WSJ editorial writer Jason Riley, author of the new book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, argues that immigration is less of a problem than ideological opposition to assimilation by some American elites. At the outset, Riley ponders why immigration appears to have receded as a campaign issue, and suggests this is due to American ambivalence over the issue.
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.
Riley goes on to note that the "melting pot" continues to operate, even if assimilation is not as rapid or complete as it may have been in the past.
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.
The problem is not with immigration or a lack of assimilation, Riley suggests, but ideological opposition to assimiliation from some American elites. If social conservatives or others are concerned about immigration, this is where they should target their ire.
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. . . .
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.
It's an interesting argument, and one with which I am quite sympathetic. While illegal immigration is a concern, and border security is a real issue, immigration has been a boon to this nation, and there is no reason that it should not continue to be in the future.