The Immigrant’s Dilemma

Defining Ideas

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Barbara Kelley

Nearly a half-century ago, Bob Dylan wrote a mixed ode to the immigrant, in a way that no doubt might earn him charges of racism, nativism, and xenophobia in today’s politically-correct age. Yet Dylan was trying to express the paradoxes of leaving one’s homeland for an entirely new political and cultural landscape that often overwhelms the newcomer. “I pity the poor immigrant,” he sang, “Who wishes he would’ve stayed home.”

Never has the immigrant to the West been more confused. In the twenty-first century, immigration almost always moves in a single direction—poor and desperate non-Western people abandon their homes in Latin America, Africa, and Asia seemingly to join quite different cultures in Europe and the United States. The West has neither the population growth nor the poverty any more to send huddled masses to the new lands. And yet, today, these immigrants arrive in Western countries that are strange fantasylands compared to what they were expecting. The newcomer is rarely reminded of why he left home, or why, after doing so, he chose the West, and not Russia, China, Bolivia, or the Sudan for his destination.

Western governments and the larger culture could easily instruct the immigrant that the Western tradition is far more likely to embrace constitutional government, personal freedom, free-market economics, the importance of private property, religious tolerance, free expression, due process, an independent judiciary, and a larger culture of self-criticism and introspection. But to do so would put the lie to multiculturalism and the belief in different but equal cultures.

These precise Western values allow the immigrant to enjoy a security, affluence, and freedom unknown in his abandoned homeland. Yet, we, the host, prefer not to “judge” those other places, and thus do not fully embrace the immigrant’s ostensible wish to become one of us. We dare not ethnocentrically elevate our culture over others. Instead, we rebrand the human sins of slavery, sexism, and racism as uniquely Western depravities rather than age-old pathologies that predated the West and still exist unchecked outside it. The immigrant immediately senses that his troubled Western host is not so much privileged as unsure and unhappy—and ripe for psychological exploitation. Hyphenation and tribalism, not the melting pot, are often seen as the natural, expected and more “authentic” path for the recently arrived.

Note that most immigrants do not arrive with natural empathy for the West. Most forsake countries that are hostile to the West. International surveys reveal that the United States, for example, is not popular in China, Latin America, or the Middle East—the current popular launching pads to America. In such places, popular opinion is shaped by the relentless propaganda of autocratic governments, which deride Western decadence, colonialism, imperialism, and racism. Latin American poverty, for example, is often explained as a result of el Norte exploitation rather than flawed political institutions.

The new arrival to Western lands is soon patronized as an icon of “difference.” The immigrant is not usually asked to learn the language of his new homeland, much less to quickly assimilate and integrate into Western culture. Instead, the Western multiculturalist host allows the newcomer to pick and choose from a buffet of culture and language: to set up a Sharia court in London, to practice female circumcision in France, to conduct business in Spanish at the DMV office in Bakersfield, or simply to ignore seeking legal status. He also finds an existing rich menu of grievances lodged against a stereotyped dominant white, male, heterosexual Christian culture, which is to be faulted for its past sins, while never praised for having played a major part in the creation of something desirable in the present. A newcomer from Jalisco may have experienced racism only in Mexico, but the second that he crosses the border, he at once finds careerist benefits in regurgitating new gripes against his generous host—without acknowledging that, for some reason, the water is suddenly safe to drink, the police do not take petty bribes, the hospitals serve all comers, and people of all backgrounds line up patiently to be treated equally by government clerks.

Confusion naturally results. No immigrant from lower Mexico or Yemen wishes to return home. He also senses that he can remain largely Honduran or Yemeni, even amid his new Western home—as long as enough of his fellow residents do not follow his example. If everyone were to do that, then the immigrant would quickly leave and seek out Westernism somewhere else.

As a result of such trends, the melting-pot forces of the past are becoming ossified and the West is becoming tribalized. Large blocks of the population self-segregate in the suburbs of Amsterdam, Paris, Los Angeles, and London, romanticizing the countries that they have rejected, while carefully embracing particular elements of their newly adopted homelands that they find either useful or profitable.

How did this approach to immigration develop?

The first reason is politics. The twentieth century progressive experiment has reached its tired limits in the twenty-first century. Even in the age of Obama, more Americans identify as conservative than liberal. Vast majorities do not agree with the trajectory of the government. They poll that they are unhappy with the present political environment, especially with the culturally and socially imposed limits of free expression. Americans remain deeply suspicious of mandated redistribution, multiculturalism, radical environmentalism, and the growth of an omnipotent federal government.

For European socialists and American progressives, one political solution is to change the demographic rather than scale back the message, preferring illegal, bloc, and un-vetted immigration rather than diverse, legal, meritocratic, and measured immigration policies that might yield a different long-term ideological result. Massive immigration of impoverished non-Westerners into the West creates new—and predictable—voters, if the indigent are offered immediate state benefactions, predicated on nurturing grievances against their hosts. Southern Mexico may operate on racist protocols that drive out indigenous people. No matter: after reaching the United States, the Mexican national can be encouraged to think that newly discovered prejudice and poverty explain why he has not almost immediately reached parity with native-born Americans—and will never find equality without the help of the Democratic Party and the liberal ideology that fuels it.

Second, Westerners are simply more ignorant than they used to be. Twenty-first-century Western liberal man has reached such a level of comfort and prosperity that he no longer needs or wishes to reflect on the origins of his advantage. Smart phones, sophisticated automobiles, unfettered social media, and widely affordable consumer goods are seen as birthrights that appear as naturally as sweet fruits on a wild vine that require no particular husbandry or nurturing. Westerners simply self-censor themselves or are ill-equipped to explain why they enjoy such advantages —and lack the knowledge to explain the fonts of their own society’s wealth.

Third, there is guilt. As implied earlier, we have never in history witnessed civilizations as rich and leisured as contemporary Europe, North America, and much of the former British Commonwealth. The bane of the poor in the United States is not endemic hunger but obesity, which, for example, largely explains why one of three Californians admitted to the hospital for any cause will be found upon admittance to suffer from the onset Type II diabetes. Mini-riots in the inner city can break out over gaining immediate access to luxury goods, not an inability to purchase staples at the local grocery store.

Such bounty in the West often creates among privileged elites a paradoxical sense of guilt over existing luxury even as it fuels a desire for even more it. If an upper-middle class Westerner drives a nice car, and has access to untold consumer goods, he feels, at least in the abstract, that his own privilege must be unfair, and proof of rigged inequality. He worries that his unlimited bounty may come at the expense of the American poor (who are not poor by global standards). Yet Western liberal man has a sense that unassimilated communities or the inner city are also places of greater crime and poorer schools, better avoided if possible, and most assuredly not the landscapes where one would wish to live or raise children.

So it is hard to square that progressive circle of idealism and realist self-interest. The Westerner does his best in the abstract by praising the non-West, lauding all cultures as equal, and deprecating his own legacy and traditions. That way, he manages to guiltlessly enjoy his exceptional Western privilege and is never responsible for the ramifications of his own ideology. He demands La Raza and Africana studies programs for minority students, but would never wish his own son to enroll in such classes, given their inability to provide a broad and competitive liberal education. If charter schools are denounced as pernicious for the inner city poor, then tony prep schools can be sought out easily enough for one’s own offspring.

We ask very little of today’s immigrant—neither legality and prior meritocratic achievement, nor rapid assimilation and integration into the West. As a result, he sees no reason to adopt a language or culture other than his own, and often instead seeks to carve out a pseudo-non-Western existence while attached to the umbilical cord of Western largess and freedom. Contempt rather than gratitude often follows—as seen in San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, and Munich and beyond.

I pity the poor immigrant and what we do to him.

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