The flood of illegal immigration into California raises urgent questions that the whole nation must face.
by Victor Davis Hanson
Thousands arrive illegally from Mexico into California each year—and the state is now home to fully 40 percent of America’s immigrants, legal and illegal. They come in such numbers because a tacit alliance of Right and Left has created an open-borders policy, aimed at keeping wage labor cheap and social problems ever fresh, so that the ministrations of Chicano studies professors, La Raza activists, and all the other self-appointed defenders of group causes will never be unneeded. The tragedy is that though illegal aliens come here hoping to succeed, most get no preparation for California’s competitive culture. Instead, their activist shepherds herd them into ethnic enclaves, where inexorably they congeal into an underclass. The concept of multiculturalism is the force-multiplier that produces this result: it transforms a stubborn problem of assimilation into a social calamity.
Given hard feelings over recent ballot initiatives that curtailed not only aid to illegals but also affirmative action and bilingual education, unlawful immigration has become the third rail of California politics. Even to discuss the issue can earn politicians the cheap slander of “racist” or “nativist.” Tensions abound even within families. One of my siblings is married to a Mexican-American; another has two stepchildren whose father was an illegal alien from Mexico; I have a prospective son-in-law whose parents crossed the border. Yet we all disagree at different times whether open borders are California’s hope or its bane.
And why not? Californians cannot even obtain accurate numbers of how many of the state’s more than 10 million Hispanic residents have arrived here from Mexico unlawfully in the last two decades. No one believes the government’s old insistence on a mere 6 million illegal residents nationwide; the real figure may be twice that. The U.S. Hispanic population—of which over 70 percent are from Mexico—grew 53 percent during the 1980s, and then rose another 27 percent to a total of 30 million between 1990 and 1996. At present rates of births and immigration, by 2050 there will be 97 million Hispanics, one-quarter of the American population.
Nor is there agreement on the economic effects of the influx. Liberal economists swear that legal immigrants to America bring in $25 billion in net revenue annually. More skeptical statisticians using different models conclude that aliens cost the United States over $40 billion a year, and that here in California each illegal immigrant will take $50,000 in services from the state beyond what he will contribute in taxes during his lifetime. Other studies suggest that the average California household must contribute at least $1,200 each year to subsidize the deficit between what immigrants cost in services and pay in taxes.
The irony, of course, is that the present immigration crisis was not what any Californian had anticipated. Along with the cheap labor that the tax-conscious Right wanted, it got thousands of unassimilated others, who eventually flooded into the state’s near-bankrupt entitlement industry and filled its newly built prisons: California is $12 billion in the red this year and nearly one-quarter of its inmates are aliens from Mexico (while nearly a third of all drug-trafficking arrests involve illegal aliens). The pro-labor Left found that the industrious new arrivals whom it championed eroded the wages of its own domestic low-wage constituencies—the Labor Department attributes 50 percent of real wage declines to the influx of cheap immigrant labor. And while the Democrats think the illegals will eventually turn into liberal voters, the actual Hispanic vote so far remains just a small fraction of the eligible Mexican-American pool: of the 14,173 residents of the central California town of Hanford who identified themselves as Latino (34 percent of the town’s population), for example, only 770 are registered to vote.
My sleepy hometown of Selma, California, is in the dead center of all this. The once rural San Joaquin Valley community has grown from 7,000 to nearly 20,000 in a mere two decades, as a result of mostly illegal immigration from Mexico. Selma is now somewhere between 60 and 90 percent Hispanic. How many are U.S. citizens is either not known or not publicly disclosed: but of all those admitted legally from Mexico to the United States since 1982, only 20 percent had become citizens by 1997. Some local schools, like the one I went to two miles from our farm, are 90 percent first-generation Mexican immigrants. At the service station a mile away, I rarely hear English spoken; almost every car that pulls in displays a Mexican flag decal pasted somewhere.
To contrast the Selma I live in today with the Selma I grew up in will doubtless seem hopelessly nostalgic. But the point of the contrast is not merely that 40 years ago our community was only 40 or 50 percent Mexican, but rather that the immigrants then were mostly here legally. Crime was far rarer: the hit-and-run accidents, auto theft, drug manufacturing and sale, murders, rapes, and armed robberies that are now customary were then nearly nonexistent. Fights that now end in semi-automatic-weapon fire were settled with knives then.
I used to worry over the theft of a tractor battery. Yet in the last decade, I have run off at gunpoint three gang members trying to force their way into our house at 3 am. Last year, four patrol cars—accompanied by a helicopter whirling overhead—chased drug dealers in hot pursuit through our driveway. One suspect escaped and turned up two hours later hiding behind a hedge on our lawn, vainly seeking sanctuary from a sure prison term. When a carload of thieves tried to steal oranges from our yard, I soon found myself outmanned and outgunned—and decided that 100 pounds of pilfered fruit is not worth your life.
It is a schizophrenic existence, living at illegal immigration’s intersection. Each week I pick up trash, dirty diapers, even sofas and old beds dumped in our orchard by illegal aliens—only to call a Mexican-American sheriff who empathizes when I show him the evidence of Spanish names and addresses on bills and letters scattered among the trash. So far I have caught more than 15 illegal dumpers, all Mexican, in the act. In the last 20 years, four cars piloted by intoxicated illegal aliens have veered off the road into our vineyard, causing thousands of dollars in unrecompensed damage. The drivers simply limped away and disappeared. The police sighed, “No license, no insurance, no registration” (“the three noes”), and towed out their cars.
Yet I also walk through vineyards at 7 AM in the fog and see whole families from Mexico, hard at work in the cold—while the native-born unemployed of all races will not—and cannot—prune a single vine. By natural selection, we are getting some of the most intelligent and industrious people in the world, people who have the courage to cross the border, the tenacity to stay—and, if not assimilated, the potential to cost the state far, far more than they can contribute.
We know what caused the tidal waves of immigration of the last three decades. While Mexico’s economy has been in a state of chronic collapse, California has needed workers of a certain type—muscular, uneducated, and industrious—to cut our lawns, harvest fruit, cook and serve meals, baby-sit kids, build homes, clean offices, and make beds in motels and nursing homes. The poor from Armenia, Japan, China, the Azores, and Oklahoma had all begun their odysseys of success in California doing just these menial tasks, albeit in far smaller numbers. But despite mechanization, California today demands more, not less, stoop work than 30 years ago, because of the state’s radically changed attitudes and newly affluent life-style.
When I was ten in 1963, all suburbanites mowed their own lawns—many with push mowers. Now almost everyone hires the job out. Nannies for toddlers and grannies, unheard-of then, are now ubiquitous from Visalia to Palos Verdes. Rural schools used to begin in mid-September to ensure that we natives could pick grapes to earn our school clothes and shoes. Today not a single student in California would do such hot, dirty work, now considered demeaning. With demand for such workers high and the supply of native-born citizens willing to do it low, Mexico came to the rescue of California.
There is a well-known cycle in California immigration. Young people between ages 15 and 30 arrive here illegally and for a while stay single. Over decades, many live hard and toil at menial jobs, earning perhaps $8 an hour, usually paid in cash, which is a bargain for everyone involved. Without state, federal, and payroll taxes, the worker earns the equivalent of a gross $10-an-hour rate, while the employer saves 30 percent in payroll contributions, audits, and paperwork—even as such cash payments force other Americans and legal immigrants to pay steeper taxes, in part to cover those who don’t pay. The immigrants work hard until their joints stiffen and their backs give out. By then their families are large. Their English stays perpetually poor; their education is still nonexistent, even as their IDs remain fraudulent.
Now, $8 per hour in California, rather than per week in Mexico, no longer seems such a bonanza, and they use their counterfeit documentation to get onto workers compensation, unemployment insurance, and state assistance to garner what their weary bodies can no longer earn. Meanwhile, they romanticize a distant Mexico while chastising an ever present America. And the second generation has learned how to live, spend, and consume as Americans, but not, like their fathers, to work and save as Mexicans. If rising crime rates, gang activity, and illegitimacy are any indication, many now resent, rather than sacrifice to escape, their poverty. And the rates are rising fast: for example, while 37 percent of all births to Hispanic immigrants are illegitimate, the illegitimacy rate among American-born Mexican mothers is 48 percent.
Census data show us that median household income by the mid-1990s had risen for a decade for all groups, except for the nation’s Hispanics, whose incomes dropped 5.1 percent. Although recent immigrants from Mexico and their U.S.-born children under 18 now officially make up only 4.2 percent of America’s population, they represent 10.2 percent of our poor. When you add in longtime residents, Hispanics account for 24 percent of America’s impoverished, up 8 percentage points since 1985. The true causes of such checkered progress—continual and massive illegal immigration of cheap labor that drives down wages for working Hispanics here; failure to learn English; the collapse of the once strong Hispanic family due to federal entitlement; soaring birthrates among a demoralized underclass; an intellectual elite that downplays social pathology, claims perpetual racism, and seeks constant government largesse and entitlement; and years of bilingual education that ensure dependency upon a demagogic leadership—are rarely mentioned.
They cannot be mentioned. To do so would be to suggest that the billions of public dollars spent on social redress did more to harm Hispanics than did all the racists in America. Moreover, we wish to maintain cordial relations with Mexico—but in many ways no government in the last 50 years has been more hostile. Mexico’s policy for a half-century has been the deliberate and illegal export of millions of its poorest citizens to the United States, which is expected to educate, employ, and protect them in ways not possible at home. Only that way has the chronically corrupt Mexican government avoided a revolution, as its exploited underclass from Oaxaca or the small hamlets of the Sierra Madre Mountains headed north, rather than marching en masse on Mexico City. Only that way can billions of earned foreign currency be sent home to prop up a bankrupt economy; only that way for the first time in his life can a poor Mixtec from Michoacan find an advocate for his health and safety from the Mexican consulate—once he is safely ensconced far north of the border.
You can leave Selma and be across the border in about six hours. That proximity in terms of immigration is paradoxical. The richest economy in the world is only a stone’s throw from one of the most backward. The illegal alien leaves his pueblo in Yucatán, where cattle starve for adequate fodder, and in a day can be processed through familial connections to begin mowing and bagging fescue grass in the most leisured and affluent suburbs in Los Angeles.
Mexican-Americans never experience the physical or psychological amputation from the mother country that most other immigrants to California found, after thousands of miles of seawater cut the old country clean off and relegated it to the romance of memory. But the Mexican immigrant can easily recross the Rio Grande by a drive over a short bridge. A limited annual visit or a family reunion nourishes enough nostalgia for Mexico to war with the creation of a truly American identity.
For Mexican immigrants, the idea of Mexico has shifted from a liability to an important benchmark of ethnic pride in the last two decades. A visiting Mexican soccer club playing almost any American team will find in our local fans a home-crowd advantage—despite being 1,000 miles from home. Mexicans in California turn out to vote in booths set up in California for local and national candidates in Mexico, who come up to campaign in Fresno every year—and often learn to their dismay that California’s Mexicans are among the sternest critics of Mexico City’s endemic government corruption.
Instead of growing more distant, a romanticized Mexico stays close to the heart of the new arrival and turns into a roadblock on his journey to becoming an American. Many immigrants die as Mexicans in California, never seeking to become citizens. A columnist for our local paper recently described their suspension between two worlds: “Pensaban que se iban a ir patria” (“They thought they would go back”). Aside from our own self-interest in having our residents accept the responsibilities of full citizenship, it is entirely in the material interest of aliens to integrate and assimilate as quickly as possible into the general culture of California: they will eat better and have nicer houses and more secure futures for their children in California if they become Americans rather than permanent Mexican aliens.
Some sociologists and journalists assure us that retaining this cultural umbilical cord is not injurious. Instead, we are creating a unique regional culture that is neither Mexican nor American, but an amorphous, fluid society that is the dividend on our multicultural investment. This Calexico or Mexifornia will not be a bad thing at all but something, if not advantageous, at least inevitable. So we allow illegal aliens to obtain California driver’s licenses—the foundation of all other means of legal identification—and to pay reduced in-state tuition at the University of California, thereby providing several thousand dollars in discounts not available to American citizens from out of state. Whether you break the law to reach California or immigrate legally, it makes little difference in how you drive, send your kids to college, or draw on the public services of the state.
These pundits hope privately, of course—though they do not say so publicly—that this new regional civilization will resemble San Diego more than Tijuana. And in truth, no immigrant, despite his grandiose boasts, wants to return to Mexico or anything like it, to be a Mexican in Mexico rather than in California.
And here we come to the heart of our immigration problem. It is not that our state is too crowded per se: Japan, after all, feeds, clothes, and educates three times as many as we Californians do, without our natural wealth or open spaces. The real problem is that, while it has always been easier for people who emigrate to keep their own culture rather than join the majority, for the first time in our state’s (and nation’s) history, the majority feels it is easier to let them do it.
Rarely now do Californians express a confidence in our national culture or a willingness to defend the larger values of Western civilization. The result is that our public schools are either apathetic about, or outright hostile to, the Western paradigm—even as millions from the south risk their lives to enjoy what we so often smugly dismiss. We do not teach immigrant or native-born children that free association, free speech, free inquiry, and the material prosperity that springs from the sanctity of private property and free markets are the essential elements that preserve the dignity of the individual that we enjoy. Our elites
do not understand just how rare consensual government is in the history of civilization, and therefore they wrongly think that they can instill confidence by praising the other, less successful, cultures that aliens are escaping from rather than explaining the dynamism and morality of the civilization that they have voted for with their feet.
Our schools, through multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and a therapeutic curriculum, often promote the very tribalism, statism, and group rather than individual interests that our new immigrants are fleeing from. If taken to heart, such ideas lead our new arrivals to abject failure in California. Moreover, if we were to entertain attitudes toward women that exist in Mexico, emulate its approach to religious diversity, copy the Mexican constitution, court system, schools, universities, tax code, bureaucracy, energy industry, or power grid, then millions of Mexicans quite simply would stay put where they are. Indeed, even the most pro-Mexico Mexican native in America never chooses to forgo the Western emergency room for the herbalist and exorcist in times of acute sickness or gunshot trauma. He does not complain that the American middle class is too large, the water too clean, the gasoline not adulterated, the food too abundant and noninfectious. Nor does he lament the absence of uniformed machine-gun-carrying soldiers on his block. Illegal aliens clamor for reduced tuition for their offspring at supposedly biased UC campuses, not native fellowships for them to enroll in Mexican universities. I often suggest to teachers who tell aliens that our culture is racist, exploitative, and sexist that they should live in Mexico themselves to fathom why millions are dying to obtain what they so casually dismiss.
The sheer numbers of new immigrants presented a golden opportunity for the demagogue. And sure enough, at times of racial tension, you can see brazen agitators on the street with bullhorns and picket signs. Some are organized by MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan)—one of whose mottoes once was: “For our race, everything; for those outside our race, nothing.” Sometimes the provocateur shows up at a local school, after a Chicano gang has kicked to near death a (Mexican-American) school guard and consequently been expelled. With megaphone—and with the six o’clock news cameras rolling—he screams about “targeting La Raza” and “keeping the brown down.” “There is only one gang who murders in Fresno,” he announces at his poorly attended press conference, “and they wear police blue.”
The brawling provocateur is as old as America itself, and today’s California demagogue harks back to the urban ward bosses of old. More than a century too late, he shares their nineteenth-century vision of enormous ethnic blocs, entirely unassimilated, with tough ramrods like himself at their head—but with the added advantage that his Mexican immigrant constituency in the new age of multiculturalism might be permanent rather than destined to assimilate. His chief fear, I think, is that immigration may slow down; that millions may read and write excellent English; that his brother or sister—or he himself—may marry the white or Asian other; that a Mexican middle class might emerge in private enterprise outside of government entitlement and civil service; that the Mexican propensity for duty, family, and self-sacrifice might yet make him obsolete; that we all might integrate and forget about race; that he will not be needed and thus not have to be bargained off.
Other opportunists—for some reason, more often Spanish than native American—are the products of Chicano, Latino, La Raza (“The Race”), or Hispanic studies programs at universities. (Could we ever tolerate any other university program or national organization dubbed “The Race”?) They are the well-meaning Latino elites who have suddenly reverted from Alex to Alejandro and have never met an “r” they won’t trill. These self-appointed leaders are professed tribalists—who do not wish to live within the tribe. They may make speeches and films about gang violence and teen pregnancy, but they never really tell us why these endemic problems came into being and how they can be prevented. They leave cause and effect unspoken, allege racism and victimization, not a failure to learn English and accept a common culture—and then they go home in SUVs to upscale suburban homes well apart from the unassimilated barrios they claim to represent.
This state, like the country at large, was a raw experiment, a multiracial society united by a common language, culture, and law. But that subjugation of race to culture is forever a fragile creation, not a natural entity. Each day it can erode. A single fool can undo the work of decades and so allow small people to feel one with those of like tongue and skin color, not united by shared ideals and values. Thus, each time a university president, a politician on the make, or a would-be muckraking journalist chooses the easy path of separatism, he, like the white chauvinists of the past, does his own little part in turning us into Rwanda or Kosovo. The wrong message at the top eventually filters down to the newly arrived and helps determine whether they succeed or fail in the no-nonsense arena of America.
How did the old assimilationist model work? Brutally and effectively. In our grammar schools during the 1950s and 1960s, no Spanish was to be spoken on the playground—officially at least. Groups of four and larger were not allowed to congregate at recess. When we were caught fighting, nontraditional kicking instead of the accepted punching earned four, rather than two, spankings. A rather tough Americanism in class was rammed down our throats—biographies of Teddy Roosevelt, stories about Lou Gehrig, a repertory of a dozen or so patriotic songs, recitations from Longfellow, and demonstrations of how to fold the flag. “Manners” and “civics” were taught each week, with weird lessons about not appearing “loud” in public or wearing glittery or showy clothes, and especially not staring down strangers or giving people the “hard look” with the intent of “being unpleasant.” Our teachers were at times insufferable in their condescension as they disclosed the formula for “making it in America”—but make it in America the vast majority of these immigrants did.
Apparently, these rather unsophisticated teachers thought that learning to master English and acquire the rudiments of math, American literature, and national culture were more valuable to the immigrant than were racial studies, Chicano dance, and other popular courses now au courant and designed to instill ethnic pride. As I can best fathom it some 40 years later, their egalitarian aim was to create a mass of students who would reach high school with equal chances of success. And so they gave us detention for silly things like mispronouncing names and other felonies like chewing gum, handing our papers in without our names written on the upper-right-hand corner, and wearing Frisco baggy pants.
Most of the kids I saw each day then—just as most of the adults I see daily now around the same farm—were from Mexico. Skin color and national origin were quite out in the open. We five Anglos in our class of 40 at our rural elementary school were labeled “white boys” and “gringos”; in turn, we knew the majority as “Mexicans,” their parents more respectfully as “Mexican-Americans.” Most fights, however, were not racial. We in the white minority fought beside and against Mexican-Americans; the great dividing line of most rumbles was whether you were born in Selma or Fresno. We had our fringe racists, of course: Mr. Martinez, the fourth-grade teacher, told me in 1963 that “whitey was through in California,” even as Mrs. Wilson, a Texas native, complimented those in the art class who were “lighter than most from Mexico.” There was nothing of the contemporary multicultural model—no bilingual aides, written and spoken communication with parents in Spanish, textbooks highlighting the Aztecs and the theft of northern Mexico, or federally funded counselors to remind students that “the borders crossed us, not we the borders.” Excused absences for catechism classes at the Catholic church emptied our classrooms, giving us five Anglo Protestants a much-welcomed three-hour recess. We all suffered fish sticks on Friday, the public school’s concession to the vast Catholic majority.
That elementary school is still two miles away, but whereas 40 years ago it turned out educated and confident Americans, its graduates who enter high school now have among the lowest literacy levels and most dismal math skills in the state. The lucky ones who go on to college generally end up in the California State University system’s remedial classes. Yet just reaching those remedial programs is a great achievement in itself. In 1996, the high school graduation rate of California’s Hispanics—both native and foreign-born—was only 61 percent. And of those still in high school by their senior year, only 50 percent of Hispanic students met “basic” standards of 12th-grade math—compared with 80 percent of whites. A mere 6 percent tested “proficient.” That means that, out of every 100 Hispanics who now enter California high schools, 40 will drop out. And of the remaining 60, fewer than four will matriculate prepared for any serious college-level courses in mathematics. Only 7 percent of all Mexican-Americans currently hold a B.A. In short, this is a national tragedy.
Yet few of the Mexican-American friends I grew up with speak fluent Spanish anymore, regardless of whether they finished college. Completing eighth grade then provided a far better education than finishing high school does now. All of them are well informed and can read, write, compute, and understand the basic tenets of the culture they have helped to build and maintain—and which they most certainly think is far superior to Mexico’s. Their children know only a few words of Spanish—by contrast with the present 65 percent of all Hispanic foreign-born in the United States who now speak only “limited English.” Most of my generation have become insurance salesmen, mechanics, contractors, teachers, civil servants, occasionally wealthy businessmen and high-government bureaucrats—in other words, the present-day future of California. There are no Mexican flags on their cars, which more likely sport decals like “Proud Parent of a Lincoln School Honors Student” or “Semper Fi.” About half, it seems to me, are not married to Mexican-Americans.
Most vote as conservative Democrats, are probably anti-abortion, and perhaps even support the death penalty. Some joined and prospered in the Marines; others run the Lions and Kiwanis. They are sensitive to occasional news of ethnic prejudice yet display little affinity for the La Raza industry. In their daily lives, they are more worried about gangs and Mexican crime than white racism; most are ambivalent about having thousands of new illegal aliens arrive into their small towns from central Mexico. A few seem to be conscious of race only when the father is Anglo, the mother Mexican: affirmative action, they believe, takes a dimmer view of a Justin Smith who is half-Mexican than a Justin Martinez. Their loss of indigenous culture is sad, perhaps—but no sadder than my own failure to speak Swedish, put cow-horn helmets on my wall, care much about Leif Eriksson, defend Swedish duplicity in World War II, or buy Volvos and Electrolux vacuums out of ethnic pride.
I often think that if I did not particularly like my Mexican-American students (who make up the majority of my classics classes), and if I wanted them to fail, I would not continue to teach them Latin (much less Greek), English composition, or Western history and culture. Nor would I insist on essays free of grammatical error or demand oral reports that employ classical rhetorical tropes.
No, if I did not like them or did not wish to live among thousands of illegal and legal immigrants and wish them married into my family, I would keep them distant by teaching them therapy, letting them speak poor English—or no English at all—and insisting on the superiority of the Mexican culture that they or their parents had fled. If I did not like my students and wished them to remain in the fields—or when they were employed in the office to be snickered at behind closed doors by their white benefactors—I would move from the west side of Selma to an exclusive white suburb in north Fresno, and then as penance teach them during the day about the glory of the Aztecs, the need for government entitlement, and the idea that grammar is but a “construct.” I would insist that white racism and capitalist brutality alone explain Mexican-American crime rates, and I would explain why they need someone like me to champion their cause to the wealthy and educated. If I really wished to be distant from my students, I would insist that they attend our university’s separate Hispanic graduation assemblies to remind them that they are intrinsically different from, rather than inherently equal to me. I would be more like the sensitive teachers who teach today than the insensitive ones who once taught me.
So I have made my choice on the great question that California must decide: whether we will remain multiracial or become America’s first truly multicultural state. For our future, will we all return to an imperfect, insensitive, but honest assimilationist past that nevertheless worked, or stay with the utopian and deceitful multiculturalist present that is clearly failing? Unchecked illegal immigration and multiculturalism are a lethal mix. California—if it is to stay as California—might have coped with one or even the other, but surely not both at once.
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson