Michael Barone is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a reliably conservative Washington think tank. His piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal on immigration is a thoughtful, insightful, and informative survey of the subject.
The title summarizes it nicely: "A Nation Built For Immigrants." Barone's thesis is that America's diversity is not the unintended consequence of the way the country was designed, but it's very purpose.
He notes that not everyone is happy about this. "Will the recent surge of newcomers tear the U.S. apart?" he asks in the subtitle, quickly replying, "Not if history is any guide: From the beginning, America was made to unite citizens, even those with deep differences."
Barone believes America has always had "an inbuilt capacity to accommodate and assimilate outsiders." And he documents it admirably.
I learned a lot from the article and I plan to read the book on which it's based: Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics.
Since I've written a book on bridging differences -- OtherWise -- I found his thesis encouraging.
But then I read the comments from Journal readers. Here are just a few examples:
"Historically Immigrants came from similiar cultures while many different countries. They had many of the same values, ethics, and beliefs. Today's immigrants come from a totally different set of cultures where they don't come to become an American but to be what they already are while enjoying the American life. They don't want to adapt, they don't want to melt in, they don't even want to be an American. They just want what we have and feel somehow they deserve that we provide it for them."
"Our founders expected everyone to be an American not a Muslim American, an African American and all the other sub categories that are divisive and not at all unifying. It is multiculturalism that will ultimately tear the country apart."
"In many cities like Miami or Los Angeles it is easy to find many immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years who can barely speak English. Previous generations of immigrants to America wanted to speak English and assimilate into American society."
"Up until the 1960's, America's hardscrabble immigrants had to land on their own two feet as quickly as possible if they were to survive. They survived and then they succeeded. Today, immigrants land on a social net of housing, health care and Food Stamps."
"Today, the vast majority of Illegal Aliens are entering from Mexico. Most are illiterate, uneducated, have no real job skills except the very lowest skill levels. Many are a drain on the tax payers who collect public assistance, food stamps and welfare. They have an " anchor baby" and a whole new opportunity for " freebie benefits" become available, courtesy of the hard working American taxpayers."
"Asian and European culture is education/development of skills to get ahead. Unfortunately, if you travel South you get to see a culture that is not the same. Sitting-around idle is the norm and not a stigma like most other cultures."
There were some pro-immigration comments in the mix, but most railed about what they called this "new crop" of immigrants.
I tried correcting some of the most obvious errors of fact -- e.g., illegal immigrants can't collect welfare and are not eligible for food stamps, the proportion of U.S. foreign born who speak English is higher than it's ever been, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the net cost immigrants impose on government is essentially a wash when their taxes and spending are taken into account, studies show that immigrants are acculturating at the same rate as in the past, Muslin Americans have essentially the same values as other Americans, etc.
But then I realized few of the commenters were interested in factual information.
This is not exactly a new situation. Despite our founders' intentions, we have always been somewhat suspicious of immigrants. What Ben Frankin said about German immigrants in Pennsylvania would resonate well with the "Minute Men" guarding our southern border.
Barone's thesis that America was created to unite people with deep differences is correct. The comments simply demonstrate that the process of assimilation is much messier than the article suggests.
Assimilation has never proceeded at an even pace for any group.
Individuals adopt different elements of their receiving society's culture at different rates.-- e.g., language, music preferences, social values, food choices, marriage in or out of culture, religion, etc. They often conform to different cultures in different settings, e.g., at home or at work. And they may retain some aspects of their original culture for generations.
In the meanwhile, the receiving culture itself is changing, partly in response to the influx of new immigrants. I suspect Mr. Carbone would agree that this openness to cultural change is one of the things that makes America different from other countries. It accounts for the richness and vitality of our culture.
Ironically, it's also one of the things that scares many people about immigration.