In 1794 president George Washington wrote to Vice President John Adams on the necessity of assimilating immigrants to the new American republic’s way of life. Presciently, Washington lamented the prospect of immigrant ghettos and, as Americans would say two centuries later, multiculturalism. Settling immigrants “in a body,” Washington wrote, meant that “they retain the Language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them. Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.”
A review of Melting Pot or Civil War, by Reihan Salam (Sentinel, 224 pages, $27)
Two hundred twenty-four years later, a son of Bangladeshi immigrants makes a similar argument in the modulated language of social science. Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? is one of the best diagnoses of immigration policy in the past decade. The best prescription, however, remains Mark Krikorian’s The New Case Against Immigration (2008), also published by Sentinel.
Drawing on high-quality and ideologically diverse research, Salam, a former executive editor of National Review who in February became the new president of the Manhattan Institute, presents an empirically grounded critique of our current immigration policy. “High levels of low-skill immigrants,” he states, “will make a middle-class melting pot impossible.” The current system fosters inequality, has increased the poverty rate, and keeps a large section of our economy in a “low-wage, low-productivity rut.” What most concerns him is whether low-skilled immigrants’ children will assimilate.
Salam says that the crucial question concerns the type of assimilation: “amalgamation” or “racialization”? Will the children of newcomers enter a new “melting pot” and adopt the “culture and folkways of the established population,” entering the fabric of America “through ties of friendship and kinship”? Or will they grow up in “immigrant enclaves,” socially distant from mainstream America and “relegated to second-class status.”
Unfortunately, “[n]ot everyone is assimilating into the same America.” Many “are being incorporated into disadvantaged groups” and “often feel alienated from the mainstream.” As a result, “We are entering such a dangerous moment.” The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Salam reports, determined that 45.3% of immigrant-headed households with children relied on food stamps, compared to 30.6% of native-born households with children. The NAS study also declared that not only first-generation immigrants, but also their children and grandchildren, were “net fiscal burdens” for the nation.
From Salam’s well-documented critique of how our immigration policy actually works, we can draw significant conclusions, ones that Melting Pot or Civil War? implies rather than explicates. First, the argument advanced by prominent Republicans as well as Democrats that the assimilation process is intact is deeply flawed. Today’s immigrants and their children, we are told, are assimilating as quickly and thoroughly as the previous waves of immigrants in the days of Ellis Island. Hence, we needn’t worry about a Balkanized America: the children of today’s Mexican and Central American immigrants will assimilate just like those who arrived more than a century ago from southern and eastern Europe . . .
Read the rest at the Claremont Review of Books.
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