Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Summer 2006

The immigration debate has divided the conservative movement, with each side accusing the other of betraying core conservative principles. Amnesty proponents argue that America’s best traditions require legalizing the 11 to 12 million illegal aliens already here and opening the door wide to would-be migrants the world over. Illegal immigration, these conservative advocates say, is the inevitable and blameless consequence of misguided laws that foolishly—and vainly—seek to prevent willing workers and labor-hungry employers from finding each other. Hispanics—the vast majority of aliens and the real center of the immigration debate—bring much-needed family values and a work ethic to the American polity; refusing to grant them legal status would destroy Republican hopes for a large new voting bloc. Since popular opposition to large-scale Hispanic immigration stems from economic ignorance and nativist fear, policymakers should protect America from its own worst impulses and ignore the anti-immigration revolt.

Conservative opponents of amnesty and liberalized immigration respond that the rule of law is at stake. Rewarding large-scale lawbreaking with legal status and financial benefits will spark further violations. The mass amnesty protests of the spring were part of a growing international movement challenging national sovereignty. Conservative respect for facts should encourage skepticism toward claims of superior Hispanic values. And the conservative preference for local decision making cautions against dismissing the popular backlash against illegal immigration; it is just possible that people closest to the problem know something that Beltway insiders do not.

Vexing the debate further, the popular revolt is not just against illegal immigration but against high levels of unskilled Mexican immigration per se. As political scientist Peter Skerry observes, the public dislikes the effect on local communities of large numbers of poor Mexicans and their progeny, legal or not. Some of the effects, such as crime, worsen dramatically from the first to the second generation of Mexicans, who not only are legal but are American citizens.

Since criticizing illegal immigration often draws charges of racism, few relish going further and challenging the wisdom of our current immigration flows, legal or not. Yet unless we accurately diagnose the immigration problem, any legislative fix that merely converts the current illegal flow to a legal one will fail both as policy and as politics. Herewith—in an effort to sharpen the internal debate—are the conservative principles that militate against amnesty, for immigration-law enforcement, and for a radical change in immigration priorities.

Principle 1: Respect the law. This year’s illegal-alien demonstrators put forward a novel theory of entitlement: because we are here, we have a right to be here. Protesters in Santa Ana, California, shouted: “We are here and we’re not going anywhere,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Anger at the widespread contempt for American law contained in such defiant assertions drives much of the public hostility toward illegal aliens. Conservatives, with their respect for the rule of law, and appreciation for its fragility, would ordinarily honor this gut reaction, rather than dismissing it as some atavistic tribal impulse. Poverty and other grounds for victim status do not, in the conservative worldview, create a license for lawbreaking.

The rule of law ensures that like cases are treated alike and unlike cases distinguished. But if the immigration protesters have their way, someone who ignored all the procedures for legal entry will achieve the same status and benefits as someone who played by the rules. During the Senate’s immigration debates in the spring, amnesty proponents claimed that it was unfair that people who have worked for American employers be forced to “live in the shadows.” Left out of the equation was the question of justice to people who have waited for years in their own countries for permission to enter lawfully.

Protecting one form of lawbreaking may require protecting others as well. The city of Maywood in Los Angeles County declared itself a sanctuary zone for illegal aliens this year. Then it got rid of its drunk-driving checkpoints, because they were nabbing too many illegal aliens. Next, this 96 percent Latino city, almost half of whose adult population lacks a ninth-grade education, disbanded its police traffic division entirely, so that illegals wouldn’t need to worry about having their cars towed for being unlicensed.

Principle 2: Protect sovereignty. Today’s international elites seek to dissolve “discriminatory” distinctions between citizens and noncitizens and to discredit border laws aiming to control the flow of migrants. The spring amnesty demonstrations are a measure of how far such new anti-national-sovereignty ideas have spread. The last large-scale amnesty in 1986 was not preceded by mass demonstrations by illegal aliens but was rather a bargaining chip among American legislators, negotiated in exchange for employer sanctions and a national worker-verification card. Predictably, the card never materialized, and the sanctions were never enforced; only the amnesty lived on.

By contrast, this year’s protesters spoke the language of the anti-sovereignty intelligentsia. This increasingly influential discourse was on display at a May conference of Latin American diplomats at the Library of Congress, which spun endless variations on the identical theme: migration is a fundamental human right. As Nicaragua’s minister of foreign affairs, Norman Caldera Cardenal, put it: “It is the responsibility of all nations to respect the dignity, integrity, and rights of all migrants.” (The delegations dutifully acknowledged the U.S. prerogative to decide its own immigration policy, but these ritual genuflections were insignificant compared with the invocations of migrants’ rights.) In less diplomatic language, Mexico’s bicameral permanent legislative commission calls American immigration policy “racist, xenophobic, and a profound violation of human rights,” reports George Grayson in The American Conservative.

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Principle 3: Support law enforcement. Come-and-get-it immigration advocates endlessly assert that immigration enforcement can’t work. This claim ignores the most important demonstration of conservative principles in the last 20 years.

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Phoenix teaches the same lesson. Home Depot, on the city’s central business artery, for years tolerated the hundreds of illegal Hispanics congregating outside the store and in its parking lot. Neighboring businesses complained bitterly about lost customers and the constant littering, trespassing, and public urination. This May, Home Depot posted signs against trespassing and picking up day laborers, and hired off-duty police officers to enforce the rules. Since then, the day laborers have almost completely disappeared.

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Principle 4: Pay attention to facts on the ground. If someone proposed a program to boost the number of Americans who lack a high school diploma, have children out of wedlock, sell drugs, steal, or use welfare, he’d be deemed mad. Yet liberalized immigration rules would do just that. The illegitimacy rate among Hispanics is high and rising faster than that of other ethnic groups; their dropout rate is the highest in the country; Hispanic children are joining gangs at younger and younger ages. Academic achievement is abysmal.

Conservatives pride themselves on reality-based thinking that rejects utopian theories in favor of facts on the ground. Yet when it comes to immigration, they cling, against all contrary evidence, to the myth of the redeeming power of Hispanic family values, the Hispanic work ethic, and Hispanic virtue. Even more fanciful is the claim that it is immigrants’ children who constitute the real value to American society. The children of today’s Hispanic immigrants, in fact, are in considerable trouble.

Without doubt, many Latinos are upwardly mobile. But a significant portion of their children are getting sucked into street life, as a trip to almost any urban high school and some conversations with almost any Hispanic student will verify. In the field, the conservative fact-finder would learn that teen pregnancy is pervasive and that Hispanic boys increasingly regard fathering children as the prerequisite to becoming a “playah.”

Conservatives have never shrunk from pointing out that dysfunctional behavior creates long-term poverty among inner-city blacks. But when Hispanics engage in the same behavior, they fall silent. From 1990 to 2004, the number of Hispanics in poverty rose 52 percent, accounting for 92 percent of the increase in poor people. The number of poor Hispanic children rose 43 percent, reports Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson. By contrast, the number of poor black children has declined 17 percent since 1990. The influx of dirt-poor Mexicans drives the Hispanic poverty increase, of course, but their behavior once here doesn’t help.

Our immigration policy is creating a second underclass, one with the potential to expand indefinitely if current immigration rates merely stay the same, much less treble, as they would under the Hagel-Martinez Senate bill. Given the rapid increase in the Hispanic population, the prevalence of the following socially destructive behavior among Hispanics should be cause for serious concern.

Illegitimacy. Half of all children born to Hispanic Americans in 2002 were illegitimate, twice the rate for American whites and 42 percent higher than the overall American rate. The birthrate for Hispanic teens is higher than that for black teens. In Santa Ana, California, which has the highest proportion of people who speak Spanish at home of any large U.S. city—74 percent—the teen birthrate was twice the national teen average in 2000. This predilection for out-of-wedlock childbearing among Hispanics cannot be blamed solely on corrosive American culture, since the illegitimacy rate for foreign-born Hispanics is 40 percent. The illegitimacy rate in Mexico is 38 percent; in El Salvador, it is 72 percent.

It is hard to reconcile these statistics with the durable myth of superior Hispanic family values. A random walk through Santa Ana encountered ample evidence of Hispanic family breakdown. Livia came illegally from Mexico six years ago and then bore two illegitimate children; she now sells fruit from a pushcart on Main Street. A few blocks away, a 23-year-old illegal unmarried mother from El Salvador is protesting for smaller class sizes (an irony lost on her) outside a Santa Ana school board meeting. She came to the U.S. at age ten, dropped out of high school, and had her son “really young.” He is now on welfare. This unwed mother prides herself on not having had any more children. “So many Latinas are having so many kids,” she says disapprovingly. “Kids are having kids.”

Even the mainstream media can’t help stumbling across the Hispanic illegitimacy epidemic. Reporting on this spring’s illegal-alien protests in downtown L.A., the Los Angeles Times turned up Guadalupe Aguilera, the mother of five illegitimate children. Aguilera thinks herself self-sacrificing for putting her children only on the WIC federal food program. If she had documents, she said, she could take advantage of a far greater range of welfare benefits. “I lose money that I could give my children,” she complained to the Times. Increasingly, Hispanic family values mean collecting welfare for out-of-wedlock children.

Academic failure. It would be useful for open-borders optimists to spend some time in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 73 percent Hispanic, and where just 40 percent of Hispanic students graduate. (Nationwide, 53 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school, according to the Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene—the lowest rate among all ethnic groups.) Of those Hispanic students who do graduate, just 22 percent have completed the course work necessary for admission to a four-year state college—which means that of all Hispanic students who enter in ninth grade, fewer than 15 percent will graduate ready for college. Immigrant advocates have fiercely opposed in court a long-deferred California high school exit exam, which would require students to answer just over 50 percent of questions testing eighth-grade-level math and ninth-grade-level English. The California Research Bureau predicts that if the exam becomes a reality, Hispanic graduation rates would drop well below 30 percent.

A recent Los Angeles Times series on high school dropouts put some faces on the numbers. Eleven male Hispanic friends entered Birmingham High School in Van Nuys together in 2001; only three graduated. Because the boys spent so much time cutting classes—usually hanging out at fast-food restaurants—most failed to log any academic progress and saw no sense in staying enrolled. Drugs, turf rivalries, and fathering children also contributed to their failure to graduate. Birmingham’s teachers despair at their students’ lack of academic commitment and at their belief that seat time should entitle them to a passing grade. Reports Ronald Fryer in Education Next, hostility toward academic achievers is even higher among Hispanics than among blacks.

Schools spend huge sums trying to improve the Hispanic graduation rate, even hiring “outreach consultants” for dropout prevention. One Santa Ana consultant’s approach is predictably multicultural. “We need to teach teachers that students need to be proud of where they are coming from,” she told me. But of course Hispanic school failure derives not from ethnic neglect—the Santa Ana schools glorify the Hispanic heritage to a fault—but from parents who don’t demand rigorous academic application and don’t stand up to corrosive popular influences. At Santa Ana High School, I spoke with a former student, Julio, who had been expelled as a troublemaker in ninth grade, then returned briefly in the tenth grade but didn’t take a single class. “Me and my friends ditched; our parents didn’t know.” It is the cultural capital that immigrants bring with them that most determines their success; the work ethic of poor Mexicans does not carry over to their children’s schooling, and we are all paying the price.

The more-immigrants-the-better proponents counter that early-twentieth-century Italian immigrants were also indifferent to schooling but eventually joined the middle class. But by contrast with the economy of a century ago, today’s knowledge-based economy values education above all else. College-educated workers have seen a 22 percent increase in real income since 1980, while high school dropouts lost 3 percent of their wages. High school dropouts will almost certainly remain poor, imposing huge welfare and health-care costs on taxpayers while lowering tax receipts. Native-born Hispanics collected welfare at over twice the rate as native-born whites in 2005; the foreign-born Hispanic welfare rate was nearly three times that of native-born whites.

Gang culture. In his prime-time May radio address promoting amnesty, President George Bush invoked a marine, Guadalupe Denogean, as the embodiment of immigrant values. Like Denogean, today’s immigrants are willing, said Bush, “to risk everything for the dream of freedom.” Many immigrants do share Denogean’s patriotic ethic. But for every immigrant soldier, there are as many less admirable counterparts. A selection of Hispanic portraits could just as well have picked out Connie Retana, a 38-year-old Anaheim, California, resident, who in February egged on her 18-year-old son, Martin Delgado, as he and his gang friends raped a 23-year-old for seven hours in retaliation against the young woman’s boyfriend. A survey of Hispanic family values might also include the Santa Ana mother who threatened in 2004 to kill her neighbors if they testified against her gangster son in a gun-assault case. Then there’s the extended family of criminals in Pomona, California, who raised Valentino Arenas: the 18-year-old sought membership in Pomona’s 12th Street gang by killing a California highway patrol officer in cold blood in April 2004. Following a sweep in May of the gang, which specializes in large-scale drug trafficking, murder, and extortion, Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley excoriated the families across the California Southland who are “aiding and abetting murders in Los Angeles County” by refusing to cooperate with authorities or curtail their children’s crimes.

Open-borders conservatives point to the relatively low crime rate among immigrants to deny any connection between high immigration and crime. But unless we can prevent immigrants from having children, a high level of immigration translates to increased levels of crime. Between the foreign-born generation and their American children, the incarceration rate of Mexican-Americans jumps more than eightfold, resulting in an incarceration rate that is 3.45 times higher than that of whites, according to an analysis of 2000 census data by the pro-immigrant Migration Policy Institute.

California, with one-quarter of the nation’s immigrants and its greatest concentration of Mexicans and Central Americans, is the bellwether state for all things relating to unbridled Hispanic immigration, including crime. The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, conducted by sociologists Alejandro Portes of Princeton and Rubén G. Rumbaut of the University of California, Irvine, followed the children of immigrants in San Diego and Miami from 1992 to 2003. A whopping 28 percent of Mexican-American males between the ages of 18 and 24 reported having been arrested since 1995, and 20 percent reported having been incarcerated—a rate twice that of other immigrant groups. Anyone who speaks to Hispanic students in immigrant-saturated schools in Southern California will invariably hear the estimate that 50 percent of a student’s peers have ended up in gangs or other criminal activities.

Gang life—both Hispanic and black—immediately asserted itself last July when the Los Angeles Unified School District opened a model high school to ease overcrowding. Despite amenities that rival those of private schools—a swimming pool, Mac computers, a ballet studio, a rubber track, and a professional chef’s kitchen—it instantly gained the distinction of being one of the most violent campuses in the system. Shots rang out in front of the school on the second day of classes, reports the Los Angeles Times, and three days after opening ceremonies, police arrested a student with an AK-47 on the campus perimeter. Brawling students attacked safety officers and tried to grab their guns in December, while cops pepper-sprayed a dean breaking up a gang fight in March. Students sell meth in the classrooms, graffiti covers the stairwells, textbooks, and high-design umbrella-covered picnic tables, and a trip to the bathroom requires an adult safety escort.

Uncertain assimilation. Multicultural cheerleaders argue that assimilation is proceeding apace by pointing to the fact that virtually all third-generation Hispanics can speak English. Even so, linguistic and cultural segregation among Hispanics is increasing. The percentage of Hispanics living in Hispanic enclaves rose from 39 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2000, reports Robert Samuelson, and as more and more aliens from Mexico and Central America enter, the size of Spanish-speaking-only areas expands. Livia, the unmarried mother selling fruit on Santa Ana’s Main Street, says that no one she associates with speaks English. A coffee-shop owner down the block observes that it’s too easy in Santa Ana not to learn English. “It’s all Spanish-speaking here,” she says. In California, the academic achievement gap between students with little English and English speakers is widening.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are footing the bill for interpreters across a host of government functions and for the translation of countless government documents. California spends $82.7 million a year on criminal-court interpreters for those 40 percent of its residents who speak a language other than English at home. At the same time, Spanish may be developing into a language of cultural assertion and opposition. A Hispanic resident of El Paso told New York’s radio station WNYC in May that teen workers in fast-food and other retail outlets regularly refuse to answer her in English when she addresses them. At a city council meeting this March in Maywood, California, the illegal-alien sanctuary, a resident suggested that a council member was using English as a sign of disrespect. All this adds up to a significant, and accelerating, transformation of American culture.

Pro-amnesty forces promote the Ellis Island conceit that illegal immigrants “risk everything for the dream of freedom,” as President Bush put it in his May address. The president’s assessment, while flattering, is not particularly accurate. However lousy the Mexican economy, there are few if any political freedoms enjoyed by Americans that Mexico denies. It is the Yanqui dollar, not untasted freedom, that brings the vast majority of illegals here. “The dream that most of us hold on to is the Mexican dream,” Efrain Jimenez, an official with the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs of Southern California, told me last year. “The Mexican dream is to make enough money to go back and own your own business. Four-fifths of Mexicans here would say that if they had a job in Mexico, they’d go back right away.” Most Mexican immigrants do not intend to become Americans; they come wanting to return to their home country, but end up staying out of inertia. They naturalize at half the rate of Asians or Europeans. This is not a recipe for assimilation.

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