On the “seeming insanity” of U.S. immigration and assimilation practices
Interview by Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky interviewed Victor Davis Hanson for World Magazine.
WORLD’S INTRODUCTION: If you can only read one book on the immigration issue, read Mexifornia (Encounter Books, 2003), which author Victor Davis Hanson accurately describes as “part melancholy remembrance of a world gone by, part detached analysis by a historian who knows well the treacherous sirens of romance and nostalgia, and part advocacy by a teacher who always wanted his students to be second to none.”
Those students are mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from Mexico, and Professor Hanson—a fifth-generation Californian who runs a family farm—teaches them about ancient history and civilization at California State University, Fresno. He is also the author of thoughtful and wonderfully readable books on military history such as Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.
In his writing and teaching he extols Western culture but shows an understanding of and respect for those who are first coming into contact with it. He seems like a compassionate conservative—with “compassionate” not meaning easygoing or merely sympathetic, but tough and caring enough to challenge the needy to live as people created in God’s image.
That’s important to keep in mind in regard to immigration. Although its critics have often had fun with the term, “compassionate conservatism” in general is not an oxymoron, for the conservative emphasis on faith, family, and the rule of law goes well with successful poverty-fighting both in biblical teaching and historical experience. But the concept is a difficult fit concerning immigration, where some speak with all heart and no brain and others display the opposite.
WORLD: You detail the nasty and often short lives of many illegal immigrants, not neglecting “the stabbings, the drunk driving . . . the plague of alcohol . . . venereal diseases . . . tuberculosis . . . the fencing of stolen property . . . meth labs.” You show how hard-working illegals carry around cash after payday and are preyed upon by “Mexican gangsters who steal, maim and rape with impunity their own more ambitious brethren from Mexico.” How can illegal immigrants gain protection against thugs?
HANSON: The time-honored and true antidotes to crime—come out of the shadows, gain citizenship, speak English, assimilate, and trust law enforcement. Criminals abound to prey on illegal aliens because they assume their victims are afraid to call the police, carry mostly cash, don’t speak English, live as transients among mostly young males, and are not legal participants in their communities.
WORLD: You touch on worldview questions in passages such as, “In our collective efforts to be angelic we can sometimes be devilish by establishing the principle that the state is responsible for an individual’s success or failure. . . . Rather than confess that mankind by its very nature is prone to be murderous, sexist, and racist—and that only liberal institutions of the West can rein in these innate proclivities—we instead demand instantaneous perfection of our own country and no other, both in the present and in the past.” Could you briefly lay out the religious and philosophical presuppositions that have gotten us in such a mess?
HANSON: We have given our entire souls to the god Reason, and left little else to the mystery and inexplicable of the world of faith. By believing that money and education alone can remake man, we of this therapeutic age forgot that his nature is largely fixed and hence predictable—and thus saved through law, family, religion, and community that ameliorate and tame his innate savagery. In our arrogance, we think a millionaire bin Laden or an educated Mohammed Atta is simply misguided, or has legitimate grievances, or is in need of aid and understanding, rather than proud, bullying, full of envy—and, yes, evil—and thus must be defeated rather than understood if we are going to save the innocent from their murderous instincts.
WORLD: You write that “almost everything stern and uncompromising that for two centuries has helped other immigrants to the United States—language immersion, autonomy from government assistance, rapid assumption of an American identity, and eager acceptance of mainstream American culture—has either been discounted as passé or embraced only halfheartedly.” We are recovering some of the 19th-century understanding in poverty fighting; can we do the same regarding immigration?
HANSON: I hope so. With perhaps as many as 20 million illegal aliens from Mexico, and the immigration laws in shreds, we are reaching a state of crisis. In a multiracial society such as our own, are we to tell the Filipino, the Sikh, the Korean, or the Haitian, “Stand in line, come legally, wait your turn—unless you come across the Mexican border and break the law in doing so.” So, we need to return to what is known to work: measured and legal immigration, strict enforcement of our existing laws, stiff employer sanctions, an end to bilingual documents and interpreters, and ethnic chauvinism, English immersion—in other words, an end to the disastrous salad bowl and a return to the successful melting pot.
WORLD: You write about Californians’ “dependence on seemingly limitless cheap labor—the Devil’s bargain we have made to avoid cutting our own lawns, watching our own kids, picking our peaches, laying our tile and cleaning our toilets.” You also contrast the scene at the Fresno malls, where thousands of healthy American teenagers are hanging out during the raisin harvest, with the work of the “tough, lean Mexican immigrants” who bring in the harvest. Is it impossible at this point for middle-class Fresno parents to insist that kids earn their electronic gadgets by working in the fields?
HANSON: I don’t think so. If there were not a perennial supply of cheap labor, wages would rise, and would draw back workers to now despised seasonal jobs; something is terribly wrong when central California counties experience 15 percent unemployment and yet insist that without thousands of illegal aliens from Oaxaca crops won’t be picked and houses not built. At some point, some genius is going to make the connection that illegal immigration may actually explain high unemployment by ensuring employers cheap labor that will not organize, can be paid in cash, and often requires little government deductions and expense.
WORLD: You note that “America really is endeavoring to level the playing field in one era, rather than in the traditional three generations of past immigrant experience, as it feverishly tries to meet ever-rising expectations.” Yet you note that immigrants “are given every sort of counseling, pep talk, grievance boilerplate—everything but a real education that might allow them to compete with native Californians.” What needs to be done to make expectations more realistic and at the same time accelerate the ability of immigrants to speed up the timetable by learning vital economic skills rather than emphasizing grievances?
HANSON: Begin with English. We have made a good start by eliminating bilingual education; we should follow through and cease exemptions as well, and then end government-mandated translation services and replication of documents in different languages. Take a hard look at the therapeutic curriculum in the social sciences, from Chicano Studies to Sociology and community studies classes that impart little real literary, historical, scientific, or linguistic knowledge, but simply enhance the mechanisms to complain about not having such advantages. Look at UC campuses’ catalogs to appreciate the seeming insanity—dozens of classes on La Familia, La Raza, low-rider art, or Aztlan, very few courses on the actual American Revolutionary or Civil War. Something is terribly, terribly wrong, when the state (as evidenced recently by the UC-Berkeley quota scandal) tries by intricate fiat and disguised mandate to increase the number of Mexican and Mexican-American students in our universities, even as it secretly worries that there are too many first-generation meritocratic Asians at places like UC-Berkeley and UCLA.
So what is the Asian community doing that its Mexican counterpart is not? Is it family emphasis on education, a sense of separation from the motherland, a tendency to stress achievement rather than victimization, preference for private enterprise rather than government entitlement? We need to discuss these taboo and politically incorrect paradoxes if we really wish to end something like 4 of 10 California Hispanic high-school students not graduating. Too many are profiteering and finding careers out of perpetuating the failure of others—others who will be the dominant population of the American Southwest in another decade.
WORLD: “Even timorous attempts to initiate an honest public discussion of the issue can earn one the cheap slander of ‘racist.'” Have major media become part of the problem by misreporting attempts at discussion? Or are many anti-immigration people truly anti-Mexican? Is anyone in Congress talking about immigration in a productive way? Is there a role for church leaders in this, and are any stepping up?
HANSON: In my experience only a fraction of the opponents of open borders are racist—a fact borne out by the overwhelming majorities of African-Americans and Asians who do not support illegal immigration nor bilingualism in jobs and government. The journalism and communication departments now feed the major media, and they start with the Holy Grail of the university: “All inequality of result can only be explained by discrimination and thus rectified by retroactive compensatory prejudice and group entitlement; any other exegesis is racist.” Many in Congress are fed up with the present system perpetuated by the odd alliance of the corporate/libertarian right (who want cheap labor) and the therapeutic/ethnic left (who want unassimilated, bloc Hispanic voters and constituents). Church leaders can step forward and talk honestly about the problem in terms of morality—is it so ethical to hire someone, pay him cash, break the law in doing so, and then expect the public to pick up the cost when such an employee is sick, hurt, laid off, or aged?
WORLD: You note that “the really perilous course lies in preserving the status quo and institutionalizing our past failed policies: open borders, unlimited immigration, dependence on cheap and illegal labor, obsequious deference to Mexico City, erosion of legal statutes, multiculturalism in our schools, and a general breakdown in the old assimilations model.” You point out that we could readily end up with “a permanent class of modern helots who do the dirty jobs for their Spartan overlords.” How do we avoid that? What should a new immigration law emphasize?
HANSON: We need enforcement of old laws, not creation of new ones. Attitudes about legality need to revert back to the pre-1960s and 1970s when immigration was synonymous with integration and assimilation. We need to dispense with the flawed idea of multiculturalism and return to the ideal of multiracialism under the aegis of a unifying Western civilization. There should be no more public tolerance for the racism of an organization like MECHA [a Spanish acronym for the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan] with its slogans like “a bronze state for a bronze people” or “everything for the race, nothing for those outside the race.” Why in 2005 there is still a movement like La Raza (“the race”) baffles the mind; would we stand one minute for a “Volk” movement of whites that could only be racist in defining people by how they look rather than what they do?
WORLD: The welfare-reform debate turned around when some conservatives began explaining that the real problem was not too much spending on the poor but a stinginess in what was really needed: challenging, personal, and (often) spiritual help. The education debate changed when President Bush spoke about “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” What’s needed for the immigration debate to change?
HANSON: Honesty and courage. Liberals who hire illegal nannies, gardeners, and handymen, and who go to upscale restaurants with illegal cooks and dishwashers, need to be confronted with liberal criticism: By subsidizing cheap illegal labor, are you ensuring poor American citizens will not have jobs, will not be able to organize and unionize, and will not be able to compete for entry-level jobs? What is so moral about hiring illegal aliens to dig trenches on construction projects in Los Angeles when 30 percent of African-American youth are out of work and headed for trouble? We need to be honest: Hiring hard-working illegal aliens from Mexico is a way for an employer to say, “I don’t want to deal with the hassle of hiring our own unemployed, welfare recipients, the parolees, or the uneducated.”
In all public discourse and debate, when the racial chauvinist screams “racist” in lieu of logic, we all need to quit recoiling or apologizing, and instead rejoin with “Shame on you, shame, shame, shame for polluting legitimate discussion with race.” Until we do that, I am afraid that the public will continue to be hectored and bullied—and will deserve it for their timidity and dishonesty.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson