In Prospect

Summer 2006

Immigration reform tops the topics on which people of goodwill can disagree—as we’ve found here at the Manhattan Institute, City Journal’s publisher, where valued colleagues support the current push for “comprehensive” reform, which City Journal opposes, for reasons our two cover stories explain. We at City Journal have experienced the ambivalence personally. Mostly the children or grandchildren of immigrants—or immigrants ourselves—we publish from the great immigrant metropolis, lit by the Statue of Liberty’s torch, under which our forebears passed. We know what our city, our nation, and we ourselves owe to immigrants. And watching today’s newcomers on their delivery bikes or building-repair scaffolds, who can’t share President Bush’s belief that these are hardworking people who deserve a chance?

We know that it’s been our nation’s genius to turn polyglot newcomers into Americans quickly. America being a nation based on belief, not bloodlines, all they needed was to assent to a simple creed about liberty, the rule of law, and the pursuit of opportunity—and presto.

But when we first sent a writer to report on that assimilation’s progress, we got grim news. He began visiting priests serving upper Manhattan’s newly arrived Hispanics. The priests said that they were connecting their charges to every government benefit available—including signing their U.S.-born children up as child-only welfare clients—and pressing their schools to teach the kids in Spanish, to preserve their culture. These goals, our writer saw, would short-circuit the assimilation dynamo that had worked so well for previous immigrants. The new spirit of immigration, stressing dependency and separatism instead of self-reliance and Americanization, seemed made to attract the least aspiring newcomers, not the most. Dispirited, our writer asked to drop the story, and in our editorial meetings we began to discuss with greater urgency—and, soon, to publish—the troubling reports from California coming from our two native-Californian contributing editors, Heather Mac Donald and Victor Davis Hanson.

With the clamor for amnesty and guest workers rising, our issue offers two warnings. To the argument that the U.S. economy needs immigrants to do jobs Americans won’t, Steven Malanga replies in his richly documented “How Unskilled Immigrants Hurt Our Economy” that such workers aren’t scarce but in such oversupply that they’re pushing down one another’s wages. The cheapness and marginality of their labor add little to our standard of living. The health-care, schooling, and welfare costs they impose on U.S. taxpayers—some $85,000 per high school dropout immigrant over his lifetime, says one expert—far outweigh the benefits they offer.

Some free marketers see labor as fungible, like capital: a worker is a worker, fit for any slot the economy offers. Not so, Malanga warns; workers are individuals, with their own views and values—and low-skilled Hispanic immigrants and their kids present a conundrum that for decades troubled observers of the urban underclass: In an economy teeming with opportunity, where all you need for success is to grab the free education the state offers, why do some groups stay poor? The short answer is a group culture that devalues education and assimilation—exactly the culture, Malanga shows, that too many new immigrants now bring.

Heather Mac Donald takes up this theme in “Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight.” If amnesty advocates, in normal conservative fashion, would examine the facts on the ground and trust reports from local communities, they would see that today’s unskilled Hispanic immigrants—anti-education, anti-assimilationist, even anti-English-language—are becoming a new underclass, ridden with crime, illegitimacy, school failure, welfare dependency, and poverty. Just when our underclass problem looked soluble, that class has received vast reinforcements, harder to assimilate and bound to spark a welfare-state boom, with new hordes of don’t-blame-the-victim functionaries.

When conservatives say that these immigrants might increasingly become GOP voters, one recalls the old immigrant joke about the manufacturer whose bad news was that he was losing a nickel on every item he sold. The good news? He’d make it up on volume.