Many of the cliches about America are clichés because they are true, but some of them are clichés because they serve to hide the truth. Americans are a nation of immigrants. Yet Americans, despite being conscious of their ancestral connections to other countries and continents, struggle to understand a world where nationhood is tribal rather than contractual.
Americans are a nation of immigrants, except that the Native Americans were already here, and the African Americans were brought here by force. The experiences of arrival and the civic refashioning that used to be called Americanization were never equal. For the first two centuries of the American republic’s existence, to be fully American was to be white and Protestant.
Much changed in the 1960s. The decade that began with America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, included the annulling of Jim Crow in the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the opening of non-European immigration streams with the Immigration Act of 1965; and, no less significantly, Hollywood’s realisation that in a mixed society, “ethnic” actors could play starring roles.
But much has worsened since then, too. Today’s immigrants are both more numerous and less integrated. Too often, the starring roles they play are in one televised crisis or another: the presidential candidate who announces his run by calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers; the Bangladeshi holder of a Green Card who detonates a home-made bomb in New York City’s Port Authority Terminal; and, most recently, the human wave of the migrant caravans.
Apart from a thin and highly remunerated crust of European knowledge workers, America’s immigrants are menial service workers. Their work is often “unrewarding” — the cliché that masks the truths of boredom, degradation and exploitation, and all too often for short wages and no healthcare. They are a nation of immigrants, but they are increasingly a separate nation from the “real Americans”.
The dirty secret of American immigration, Reihan Salam writes in Melting Pot or Civil War?, is that the American-born assume “that it is right and proper to treat foreign-born workers as second-class citizens”. For nothing less than this is implied by the endlessly repeated line that low-skilled immigrants “do the jobs Americans won’t do”, and the growing body of evidence that the children of low-skilled immigrants are not receiving the same opportunities as their more established peers.
In the Age of Trump, Salam says, “all conversations about immigration descend into duelling spasms of culture-war outrage”. On one side, we have the “nativist” ideologues, a small but vocal and well-armed racist fringe, and as Donald Trump has demonstrated, the mass of public opinion. Not that the nation of immigrants is opposed to more immigration; it is opposed to the current system and its failings.
On the other side, we have the “growing army of the open borders activists, who call for ending all deportations and adopting ever more permissive immigrant policies”. Many of them are, like Salam, Americans from families with recent immigration history, close relatives in their countries of origin, and, as I can attest from personal experience, a familiarity with the details of immigration law that would fit them for a career as jailhouse lawyer, should they ever get on the wrong side of the INS.
On the same side as the “crushingly naive” advocates of open borders, Salam identifies the “bullet-biters”. These are “serious, rigorous, thoughtful immigration advocates”. They recognise that if the United States is to absorb “a far larger number of low-skilled immigrants”, the welfare state must be “transformed”. That may even involve “the creation of a new class of guest workers who would be permanently barred from citizenship”. This, Salam says, “is simply not tenable”. It would create “an underclass that is forever locked out of middle-class prosperity”.
It isn’t tenable, but it is already happening. Americans used to divide by race. They still do, though less than before, but now they also divide increasingly sharply by class and culture, especially language. The lines of race, class and culture don’t always overlap, but they overlap enough to add a fatal dash of race antagonism to class hostility, class antagonism to racial hostility, and the mutual incomprehensions that arise from linguistic differences.
Though the lines of race and class are more flexible than in Europe, they are not as flexible as they once were. And the number of immigrants, notably Spanish-speaking ones, is much higher than it was. Among Americans under the age of 18, Salam points out, non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority by 2030.
I am not alone in suspecting that the idea of a “Hispanic” bloc is an electoral fantasy, whether malign for Republicans or redemptive for Democrats. It equates “Hispanic” with “non-white”; it ignores the Lusitanians, the Portuguese-speakers of the most populous Latin American state, Brazil; and it assumes that only white people aspire to take part in America’s property-owning, business-oriented liberal democracy.
In truth, many “Hispanics”, coming from Latin American countries that are much more racially polarised in economy and attitudes than the United States, do identify as “white”. In truth, many “Hispanics”, coming from Catholic societies in which families are extended rather than nuclear, are “social conservatives”. In truth, many of them run their own businesses, and many more dream of doing so one day, and of sending their children to college. So there is nothing to stop the children of “Hispanic” immigrants from splintering into partisan factions like all the other groups in America.
Nothing, that is, except for some further truths, all of whose implications Salam lays out very clearly:
– The number of immigrants is rising, but social mobility is slowing. By 2032, a majority of working-age adults without college degrees will be non-white.
– Unemployment is at a historic low, but the gap is widening between the rich, whose children have a starting advantage, and the poor, who are more likely to be non-white immigrants or the children of immigrants.
– Currently, “visible manifestations of racial inequality” are “inciting many young Americans of color”. When the Boomers die and pass their assets to their white children, the “Great Wealth Transfer” will exacerbate these tensions.
The old ideal of the “melting pot” has been discredited, in favour of the “salad” of the multiculturalists. But immigrants do not wish to be sliced and diced by purely economic forces. They want to belong, to assimilate and integrate, so that their children will be “real Americans”. Yet, as Yoram Hazony notes in The Virtue of Nationalism, Americans now lack a common core of values. Combine that with a pace of social change that is “too fast”, Salam writes, and “established Americans and newcomers come to see one another as irreconcilable strangers.”
Salam concludes that the only way to reconcile them, and save the egalitarianism and opportunity that are central to American democracy, is to create “structural conditions” in order “avoid intensifying ethnic conflict”. That means completely revising the immigration system:
– A “well-designed points system” would protect low-wage workers from being undercut by immigrant labour, and help them up and into the middle class.
– The rising children of immigrants will help to smooth social tension: America needs more of these ‘boundary-crossers who have long greased the wheels of cultural fusion and change’.
– A “more selective, skills-based immigration system” might even subsidise poor and immigrant families with “universal child benefit”, because higher-income immigrants will pay more taxes and consume fewer social services.
– A skills-based system would maintain America’s competitive edge, too.
Salam has written a profound and important book. He reminds us that America has split and reformed before; in a sense, its protean energies condemn it to these processes. He is right to warn us that, if immigration policy is not changed to suit the 21st century, American society will continue to restructure into racial and ethnic balkanization. But, reading the news lately, I fear that there is about as much chance of his sensible and vital ideas being adopted into American law as there is of Donald Trump developing a sense of modesty.