France’s Immigrant Problem–and Ours

by Victor Davis Hanson

Claremont Review of Books

[This piece appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.] 

The three weeks of Muslim rage across France during autumn 2005 brought Schadenfreude to many Americans. They saw a thin scab of French hypocrisy scraped off — revealing a deep wound of invidious religious and racial separatism festering in Muslim ghettoes. As during the August 2003 heat wave that killed nearly 15,000 French elderly in stifling apartments while their progeny enjoyed their state-subsidized vacation at the beach or mountains, French talk of solidarity and moral superiority proved spectacularly at odds with the facts.

So for much of last October and November, Americans congratulated themselves that French-style rioting could, of course, never happen in the United States. After all, their economy is moribund. Ours is growing at well over 3 percent per year. French unemployment hovers near 10 percent; America’s is half that. Fifty-seven million jobs were created in the U.S. during the past 30 years, only 4 million in all of Europe. Our minority youth, as a result, are much more likely to be working than idling in the streets. And sure enough, in France, about 25 percent of youths between 15 and 24, regardless of race or religion, are out of work.

After the unrest in our cities during the 1960s and 1970s, Americans increasingly sought through assimilation, intermarriage, and integration to fulfill the ideal of an interracial society. As emblems of our success, Americans can point to cabinet members like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, or Alberto Gonzalez. By contrast, it is almost unimaginable that anyone of Arab-French ancestry would head a major French ministry. We long ago jettisoned the notion that proper citizens should necessarily look like Europeans. The French apparently still have not. Second- or third-generation spokespersons of the American Hispanic community, for instance, are often successful, affluent, and integrated. By contrast, imams who barely speak French after decades of living there, and who from their 1,500 mosques decry the decadence of French culture, were often the only intermediaries between the French government and youthful rioters.

The accepted view is not just that the American melting pot differs from European separatism, but that the largest bloc of our immigrant residents is itself quite different — Christian Mexicans who trek across a common 2,000-mile unfenced border, eagerly looking for work. France’s Muslim immigrants bring with them age-old, clash-of-civilizations baggage dating from Poitiers in the 8th century to the 20th-century French colonial war in Algeria. In contrast, Mexico was colonized by European Christians — and we have had more or less stable relations with the Mexican government for over a century. Moreover, even illegal-alien drug smugglers and gangbangers are not terrorists; we do not fret about their potential sympathy for radical Islam. And the rioters outside of Paris were almost all males, apparently embracing strict gender separation — antithetical to French culture, and utterly foreign to Mexican immigrant men and women, who cross our border indistinguishably.


All’s Not Well

Yet such contrasts are not the entire story. For despite the many differences, America is not immune from all the destructive social and cultural forces now tearing at the seams of French society. Hundreds of thousands of first-generation illegal aliens currently live in Los Angeles and rural California in what are, in effect, segregated communities. In many cases, they are no more integrated — and no less alienated — than those in the French suburbs. Instead, these immigrants comprise an entire underclass without sufficient language skills, education, or familiarity with their host country to integrate successfully into society, much less to pass on capital and expertise to ensure that their children are not condemned to perpetual menial labor.

Spanish has become the de facto language for many communities in the southwest U.S. in the same way that Arabic dominates the French suburbs. Mexico City newspapers air the same sort of historical gripes and peddle the same kind of myths as Arab fundamentalists, who drug their poor, uneducated expatriates with stories of al-Andalus and a restored caliphate that will spread once again from southern Europe to the Euphrates.

In some respects, our situation is worse than France’s. The United States has some 8-12 million illegal aliens — a population of unlawful residents larger than that of any other country in the Western world — not France’s 4-7 million mostly Arab-French citizens. Ten thousand Muslim youths rioted outside Paris; but there are nearly 15,000 illegal-alien felons from Mexico in the California penal system alone, incarcerated at a cost of almost a half billion dollars a year. Portions of the Arizona and California borders have devolved into a Wild West — a no-man’s-land of drug smuggling, shoot-outs, environmental desecration, and random death. Mexico responds by publishing comic books with safety tips about crossing the border, so that its departing citizens can more safely violate U.S. immigration laws. Meanwhile, Hispanic groups in America complain that increased border surveillance near San Diego has cruelly diverted human traffic into the desert.

Granted, Americans have proved far more adept at assimilating the Other than have the French; we have not suffered widespread racial or ethnic violence since the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And we do not have a religious or terrorist overtone to our internal tensions. But there are still enough similarities with the French experience to give us pause.


Immigration and Its Discontents

In the first place, poor Mexicans come to the U.S. for largely the same reasons that Arabs settle in France (and both were initially welcomed by their hosts). Mexicans and Arabs alike flee corrupt Third World societies and grinding poverty. At least in the beginning, they trust that unskilled and often menial employment in the West — under the aegis of a far more liberal welfare state and the rule of law — are better than anything back home. Perhaps at first such jobs are considered an improvement. But by the second generation, the paradox becomes apparent: employers hire migrants and their children expressly on the premise that they will work for lower wages than the natives would accept. If employers were to pay competitive compensation and provide full benefits, there would be little need for immigrants, since in many counties where illegal aliens reside there are enough unemployed non-immigrants to fill such jobs. In America as in France, the society eventually must pay the difference through greater state entitlements to subsidize an (often persistent) underclass.

So the reasons that Mexicans’ and Arabs’ rates of poverty, alcoholism, incarceration, reliance on entitlements, and high school drop-out are far higher than those of the host population are similar: in a globalized economy, manual labor in the West is now rarely unionized, respected, well-paying, or lasting. Nor are such jobs often looked upon, as they once were, as a sort of entry-level apprenticeship in which character and discipline are inculcated, in which young people gain education and experience before moving up the employment ladder.

Much of the work offered to immigrants remains in the service sector — cooking food, making beds, cutting lawns, cleaning toilets — jobs that become galling for the perennially second-class citizen in constant proximity to his more affluent host, whom he must serve while never quite receiving the compensation or respect he believes is warranted. Such jobs tend to come and go without breeding loyalty on either side. This is why the French-Arab unemployment rate (nearly 20%) is twice the national average, and why nearly one-third of California’s Mexican immigrant households are on public assistance. In each case, foreigners are welcomed in due to a perceived shortage of labor, but their families eventually end up either unemployed or on public assistance at much higher rates than non-immigrant households.

Many in the second generation lap up their parents’ bitterness, but without the consolation that things are still better in the West than back home. This is one reason that nearly four out of every ten Hispanic high school students are not graduating from high school in four years. Of those that do, only 22.9 percent meet the minimum entry requirements of the California State University system, the less competitive of the state’s two systems. Of Latinos of all statuses in California, less than 10 percent of those over 25 have bachelor’s degrees — a legacy of their parents who in many cases came to the state without English, without education, without lawful entry, and without well-paying, secure jobs. In some sense, the anger of the tattooed gang member who ends up in San Quentin is not that different from the rage of the car-burning Muslim in the Paris suburbs. Both are resentful, have sufficient entitlement aid to indulge the appetites but insufficient skills to earn a good living; and are eager to blame society for their frustrations.

In short, the absence of fluency in the host language, little or no education beyond high school, and retention of much of their home country’s culture all conspire to keep millions of unassimilated immigrants — in both France and the U.S. — stuck in ethnic enclaves and static jobs that usually don’t pay enough to ensure a middle-class existence for larger-than-average families. This is true even without the specter of prevailing racism and undeniable discrimination. And by middle age their physically demanding jobs often leave such workers injured, ill, or disabled.


The Politics of Resentment

The problem is not that it is impossible for thousands of maids, street sweepers, fruit pickers, and gardeners to move up to become electricians, small contractors, and government officials, in either France or the U.S. But the pool of newly arrived young immigrants who cannot advance quickly is so large — and growing — that our failures in upward mobility overshadow our successes. In postmodern societies, the number of immigrants is a force multiplier, inasmuch as near-instant parity for all is taken to be the only benchmark of success. Therefore the collective failure of millions is far more relevant politically than the individual success of thousands.

If Islam bolsters resistance to assimilation on the part of French immigrants from the Maghreb, illegality alienates Hispanic immigrants whose cars, taxes, and official documentation exist in a netherworld off the books. Hence many Hispanic youths — like the Arab population of France, but unlike the Cuban, Korean, or Sikh populations in the U.S. — embrace varying degrees of ethnic chauvinism to decry de facto inequality.

Consider, for example, the radical agenda of some of the most vocal ethnic separatists. The slogans of MEChA (El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) — “Everything for the race. Nothing for those outside the race.” (Por La Raza todo. Fuera de La Raza nada.) — do not differ much from Islamic nationalists’ sentiments in Europe.

Those embarrassed by such racist mottos argue that ethnic triumphalists in the U.S. are ossified relics of the 1960s, and have tempered their rhetoric in the 21st century. Yet ponder the following essay from Ernesto Cienfuegos on the website La Voz de Aztlan (“The Voice of Aztlan”) in the wake of the French rioting:

Today, here in Los Angeles, we are already seeing ominous signs of an impending social explosion that will make the French rebellion by Muslim and immigrant youths seem “tame” by comparison. All the ingredients are present including a hostile and racist police as in France. In fact, we came close to having major riots on three separate occasions just this year alone…. There is a strange feeling here in Los Angeles that something sinister is about to happen but no one knows when. All it will take is for a “bird-brain cop” to do something stupid and all hell will break loose. If another major rebellion breaks out here in L.A. it could rapidly spread throughout the USA as it has spread in France…. The social and economic conditions that exist in France that adversely affect its immigrant and Muslim populations also exist here in the USA…. The rebellion that is occurring in France can and will most probably happen here.

The largest Hispanic grievance association is still called the National Council of La Raza (“the Race”), a well-meaning organization that nevertheless appeals to racial solidarity and purity and therefore separatism — a clear repudiation of the idea of American multiracialism. Its nomenclature would hardly be tolerated were it not for the enormous size of the growing Hispanic community.

In a 1997 speech before this activist group, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo bragged that “the Mexican nation extends beyond the territory enclosed by its borders” and that Mexican migrants were “an important — a very important — part of this.” A Zogby poll of Mexican citizens conducted in late May 2002 showed that 58 percent believed that “the territory of the United States’ southwest rightfully belongs to Mexico.” The national newspaper of Mexico, Excelsior, agreed: “The American Southwest seems to be slowly returning to the jurisdiction of Mexico without firing a single shot.” No wonder then that 57 percent of Mexicans in that same Zogby poll believed that they should have the right to cross the border freely and without U.S. permission.

In a recent Pew poll, 40 percent of all Mexicans expressed a desire to immigrate to the U.S. That presents an Orwellian dilemma: almost half the population of our southern neighbor wants to leave home and enter our country, while claiming that this promised land ought to be part of the very system that has made their own country uninhabitable. A parallel phenomenon exists in Europe: radical Islamists who dream of Eurabia fail to realize that, without assimilation and adoption of their hosts’ culture, they would only recreate the same discontents that prompted their departure from home in the first place.

Even if we accept that some Mexican-American leaders occasionally indulge in rhetorical excesses, their appeals to notions of race andreconquista still echo in mainstream politics. Consider the remarks of Richard Alatorre, a former member of the Los Angeles City Council: “They’re afraid we’re going to take over the governmental institutions and other institutions. They’re right. We will take them over.” Mario Obledo, former California State Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under Jerry Brown — and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton — once infamously remarked, “California is going to be a Hispanic state. Anyone who doesn’t like it should leave.” Speaking at a Latino gathering in 1995, Art Torres, then Chairman of the California Democratic Party, decried the passage of Proposition 187 denying entitlement benefits to those here illegally: “Power is not given to you. You have to take it. Remember, 187 is the last gasp of white America in California.”

Such pronouncements tend to be encouraged by contemporary group-rights liberalism. Both the French and American governments embrace multiculturalism, which exacerbates the problem and empowers racial chauvinists. Multiculturalism teaches that there is nothing really choiceworthy about the economic, social, and political core values of Western culture, given its historic sins of racism, class exploitation, and sexism. At its worst, multiculturalism can end up, as in France, allowing de facto polygamy among immigrants from North Africa (perhaps 15,000 such families), or, more mildly in the U.S., extenuating or even embracing Chicano student manifestos like this one from a MEChA website at San Jose State University:

Chicanismo involves a personal decision to reject assimilation and work towards the preservation of our cultural heritage…. By all means necessary, we Chicana/Chicano estudiantes of Aztlán, dedicate ourselves to taking our educational destiny into our own hands through the process of spreading Chicanismo, in the spirit of carnalismo…. As Chicanas and Chicanos of Aztlán, we are a nationalist movement of Indigenous Gente that lay claim to the land that is ours by birthright. As a nationalist movement we seek to free our people from the exploitation of an oppressive society that occupies our land.

Second-generation immigrants often take away from this student activism, multicultural school curriculum, government bureaucracy, and popular culture a mixed but mostly pernicious message: that long-standing prejudice intrinsic to a corrupt system is what keeps newcomers down; and consequently that self-esteem and self-confidence can only be imparted by a therapeutic course of study, airing past grievances and proposing new group compensation. Shunned is the idea that traditional education alone allows immigrants to master the host language, gain familiarity with the host country’s traditions and customs, and acquire enough science, math, and liberal arts to compete with long-standing natives.

The result is often psychological chaos. Too many second-generation Hispanics in the U.S., and Arabs in France, romanticize their “mother” country, which often they have never seen and would never return to if they had — while deprecating their parents’ adopted society. This schizophrenia is similar to what the polls reveal about the wishes of Mexican citizens themselves. Large numbers believe that the southwest U.S. belongs to them, yet they don’t want to stay in their own country. If Mexico were to absorb the American Southwest, would Mexicans still wish to emigrate there?


Hard Choice

With millions of illegal aliens already here, borders wide open in a time of war, and the ideal of assimilation under assault, there really are no more painless choices. Mexico is under no compulsion to reform its corrupt system when millions of its disaffected simply head north and send precious dollars south (some $10-15 billion annually in worker remittances). For Mexico to change the present system would be a lose-lose proposition: more social tension at home, less money coming in from the north.

An end to cheap, industrious labor in the U.S. would cause initial hardship to the American economy, raise wages and costs, and redefine the American attitude to physical and even menial labor — positive in the long run, painful and easily demagogued in the short term. Yet because the U.S. has a far better record of assimilation than Europe, it makes no sense for us to continue to emulate European racial separatism, which offers immigrants neither the economic opportunity nor the cultural discipline to succeed.

We should start by letting in far fewer immigrants from Mexico. An allotment of about 100,000 legal entrants — reasonable people could differ on the numbers — would privilege Mexicans (in recognition of our historic ties) but still ensure that those who came would do so legally and in numbers that would mitigate their ghettoization. Rather than predicating entry into the U.S. mostly on family affiliations, we should try to use sensible criteria to assess suitable Mexican immigrants — knowledge of English, education levels, familiarity with American laws and customs — to ensure that they are competitive with other newcomers and do not perpetuate an unassimilated underclass.

Tripartite border enforcement — a permanent and systematic barrier of some sort, increased manpower for apprehension, and employer sanctions — is crucial to ensure that immigrants arrive legally and in numbers manageable for assimilation. On this the public — in a Zogby poll 68 percent of Americans favor stationing troops along the border to curb unlawful entry — is far ahead of either political party.

Guest workers are a bad idea, as we learned in the 1950s and ’60s from our own bitter bracero experience (“good enough to work for you, but not good enough to live beside you”). Temporary laborers, as we see in the suburbs of Germany and other parts of Europe, will inevitably create a permanent helot class. Moreover, these workers would continually depress wages for entry-level jobs for legal immigrants and our own poor, who find it hard to compete with young Third World illegals who are in no position to be choosy about work or to complain to authorities about employer treatment. There is nothing in the American or European experience with guest workers to suggest that they would willingly leave when their tenure expired, that their sense of exploitation would not create and perpetuate social tension, and that they would not need welfare assistance in times of health crisis or unemployment. Nor is it clear that millions of immigrants would cease coming to the U.S. illegally when they found that they were not accorded guest worker privileges.

Amnesty is perhaps the most contentious issue in the present immigration debate — in some polls 70 percent of Americans oppose it. We have had six prior reprieves of various sorts since the notorious blanket amnesty of 1986. These accomplished little other than encouraging more immigrants to come across the border illegally on the logical assumption that in a few years their lawbreaking would be ignored, or rewarded with citizenship. And yet because the problem has mushroomed over four decades, there are now literally millions of Mexicans in their old age who are here illegally, have forgotten life in Mexico, and have lived essentially as Americans. Deporting long-time residents would, if nothing else, be a humanitarian and public relations nightmare.

Yet some sort of one-time amnesty, as opposed to the old rolling and periodic reprieves, could only be discussed in the context of closing the border, precluding guest worker programs, and returning to assimilationist policies, so that the present pool of millions of illegal aliens would vanish rather than being perpetually replenished. Very rapid assimilation might work if the pool of those who come illegally, without English or education, to work largely in low-paying service jobs, would be vastly curtailed. In some sense, guest workers are far more destabilizing than a one-time amnesty. The former constantly enlarges the number of exploited and soon to be disillusioned aliens; the latter ends it. The prohibition of bilingual government documents and services, and of a racially chauvinistic and separatist curriculum in our schools and universities, would also send a powerful message that one should not come north unless he is willing to become a full-fledged American in every linguistic, cultural, and political sense of the word.

And, of course, there must be radical change in our own minds and hearts. When encouraged by Americans to adopt the customs and language of citizens, immigrants are more easily accepted; intermarriage and integration naturally follow. We must not forget that it is far easier for a Mexican or an Arab to become part of American or French society, than it is for an expatriate African-American or European-American to be accepted as a Mexican citizen, or a Frenchman to be considered a true citizen of Islamic North Africa.

America could easily end up like France without sharing all of French society’s pathologies. Alienated populations in both countries have immigrated for similar reasons. And both groups often have passed on their frustrations and disappointments to a subsequent generation who did not fully assimilate or prove competitive with the non-immigrant populace—and were allowed by their hosts to remain separate from society. Nonetheless, contrary to tendentious and inflammatory predictions, the rebellion in France is not likely to happen here. But there is no reason to tempt fate, and every reason to ameliorate our own problems before they worsen.

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