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“Not Who We Are” Versus “Who We Want To Be”

Advocates of liberal immigration should answer entirely legitimate restrictionist questions about identity without embarrassment, but also without rancor or contempt

Our new editor in chief, Robert Merry, has a piece up about the questions of identity at the heart of the immigration debate:

For most of our history, we have been largely a country of Europeans, a country of the West, with Western sensibilities and a shared devotion to the Western heritage. Now we are in the process of becoming something else—a mixed country without a coherent, guiding heritage of any civilization and certainly not of the West.

This is largely the result both of the numbers of immigrants coming into the country (both legal and illegal) and of the place of origin of most of those immigrants. In 1960, 84 percent of U.S. immigrants came from Europe and Canada; now that number is just 14 percent. Also, the percentage of people in America who were born outside the United States reached 13.7 percent in 2015—just a shade below the all-time high for that statistic, which was 14.8 percent in 1890, after a similar wave of immigrants largely from Central and Eastern Europe.

What’s more, experts expect that percentage to climb to 14.9 percent by 2015 and 18 percent by 2065. In 1965, when the country’s current immigration philosophy was enacted into law, the percentage of foreign-born people in the country was 5 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2055 the United States will have no ethno-racial majority. When that happens, America will be a completely different country from what it was, say, when the Baby Boomers appeared on the scene and throughout American history before that.

This is a profound national alteration, and what’s remarkable about it is how little debate, or even discussion, has attended it until recently.

I count myself as one of the people who is not really worried about this. That’s largely because I’m a native New Yorker. I’ve grown up in a cosmopolitan, polyglot city, and watched that city go from putatively ungovernable to a new golden age while remaining if anything more polyglot than ever. (And it’s been a very long time indeed since New York had an ethno-racial majority.)

I have enough personal experience with immigrants from all over the world to know that, in general, the political, religious and ideological divisions between groups already living in America dwarf the divisions between newcomers and natives. And the evidence seems to show that, in the case of immigration, familiarity is as likely to breed comfort as contempt. (To pick a recent anecdote that I am fully aware is not equivalent to data: here’s a heartwarming story about Syrian refugees in Nebraska.)

I am also aware that this notion that America is a “country of Europeans” is also a relatively new formulation. Back in the early 19th century, the question was whether America would be overwhelmed by Germans; in the late 19th century, the question was whether it would be overwhelmed by Italians, Slavs and Jews. “European” didn’t used to be nearly narrow enough; now, for some worried about immigration from further afield, it’s just right.

Finally, the definition of Western civilization is also highly malleable. It’s not at all obvious to me that Russia is more Western than Mexico. And concerns about Muslim immigration, whether legitimate or overblown, have much more to do with the breakdown of civilization taking place within the Islamic world right now than with anything “essential” about Islamic civilization. Meanwhile, Canada and Belgium have both nearly fallen apart at points in the past on account of being “bi-cultural” states, and nobody would dispute that both Quebecois and Angl0-Canadians, both Flemish and Walloons, are core to the West.

Even considering all of the above, numbers still matter — for a simple practical reason if nothing else. Making unum out of pluribus may or may not happen automatically — but it certainly takes more time the more pluribus you have coming in every year. Nonetheless, those fretting that this country will die if it does not preserve its historic character should recall what a small percentage of the American population is of English descent, and yet how large English cultural heritage still looms in the national consciousness.

So I take the other side of the question. But that doesn’t mean I think the question is illegitimate. I think it’s as fundamental a political question as you can have. I think the advocates of a more liberal immigration regime do their cause a serious disservice by trying to rule it out of bounds — it comes close to trying to rule out politics itself. Barack Obama’s favorite formulation — “that’s not who we are” — isn’t an argument; it’s an accusation. Much better would be, “that’s not who we want to be” — because that makes it clear that we do have a choice of who we want to be, and that he thinks a particular choice is a better one.

I also agree with Merry that the question of immigration is a deeply emotional one, and hence difficult to resolve. But all that implies is that advocates of a more open regime need to make their appeal on emotional terms that might resonate with people who are more anxious and skeptical.

As it happens, this is the topic of my latest column in The Week:

In our private lives, few would accept leaving this question — who inherits our property, our name, and the custody of our reputations — to forces entirely beyond our control. Most of us think seriously about who we marry, who we will have children with. Even those of us — like myself — who are adoptive parents recognize that the choice to adopt is exactly that: a choice.

Questions of identity — of who we are — are just as fundamental to any political community. A shared sense of identity is what makes collective action possible, whether that action is financing a community center or fighting a war. Any time we make sacrifices today to benefit generations yet unborn, we imply an identifying bond between the present and the future. And yet, for many supporters of immigration there is a real dispute about whether this is even a valid political question — or, on the contrary, whether freedom of movement is an inalienable right, or whether asking questions about national identity is inherently racist.

In a piece that considers deeply how immigration advocates have gone wrong, Josh Barro argues for the need to make the case for a relatively liberal immigration regime as being in the national interest (as opposed to just being “the right thing to do”). And he’s right about that. But before that case can be made, they need to win the trust of those who suspect — perhaps rightly — that immigration advocates see “the national interest” as the interest of a corporate entity known as the United States of America, without regard to what the nature of that entity is, or who it exists for in the first place.

If they can’t rule questions of identity out of bounds, liberals will be tempted to answer them with ideological definitions of Americanism that implicitly deem large numbers of actual Americans to be less-than-faithful communicants of the national religion (something conservatives have been prone to do at least as much). It’s an approach that is distinctly unlikely to win over anyone not already singing from their hymnal.

So how can those with a more expansive conception of American identity make their case? The answer begins with a return to that word: posterity.

From the perspective of the founders, we are their posterity, whether our ancestors are from England, Ethiopia, or Ecuador. They are our ancestors. And what they have bequeathed to us — from our political institutions down to the land itself — is our inheritance.

The same is true of our political ancestors — and we need to talk that way.

If we want to share our inheritance more broadly, and convince our cousins to do the same, we need first to be able to demonstrate that we cherish it, that we recognize that it is our inheritance, something we, as individuals, did not create, but was given to us by those who came before, and that we are responsible for passing on. If it is ours, then we have the right to remodel it to better suit the needs of the present and the future — we don’t have to be shackled by the past. But if we care about it as an inheritance, then we’ll show gratitude for what we have received, and make changes in that spirit, even if we know that many of those who came before would have cringed to see just who has taken up residence in what was once their house, and what they’ve done to the place.

Read the whole thing there.



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