David Brooks is one of the more talented and perceptive observers on the scene today, but I am disappointed in his analysis of the configuration of the conflict over immigration policy. His take on it in a recent essay is that the conflict begins with the explosion of higher education over the past forty years which has produced a divide between people like me, whom he defines as one of the “educated elites”, whether of liberal or conservative political persuasion, who celebrate diversity and have a cosmopolitan approach to the world, and those who tend to be more ethnocentric and favor ancient ties of community and social solidarity. In this context, he quotes sociologist Manuel Castells: “Elites are cosmopolitan, people are local”, and adds, “people with university values favor intermingling; people with neighborhood values favor assimilation”.
Well, guess what? These worldviews are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For I am also a traditionalist who shares the fear that “diversity” in the form of the multiculturalism it often becomes is a severe threat to ties of community and solidarity and the American idea, and that greatly increased immigration without strictly controlled entry and careful attention to assimilation is detrimental to the future of our country. Does this make me the anti-immigrant, “rooted nationalist”, “nativist”, retrograde neighborhood values provincial he seems to think? I don’t think so, nor do I believe that these characterizations fit the vast majority of the people who demanded of their elected representatives that they reject the “comprehensive” immigration reform bill.
Peggy Noonan has captured this sentiment very well. In discussing her grandfather’s feelings about America when he arrived from Ireland, she says he made the decision to “cast his lot” here, and that’s an important point. It means you let go of the old country and you hold onto the new country, which in succeeding generations becomes a habit that produces meaning, history, and tradition, and that sustains loyalty. And she adds that the problem with much of immigration today is that for too many it’s no longer necessary to “cast their lot” because there are too many ways not to “let go” of the old and “take hold” of the new.
There are much more important issues at stake in this heated debate than new workers and new voters. Immigration policy should be first and always about citizenship and, as Theodore Roosevelt wisely said, we have no room for “hyphenated Americans” or dual citizenship; there is only room for those who want to be completely Americans.