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The Mises Review

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Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster

Peter Brimelow

2 1995
Volume 1, Number 2


Come One, Come All?

Summer 1995

ALIEN NATION: COMMON SENSE ABOUT AMERICA'S IMMIGRATION DISASTER
Peter Brimelow
Random House, 1995, xix + 327 pp.

The customary approach to immigration by libertarians has been a simple one. No restrictions on freedom of entry into a country (or exit from it) can be justified; as Robert Bartley's Constitutional Amendment has it, "There shall be no borders" (p. 140). Peter Brimelow challenges this view in Alien Nation and in doing so raises fundamental issues of political theory.

Brimelow begins by building a prima facie case that current immigration to the United States does indeed pose a problem. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments, according to supporters such as Senator Edward Kennedy, intended to bring about no drastic change in the American population. Quite the contrary, the new legislation sought to remedy the alleged inequities of the 1920s national origins system. Supporters of the reform, including President Lyndon Johnson, castigated those who predicted an inundation from the Third World as alarmists.

The alarmists have turned out to be right."Every one of Senator Kennedy's assurances has proven false. Immigration levels did surge upward. They are now running at around a million a year, not counting illegals. Immigrants do come predominantly from one area—some 85 percent of the 16.7 million legal immigrants arriving in the United States between 1968 and 1993 came from the Third World" (p. 77, emphasis in orig<%0>inal).

Brimelow skillfully deflates efforts by immigration advocates to minimize the significance of these figures. True, as a percentage of the U.S. population, the Great Surge of 1900–1910 in immigration exceeded the influx of the 1980s and 1990s. But the new groups have a higher birthrate than that of the white ethnic stock that predominated until 1965; and, to an unprecedented extent, few of the new entrants return to their native countries. Brimelow, a master of explaining statistics in clear fashion, uses two charts, the Wedge and Pincers, to show the radical impact of post-1965 immigration. By 2050, according to Census Bureau estimates, non-Hispanic whites will cease to be a majority of the population, should present immigration trends continue.

Arguments that deny the present danger because American society has assimilated successfully vast numbers of immigrants fail to impress our author. In the past, waves of immigration have been followed by "great lulls": the period from 1920–1940, for example, saw a massive drop in immigrants. But, since the 1965 legislation, no period of digestion seems in sight for the new arrivals to be Americanized.

And do our new entrants even wish to be Americanized? In contrast to past eras, when immigrants spurned the label "hyphenated-American," many newcomers avow their contempt for the existing order. "Groups like the campus-based MEChA . . . are openly working for Aztlan, a Hispanic-dominated political unit to be carved out of the Southwest and (presumably) reunited with Mexico" (p. 194).

Further, and here Brimelow broaches the most controversial point of his provocative book, past immigrants came mainly from Europe; in 1950, the U.S. population was about 90% white. If whites from Southern and Eastern Europe did manage, with substantial difficulty, to become absorbed into the majority culture by the 1960s, does it follow that vast numbers from Asia, Latin America, and Africa can do so as well? Brimelow thinks not: he fears that the growth of racial enclaves will polarize the United States into what an earlier writer of similar views termed "clashing tides of color."

Absent decisive action, the trends that Brimelow fears will almost certainly continue and worsen. Once residents in the country, immigrants find it quite easy to bring their relatives to our shores under very liberal "family reunification" provisions of the law. And, once granted citizenship, relatives may be imported with even greater facility. As if this were not enough, enormous number of illegal immigrants (perhaps 2-3 million temporarily and 3-500,000 permanently per year in the early 1990s), have arrived here. And, by the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment, any child born in the United States, regardless of his or her parents' status, at once attains citizenship. The new citizen may now bring in, quite legally, more relatives, and so on in an ever-repeating cycle.

But the dire picture that Brimelow paints once more returns us to the question posed at the outset: Why is the situation just described a problem? What, if anything, is wrong with an ethnically diverse society? Leftists, including the libertarian variety, will dismiss Brimelow as a racist; and are not advocates of the free market committed to the unhampered movement of people across artificially drawn political divisions? Julian Simon has argued on many occasions that immigration promotes prosperity: those who prophesy otherwise, he thinks, are doomsayers along the lines of the radical environmentalists.

Brimelow's case rests on no claims of genetic inferiority of Third World immigrants. "There are quite enough reasons to worry about immigration without using Herrnstein and Murray's work [The Bell Curve]. Would-be demagogues should note that I do not so use it here" (p. 56). What, then, is his complaint?

He maintains that a nation is constituted by a common ethnic heritage: sufficiently diversify a country racially and you cease to have a nation. "The word `nation' is derived from the Latin nescare; to be born. It intrinsically implies a link by blood. A nation in a real sense is an extended family" (p. 203). By advancing this definition, Brimelow commits himself neither to saying that all residents of a nation must be of the same race nor to asserting that those of the dominant group should have more political rights than others. But the Universal Nation of Ben Wattenberg and his cohorts is a contradiction in terms: a nation of its essence partakes of the particular. (Incidentally, Brimelow I think errs in seeing his own characterization of nation as like that of Senator Moynihan. Neither is a sufficient or necessary condition of the other [p. 203].)

But again, our question recurs: why does this matter? If Brimelow is right, a society with "too much" ethnic diversity does not constitute a nation. So what? Why should one concern oneself about what appears an argument from definition? Do we not know, as libertarians, that the basis of social order is the rights of individuals, not the supposed conditions on which a collective entity rests?

Brimelow's argument will not so readily go away. If you say to him, "I am no nationalist: I do not care whether a nation, in your sense, exists," his reply will jar your complacency. "The free market necessarily exists within a societal framework. And it can function only if the institutions in that framework are appropriate. . . . Some degree of ethnic and cultural coherence may be among these preconditions" (p. 175, emphasis removed). Brimelow calls history to witness that societies have never successfully <%0>continued for long with the degree of ethnic mixing that the 1965 Act has brought about. His case does not at all depend on acceptance of his own vigorous brand of nationalism.

Rather, his argument against libertarian free-immigrationists takes this form: should you open the borders in the way you desire, you will destroy the free society that you advocate. His criticism, then, is that free immigration is a self-defeating position, to use Derek Parfit's term in his Reasons and Persons.

But what of the economic advantages of immigration? Does not free movement across borders promote the international division of labor? Brimelow responds by drawing a vital distinction. The circumstances that obtain in a complete free market differ altogether from those of a welfare state. Those who enter the United States education at taxpayers' expense; further, they often at once count in affirmative action quotas, thus securing for themselves preferred employment. Hardly the free market in action!

And what of the economic benefits of an increased number of workers? Brimelow does not altogether deny their existence; but, following the calculations of George Borjas rather than those of Julian Simon, he suggests that they have no great importance. As Borjas sees matters, much of the gains that come from an increased number of workers go to the immigrants themselves; a good part of the remainder of the gains goes to capital by depressing the level of wages. I think it worth noting, though, that not only capitalists but consumers benefit from reduced labor costs.

Brimelow uses a philosophically interesting argument in building his case for immigration reform. He asks, what happens if, respectively, his and his critics' policies are applied but turn out badly? If he has erred, we have forfeited the benefits of a certain amount, probably small, of economic growth. If his critics are wrong, we have taken a giant step toward national suicide. If we are uncertain what to do, should we not avoid the action that threatens the most harm? Here Brimelow's work intersects with the contention of many decision theorists that, in a situation of uncertainty, one should primarily act to avoid the worst possible outcome. An argument like Brimelow's, though deployed to very different political ends, plays a large part in Rawls' Theory of Justice. (Pascal's wager is a variant of the same line of thought.)

Peter Brimelow's skill in exposition conceals the magnitude of his achievement. Behind the smooth and easy flow of his prose lies a penetrating grasp of the literature of history, economics, demography, and political theory relevant to his inquiry. [See endnote.] Brimelow's analysis, and the distinctive nationalist point of view which it expresses, contribute in a bold and original way to the debate on immigration. Those who wish to argue with him must contend with a born polemicist, who has been careful to anticipate counterarguments.

ENDNOTE: One minor historical slip: Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France does not contain a "famous lament for the executed Queen Marie Antoinette" (p. 275).


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