Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School and the daughter of immigrants, pens an op-ed in today's Washington Post about the need for America to get it right on immigration. Getting it right means not veering to either extreme position in the debate. I think she presents somewhat of a caricature of many of the people who are opposed to the situation we have on our hands at this moment, but she still makes some excellent points.
If you don't speak Spanish, Miami really can feel like a foreign country. In any restaurant, the conversation at the next table is more likely to be Spanish than English. And Miami's population is only 65 percent Hispanic. El Paso is 76 percent Latino. Flushing, N.Y., is 60 percent immigrant, mainly Chinese.
Chinatowns and Little Italys have long been part of America's urban landscape, but would it be all right to have entire U.S. cities where most people spoke and did business in Chinese, Spanish or even Arabic? Are too many Third World, non-English-speaking immigrants destroying our national identity?
For some Americans, even asking such questions is racist. At the other end of the spectrum, the conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly fulminates against floods of immigrants who threaten to change America's "complexion" and replace what he calls the "white Christian male power structure."
But for the large majority in between, Democrats and Republicans alike, these questions are painful, with no easy answers. At some level, most of us cherish our legacy as a nation of immigrants. But are all immigrants really equally likely to make good Americans? Are we, as the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warns, in danger of losing our core values and devolving "into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups, with little or nothing in common apart from their location in the territory of what had been the United States of America"?
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.
Nevertheless, I think Huntington has a point.
Around the world today, nations face violence and instability as a result of their increasing pluralism and diversity. Across Europe, immigration has resulted in unassimilated, largely Muslim enclaves that are hotbeds of unrest and even terrorism. The riots in France last month were just the latest manifestation. With Muslims poised to become a majority in Amsterdam and elsewhere within a decade, major West European cities could undergo a profound transformation. Not surprisingly, virulent anti-immigration parties are on the rise.
Not long ago, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union disintegrated when their national identities proved too weak to bind together diverse peoples. Iraq is the latest example of how crucial national identity is. So far, it has found no overarching identity strong enough to unite its Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.
I think that the number of people who are opposed to immigration on racial grounds is a very small minority, just as I think that the number of people who are in favor of in on racial grounds are a small minority. But Chua's ideas for fixing the current mess sound very familiar. Regular readers will recognize them as being very much in line with what I have been advocating for some time here: A high fence, a wide gate and a hearty welcome for those who play be the rules. The fact is that English should be our official language, but we can and should welcome legal immigrants into this country. Our admissions policies should favor talent and recognize that we do need a good mix of people from all over the world. But the melting pot is still a necessary framework for making America work. So is a strong border that lets us be in control of who gets in.
America has succeeded as a nation of immigrants because we have been able to assimilate wave after wave of people coming from all over the globe. While the new arrivals may always be more in tune with where they came from for many years, those immigrant's children have become Americans. That is how we should still be functioning. I would suggest reading all of Chua's piece. I think she gets the essentials correct.