Law, Culture, and Immigration: Richard Samuelson Responds

I thank Peter Skerry, Vincent Cannato, and Alex Nowrasteh for their thoughtful comments about my essay. As I wrote more about the political context in which immigration and assimilation happen, perhaps I was pushing too far beyond what they take to be the topic at hand. That might explain some of the character of the responses. But if our concern is with what has made the American republic a free republic, and with the conditions necessary to keep it such, it seems to me a discussion like this is necessary. As the Founders well knew, republics don’t have a great track record on this score.

Peter Skerry, for example, allows that he worries, as do I, that “many immigrants today are not assimilating to ‘classic American values of thrift, hard work, and cooperation in civil society.’ I, too, am uneasy at the prospect of immigrants being influenced by ‘trans-national’ elites to the point where they, and especially their children, may be ‘embarrassed to be patriotic.’” But Skerry does not particularly care for my elaboration of those concerns. Interestingly Vincent Cannato seems to share them as well, whereas Alex Nowrasteh is less worried in that regard.

Meanwhile, no one touches the hot potato I tossed out near the end: the concern that, given sufficient immigration, Mexico will, in time, have a legitimate claim to exercise jurisdiction over parts of what is now the western United States, and it already has a right to defend the interest of Mexican nationals on U.S. soil. (To be sure, all nations have that right, but when we’re talking 50 million people in a United States of a bit over 300 million, it becomes a serious policy issue. Meanwhile, the weakening of the taboo on dual citizenship further complicates the matter.) That may seem farfetched, but history is full of like surprises to those who think current trends or longstanding geopolitical realities will always continue. As with the American myth of being “a nation of immigrants,” the reality of politics is often more complicated, and the legal and practical realities are often prone to instability, especially if we take stability for granted.

The essence of my argument was that all that is logically connected with the growth of the modern administrative state. The more the national government grows, the more it will be inclined to treat us as parts of ethnic or other sorts of sub-groups, rather than relating to us as individual citizens. And that growth is very much connected with the Progressive project of moving us beyond nationalism. (The words of the song, “Imagine there’s no countries . . .” have deep roots.) Perhaps I am wrong about that. If so, I would be happy to discuss the question and, if my argument is refuted, then I’ll be that much the wiser.

Milton Friedman said, famously, “It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” I was trying to suggest that you cannot have open borders and a modern administrative state—not if one wishes that state to respect the equality of citizens under law, for such a state will have a very strong tendency to treat us as parts of groups, rather than as individual citizens. (The old Austrian empire, if I understand its history correctly, was such a polity. But that’s hardly a model for the United States.) That, combined with elite institutions’ instilling embarrassment about the idea of patriotism, is a dangerous brew for the future of the American republic.

I never said, pace Skerry and Nowrasteh, that assimilation has been easy. Indeed, the John Quincy Adams letter from which I quoted was, in my mind, a description of the “brutal bargain” Skerry describes. Similarly, Adams noted the varied reasons that spurred migration.

But perhaps I have a more pessimistic view of the overall question. Mass assimilation reminds me of a comment Samuel Johnson made in another context. What’s amazing about a dog walking on its hind legs is not that he does it so poorly, but that he does it at all. So, too, with assimilation of large numbers of immigrants. In history, when large numbers of people from two or more nations, tribes, or cultures live in close proximity, sustained civil unrest is the most common result.

Was America anti-Catholic? Were Catholics and other immigrants mistreated? Of course. But what, exactly, were the consequences? Compared to Northern Ireland, for example, the feud between Protestants and Catholics in America has been fairly tame. We should be curious as to why. Among the possibilities given in human nature, why is the American story milder by comparison? That’s what I meant when I said that “Assimilating all Europeans to a common identity was not so simple; but it did, in time, happen.” Ethnic, religious, and cultural clashes will remain common this side of the millennium. Our best hope is to keep them to a low simmer. (It might also be that, as an academic historian, I’m bored with all the wailing about America’s sins. Right it is to acknowledge, as I in fact did, that “we have at times committed gross injustice toward immigrants.”)

Finally, Professor Skerry insists on the centrality of cultural nationalism. I agree that politics and culture cannot, in practice, be separated—as the bit I quoted from Jefferson, among other things, demonstrates. The nation with the soul of a church is a good metaphor. The day one converts to a given church, even the day one converts to a combined religion, tribe, and nation such as the Jews, one is considered fully of that faith. Will converts have different reactions from people who have spent their entire lives in the same religion? Probably. Where nations are concerned, this question of when one joined becomes particularly significant, I grant.

It is nonetheless true that being an American is a different type of thing than being a Frenchman. When I hear that someone is an American, the most common usage suggests that he or she is an American citizen. When I hear that someone is French, the most common usage suggests that that person’s family has been French for generations. In other words, in the 19th century, America was not a “nation” in the European sense, nor did it have a “state” in the European sense.

Perhaps my definition is too Platonic. But recall in this context that the American President takes a strange oath. His job is not to preserve, protect, and defend the American people or the American nation, but to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That’s what it means to be “head of state” here. By contrast, the Queen of England’s avowal was that she did “solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland . . . according to their respective laws and customs.” Note the reference to the “peoples” of Britain.

Consider, too, that our citizenship oath is along the same lines as the President’s oath: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Following that logic, to be a citizen is to be party to that law, no more, and no less. To be sure, a great deal of culture will, inevitably be connected with this, and such a regime can only function among certain types of people. But remember that a great deal of culture flows from the type of regime one lives in, as Aristotle and Plato noted. Daniel Moynihan’s comment that politics is downstream from culture overlooks the reality that it also flows the other way.

Alex Nowrasteh argues that open borders, or something like them, is a natural right. Moreover, he maintains, the more open our borders are, the more liberal, in the classical sense, our laws will be. For example, he argues that had immigration remained high in the 1920s the New Deal would never have passed. Perhaps. I’m skeptical of that claim for reasons implicit in my essay. As a practical matter, continued immigration may very well have made it necessary to organize the United States as a whole the way Richard J. Daley organized Chicago. And that would have fostered what we are starting to call “crony capitalism.”

It’s also true, however, that absent the mass immigration America had in the decades before the 1920s, there probably would have been no New Deal coalition. I don’t think he means to go that far, but Nowrasteh’s logic suggests that any nation with open borders will have a fundamentally libertarian approach to political and economic questions. But once he allows that there is something peculiar in American culture that has allowed for mass migration to further the libertarian ends he desires, he needs to consider what policies, other than continued mass immigration, will sustain the element of American life that has helped us, by historic standards, if not by an absolute standard, do such a good job of assimilating newcomers.

Nowrasteh claims that “Today’s ethnic lobbies like La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are not very different from ethnic lobbies of ages past.” I suggested that the goal of preventing discrimination and promoting self-help through private charity, which was how such groups worked in former ages, made those groups rather different from today’s. Today’s seek to maintain ethnic identity and to set up, and increase, a stream of ethnically specific aid and set-asides from the federal government.

Cannato agrees, summarizing it this way: “Organizations formed to look after the interests of immigrant communities are not new, but the model by which they make their arguments and the demands they make on government and their fellow citizens is.” One looks in vain for any specifics as to why Nowrasteh thinks this argument is incorrect. He does, however, suggest that assimilation is happening much as it always did. I hope he is right about that and I am wrong.

Nowrasteh also suggests that “George Washington was the exception when he ordered the Continental Army to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in an effort to make the Catholics in his army feel more welcome.” I always thought that when the Continental Congress attended Mass together, and in many other such acts by the Founders, they were trying to do much the same thing. Washington was hardly unique. The leadership of the Revolution was, broadly speaking, on the same page.

Finally, he suggests that there is a right to immigrate to the United States. What about the right of the people to consent to the social compact, and to decide who may join that compact? That is implicit in the principles of 1776. In other words, the principles of the American Revolution were not simply those of individual rights. They were also the principles upon which government by the consent of the governed is built. Those two principles are always, by nature, in tension. Such is life. We cannot wish away the tragic dimension of politics.

Vincent Cannato engages my arguments more than the others. And our views seem to coincide in many ways, although our forms of expression differ. Immigrants have often changed America, often for the better. Assimilation is not merely a story of immigrants adapting American ways tout court. That said, Jefferson’s worry that too many immigrants unused to enjoying American liberty might, in time, undermine American liberty, is not an unreasonable concern. Meanwhile, there are the problems he mentions: that we are devaluing citizenship, and that our elites seek to erode the distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

Similarly, Cannato notes that today’s immigrant groups are less interested in assimilation than were such groups in former ages. His words of concern about crossing the 15 percent foreign-born line are interesting, and worth pondering. We also seem to concur in worrying that too many of America’s elites have moved beyond the American nation-state in their allegiance (allegiance in the philosophical sense, not necessarily in the political sense). That was the main point of my quote from Dana Milbank, after all. Milbank and company want high immigration in order to change America, and make it less of a liberal nation, in the classical sense of liberalism.

In sum, the question of whether high immigration is a problem generally, or whether, under certain political and even cultural conditions, it can become one, is very real. If I am correct that the growth of the mega-state is damaging, and that an ever-larger elite that sees itself as post-American is hard to reconcile with high immigration, then our republic may be in for a rocky road in the decades ahead.