Posted by: N.S. Palmer | April 29, 2010

No Perfect Solution for Immigration

By N.S. Palmer

Bigots. Xenophobes. Know-nothings. Haters.

If you listen to most politicians and news media, those words describe the state of Arizona. It just enacted a law that lets police officers demand identification papers from people they suspect are illegal immigrants. Even President Obama has denounced the law as “misguided.”

Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri, helped draft the law. In today’s New York Times, he answers many of the ways in which the new law has been wrongly criticized. In particular, he notes that:

  • Although its critics say the Arizona law is “un-American,” it is essentially a state version of a federal law that has been on the books since 1940. Of course, one may argue that the federal law is also un-American, but it’s been around for 70 years. So it’s impossible to argue that the Arizona law is new or unique.
  • Although its critics say the law’s requirement that officers have “reasonable suspicion” is vague and open to abuse, federal courts have defined the concept in numerous cases.

Is It “Un-American” to Limit Immigration?

The UK struggles with the same issue: How to protect its society while treating immigrants fairly. This shows anti-immigrant propaganda.

But let’s talk about a bigger issue. Should we have any law that tries to restrict immigration and deport illegal immigrants?

The simple fact is that a lot of people don’t want to do anything about massive immigration from poor countries into the United States, whether it’s legal or not.

Corporations and Republicans see immigrants as cheap labor. Democrats seem them as potential Democratic voters. Both parties talk a lot about immigration reform. Neither really wants to do anything about it except pass another amnesty for illegal immigrants to let them stay here permanently.

But there’s more to it than cynical economic or political calculation. Some people sincerely believe that it’s “un-American” to restrict immigration. They define America and Americans solely in terms of free markets, voting, and Wal-Mart.

Other Americans, however, disagree with that viewpoint. They incorporate considerations of language, culture, history, and ethnicity into their concepts of America and of what it means to be American.

I sympathize with decent, honest people who come to America for work to support themselves and their families. But do those qualities make them Americans? One need not be a hater or a xenophobe to answer that it does not.

As late as 1965, the year of the Immigration and Nationality Act that opened the floodgates to immigrants from incompatible cultures, America was 88 percent white, 11 percent black, and one percent “other.” Christianity and Judaism were the dominant religions. Almost everyone spoke English. Most Americans hadn’t even learned to spell the word “minaret,” let alone seen one. That society had many flaws, but on balance, it was good. In point of fact, it was America.

Do People Have a Right to Their Own Country?

Germany has the same dilemma. Some Germans say: “Germany for everyone? No — for us!”

Some argue that Americans are whatever people happen to be living in the geographical United States at a particular moment.

But what of people who grew up admiring George Washington instead of Emiliano Zapata and celebrating the Fourth of July instead of Cinco de Mayo? What of people whose native language is American English instead of Hindi, and whose dominant religious tradition (attenuated as it might be today) is Jewish and Christian? Do they have any right to a country that reflects their culture, customs, history, and values?

I would argue that they do. The dominant political culture insists that they do not. It insists that to oppose unrestricted immigration, legal or illegal, is tantamount to racial bigotry and race hatred.

Let’s face the facts. Restricting immigration and attempting to deal with a large illegal-immigrant population involve doing things that are not as nice as we’d like to be.

We’d like to be able to welcome anyone to America who wants to come here. But because many immigrants come from incompatible cultures and can’t pay their own way in our society, we can’t welcome all of them without destroying our culture and bankrupting our social-service budgets. Moreover, all immigrants are not the same. Immigrants from European countries can fit much more easily into American society than immigrants from non-European countries. That’s not fair, but it’s a fact. Highly-educated immigrants from China, Japan, and India contribute more to our society than criminals or minimally-skilled laborers from other countries that are only too happy to palm them off on us.

We don’t want to ask suspected illegal immigrants for identification papers, or deport them, but what are we supposed to do? Should we watch our society vanish beneath a tidal wave of people to whom our history, culture, ideals, and traditions mean nothing? That’s not an option for any sensible person.

Overwhelming American Society

It’s quite reasonable for people in undeveloped and impoverished countries to want to come to the United States in search of a better life. But for good or ill, they bring their cultures with them. Those cultures are often one of the reasons that their countries are poor in the first place.

By coming in overwhelming numbers, they make it impossible for American society to assimilate them. Instead, they transform America into a chimera of their homelands: part Mexican, part Indian, part Chinese, and so forth — a country that no longer has a unifying culture or a cohesive population. That process risks destroying the America that they came here to find.

And if that process destroys America, immigrants won’t be the only ones who lose it. We all will.

Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. It seems like the term “incompatible cultures” is just a tip of an iceberg. Have we not across our history accepted immigrants of different cultures? Have we not adjusted, over a few generations of those immigrants, our national culture to include those cultures? I ask as much of ignorance, as I have not studied these things, as to question a bias I think I read here about which I wish you were more explicit.

    • Cr*p! I wrote a long response and the computer jumped before I could save it, so it’s gone.

      The short version is that you’re right, the concept of cultural compatibility needs to be defined. However, cultures can share elements that are religious, political, traditional, historical, and customary. The more of those elements that they share, the more compatible they are. Our political system is based (ever more remotely, but still) on English common law and European political philosophers. We want it to continue that way. But immigrants from Arabic or Asian cultures have no vested interest in those ideas: the ideas are part of our history, not theirs. Why should they not prefer to have a political system based on the ideas and history they bring with them from their home countries? If such immigrants arrive in large enough numbers, as they currently are, then they will eventually reshape the American political order to be more to their liking. And it will still be called “the United States,” but it won’t be the same country.

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