma. But it does mean that political stability is not something that statesmen can simply take for granted, or leave out of their equations when they think through the long-term consequences of their choices. And when you combine the factors discussed above – the resilience of cultural identity, the power of tribalism, the risks of backlash – then mass immigration on the scale we’ve seen recently in Europe, particularly combined with what may be a long era of relative economic stagnation, offers of the most plausible drivers for a near-future breakdown in liberal norms. So it’s an area where statesmen should proceed with greater caution than they would in normal policy debates, rather than recklessly pushing the fast-forward button on potentially destabilizing trends.
But how much caution depends on context, and here it’s important to stress that …
10. Europe and America are different. I’ve made this point before, but it deserves reiteration: All of the reasons for caution about mass immigration apply on both sides of the Atlantic, but they don’t apply in the same way. America has a longer history of successful assimilation, a melting-pot and mongrel culture that makes hyphenated identities easier to integrate, a geographical separation that (even now) makes it easier to manage immigration flows, and a tradition of religious pluralism that probably offers more room for, say, a conservative Islam to grapple with modernity than does the post-Christian laicité that’s official in France and unofficial elsewhere in Europe.
We also aren’t just a narrow sea away from an array of broken, chaotic, fundamentalism-ravaged societies, and we don’t face the kind of demographic mismatch with Latin America that Europe faces with Africa. Immigration enthusiasts on the right often overstate and oversentimentalize the “Catholic values” that Latin American migrants share with religious conservatives in the U.S., but there is no question, none, that much of Latin America has more in common culturally with the contemporary U.S. than the Iraqi hinterland has in common with contemporary England — or at least the parts of England that haven’t become, as Schwarz puts it, “metaphorical foreign encampments” within a late-modern society.
As someone who is (obviously) skeptical of the elite-level consensus on immigration’s benefits, I’m glad to see the G.O.P. and conservatism tilting away from George W. Bush/Rubio-Schumer “comprehensivism” on immigration policy. But I also think that the stampede to Trumpism is being unduly influenced by a conflation of the American and European situations. Europe faces a real, potentially deep and epoch-defining crisis — a refugee problem that could threaten the very foundations of the continent’s post-Cold War order. America faces a much more normal sort of policy quandary, to which the ideal political response could reach the destination that Salam proposes in his essay — sharper limits on low-skilled migration and a more Canadian or Australian approach to immigration as, effectively, recruitment — without huge and wrenching shifts, mass deportations, religion-specific entry bans, and all the rest of the Trumpian bill of goods.
So while we should be guided, no less than Europe, by a greater prudence than our leadership has shown to date, we should also recognize that what is (for Germany especially) now a crisis Over There remains as yet an opportunity for us.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com