Getting Immigration Right

By O'Sullivan, John | The American Conservative, July 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

Getting Immigration Right

O'Sullivan, John, The American Conservative

[the know-something party]

How conservatives blocked the open-borders establishment

IN SUMMER 1991, beginning a long air trip on a National Review Institute delegation to the Far East, I opened a 14,000-word submission to National Review and settled down to read. My mood was a good deal more optimistic than it usually was toward 14,000-word submissions. Its author was a friend and gifted writer, Peter Brimelow, then a senior editor at Forbes, who had long wanted to write this piece. But was the topic "hot" enough to command as much as 20 pages in a national magazine?

I was soon blown away by one of the most powerful and lively polemics I have ever read. It was comprehensive, too, covering almost every aspect of immigration and its effects in crisp and well-documented sections.

My traveling companions included Bill and Priscilla Buckley. Bill had given me full editorial control of NR at this point, but you don't devote a magazine's entire article section to one piece without informing the proprietor. I gave him the manuscript and told him my intentions. He raised a skeptical eyebrow, but proceeded to read.

An hour later Bill walked over, full of enthusiasm for the piece. Priscilla confirmed our judgment. Peter's magnum opus appeared as "Time to Re-Think Immigration" behind a cover of the Statue of Liberty raising her hand not to lift a torch aloft but to forbid entry.

As xenophobes later explained it, Peter Brimelow, an English immigrant, and National Review, a magazine then edited by an English immigrant, had launched the modern American debate on immigration. But then, as the former occasionally quipped, aren't immigrants supposed to do the dirty jobs that Americans won't?

In fact, this particular immigrant had needed converting. For almost three years, I had argued that immigration was the wrong issue on which to hang the wider cause Of protecting America's national identity against bilingualism, multiculturalism, and postmodern deconstruction (the so-called "National Question"). Just before the 1988 election, I had been astonished at a conservative conference in California when a long burst of applause unexpectedly greeted my mild criticism of the slowly developing spread of biculturalism. Knowing the damage that biculturalism had done to Canada-and sensing from the audience reaction that they were anxious on the same score-I judged that language would be the best horse from that stable. "Official English" enjoyed an 80/20 advantage in opinion polls, it had won the few referenda that the political class had been unable to prevent, and it had none of the "Ellis Island" drawbacks attending the immigration issue-few Americans resented their immigrant grandparents' having to learn English.

But I changed my mind under two influences.

First, I realized that unchecked immigration was fuelling the support for bilingualism and multiculturalism. Not usually directly, as most immigrants intended to learn English and become Americans. Initially, it was Americans who were mainly responsible for cultural balkanization-elite Americans because they believed in a multicultural America and enforced its strictures in both public and private sectors and ordinary Americans because, being tolerant people, they thought it was only reasonable to make the newcomers, once here, feel at home. Immigration made multiculturalism seem reasonable. And the larger the immigrant intake, the more such reforms as bilingual education seemed simply necessary. As well as making these developments seem reasonable, unchecked immigration ensured that a steady supply of new and probably loyal recruits for the new politics of multiculturalism would keep coming.

Even establishment Republicans, who didn't notice much, noticed this. By the early 1990s, the GOP was backing away from its earlier sympathy for official English and even from its longer opposition to racial preferences. State parties and governors now began to oppose referenda that would go on to overturn preferences or bilingual education by large majorities. …

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