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Vernellia R. Randall
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The University of Dayton

 

   
   

 

 


Kevin R. Johnson
 

Excerpt from:   Fear of an "Alien Nation": Race, Immigration, and Immigrants, 7 Stanford Law and Policy Review 111, 111-118  (Summer, 1996) (citations Omitted)

 
Peter Brimelow and many who share his views object to current immigration laws on several counts. Brimelow opposes the current level of immigration, which as previously mentioned increased substantially in the early 1990s. He also voices concern about the alleged adverse economic impact of immigration, although ultimately conceding that immigrants neither help nor hurt the economy to any significant degree. These, however, are not Brimelow's primary concerns, nor the ones that make Alien Nation notable. Unlike many restrictionists, Brimelow does not shy away from the volatile issue of race. Indeed, the central thesis of Alien Nation is that the race and culture of many of today's immigrants pose a serious threat to the nation as we know it. Brimelow specifically expresses serious concern with the impact that the race of today's immigrants will have on the political process. A dialogue on the racial demographics of immigration is well worth having. However, the seamier side of Brimelow's views on the subject make Alien Nation an unlikely starting point for constructive discussion. For example, he repeatedly comments on the physical differences of people of color. Brimelow laments that since 1965, "immigrants are overwhelmingly visible minorities from the Third World." One may question the special concern with "visible minorities." Brimelow's comparison of an Immigration and Naturalization Service office to a New York City subway is similarly thought-provoking: "[Y]ou find yourself in an underworld that is not just teeming but is also almost entirely colored." Combining the "underworld," often used synonymously with crime, with the antiquated term "colored" is typical of the negative racial imagery used in Alien Nation when discussing immigrants of color. 

Notwithstanding these statements, Brimelow denies that his objections to immigration from developing nations are purely based on skin color. Instead, he contends that immigrants of color are culturally deficient, placing great emphasis on the need to speak English (apparently as a native language). As discussed previously, such concerns may mask racial concerns and, at a minimum, coincide with race. Consider some of the so- called cultural problems allegedly posed by today's immigrants. [The following discussion by Professor Johnson is critics Brimelow's stance as involving the need for cultural homogeneity, presence of too many "hispanics", a soapbox to explore many personal frustrations,  and nativisim - pure and simple]

A. "THE NEED FOR HOMOGENEITY" 

 Brimelow proclaims that "[b]y introducing diverse populations, [immigration] strikes at the nation-state's Achilles' heel: the need for homogeneity." Appealing to tradition, he declares that "the American nation has always had a specific ethnic core. And that core has been white." To avert the impending disaster attributable to increased diversity, Brimelow apparently endorses revival of the much-maligned national origin quotas of the pre-1965 immigration laws. 

There is a critical piece missing from Brimelow's argument for cultural homogeneity. Except for a few references to this nation's unique diversity, and a suggestion or two that such diversity may ultimately produce a Bosnia or Lebanon in the United States, Brimelow fails to provide support for the need for homogeneity. Because the premise is so central to his conclusions, this missing element is a damning flaw. Even some conservatives strongly disagree with the prescription of national homogeneity. For example, offended by Brimelow's view that "the United States is ... becoming ... an alien nation, overrun by millions of brown-skinned immigrants from Latin America and Asia," Linda Chavez believes that the idea that "immigrants will somehow transform America ... is wrong." 

In contrast to those attempting to constructively analyze the issues posed by an increasingly heterogeneous society, Brimelow simplistically advocates a return to an idyllic past when homogeneity supposedly reigned. In so doing, he virtually ignores this nation's long history of diversity. African Americans and Latinos have lived in the United States for centuries, and a great variety of white ethnic immigrants have come to this nation. 

Moreover, the practicality of a return to a homogeneous United States is far from clear. In light of the diversity of this nation's current population, it is highly doubtful that any colorable proposal -- especially one that focuses exclusively on immigration -- would result in the creation of a homogeneous Anglo Saxon nation. In Linda Chavez's words, the mere idea "seem[s] ridiculous today in a country in which 150 million persons are descended from people who did not come here from the British Isles." 

 B. TOO MANY "HISPANICS" 

Brimelow above all else faults excessive immigration from Latin America for many of society's problems, a recurring feature of the immigration debate in the twentieth century. He observes that the Hispanic population grew from 2.6% of the population in 1950 to 9% in 1990. He stretches the facts by suggesting that illegal immigration since 1986 has been "overwhelmingly Hispanic." The Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, estimates that the undocumented population in this country is diverse, including significant numbers of people from many different nations, including non-Hispanic nations such as Canada, Poland, and Italy, as well as from Latin American nations like Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Deeper political fears are reflected in the suggestion that Mexican immigrants are either co-conspirators with or simply unwitting dupes of Mexican-American radicals and the Mexican government. Offering little elaboration and no proof, Brimelow speculates that heavy Mexican immigration to the United States might result in a movement to reunite part of the Southwest with Mexico. 

1. "Hispanics," Immigrants, and Affirmative Action 

A careful study of Alien Nation reveals that Brimelow's concerns with Latinos are not limited to immigrants. The book singles out "Hispanics," an all-encompassing referent that includes citizens as well as immigrants, as a minority group that deserves particular criticism. Rejecting the term "Hispanic," as do many who fall within the category, Brimelow gratuitously argues that the Bureau of the Census should abolish the term. He further proclaims that 

"Hispanics" are being treated by U.S. government agencies as an homogenous "protected class" essentially as a result of ethnic lobbying in Washington. They have been supplied with "leaders" financed in large part by the Ford Foundation. They are now much less encouraged to "Americanize" than anything seen in the previous Great Wave. Instead, they are being issued with a new, artificial "Hispanic" identity. How this relates to immigration reform, the ostensible topic of the book, is uncertain. However, it reveals the scapegoating phenomenon so prevalent in U.S. immigration history: Latin American immigrants are blamed for such perceived problems as affirmative action, which has much more to do with U.S. citizens than immigrants. 

As this attack illustrates, Brimelow lumps all Latinos in the United States together with Latin-American immigrants. This is understandable because, in Brimelow's view, all Latinos are foreign to this nation's "white" core. But not all Latinos in the United States are immigrants. Mexicans, for example, lived in the Southwest long before the region became part of this country. Moreover, the Latino community is far from monolithic and is especially heterogeneous with respect to citizenship and immigration status. This community includes citizens and noncitizens, both lawful permanent residents and undocumented immigrants. Though acknowledging diversity in the Latino community, Brimelow fails to make a fundamental distinction between Latino immigrants and Latino citizens. 

In attacking the artificial "Hispanic" identity and the treatment of Hispanics as a "protected class," Brimelow in effect is complaining about affirmative action. In so doing, he fails to address the serious under- representation of Latinos in positions of power in the United States and the social problems generally faced by the Latino community. Instead, strongly disagreeing with positions taken by Latino activist organizations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Brimelow insults the leadership of these groups. How they created a "new, artificial 'Hispanic' identity" for Latinos, and why this supposed "identity" is illegitimate, is not explained. Perhaps most importantly, in light of the relative disadvantaged position of Latinos in the United States, the benefits of the "identity" are highly uncertain. 

As should be apparent from this discussion, Brimelow's concern with Hispanics -- immigrants and citizens alike -- in no small part relates to his vehement opposition to affirmative action, which obviously troubles him and many others. Immigration, however, is not responsible for creating the need for affirmative action. Rather, the impetus for such programs was the historical exclusion of minorities and women from educational, employment, and political opportunities. 

Nevertheless, immigration complicates the affirmative action debate. For example, some affirmative action supporters fear that immigrant eligibility for such programs injures the African-American community. In contrast, some opponents contend that affirmative action adversely affects white ethnic immigrants. Such tensions, which this essay does not address, are impossible to deny. The mere existence of these tensions, however, fails to support Brimelow's claim that immigration should be drastically reduced or his insinuation that immigrants are responsible for perceived deficiencies of affirmative action programs. Affirmative action should be evaluated and maintained, modified, or eliminated on its own merits. 

2. Bilingualism 

Brimelow also rails against "all forms of government-imposed 'bilingualism,"' a movement often associated with the Latino community. Bilingual education, however, is neither supported exclusively, nor perhaps even primarily, by immigrants; U.S. citizens who fear a loss of cultural identity also support protection of their languages. Indeed, Latinos born and raised in this country initially pressed for bilingual education and have the political power -- power denied to noncitizens -- to succeed in securing the creation of such programs. The demand for bilingual education cannot simply be marginalized as an "immigrant movement." Moreover, evidence shows that access to bilingual education does not prevent Latino immigrants and their children from learning English. 

It is true that today's immigrants come from many different nations and speak many different languages. This unquestionably has created new challenges to be addressed. As the "English-only" movement suggests, at least a vocal segment of the public objects to the increased use of languages other than English. However, despite Brimelow's hopes, the end of immigration would not end the debate about bilingual education and bilingualism in the United States. 

Moreover, Brimelow fails to understand the link between language and assimilation. To the extent that immigrants are encouraged to learn English (through English-as-a-Second-Language programs, for example), they become increasingly integrated into the community. Brimelow's omission is striking in light of his stated concern with the assimilation of today's newcomers into U.S. society. 

3. Assimilation 

When confining his complaints to Latino immigrants, as opposed to all Latinos, Brimelow seems concerned with their alleged refusal to assimilate, a proposition with which some conservatives disagree. However, Alien Nation fails to advocate measures that would encourage assimilation, such as additional funding for English-as-a-Second-Language programs and streamlining the naturalization process to allow immigrants to become citizens more quickly. Brimelow instead offers a deceptively simple answer: bar the immigration of people of color so that we no longer have to worry about assimilation. 

In stark contrast to Brimelow's approach, some commentators have tried to offer constructive proposals to foster immigrant assimilation. Though the concept of "assimilation" is open to many interpretations, it is difficult to argue that efforts should not be made to integrate immigrants into the political community. The same Latino activist groups that Brimelow derides, for example, have tried to integrate immigrants into the political community by encouraging naturalization. 

4. Immigration and the Latino Community 

Besides ignoring laudable efforts by Latino activists to promote assimilation, Brimelow criticizes them for resisting various immigration reform proposals. In so doing, Brimelow fails to fully comprehend the difference ethnicity makes in evaluating the impact of U.S. immigration law and policy. For example, in suggesting that the use of dogs might improve border enforcement, Brimelow conjures up disturbing imagery suggesting that Mexican immigrants are less than human. One therefore would suspect that some Latinos would be uncomfortable with such proposals. 

Similarly, Brimelow ridicules the objections of Representative Jose Serrano (D-NY), former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico, to a proposal that would require a person to prove citizenship in order to participate in a government program. In so doing, Brimelow fails to comprehend why a Jose Serrano might view the issue differently than a Peter Brimelow. If a national identification scheme were put into place, Serrano and groups of people considered to be foreign and different might well be asked for identification more regularly than people like Brimelow. By consistently equating "Hispanics" with immigrants, Brimelow himself offers support for Serrano's fears of discriminatory enforcement. 

Latinos, citizens and immigrants alike, are understandably sensitive to the anti-Latino aspects of the debate over immigration reform. The movement toward immigration restriction and increased enforcement measures disproportionately affects Latino citizens as well as lawful immigrants. Consequently, Latino activists have been vigilant in monitoring and opposing proposals that they fear would open the door to discrimination against persons perceived as foreign. 

C. VENTING PERSONAL FRUSTRATIONS 

Besides its anti-Latino tilt, Alien Nation implicitly suggests why the immigration debate is so volatile. Immigration raises deeply personal and often emotional questions. Who will be permitted to join the American community? How do "they" fit in with "us"? How will "they" affect "my" life? Consequently, the immigration debate brings to the fore public concern with self-preservation and fear of change. 

Despite Brimelow's principal focus on the race and culture of today's immigrants, immigration represents for Brimelow nothing more than a convenient soapbox from which to voice many political, social, and personal frustrations. In addition to concerns about affirmative action and bilingualism, Brimelow expresses dissatisfaction with developments as far-ranging as multiculturalism and sensitivity training in the workplace. His repeated reliance on the personal is ironic in light of his complaint that "much commentary about immigration is quite clearly the projection of personal values, fears, phobias and fantasies." 

Illustrating the personal nature of the debate, Brimelow implicitly demands credibility as an immigration commentator because he immigrated to this country from Great Britain. For example, in response to objections to the use of the term "alien," Brimelow asserts that, as a former alien, "the United States had a perfect right to call me anything it wants." Unfortunately, he is oblivious to the dehumanizing connotations of the term. 

Brimelow's personal frustrations with immigration run the gamut from large to small issues. He claims that immigration has had dramatic and far-reaching consequences on the political process. Brimelow states that immigration bestows power on the political elite in the United States. To this elite, "immigration is manna from heaven. It gives them endless excuses to intervene in society. It enables them to distinguish themselves from the xenophobic masses." 

Indeed, immigration, according to Brimelow, even contributed to the election of President Clinton. Brimelow warns that the President was backed by "a black- Hispanic-Jewish-minority white (Southerners used to call them 'scalawags') coalition." Implying that this is bad, Brimelow contends that such an unholy alliance may portend the politics of the future. Notwithstanding Brimelow's rhetoric, the only possible relationship between immigration and the political coalition that elected the President is that some "Hispanic" citizens (because noncitizens, such as immigrants who have not naturalized and undocumented persons, cannot vote) voted for Bill Clinton. Once again, Brimelow treats all Latinos, citizens and noncitizens alike, as foreigners. 

Brimelow's personal motivations are strikingly illustrated on a much smaller scale by the book's discussion of the relative benefits of British and Zulu immigration. During his 1992 run for the presidency, Patrick Buchanan provoked controversy by contending that British immigration would cause fewer problems for the people of Virginia than Zulu immigration. A Wall Street Journal editorial disagreed on the ground that Zulu immigrants probably would work harder than English ones. Lashing back with great ferocity, Brimelow asserts that such a view "reveals an utter innocence about the reality of ethnic and cultural differences, let alone about little things like tradition and history." He gratuitously mentions that the founder of the Zulu Empire "among other exploits killed all his concubines' children, sometimes with his own hands, massacred some seven thousand of his own subjects to mark his mother's death, sliced open a hundred pregnant women to satisfy a fleeting interest in embryology, and ordered executions at whim daily until his assassination in 1828 ...." Although this inflammatory outburst allows Brimelow to vent steam about the apparent insult to his countrymen, it *117             (Cite as: 7 Stan. L. & Pol'y Rev. 111, *117) 

is woefully out of place in a serious discussion of modern immigration. 

D. NATIVISM PURE AND SIMPLE 

In the end, one would be hard-pressed not to classify Brimelow, who readily offers to defend nativists, as a nativist who relies on race and culture to define what is "un-American" and "foreign." Indeed, Brimelow's racially-tinged arguments and alarmist tone are disturbingly reminiscent of past nativist appeals. Consistent with the self- perception of previous nativist groups, most notably the Know Nothings of the nineteenth century, Brimelow describes critics of current U.S. immigration policies as 'Patriots.' 

Like his predecessors, Brimelow predicts dire consequences if the U.S. government does not drastically overhaul its immigration laws:  Deep into the twenty-first century, throughout the lifetime of my little son, American patriots will be fighting to salvage as much as possible from the shipwreck of their great republic. It will be a big wreck, and there will be a lot to salvage .... And the politicians and pundits who allowed this to happen truly deserve, and will certainly receive ... the curses of those who come after. 

Consistent with the crisis mentality that pervades Alien Nation, Brimelow claims that "'pulling out the ladder' ... may be necessary -- if the lifeboat is about to capsize." 

In rhetoric paralleling that of previous nativists, Brimelow blames immigrants for a virtual cornucopia of society's problems and frustrations. Besides claiming that the racial and cultural diversity of immigrants damage the national fabric, he believes high levels of immigration have imposed substantial economic, cultural, social, environmental, and political costs on the United States. As has become customary in the immigration debate, Brimelow blames immigrants for increased crime, and begins his book by emphasizing a few immigrants' alleged involvement in notorious criminal acts, thereby suggesting that these isolated occurrences epitomize the activities of most immigrants. Brimelow also blames immigrants for public health problems and damage to the environment. He expresses concern for unskilled black workers whom he claims are adversely affected by immigration. While separate from the objections to the changing racial demographics of immigration that are the centerpiece of Alien Nation, the well- worn economic and social concerns with immigration tap into negative images that many hold about immigrants of color and exemplify the tendency in U.S. history to scapegoat immigrants. 

Consistent with past nativists, Brimelow unfortunately downplays, and generally ignores, any positive attributes of immigration. For example, he fails to address the powerful claim that voluntary immigration by those who share American democratic values has strengthened, not divided, the nation. Furthermore, Brimelow discounts evidence that immigrants as workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers have dramatically benefited the U.S. economy. 

Perhaps most importantly, like his nativist predecessors, Brimelow offers surprisingly few novel suggestions for immigration reform. He claims that a fundamental principle by which any reform must be judged is whether "it help[s] or hurt[s] the ability of the United States to survive as a nation- state -- the political expression of that interlacing of ethnicity and culture that now constitutes the American nation." But Alien Nation fails to articulate practical proposals that put this principle into action. To the extent that Brimelow offers concrete proposals, they are characteristically extreme. He advocates, for example, drastically reducing current legal immigration levels and reviving harsh deportation strategies directed at undocumented immigrants, such as the much-criticized "Operation Wetback," which resulted in the mass deportation of Mexicans in the 1950s. 

As any well-informed observer is aware, immigration is a highly-charged, complex issue about which many intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree. But rather than offering constructive criticism, Brimelow merely fans the tried-and-true flames of xenophobia. Indeed, his simplistic proposals offer little practical guidance to policymakers attempting to navigate the treacherous political waters surrounding immigration reform. Recent reforms of the much-maligned asylum system, for example, illustrate that attempts to address these issues require years of serious, often heated, discussion. The national identification system recently proposed by the Commission on Immigration Reform also engendered intense debate, making a consensus in the near future doubtful. One would hope that Brimelow, who is so outraged by current immigration policy, would engage in the truly difficult task of formulating workable proposals to address the problems he perceives with immigration. 

As the unabashed endorsement of past nativists and the paucity of practical reform proposals in Alien Nation make clear, Brimelow fails to fully appreciate the complexities of U.S. immigration history. This is exemplified by his strident defense of the thoroughly discredited, fervently anti-Catholic, and patently xenophobic Know Nothing Party of the 1800s. His embrace of Know Nothing ideology is not surprising. Just as Brimelow does, the Know Nothings had racial and political goals in mind -- to ensure the nation's ethnic purity and to reverse the perceived adverse impact that immigrants have on the political process. 

A chilling example of Alien Nation's failure to appreciate history is the peculiar discussion of the United States' horrible treatment of Jews fleeing the persecution of Nazi Germany. Brimelow questions the claims of "immigration enthusiasts" who decry this nation's treatment of Jewish refugees and mentions that the national origin quotas that discriminated against Jews were enacted in the 1920s, well before the rise of the Third Reich. He wholly ignores the Roosevelt administration's refusal to allow Jewish refugees in a ship off the U.S. coast to come ashore, even though the atrocities of Nazi Germany had already become apparent to the world. More importantly, Brimelow fails to question, much less condemn, the treatment of the Jews by the U.S. government or suggest that it was in any way morally wrong. Thankfully, the international community has taken a different view and embraced both the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which oblige nations to offer safe haven to refugees fleeing persecution. Many other historical errors and omissions in Alien Nation can be identified, including the book's failure to acknowledge the excesses of the exclusion laws directed at Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, which Congress passed in response to appeals remarkably similar to those made by today's nativists. Absent an appreciation of history, we are bound to repeat the egregious errors made in the past.  Though a nativist at heart, Brimelow unfortunately has failed to learn the lessons of the history of nativism in the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

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