Immigration Restriction—Ruined by its Success?

October 01, 2008

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At first read, Scott McConnell’s review of Mark Krikorian’s The New Case Against Immigration—Both Legal and Illegal seems like a rather courteous, and not particularly surprising, examination of the volume. McConnell rightly credits Krikorian with crafting a well-researched, levelheaded book that will be indispensable once the immigration debate gets going again during a McCain or Obama presidency.

Dig a little deeper, however, and one discovers another message altogether, one that’s left partially concealed and which has been overlooked by most all those who’ve blogged and commented on the review thus far. It’s a message that, to say the least, brings into question McConnell’s commitment to what can be called “patriotic immigration reform.”

McConnell’s major criticism (if that’s the right word) of Krikorian’s book is that the immigration reform movement has been ruined by its success in the Republican Party. McConnell started out his adult life among the liberal Left, and according to his own account, migrated rightward over the course of the ’80s due to his interest in Commentary magazine and the neoconservative intellectual movement. In the 90s, McConnell took up more controversial and unequivocally rightwing causes such as immigration reform and opposition to affirmative action and broke sharply with the neocons on foreign policy, opposing the bombings in Serbia. By 2000, he was working on Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, and by 2002, he was the editor of Pat Buchanan’s magazine. It’s thus natural that McConnell would worry that immigration reform might become just another plank in the War Party’s agenda—or worse, part of some talk-radio jingoism about keepin’ out the wetbacks and bombin’ the towelheads (though I find that McConnell greatly exaggerates the preponderance of these kinds of sentiments among average Republican voters.)     

Our friend Daniel Larison has already noted the contradiction between, on the one hand, McConnell’s advocating the idea that the ethnicity of Mexican’s shouldn’t be of any importance to the immigration question and then, on the other, his concern with Spanish-only enclaves and recent immigrants’ passionate attachment to the Mexican homeland.

For me, there’s an even more glaring contradiction between McConnell’s claim that ethnicity doesn’t matter and his endorsement, some 10 paragraphs later, of Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan’s contention that the ethnic composition of the American nation is “the single most important determinant of American foreign policy.”

In the end, it’s McConnell’s belief that Glazer and Moynihan are right that leads him to question, if not reject, his former commitments to immigration restriction—and even speculate about “re-determining” American foreign policy through an new influx of new immigrants:

[O]ne fact seems indisputable: those from the new immigrant groups have played a very secondary role in the Bush/McCain foreign policy—torture apologist John Yoo being a notable exception. Asian-Americans, educationally and professionally on track to become a growing part of America’s elite, have evinced very little enthusiasm for the War Party agenda. While Hispanics have volunteered in great numbers for military service, the nascent Latino political class, largely Democratic, shows almost no inclination to tub thump about democracy in the Middle East, striking Iran, or rolling back Russian influence in the Caucasus.

Furthermore, McConnell observes that these new Asian and Latino immigrants wouldn’t much fit in at a meeting of the immigration reform movement, which is “attracting people from the same social strata as those volunteering for military service: working-class whites.”

One could give all this a charitable reading and say that McConnell doesn’t want the immigration hawks among the antiwar Right to alienate potential Asian and Latino allies. Sound advice. But then McConnell clearly has something much grander in mind:

To the extent that the existing American political class is now given to grandiose and probably self-destructive visions of America’s role in the world, modifying its composition through immigration seems much less of a bad idea than it might have ten years ago. [My emphasis]

On June 17, 1953, a large brunt of the German working class took to the streets of Berlin to protest life in the Worker’s Paradise. It didn’t take long for the East German state to bring out the army. Bertolt Brecht—not exactly a champion of liberty but one who saw things clearly in this instance— suggested:  

Would it not be easier
In that case, for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

McConnell is suggesting much of the same—that the arrival of more “antiwar” Latinos and Asians would be a good thing as they’d displace all those pro-war rednecks. 

McConnell and I are in agreement on most foreign-policy issues; however, I find his demographic-engineering project rather appalling, and not-particularly well conceived. McConnell should heed the advice of his erstwhile neocon colleagues who warned of the multiplying “unintended consequences” that arise when one tries to engineer desired outcomes through public policy—like, say, trying to end the Iraq war through increased immigration.

As McConnell points out, though Latinos sign up for the military in legions (many hoping to earn citizenship status in the process), they’re mostly indifferent towards foreign policy. This makes them functionally antiwar, but then it also makes them much like the rest of the population. And Antiwar America has had little success in reigning in Washington’s engaged and impassioned foreign policy-making class—which has never been particularly “representative” of the American population as a whole anyway.  

More importantly, Iraq won’t be America’s last war. And it’s likely that future ones will have little in common with our current boondoggles in the Middle East. It’s rather easy to imagine a recurrence in the near future of the kinds of border disputes and small wars between the U.S. and Mexico that were going on throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Everyone knows about James Polk, many forget that Woodrow Wilson invaded our neighbor to the south twice before his first term was up (!).) Diplomatic and military conflicts over water and other natural resources seem plausible as well. 

It’s also easy to imagine that in any of these conflicts the massive unassimilated (and, in McConnell’s mind, “antiwar”) Latino population would have little loyalty to the United State and perhaps even engage in insubordination, subversion, and secession. After all, according to Zogby, 58% of Mexicans believe that the American South West “rightfully belongs to Mexico.” Mexico’s vast system of U.S. consulates would also be there to stir up unrest. 

“Antiwar” Asian present similar problems. With the Chinese, there’s strong anecdotal evidence of a passionate attachment to the Middle Kingdom among recent immigrants, even—or perhaps especially—among the highly educated destined for elite status. Again, there is a serious danger for conflicts of loyalty if, say, an international crisis over Taiwan came about. Among the second generation of East Asians, the trend is towards assimilation towards their white classmates and colleagues—thus the sons and daughters of hardworking “conservative” restaurant owners become conventional liberals. And again, this just brings us back to where we started—a population that’s either ineffectual in confronting the Washington elite or else a part it

All these “unintended consequences” aside, it’s important to point out that McConnell doesn’t want an new “antiwar” demographic so much a new foreign-policy establishment—one that takes after not Wolfowitz and Albright but McConnell’s all-time hero, George Kennan. McConnell longs for a return to Washington of those Wise Men capable of forming an enlightened, responsible conception of national interest.  A worthy goal, indeed! But altering America’s demographics doesn’t seem a very good way of bringing this about. In many ways, McConnell needs to take more seriously Glazer and Moynihan’s claim regarding the connection between ethno-cultural identity and foreign policy. 

As McConnell himself makes clear in his superb retrospective on Kennan from a few years back, George Kennan was George Kennan in many ways by dint of his Presbyterian—and, for lack of a better word, WASP—cultural heritage. One wonders whether someone like Kennan could rise to prominence in a country that lacked an Anglo-Saxon tradition—that is, a predominantly British ethnic core and an Anglo-Protestant culture, in Samuel Huntington’s terminology, to which all immigrants—Catholic, Jew, brown, yellow, white—would conform.

Sooner or latter, the Iraq War will be over; massive demographic transformations last forever. McConnell might be bit exasperated with lower, middle-class rednecks braying about how much they love Bush on talk-radio; however, it’s hard to argue that the antiwar Right or the immigration reform movement would be better suited for an alliance with anyone else. And let’s remember, these “Jacksonians” might not be antiwar, but they definitely have a strong, visceral sense of “America First!” Finding common ground with them would seem a far more realistic and ethical solution than instigating the kind demographic transformation dreamed up by the editor of Pat Buchanan’s magazine.          

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