Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster. By Peter Brimelow.(*) New York: Random House, 1995. Pp. xix, 327. $24.00.
Peter H. Schuck(dagger)
It's a damn good thing for Peter Brimelow and his son, Alexander James Frank Brimelow, that Alexander was born in this country in 1991. Peter, a recently naturalized Briton, obviously loves the boy and wants him to live in the United States with Peter and his Canadian wife. But if Alexander had been born elsewhere, he would not be an American citizen, and if his dad had his way with our immigration policy, perhaps none of the Brimelows, dad included, could have entered as immigrants. The Brimelows are fortunate that the law did not and does not reflect Peter's radically anti-immigration prescriptions. And so, I shall argue, are the rest of us. Part of the allure of this high-spirited,(1) chatty, often personal,(2) but otherwise uncharming book is that the author acknowledges such ironies. Indeed, he skillfully exploits them to construct a case for radical reform of immigration policy that verges on total elimination of immigration to the United States. Thus, he ruefully tells us that he feels "slightly, well, guilty that [Alexander's] fellow Americans had so little choice" in conferring a citizenship that Alexander, like many children of illegal aliens and temporary visitors, acquired through the fortuity of birth on American soil.(3) He shrugs off the prospect (now happily hypothetical in his own case) that when Congress adopts his proposal to cut off legal immigration entirely, even the nuclear family of an American citizen could not immigrate to the United States. Had that been the law when he came, he says in his amiable, no-big-deal style, "I would probably be writing a book on Canadian immigration policy right now."(4)
Although it is tempting to dismiss this book as another ideological tract, one to which only the already-converted will attend, that would be a mistake.(5) The book must be taken seriously, first, because it is already influencing the public debate on immigration.(6) Alien Nation has grand ambitions. It not only raises fundamental questions about immigration's effect on the past, present, and future of American society (which is common enough in this era of apocalyptic politics) but also proposes to answer them (which is more unusual). Brimelow wishes to jettison the basic structure of our immigration policy established by the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965.(7) The 1965 law abolished the national origins quotas, which had been in effect since 1921,(8) replacing them with a system that allocated hemisphere-specific limits among seven preference categories (based on skills, family relationships, and refugee status) and in which all countries of origin in the eastern hemisphere were subject to the same 20,000-immigrant limit.(9) The immigration reform laws enacted in 1978, 1986, and 1990 preserved the essential structure (while altering the details) of this system.(10)
Brimelow proposes to end this system in favor of "a drastic cutback of legal immigration."(11) This proposal is perhaps the only instance of understatement in a book suffused with hyperbole. Calling his plan a drastic cutback is rather like calling Jack the Ripper unfriendly. Brimelow would stop all immigration immediately (but temporarily) and seems to propose a permanent termination of all family-based, refugee, and asylee immigration.(12) Presumably, he would permit only skills-based immigration, but he does not indicate how many of these immigrants he would admit. Of all the reform proposals advanced during this season of discontent, Brimelow's are surely among the most radical.(13)
Another reason to take Alien Nation seriously is its assertion that race(14) ought to matter in immigration policy. In the superheated environment in which racial issues are debated (and often evaded) today, they continue to be perhaps the most divisive and incendiary in American society. In the immigration policy context, they are explosive. Until the 1950s, racism pervaded and polluted American public law. Until only thirty years ago, it defined the very structure of our immigration law. Even today, the major receiving nations, all democracies, have embedded ethnocultural favoritism in their immigration and citizenship policies.(15) In Europe, even more virulent forms of racism and xenophobia increasingly taint immigration politics.(16)
Racism in the United States has declined dramatically in recent decades, despite frequent denials of this fact.(17) I believe--although the point is certainly arguable(18) and much turns on difficult definitions--that racism as such no longer plays a crucial role in immigration law; certainly it plays a less significant role than it did before 1965. Even so, immigration fundamentally shapes a number of racially charged policy questions, such as the future level and composition of the population, affirmative action, multicultural education, and legislative districting.(19)
Indeed, when commentators discuss how immigration affects labor markets, public budgets, urban development, political strategy, population growth, and the environment, they frequently refer to statistical data that break down the empirical effects of immigration, such as welfare utilization or fertility rates, by race. The public does not need experts to inform it that the proportion of nonwhites in the population is growing; the "browning" of America is obvious to anyone who walks down the street, rides a subway, or visits a classroom in almost any large city.
Nevertheless, the immigration debate has carefully elided discussion of the normative questions raised by these current and future demographic shifts: Are these changes good or bad for American society? Should they be slowed, accelerated, or left undisturbed? Which kinds of arguments support these evaluations? Our delicate discursive etiquette in matters of race consigns such questions largely to outspoken nativists such as Patrick Buchanan and to those who wish to pursue eugenic goals through immigration restriction.(20)
In more polite, punctilious company, these issues are left to evasive innuendo--or utter silence. Yet if the immigration debate is to have intellectual integrity and contribute to sound policy, this void must be filled. We must somehow learn to discuss racial questions candidly and fearlessly, but also with respect, sensitivity, and humility. This need is especially compelling in the immigration policy debate. After all, three decades after the national origins quotas were repealed, we still select most immigrants according to their national origins. We do so explicitly in our refugee, "diversity," and nation-specific (e.g., Cuban) programs, and implicitly in our family-based and legalization programs.(21) And individuals' national origins, of course, are highly correlated with race.(22)
Brimelow wishes to advance this debate but doubts that he will receive a fair hearing. He expects to be labeled a racist, which he archly defines as "anyone who is winning an argument with a liberal."(23) His prediction, if not his definition, is surely correct. Race is very much on his mind.(24) But is he a racist? Since Brimelow himself raises the question of his own racism and draws the reader's attention to it, a reviewer is tempted to seek an answer. The issue of his motivation, however, is an unwelcome diversion from the merits of Brimelow's claims, and I relegate it to a long footnote.(25)
In the end, the more interesting, significant, and policy-relevant issue is not the attitudes that underlie Brimelow's claims but the validity of those claims. If Brimelow's argument that the 1965 Immigration Act has been a national calamity were correct, we would be extraordinarily myopic and perverse to ignore or deny that fact--even if his argument were infected by racism. For reasons that I shall explain in the remainder of this Review, I believe that his claim is false--or at least premature. But while Alien Nation is a bad book, it is also a valuable one--all the more so because it is so seductively easy to read. On the way to its erroneous conclusions, it makes many important points that are easily overlooked or have been driven underground in current immigration debates. It forces us to think more clearly about how and why his arguments are wrong. And it reminds us to resist the patriotic smugness and national self-delusion that come so easily to Americans and to be vigilant to assure that Brimelow's dire prophecies are not fulfilled.
The book's argument can be reduced to five distinct but related empirical claims whose significance can only be understood in the light of certain normative assumptions about the nature and purposes of American society. The first is a claim about demography; it asserts that immigration to the United States has reached unprecedented levels that are problematic in part because of the racial composition of the post-1965 flow. The second is a claim about carrying capacity; it holds that these high immigration levels are stretching American society's environmental resources (broadly defined) beyond the breaking point. The third is a claim about economic impacts; it contends that the post-1965 immigrants fail to pull their weight in the labor market and drain off scarce fiscal resources. The fourth is a claim about cultural assimilation; it states that the post-1965 immigrants are not embracing American values as completely or as swiftly as their predecessors did. The fifth is a claim about politics; it maintains that the post-1965 immigrants are altering the terms of political discourse in ways that weaken the American polity and call into question its viability as a nation-state. I shall discuss each of these claims in turn.
Brimelow emphasizes that total immigration to the United States, legal and illegal, is "at historic highs."(26) As Brimelow...