America: The Western Melting Pot of the 21st Century

INTEGRATION, THE AMERICAN WAY OF ASSIMILATION

The recent spats over President Trump’s rescindment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) opened up a renewed debate over American immigration policy, as usual shedding more passionate heat than illuminative light on the subject. But the lines of debate and questioning all sides have considered- from basic immigration law to cultural effects to social justice to America’s mission to long-term national strategy- have opened up a trove of useful perspectives for those considering the ultimate direction of American immigration in the 21st Century.

John Adams did not believe there was a “special providence” for the United States of America, and in a purely empirical and rational sense this is obviously true. Nonetheless, as an observer of the serendipitous and fortuitous cycles of American political and social history, I wonder sometimes.

The great waves of Latino and Asian migration to the United States, underway since the mid-1960s, have only in the last few decades begun to foster great political questions and strike at the very core of American political divisions. But here’s the rub- it’s happened before, twice in American history, as beautifully documented by my friend Nicholas Gallagher a few years back in the pages of The American Interest. Irish immigration to the United States in the early 19th Century, and Eastern and Southern European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, set off similar divisions and controversies amid times of great economic and technological changes; but in due time, the country adapted, the immigrants and their descendants were assimilated and accepted into the mainstream of American society, and today nobody would question whether Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, or American Jews are “real Americans.” The same process has been underway among Latino Americans and Asian-Americans, with an immigrant-driven “multiculturalism of the streets” gradually shaping American society and culture even as it Americanizes itself. Over the long run, many immigration analysts suspect that similar assimilation will occur at some rate, regardless of what federal policy dictates.

In this sense, America really is relatively unique. Other countries in the New World- Brazil, Peru, and Mexico especially come to mind- have been mestizo societies as well, mixing the races of four continents into new, somewhat syncretic, somewhat disparate, national identities. But none of these countries is both mestizo and individualistic, as the United States is, and in those other countries the process of assimilation is really a process of amalgamation of multiple groups. In America, there are similar trends of decades-long amalgamation, but there’s another process as well. An individual can Americanize in the course of a fraction of their own lifetime, highlighting the very real facet of American identity that is individualistic and ideational rather than purely communal and cultural. This, of course, means there are paths to American-ness for both the immigrant wave and the immigrant individual. No other country really seems to have this dynamic, certainly not so close to the very core of its national identity.

Compare these New World melting pots with the ancient civilizations of the Old World, where the legacies of cosmopolitan empire and city-state gave way in modern times to largely ethnically-homogenous nation-states. Multiethnic empires have of course remained with us to the present day- Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, India- but with the possible exception of India, these generally have a dominant ethnic group, membership in which is an unspoken requirement for “real” citizenship. You don’t “become” Russian or Chinese the way you can “become” American, and Russian Muslims have a categorically different role in that national experiment than Russian Orthodox Christians. Even partially cosmopolitan Old World states, such as Singapore and Great Britain, do not have quite the same dynamic as Americans enjoy.

Witness the recent immigration problems in Germany, which continues to accept refugees and migrants with no real plan to incorporate and integrate them into society, and the continued vigilance of the Japanese and South Korean governments in keeping their citizenries relatively ethnically homogenous. The notion of nationhood in most Old World countries is based on shared national experience and is often tied to ethnic bonds; the Americans and a few other countries around the world are not similarly attached to blood.

This is certainly not to say that “America is an idea” and that its constant reinvention, reformism, and disdain for tradition itself nullifies the very real role of national experience in American identity. But it is to imply, at the very least, that the United States of America- perhaps by a special providence- is blessed with opportunities for immigrant integration other countries can only dream of.

So there’s the American situation in relation to the rest of the world. What should we do about it? How can we capitalize on our strengths?

REDUCE, REFORM, REOPEN

At a basic level, the United States can be most effective as an integrator of the world’s peoples into its own national story if it reduces present immigration levels, emphasizes social integration and healing at all levels across the national community, and waits to adopt freer immigration policy until the further future, when the American identity has been redefined and reopened.

Generally, as April Lawson argued and Shanna Ratner conceded in Better Angels’s recent symposium on immigration, the big task on immigration for American politicians nowadays is national reconsolidation rather than national openness (something many of our elites don’t seem to quite understand.) As Tamar Jacoby suggests in her edited volume “Reinventing the Melting Pot,” assimilation/integration seems to be happening everywhere in America except in the public discourse and public imagination. For the most part, recent immigrants from Latin America, East and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are behaving and adapting much as any former group of “white-ethnic” immigrants did in previous centuries. They’re serving in the military and learning English at the same levels, organizing politically in the same ways, and preserving yet adapting their original cultures just as the Irish and Italians and Jews and Germans did. We have nothing to worry about in terms of immigrants “stealing” our national culture, or refusing to become Americans, or fundamentally transforming America, or doing any of the things the paranoid side of the right thinks they are doing.

But that’s due, I would think, more to the enduring strength of American culture and political economy, than anything the American-born and American-raised are doing; polarization on these issues among American citizens remains huge. If for no other reason, one of the biggest arguments for reducing immigration rates is to calm down the divisiveness amongst Americans and grant current immigrant communities the time they need to further integrate into the American way of life, and shed their “target of the right/prop of the left” status and take on a positive role of their own in American public life.

However, this grace period- Lawson suggests we need ten years, history suggests perhaps longer- would clearly not be an end-all/be-all for immigration policy for the rest of our history. Long-term thinkers should be considering numerous factors, one of which is that the global refugee crisis of the 2010s-the worst since 1945- is unlikely to abate anytime soon. The global flows of migrants and refugees will probably continue as they are, and most would hope they do not worsen. But even if America is not ready to accept refugees now, we should be preparing ourselves to provide haven to the world’s huddled masses in the further future, the next time we’re united enough at home to responsibly open our doors to the world.

Meanwhile, as Ratner suggested in her piece, it is absolutely crucial that the United States reinvest in itself, to reestablish the dynamism and spirit of reinvention that has always characterized the American experience. This kind of reinvestment- in education, infrastructure, technology, social services, and general dynamism and social solidarity- should be able to help re-materialize “the American Dream” as a locus of American identity, allay current conflicts, and build up a better future. (Trite as that all sounds.) There are a few controversies that need resolution first, though.

One of the sticking points currently unresolved, thanks to the failure of the “Gang of Eight” amnesty-for-enforcement bill in 2013, is the status of the eleven million illegal aliens currently living in the United States. Proposals range from legalization without citizenship, to full deportation, to a long-term path to citizenship, and everything in between. Ultimately, for humanitarian and strategic reasons, it seems to me the only viable strategy is to grant an amnesty and some path to citizenship, regardless of the violations of law and precedent and everything else. There are no significant problems associated with having eleven million more Americans living in the country, but they can’t really become Americans and participate in our national communion if they’re not citizens- the assimilation/integration process only works on people granted citizenship, it would seem. After one fell swoop of amnesty, the remainder of the strategy- lock down on enforcement, reduce total rates of immigration from all regions of the world, smooth and rationalize the process of naturalization, and place an emphasis on national social and political and cultural integration- should resume, just as it did after the ends of previous “great waves.”

There are some on the right who argue that we should shift the emphasis of immigration from family reunification to the recruitment of high-skilled labor and economic assets. I don’t disagree with this in principle, but I think as a policy proposal it misses the broader point of long-term immigration policy reform. And that broader point isn’t about decimals of GDP so much as it is the broader vision of what America is as a whole. To that, we now turn.

A VISION FOR THE PEOPLE AND THE CONTINENT

Joel Kotkin, a sometime employer of mine, wrote an excellent book some time ago entitled “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.”  It examined demographic, economic, social, and urban geography trends, painting a picture of an America with a revitalized heartland, more and more people living in more and more distinct types of built environment, and a diverse, ethnically melding population at peace and in harmony with itself. This is a rosy picture to imagine in the late 2010s- especially when blue, urban coastal America and red, suburban, interior America are constantly at each other’s throats, while racial issues have burst out again with renewed fury. But I think it may well paint an accurate picture, simply given what we’re seeing with trends in long-term assimilation and urban/suburban architecture and demographics.

Given that this is the long-term trend- which, I might add, involves the children of immigrants increasingly settling the suburban rings around the Sunbelt’s great cities– it seems to me that America will continue to be a land where the material dream, the “Promise of American Life,” makes possible the kinds of political liberty and community immigrants can enter and adjust to and fully join without either fundamentally altering American life or losing their own heritages. Economic mobility and geographic dispersion are key.

This is not new to other immigrant waves- it’s important to note that the last two great waves of immigration, in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively corresponded to the American westward movement and the early waves of suburbanism. The frontier individual ethos that both of these demographic migrations made possible was a one of the expediting factors in making more broadly shared “Americanism” possible. And now that we have increasing levels of suburban and urban development on our country’s still-expansive open landmass, our immigrant populations have places to go where they, in the footsteps of their forebears, can enter the middle class and live the American Dream.

In the long run, we’re fine on the immigration question. Yes, Ross Douthat’s ten theses counseling prudence are important guidelines, especially in the short term. But looking forward, one is tempted to abandon all distress and realize that Hector St. John de Crevecouer’s immortal prophecy has been and indeed remains the American destiny, whether by dint of geography and culture, conscious action, or special providence:

“What then is the American, this new man?… He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds… Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims…”

That Crevecouer penned these words in 1782, seven years before the establishment of the current United States government, testifies to the Americanism of experience we still share with our spiritual ancestors of the 17th and 18th centuries. Inhabiting the same continent, speaking the same language, the same spirits still coursing through them, the new generations of American immigrants will only continue to confirm and verify Crevecouer’s vision.

A social and political vision along those lines- America, the great western continent where opportunity, capital, land, and social equality are available in abundance and make possible self-transformation, the American dream itself- would be a helpful organizing framework. America, the dynamic world leader, the melting pot of something new, and something yet enduring, a place that has been, but is yet to be. America can be a place of redemption and exodus, as it always has been. But it can only be that beacon and refuge if its immigration policy and other national strategies are designed carefully and intelligently, abhorring right-wing nativism, open-borders multicultural cosmopolitanism, and mere incrementalism.

America is not exceptional, but it is unique, and its unique capability to take people in is one of the factors making it so. We have problems to work out, but in the long term, I have full faith that Americans will make the right decisions on immigration (even if, as Churchill suggested, it is after they exhaust all other options.) And we are blessed, because not every other country has quite this capability.

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