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Immigration, and the Multiculturalist’s Paradox

One of the perks of working as a writing tutor is getting to help students with a variety of assignments from an array of academic disciplines. During one particular appointment, I met with a student who was writing an argumentative essay on American immigration and multiculturalism for her English class. She employed many familiar arguments, and though it would have been improper for me to impress my own political beliefs upon a student during a tutoring session, I nonetheless felt compelled to offer some counterarguments here, on my own time.

One of the student’s arguments was one that I’ve heard many times before: “America is a nation of immigrants, and immigrants are responsible for the huge economic and cultural progress of our country, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, limiting immigration would gravely harm our society.”

The first premise of this argument is true on its face. America is indeed a nation of immigrants. However, immigrants are not all the same, and today’s immigration is different from that which helped fuel America’s rapid industrialization. The immigrants of yesterday were confronted with social pressures which facilitated their rapid assimilation into the greater society. For example, our public education establishment stressed the learning of English and American history. In addition, immigrant groups were widely dispersed across the country, and ethnic enclaves never grew so large as to challenge the dominant culture. These, coupled with the absence of numerous welfare programs, meant that immigrants needed to adopt the practices and attitudes of their new nation in order to avoid destitution.

Today, immigrants do not face those same pressures. A massive welfare state insulates a large number of immigrants from the annoying language barriers which inhibit the hunt for employment; bilingual education programs have shifted from emphasizing English to preserving immigrants’ home languages; and increasing numbers of immigrants arrive from a relative handful of regions around the globe, creating large ethnic communities and stunting assimilation. Historian Stephen Tierney observed this phenomenon and its possible implications in his book Multiculturalism and the Canadian Constitution:

In a situation in which immigrants are divided into many different groups originating in distant countries, there is no feasible prospect of any particular immigrant group’s challenging the hegemony of the national language and institutions. These groups may form an alliance among themselves to fight for better treatment and accommodations, but such an alliance can only be developed within the language and institutions of the host society and, hence, is integrative. In situations in which a single dominant immigrant group originates in a neighbouring country, the dynamics may be very different. The Arabs in Spain, and Mexicans in the United States, do not need allies among other immigrant groups. One could imagine claims for Arabic or Spanish to be declared a second official language, at least in regions where they are concentrated, and these immigrants could seek support from their neighbouring home country for such claims—in effect, establishing a kind of transnational extension of their original homeland in their new neighbouring country of residence.

Also, unlike the immigrants of the past, today’s immigrants do not share the same cultural heritage as America’s dominant socioeconomic groups (mostly European and protestant). The spread of collectivism throughout Latin America and East Asia has fostered a political culture in which government is seen as a provider and caretaker, rather than a protector of individual rights. This attitude manifests in immigrants’ overwhelming support for leftist/Democrat politicians. This is understandable because the American Left is familiar to them. Its promises are similar to the ones they heard made by the demagogues and despots back home, the only difference being that American politicians are slightly better equipped to deliver on their promises, having a bit more of “other people’s” money with which to buy votes.

To put all these facts in perspective, we need to consider the concept of culture: A term used to describe the shared characteristics of human beings within a group (e.g. shared thoughts, behaviors, values, etc.), “culture” characterizes a society and serves as the root of all its institutions—from government and politics, to economics. Since culture varies widely from nation to nation, it is integral in answering questions pertaining to immigration. Specifically, what effects will immigration have on the cultural makeup our nation, and, in light of those effects, what policies should we implement to control it?

The policies my student put forth in her paper to answer this question were based on the theory of multiculturalism. This theory holds that all cultures are equally deserving of respect, and that no one culture is inherently better than another. Immigration policies based on this theory would entail that no priority be given to different people(s) in the immigration admittance process. This would purportedly result in a “salad-bowl”-type society which has no dominant culture to which immigrants could assimilate, and in which individuals of many different cultural backgrounds can harmoniously coexist while still retaining fundamental characteristics of their old culture.

Is such a theory actually viable? If there is any nation on Earth where it could potentially work, it’s America—or so it might seem at first glance. America was unique at its founding: In the late 18th Century, almost all nations of the world were ethnic nations (i.e., their shared cultural characteristics were based on race, religion, or bloodline), and the few political nations (i.e., nations in which people are connected primarily or exclusively by the status of citizenship) were all ruled by (near-)totalitarian governments. America was the first political nation in which the defining cultural characteristic of its people was not subservience to the state, as had been the case in all political nations previously, but instead adherence to the ideals of republicanism (that all people are equal under the law, and that individuals should be free to live their lives unimpeded by government). For most of American history, these ideals constituted a dominant culture, and all other aspects of culture were subordinate to them. As a result, America became a place where people could act in accordance with their own values, as long those values did not undermine republicanism.

Such a setup is not impervious or immutable, though. If the culture of a nation becomes fragmented or divided, it is only a matter of time before the nation itself fragments and divides. America in the 1850s and 60s was a prime example of this: Interpretive disputes over the country’s founding republican principles led to a great political schism, effectively creating two competing, irreconcilable cultures—one which sanctioned slavery, and one which did not. The resulting American Civil War jeopardized the fabric of the whole nation because, for the entirety of that period, a dominant culture did not exist to instill political order.

This would seem to raise an issue with multiculturalism. Is the salad-bowl society, with its notorious lack of a dominant culture, not also prone to that kind of instability? Proponents of multiculturalism may try to assert that conflicts of this sort are the result of only large groups competing for power; that a more pluralistic society with many tiny cultural groups—none of them large enough to assert dominance—could be peaceful. That is all very well and good, but the main tenet of multiculturalism does not allow for an immigration policy (or any kind of policy, for that matter), to be used in such a way as to bring about this outcome, since giving priority to immigrants of one culture, even for the purposes of balance and pluralism, would violate the principle that all cultures are equal.

America has survived since its Civil War largely because a dominant culture, the republican ideal, reasserted itself. Though the growing preeminence of leftism has eroded that ideal, we are still largely a nation in which minor cultural characteristics such as language, work ethic, spiritual faith, cuisine, music, art, dance, and etiquette, may coexist peacefully. This may be possible under a scheme of multiculturalism too, but even if it was, the coexistence of these minor traditions would be a hollow victory. The true merit of multiculturalism can be measured by the ability of major cultural traditions to coexist, and by this standard, multiculturalism falls short. There are some cultures in the world which include violent traditions. For example, a literal interpretation of the Koran informs us that all must submit to Islam, that God’s law is supreme, and that those who refuse to follow him may be killed. It is (more than) conceivable that immigrants who follow such a religion could create conflict in nations where the natives do not conform to that way of thinking.

Some multiculturalists may dismiss these occurrences as a mere technical issue: They might concede that multiculturalism cannot grant true equal status to all cultures, because some cultures include violent behavior, and it would be a completely untenable position to assert that violence and non-violence can enjoy the same moral status. However, they would insist that these violent acts, if not representative of a larger, concerted movement, may be dealt with through the criminal justice system, and that the republican government which spawns that system can still be trusted to allow coexistence of non-violent behaviors. Unfortunately, this creates somewhat of a paradox: Not only are the multiculturalists effectively conceding their core principle, but the remnants of their position depend upon the existence of a “live-and-let-live,” republican form of government. Now, what happens when the institutions of a republic are themselves attacked and/or supplanted by opposing cultures?

Multiculturalism has no answer for this. A republic, through limited government and its grant of equality under the law, is alone capable of supporting the coexistence of non-violent cultures within a country; but the insistence upon such a form of government presupposes the propriety/superiority of the culture which underlies it. This is multiculturalism’s paradox. It calls for equal respect to all cultures, but is silent when a culture arises which is decidedly not multicultural.

Because of multiculturalism’s paradoxical nature, it is patently unsuitable as a basis for our immigration policy. If we wish to have a non-violent, republican society, we cannot be completely indiscriminate in our immigrant admittance process: We must assign first priority to those immigrants who already support and adhere to the republican ideal. If there are no prospective immigrants with that cultural background, we must then prioritize immigrants who are apt and willing to assimilate to it. Unfortunately, merely suggesting that someone assimilate to the dominant culture is likely to get you labeled “old-fashioned,” “racist” or “xenophobic,” as if the task of assimilating was somehow insurmountable or even immoral.

The fact of the matter is, however, that immigrants come here for a several different reasons (freedom, opportunity, prosperity, etc.), and whether or not they realize it, those reasons are born out of our culture. Unfortunately, our current policy of admitting immigrants who enjoy the fruits of our republican cultural heritage, but who either do not understand it, or do not respect it, amounts to a robbery of sorts. A robber has no regard for the culture of his victim (his work ethic, his resourcefulness, or his ingenuity—in other words, that which renders him an attractive target in the first place). He only has regard for the spoils of his trespass. But reaping America’s fruits without supplying her ample water and sunlight in return is not a practice which can go on for long. The sustained importation of immigrants who subscribe to the politics of leftism will cause the republican ideal to wither and die, destroying that which appealed to immigrants in the first place.

A more prudent immigration policy is needed. Immigrants should be prepared and willing to relinquish the culture of their home, and to ally themselves with the republican ideal. There is no other way that the nation can survive. If multiculturalism is allowed to persist, America will fracture and cease to be the great beacon for freedom and opportunity which has for so long attracted immigrants to our shores.

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