By JASON L. RILEY
May 15, 2008; Page A17, Wall Street Journal
So, whatever happened to immigration as a presidential campaign issue?
In the early caucus and primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina – the media assured us that immigration was foremost on the minds of voters. You couldn't watch a Republican debate without the issue dominating a good chunk of the discussion. And when Hillary Clinton appeared to endorse a proposal in New York state to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, it was considered a major stumble, and the senator spent weeks trying to clarify her remarks.
[Keep the Immigrants, Deport the Multiculturalists]
Immigrants arriving in the United States, May 27, 1920.
The public, we were told, was fed up with illegal immigrants, especially those coming from Latin America. These foreign nationals were stealing jobs, depressing wages, filling our jails and prisons, refusing to learn English, and not assimilating like past immigrant groups. The conventional wisdom was that any presidential candidate who stood a chance of being elected would have to take a hard-line stance on illegal aliens.
Yet somehow the issue seems to have faded, if not disappeared entirely. The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, isn't a fire-breathing "seal the border" restrictionist. Rather, he's the candidate most closely associated with a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that would have given most undocumented immigrants a shot at becoming legal residents if they met certain requirements. As for the Democrats, when's the last time you saw the term "illegal immigrant" appear in a story about Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama?
So what happened?
Well, I have a theory, and it is that Americans are basically pro-immigrant but ambivalent about it. This ambivalence is reflected in polls, which of course provide different results based on how questions are asked. For example, last year a CBS News poll asked, "Should illegal immigrants be prosecuted and deported or shouldn't they?" And 69% of respondents favored deportation. When the same interviewers asked the same respondents what should happen to illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. for at least two years, and then offered a specific alternative to deportation, only 33% favored deportation; 62% said they should be given a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status.
When a separate Gallup poll asked a similar question but offered four alternatives, just 13% favored deportation, and 78% said illegal immigrants should be allowed to keep their jobs and apply for citizenship.
In other words, for all the loud talk we've heard in recent months, via cable news, talk radio and the blogosphere, the American public seems not to have lost confidence in the melting pot. And rightly so, because there's plenty of evidence that assimilation is proceeding apace. True, it doesn't always seem that way, but we all know that perceptions can sometimes be illusions.
The media offers up a steady diet of data about current immigration from Mexico, and much of it consists of "averages" regarding English-language skills, income, home-ownership rates, education and so forth. But while digesting these figures, it's important to keep in mind that Latino immigration is ongoing. These averages are snapshots of a moving stream and therefore of little use in measuring assimilation. To properly gauge assimilation, we need to find out how immigrants in the U.S. are faring over time. Only longitudinal studies that track individuals can provide that information.
Just looking at averages can give you a very distorted view of who's learning English or dropping out of school or climbing out of poverty. How so? Because overall statistics that average in large numbers of newcomers can obscure the progress made by pre-existing immigrants.
Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, calls it the "Peter Pan Fallacy." "Many of us assume, unwittingly, that immigrants are like Peter Pan," says Mr. Myers, "forever frozen in their status as newcomers, never aging, never advancing economically, and never assimilating." In this naïve view, he says, "the mounting numbers of foreign-born residents imply that our nation is becoming dominated by growing numbers of people who perpetually resemble newcomers."
The reality, however, is that the longitudinal studies show real socio-economic progress by Latinos. Progress is slower in some areas, such as the education level of adult immigrants, and faster in others, such as income and homeownership rates. But there is no doubt that both assimilation and upward mobility are occurring over time.
With respect to linguistic assimilation, which is one of the more important measures because it amounts to a job skill that can increase earnings, the historical pattern is as follows: The first generation learns enough English to get by but prefers the mother tongue. The children of immigrants born here grow up in homes where they understand the mother tongue to some extent and may speak it, but they prefer English. When those children become adults, they establish homes where English is the dominant language.
There's every indication that Latinos are following this pattern. According to 2005 Census data, just one-third of Latino immigrants in the country for less than a decade speak English well. But that proportion climbs to 75% for those here 30 years or more. There may be more bilingualism today among their children, but there's no evidence that Spanish is the dominant language in the second generation. The 2000 Census found that 91% of the children of immigrants, and 97% of the grandchildren, spoke English well.
If American culture is under assault today, it's not from immigrants who aren't assimilating but from liberal elites who reject the concept of assimilation. For multiculturalists, and particularly those in the academy, assimilation is a dirty word. A values-neutral belief system is embraced by some to avoid having to judge one culture as superior or inferior to another. Others reject the assimilationist paradigm outright on the grounds that the U.S. hasn't always lived up to its ideals. America slaughtered Indians and enslaved blacks, goes the argument, and this wicked history means we have no right to impose a value system on others.
But social conservatives who want to seal the border in response to these left-wing elites are directing their wrath at the wrong people. The problem isn't the immigrants. The problem is the militant multiculturalists who want to turn America into some loose federation of ethnic and racial groups. The political right should continue to push back against bilingual education advocates, anti-American Chicano Studies professors, Spanish-language ballots, ethnically gerrymandered voting districts, La Raza's big-government agenda and all the rest. But these problems weren't created by the women burping our babies and changing linen at our hotels, or by the men picking lettuce in Yuma and building homes in Iowa City.
Keep the immigrants. Deport the Columbia faculty.
Mr. Riley, a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, is author of "Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders" (Gotham), which is out today.