The Real “Problem” of Immigration

In an Oped piece in last Sunday’s Washington Post Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, author of the interesting book World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), pens a rather nativistic analysis of contemporary immigration.

Chua begins with a loaded question:

“Are too many Third World, non-English-speaking immigrants destroying our national identity?”

Stating the question this way, with harsh and loaded language like “destroying” and “Third World,” already places the discussion in an anti-immigration, old racist frame that negatively characterizes those who are immigrating to the United States from Asia and Latin America.

Then she asks if “all immigrants” are “really equally likely to make good Americans?” and cites the leading nativistic political scientist, fellow Ivy Leaguer Samuel Huntington, who has taken the biased tack that immigrants of today are inferior to those of yesteryear, the latter having allegedly assimilated easily and caused no problems for the country.

Perhaps trying to play down her harsh opening, Chua then tells us that she herself is an immigrant who has done well:

“My parents arrived in the United States in 1961, so poor that they couldn’t afford heat their first winter. I grew up speaking only Chinese at home (for every English word accidentally uttered, my sister and I got one whack of the chopsticks). Today, my father is a professor at Berkeley, and I’m a professor at Yale Law School. As the daughter of immigrants, a grateful beneficiary of America’s tolerance and opportunity, I could not be more pro-immigrant.”

In a classic non sequitur, she then shifts to a somewhat irrelevant discussion of countries overseas, and one that is rather anti-immigrant. She cites oddly selected countries “around the world today” which “face violence and instability as a result of their increasing pluralism and diversity.” She picks on the example of “unassimilated, largely Muslim enclaves that are hotbeds of unrest and even terrorism” in European countries, citing “riots in France last month”–with no reference whatsoever to the high levels of racist discrimination and discriminatory unemployment faced by France’s Muslim population at the hands of whites or of peacefully pluralistic countries in Europe. Then she cites Muslims as the problem again, this time those supposedly soon to be “a majority in Amsterdam and elsewhere within a decade,” with major European cities facing “a profound transformation.”

She claims that “Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union disintegrated when their national identities proved too weak to bind together diverse peoples,” and then cites Iraq as a recent example with “no overarching identity strong enough to unite its Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.” Not a word is offered in regard to any of her carefully selected examples about the racial and religious discrimination faced by groups that were (are) not dominant in the (ruling) groups in these countries or the political oppressions that caused upheavals in these countries–including the reshaping of Iraq by outside interventions and occupations by European and U.S. armies over the last century.

Chua switches next to a rhetorical question from the extreme right:

“Does this mean that it’s time for the United States to shut its borders and reassert its ‘white, Christian’ identity and what Huntington calls its Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ‘core values’?”

Even stating such an extremely racist question like it is legitimate puts this racist framing of immigration back into the minds of readers, although Chua does reject this view with two good points about immigrants who were not white making major contributions to the economic health of the United States and about such rhetoric supposedly driving immigrants from the mainstream. This latter point about rejecting the mainstream is actually rather easily refuted by data, which often is in short supply in such arguments. Social science research shows clearly that immigrants of various backgrounds now aggressively seek integration into the U.S. economy and into the English language. English instruction programs in many areas have long backlogs of applicants, and most second generation immigrants (especially today) have long been able to speak English well. Indeed, by the third and fourth generations languages like Spanish are rarely spoken by these Americans, except perhaps to grandparents.

After making these modest points for immigrants, Chua again retreats to the tired rhetoric of the anti-immigration frame:

“Immigration advocates are too often guilty of an uncritical political correctness that avoids hard questions about national identity and imposes no obligations on immigrants. For these well-meaning idealists, there is no such thing as too much diversity.”

Again she uses the straw-man argument and language from the white racial frame, whose contemporary advocates actually created the term “political correctness” in the sense she uses it and who assert that immigration advocates avoid “hard questions” and impose “no obligations on immigrants.” This frame asserts without evidence that (many?) advocates of immigration and other advocates of a diverse United States are just “well-meaning idealists” who cannot envision having “too much diversity.” Where is the evidence for this?

In her rather undocumented analysis, Chua generally sides with those whites who often attack Americans who have worked so hard to bring down the racial stereotypes and racist structures created by 340 years of racial oppression in U.S. society. Somehow, the fact that nearly 90 percent of this country’s history is one of extreme white oppression (genocidal rampages against Native Americans, rape of enslaved and segregated Black women hundreds of thousands of times, and 6000 lynchings, excluding Chinese Americans on racial grounds, racial segregation of Japanese Americans before and during World War II, just to take a few examples), and the fact that this country has only been an officially “free” country since legal segregation ended in 1968, a modest generation and a half ago, are lost in this whitewashed analysis. The hostility and discrimination, and one-way assimilation pressure to conform to a white-normed society (her “national identity” is a white identity, apparently), faced by hard-working immigrants is not even considered as a societal “problem.” The image of a wonderful, tolerant, white-led country suffering great troubles at the hands of relatively moderate rates of immigration (compared to rates of immigrants around 1900) of non-European immigrants is greatly exaggerated if not ludicrous. If these immigrants were white and European, as is clear in both Chua’s and Huntington’s analyses, there would be no significant outcry and no immigration “problem” to be so aggressively and publicly discussed.

Chua’s solutions are also to a significant degree of the white nativist frame. She agrees with nativists who seek an English-only country by proposing that English be the “official national language.” For her, teaching Spanish to Spanish-language children–so they can, in my view, learn their own language better, become better educated, and likely transition more easily to English–is an “indulgence.” She asserts that:

“For many immigrants, only family matters. Even when immigrants get involved in politics, they tend to focus on protecting their own and protesting discrimination.”

For these reasons, apparently, she contends that immigrants must embrace “national civic virtues,” yet she ignores the fact that most already do embrace civic values by getting jobs and working hard, getting educations themselves or putting their children in school, buying housing and consumer goods, and eventually joining political and civic associations the longer they (and especially their children) are in the United States. She again ignores the white-generated discrimination that many non-European immigrants, and their children and grandchildren, face, which gives them good reason to protest.

Then she picks up on yet another them from the white racial frame:

“That the 11 million to 20 million illegal immigrants are 80 percent Mexican and Central American is itself a problem. This is emphatically not for the reason Huntington gives — that Hispanics supposedly don’t share America’s core values. But if the U.S. immigration system is to reflect and further our ethnically neutral identity, it must itself be ethnically neutral, offering equal opportunity to Sudanese, Estonians, Burmese and so on. The starkly disproportionate ratio of Latinos — reflecting geographical fortuity and a large measure of law-breaking — is inconsistent with this principle.”

Here, it is who the immigrants are that is the “problem.” She says not a word about how U.S. corporations’ destruction of farming economies in Latin America lies behind much undocumented immigration. It is not the tooth fairy that forces so many Latin American immigrants to come to the United States to get jobs to feed, clothe, and house their often desperate families. Presumably, she has these Latin Americans in mind in a closing sentence as well, when she says:

“Immigrants who turn their backs on American values don’t deserve to be here.”

Again, at no point in her analysis, does Chua discuss the fact that those “American values” have for centuries included much racial discrimination targeting Americans of color, especially immigrants of color. Should not all of us turn our backs on the numerous negative “American values,” which values lead some of us to conduct large-scale discrimination against Americans of color or to invade “too diverse” countries abroad that have not harmed the United States?

The real “problem” of immigration is not immigrants, who are for the most part courageous, family-oriented, economic refugees seeking better lives for themselves. The real problem is the nativist, racist, and anti-immigrant framing, which is too often found in the fearful minds of Americans who cannot see beyond it to a truly democratic multiracial America.


  1. James T. Smith

    Why must you slander Huntington for accurately observing how immigrants from Mexico assimilate? 41% of fourth generation Mexican Americans have no high school degree. This has real consequences for the United States as a whole: more poverty, more wealth inequality, depressed wages for low-skill workers, greater numbers of uniformed voters, etc.

    I’m asking you this in all honesty: how does immigration benefit poor Americans? I know how it benefits rich Americans, but how does it benefit poor Americans?

  2. Joe F. Author

    First, the analysis is about Chua, not about Huntington’s highly eurocentric views. She cites him, and he is a questionable source, even she is a bit critical of him.

    Secondly, most of the late 19th and early 20th century immigrants (only white and European because of racist US immigration laws) — whose efforts plus those of their children and grandchildren have helped greatly to build up this country — were rather poor, and often uneducated. Hard work and “family values” and eco. opportunities were the key to their success. That is happening now with Latin Am. and Asian immigrants, at least where they have opportunities and do not face discrimination. Some European countries with low immigration are slowly dying economically because they do not have enough young people to take jobs given up by those retiring. So immigration is necessary to a healthy economy, and is one reason the US economy does fairly well even with many corrupt corporate chieftains at the economic helm.

    Thirdly, actually 53 percent of all Mexican American adults (and much larger percentages of other Latinos) have at least a high school degree, and nearly nine percent are college graduates. I do not have fourth generation MA figures handy, but I am sure they are higher than these figures.

    Fourth, these analysts never ever discuss the discrimination and oppression immigrants of color face in the US. Or the role of US corporations in creating the economic forces that drive them to the US. Why is that??

  3. James T. Smith

    Why is Huntington a “a questionable source”? Because he cites facts which you find unpleasant?

    ” That is happening now with Latin Am. and Asian immigrants”

    As Huntington points out, it’s not happening with Latin American immigrants in the same way.

    “nearly nine percent are college graduates”

    Yes, 9.6% of fourth generation Mexican-American’s are college graduates. This is an astonishingly low number – 45% of other Americans are college graduates.

    “these analysts never ever discuss the discrimination and oppression immigrants of color face in the US”

    If they find the US so “opressive” they should leave.

    “Or the role of US corporations in creating the economic forces that drive them to the US. ”

    Lots of immigration analysts discuss the role of corporations. A better question is why do leftwingers take the side of corporations and the rich who want cheap labor when it comes to immigration?

  4. Seattle in Texas

    Thank you for acknowledging the 2-3 lynching of the Chinese railroad workers (the Pacific Northwest’s slaves basically) most of which occurred during the late 1800’s on the Washington/Idaho border that is even known (I’m sure there are many more outside of just that area) and the terror Japanese communities suffered during WWII—U.S. concentration camps…. Grim. That crap didn’t just happen in the South as the Pacific Northwest in general instills into the minds of its residents…my home area has its own ugly history (and ongoing oppression) it has to fess up to and take responsibility for too….

    And James—I’m curious as to why you would suggest immigrants are poor voters—that’s rather elitist. My firsthand experience with first generation immigrants (both legal and “illegal”–as well as second, etc.) tells me, regardless of level of education, they are far more informed about U.S. politics than the highly brainwashed educated Americans most generally. The “informed” voters seem to be doing this nation less justice than anything, perhaps deliberately (particularly with relation to the poor—which cuts across race)—and even then, can we really say that votes really count??? Bush is in office illegally. I don’t think the question should be how does immigration help the poor, rather it should be, how does the power elite and those with wealth harm the poor? Furthermore, this might be difficult to comprehend, but, did you know that undocumented workers who make several dollars below state minimum wage (in the Pacific Northwest) who live in extremely impoverished conditions and survive on income so meager it would be difficult for even poor U.S. citizens to fathom—they still send large portions of their relatively low earnings back home to their families who are in even worse conditions in their home country in certain ways, than here in the U.S.? (remember, these families receive no governmental support or assistance)…. It is not the fault of immigrants for poverty, nor is it the fault of the poor. It is the fault of this nation and its colonial foundation built upon capitalism…. But the voting issue—I have yet to meet a first generation “immigrant” who is or was a Bush supporter at any point in time…but then again, my experiences have been limited to region. I would feel much better disenfranchising all U.S. citizens and only allowing first generation immigrants in the U.S., along with Canada and Mexico to do the voting for us than leaving the voting in the hands of the “informed” U.S. voters. But that’s just me.


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