Immigration and America’s Unchosen Future

As these troubles intensify, the world’s population is projected to rise from today’s near-7 billion to 9-10 billion, worsening global ecological degradation and resource stringency. Rising numbers will be dislodged and turned into environmental and/or political refugees from failed states plagued by civil wars over ethnic divisions or water. Global warming will accelerate this human flight from homelands, especially where coastal regions are inundated and agricultural patterns disrupted. The pressure on the West of swelling numbers of migrating refugees will intensify, and the basic scenario of Golden Venture and even Camp of the Saints will be repeated many times. “How many should go where?,” two Indian economists writing in The New York Times in May, 2005, asked about the fate of the 200 million “climate exiles” expected to be driven from their homes by rising ocean levels. They calculated that, based on national emissions of greenhouse gases, the U.S. should absorb 21 percent of these, or up to half a million annually “for seventy years or so” until all are relocated. Their estimates may have been vastly low. In April 2007, a panel of eleven retired admirals and generals issued a report on climate change as a “threat multiplier.” They estimated that rising ocean levels threatened to dislodge many of the four billion Asians living within forty-five miles of the coast.

Thus the future holds ever more massive pressures from foreigners wishing, demanding, to come to America. Some of them would be Islamic terrorists or potential recruits. As a body, whatever the mixture of “hardworking and law abiding” and the smaller number of actual and potential recruits for Jihad, they expand the national population and make more difficult the nation’s efforts to cope with global warming and other environmental and resource problems. It is increasingly clear that we enter this future with our national immune system down. We have been on a sustained diet of large-scale immigration, the wrong way to prepare for this new future.

As we have learned, immigration is not an individual and isolated act, but a collective process that develops momentum, especially in countries like our own whose selection policies give greatest weight to kinship ties. When very large numbers come over many decades, networks of information and kinship strengthen, ethnic lobbies in the new homeland develop political skills and audacity as they manipulate a growing diaspora, refugee agencies using government funds siphon in their clients, and employers demand endlessly replenished cheap foreign labor. To prepare for a world in which global warming not only demands a lighter American population footprint but also expands the range of ecological harms and joins with civil wars and failed states to dislodge unprecedented millions, the last thing the globe’s chief carbon producer nation should do is to schedule four to five decades of million-plus annual influx, augmenting immigration momentum and foreign-born diaspora populations to a peak that continues to rise. Population stabilization, the sine qua non of sustainability, is incessantly pushed farther out of reach.

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Mass immigration is re-shaping America in another way as it joins forces with other social developments tending to fragment the nation. John Tanton once said of a particular legislative battle over immigration that it was “only a skirmish in a wider war” over American identity and cohesion. He was in good company in perceiving this. What Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called The Disuniting of America in his 1991 book has been a major theme in our intellectual life as the twentieth century yielded to the twenty-first.

Social fragmentation has many sources, and Schlesinger joined many “disuniting writers” in avoiding the immigration issue. His main concern was the trend among the new generation of historians of emphasizing celebratory treatment of various ethno-racial minorities in place of a common story. He had little to say about the incoming waves of newcomers bringing foreign allegiances, cultures and languages, instead indicting as the major nation-divider the new cultural force called multiculturalism. It was, initially a welcoming spirit toward ethnic and racial diversity but grew into a critique of assimilation and denial of a shared national history. Robert Pickus of the Bay Area World Without War Council helpfully enlarged this list, attributing “the profound erosion of common ground in America” to several “separatist realities in American life…Duke’s English Department, corporate America, religious decay or religious assertiveness, Hollywood, and the media.”

“The balance,” Schlesinger concluded his book, “is shifting from Unum to Pluribus.”

Have we become, asked Richard E. Morgan in Disabling America (1999), “simply a collection of ethnics huddled around a standard of living?”

Timeasked, “Who Are We?” on the cover of the July 8, 1991 issue, and asked a group of intellectuals, “What Do We Have in Common?”

Most gave the politically correct and entirely unconvincing answer: “Diversity.”

Historian John Higham noted in 1997 that “ethno-racial tensions are acute and in some ways growing. Are we witnessing an approaching end of nation-building itself?…an erosion of the nation- state, as its capacity to maintain national borders and an effective national center weakens?”

These and other commentators on societal fragmentation at the end of the twentieth century tended to locate the causes in the cultural divides opened in the Sixties and in globalization’s sapping of the powers of the nation state. They dodged the immigration issue as Schlesinger had done—warned by friends that they would be “called bad names.” But others—Peter Brimelow, Georgie Anne Geyer, Brent Nelson, Laurence Auster, Pat Buchanan, Robert Kaplan, Samuel Huntington and Juan Enriquez, to mention only a few—had the courage to address this fundamental source of the apparent unwinding of social bonds in contemporary America. In their books and essays they found assimilation of incoming foreigners faltering as the incoming numbers increased and the host culture lost its confidence.

The national print media also weighed in. Newsweek offered a major story on demographic trends in January, 1997, and saw ahead an America “crowded, mean-spirited and glum—a balkanized nation increasingly split between have’s and have-nots, old and young, and immigrants and the native-born,” with a population rising by 2050 to “more than 500 million persons” in which whites are a minority. President Clinton joined this conversation in 1998—or, perhaps future research in his presidential papers will require us to say, the president’s speechwriters prepared a commentary for him on what a century earlier had been called, “The National Question.” In a speech at Portland State University in Oregon, Clinton noted that “a new wave of immigration, larger than any in a century, far more diverse than any in our history,” means that there will be “no majority race” in California in five years and in the U.S. in fifty. “Unless we handle this well, immigration of this sweep and scope could threaten the bonds of our union.”

Clinton dropped the subject, but had he been serious about the issue or less timid he might have appointed a National Commission on Bonds of Our Union. Then there would have come under scrutiny many worrisome trends to assess along with “a new wave of immigration.” The Commission would surely have pondered historic lows reached in poll- measured public trust in government and society’s major institutions; the growth of the underground off-the-books economy; the shift in the generation and consumption of news from three television channels and one or two local newspapers in every metropolis to the information-splintering of hundreds of television channels and an expanding universe of four million internet blogs; the growth of gated communities; public school systems losing students to private schools and homeschooling. Such an inquiry would have strongly suggested that the bonds of union were weakening, and the end of the twentieth century had been a poor time to admit the largest immigrant streams in our history.

Nations, after all, are not eternal, but can unravel, which seemed to be “the tendency of our time,” wrote British-born American immigrant and historian Niall Ferguson in 2001. The drift of contemporary history “is for existing political units to fragment.” The consolidation of nation-states that multiplied the number of independent countries in the world in l871 (excluding sub-Saharan Africa) from sixty-four to fifty-nine was reversed after World War II, with eighty-nine counted by 1950 and 102 by 1995. As the twenty-first century began, 200 territories or ethnic groups were seeking secession from larger units, providing much of the international news due to conflicts in places like Serbia-Kosovo, Iraq, Russia, Tibetan China, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Belgium, Scotland, Spain, and Canada.

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Otis L. Graham, Jr

Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including “Debating American Immigration, 1882-Present” (with Roger Daniels) and “Environment Politics and Policy, 1960s to 1990s”. He lives in Santa Barbara, CA.

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