The recent flood of teenagers and others from Central America is undesirable for economic reasons, but it also raises the issue of what about the U.S. is worth preserving.
Even if illegal aliens and family-based immigrants paid their own way, it is worth considering whether we want to change our country to accommodate tens of millions of people with a different history, culture, and set of values. In 1960, 90 percent of Americans had a European ancestry and were Christian. In 28 years, Americans of European ancestry will be the minority.
A country might be thought of as a country of a people (consider, for example, Great Britain, France, Japan, and Israel) or an idea. The idea is likely freedom rather than democracy because plenty of other countries, including our mother country (Great Britain), had and have democracies that function roughly as well as our own. Most people assume the U.S. is a country not focused on a people, but this is not historically true and, on some accounts, not in line with what the founders wanted.
The notion that the U.S. is committed to freedom is dubious given that, as The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik points out, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world's prisoners - five to eight times the incarceration rate of peer nations, and more people under the control of the criminal justice system than were in Stalin's gulags. In addition, government at all levels take more than a third of what the middle class and rich earn and government spends or regulates more than 40 percent of the economy.
As a historical matter, it is not clear that the country's purpose was solely tied to an idea. The immigration pattern in this country suggests that the U.S. was intimately tied to a people who shared a heritage. Even the 1890-1920 immigration waves, which included Germans, Italians, Poles, Jews, and other Eastern Europeans was largely shut down for almost 40 years to allow these groups to assimilate, which they did nicely. In addition, these new immigrants were as well, if not better, educated than Americans who preceded them, had largely similar values and family structures, and, in some sense, had a shared heritage.
Even if the U.S. is a nation focused on freedom, rather than a people, Americans have a right to protect it by restricting membership. For example, consider the Chautauqua Institution. The Institution is collective property owned by a largely homogenous group of upscale, left-wing folk, many of whom share a religious and cultural heritage. Now imagine that 10,000 Hasidic Jews want to join the Institute and it is obvious that they will drastically change it. The Institution's owners have every right to say that the Hasidim may not join in such large numbers. There is nothing wrong, bad, or selfish in wanting to preserve an institution that one loves.
The recent class of immigrants votes very differently than do natives, especially those of European ancestry. Seventy-one percent of Hispanics voted for Obama and, on one poll, 75 percent support bigger government. Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner points out that were the Obama-Romney election to have occurred with the 1980 electorate, Romney would have easily won.
Defenders of increased immigration, such as economist Bryan Caplan, respond that immigrants' voting patterns will not expand government because immigrants have lower voter turnout, favor the status quo, and will cause other groups to increasingly vote down welfare programs as they become increasingly alienated from the poor and lower class. Caplan's analysis is likely incorrect, but in any case, why take the risk?
Illegal aliens and chain-migration immigrants are nowhere near as educated as the American populace and have different values and this would likely affect the U.S. For example, Hispanics are more likely to have children out of wedlock than other Americans. Former Heritage Foundation analyst Jason Richwine and others argue that the average IQ of Hispanic immigrants is substantially lower than that of the native white population and that this gap will likely persist over several generations. Among low-IQ immigrant groups, he argues, the gap will produce a lack of socioeconomic assimilation, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Even the social benefits of such immigration are less than one might expect given that friendships are surprisingly homogeneous and marriages are more likely to be successful when the couple is similar.
Let me state an obvious aside. There are many Hispanic people in this country who are incredibly bright, talented, and absolutely wonderful people. We are talking about generalities.
Massive low-skill immigrants might also cause distrust and conflict. Columnist Pat Buchanan points out that a number of nations with diverse populations have faced severe difficulties in recent history. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the USSR broke up. Northern Ireland is now largely independent of Britain. Muslims in Europe are not assimilating and tensions are high. In the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, and Libya are coming apart. In sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia have come apart. The Kurds in places like Turkey and Iraq would secede if they could. It is hard to see why America will be immune from these problems. In any case, it is hard to see how the resulting tensions will promote liberty.
In short, it is unclear whether the U.S. is a country of a specific people. Even if it is solely an idea-nation, we will have a hard time acting on it if we flood it with people who value other things. No one would expect the Chautauqua Institution members to take in the Hasidim. The same should be true for us.
Stephen Kershnar is a philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org