Posted on April 5, 2020

The Immigration Policy That Might Have Been

Lawrence Auster, American Renaissance, November 1991

Immigrant Crossing Road Sign

Lynne Richards’ main complaint with my essay, The Path to National Suicide, is that I don’t call for a total exclusion of non-Europeans from future immigration, even though, as she points out, the logic of my argument about the threat to America’s cultural identity seems to point in that direction. It is a rare and heady experience for me to be criticized for being too soft on immigration. However, Miss Richards’ question is a fair one and deserves a thoughtful response.

What is at issue is the sort of society we desire to live in. But that immediately raises the question of the gulf between the ideal and the possible. The political philosopher Leo Strauss has written:

The legislator is strictly limited in his choice of institutions and laws by the character of the people for whom he legislates, by their traditions, by the nature of their territory, by their economic conditions, and so on. His choosing this or that law is normally a compromise between what he would wish and what circumstances permit. (Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, p. 86.)

For Miss Richards (as well as for the classic political philosophers), one of the conditions of the ideal society is that its members be sufficiently homogeneous so as to identify with its traditions and be able to carry them forward. The multiracialism resulting from recent immigration, as well as the biracialism embedded in our history (not to mention the pan-European multiethnicism brought about by earlier waves of immigration), mean that the sort of homogeneity that Miss Richards regards as ideal is long since past. But that doesn’t mean that the ideal of cultural homogeneity is irrelevant. The ideal is still the means of judging and guiding the actual. Keeping in mind the goal of achieving the best possible society, the practical question becomes: given our existing situation, to what extent can we approximate the ideal and preserve as much of a common heritage as is possible?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the ideal of homogeneity is balanced by the desirability for a certain degree of variety and cosmopolitanism. After all, we are not the tiny city-state of the Greek philosophers (where a tight-fitting homogeneity makes sense) but a nation-state of 250 millions. Strict ethnic homogeneity among such a vast population, even if it had ever existed, might get to be an awful bore.

One way to approach this problem is to imagine what a good immigration policy in 1965 might have been, if our legislators had been thinking of achieving a good society instead of just responding to humanitarian clichés. At this point I hope I will not shock readers of American Renaissance when I say that, in principle, I like immigration. There is truth in the saying that immigrants bring welcome energy and a fresh appreciation for our institutions. In 1965 I, along with Sen. Sam Ervin, might have favored a cautious reform of the national quota system (not its total elimination, as was the case) to allow in small numbers of previously excluded, non-European groups — enough perhaps to add to the cosmopolitan mix of our metropolitan areas, but not enough to pose any threat to the overall character and identity of this country.

That is, by the way, what the 1965 lawmakers thought they were getting: Sen. Hyram Fong of Hawaii said at the 1965 hearings that under the new law Asians would never surpass one percent of the U.S. population. A moderate number of select individuals of various races could easily have been assimilated into this country while providing a certain enlivening variety. But of course that’s not what we got. We have already gone so far beyond an assimilable demographic mix, not to mention a sane population policy, that the question arises whether we can afford to allow in any more immigrants at all, let alone non-Europeans. In other words, in “ideal” circumstances I would have favored a small amount of non-European immigration. But we are not in ideal circumstances.

Miss Richards asks of me: “What are the necessary qualities and qualifications for becoming the sort of American he wants for fellow citizens?” With regard to the problem of national identity, I think the main qualification for citizenship should be the capacity for what sociologist Milton Gordon calls “identificational assimilation,” i.e., for the adoption of the cultural and political heritage of the host people as one’s own.

We must remember that this is not a mathematically precise formula that can be determined in a laboratory, but a rough truth to be arrived at by political experience. If we were to apply such a formula with absolute strictness, then the only “good” citizens would be the lineal descendants of the 18th century Americans, and all the immigrants since the 18th century (except perhaps those from England) would be seen as a falling-off from the original American type; I assume such a criterion would seem too exclusive even for most readers of American Renaissance. If we applied a somewhat broader, “Northern-European” perspective, then the pre-1880 Americans — including the then-despised Irish — would be the “real” Americans, and the 1880-1920 immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe would be seen as the fatal departure from the true America.

Now it cannot be denied that each immigrant group brought significant changes to this country; Germans in the 19th century turned puritanical Sunday into a family fun day; the entry of Catholics and Jews resulted in the secularization of our formerly Protestant school systems; and so on. But we need to recognize that, as unsettling as some of these changes were, they occurred within an overall continuum; the basic spiritual and institutional framework of this nation remained largely intact. The standard of identificational assimilation, to a sufficient degree to provide for essential social continuity, was tacitly (if roughly) followed throughout our entire history up to the 1960s. For example, despite some grumblings, the Germans and Scandinavians were not seen as a serious threat to national identity. Jews, Italians and Slovaks were perceived as more foreign; and such concerns inspired the Americanization movement in the World War I era to help ensure that the newcomers would adopt this country’s heritage. When anxieties on that score persisted, because of the ongoing huge numbers of European immigrants, immigration was sharply curtailed in the 1920s — a step that helped advance the assimilation of the Southern and Eastern Europeans who were already here. Asians, in the meantime, had been virtually excluded from the U.S.

The result of all of the above was a society consisting of an Anglo/Northern European majority, Southern and Eastern European minorities, and an even smaller sprinkling of non-Europeans, as well as our historic black population. This was the way the U.S., partly by choice, partly by chance, sought within the context of immigration policy to maintain its cultural integrity. It is only with the open immigration era beginning in the 1960s that the criterion of identificational assimilation has been cast aside; the resulting experience with multiculturalism and other social disorders clearly indicates that the massive and growing presence of diverse Third-World peoples is not compatible with the survival of our national and civilizational heritage.

Based on what I have said so far, it would appear that no further non-European immigration should be allowed. However, I do not believe, given current realities, that an exclusion of all non-Europeans, strictly on a racial basis, is morally desirable or politically possible. America is no longer the homogeneous society it was in the 19th century, when it simply took its Caucasian character for granted and acted accordingly (e.g., the Chinese exclusion acts). In today’s racially mixed society one could not argue, in principle, for total racial exclusion without invoking the sort of explicit racialist ideology that views race qua race as the supreme and defining idea of political life.

The inner form of our common Western culture — the very basis of liberty under law — is the love of transcendent values higher than race or state. According to the Western philosophical tradition, it is the hierarchic order of man’s natural constitution — of his natural wants and inclinations — that supplies the basis for natural right. (Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 127.) I would argue that man’s natural need for membership in a cohesive and continuing community is one level of that hierarchy; and relative racial homogeneity is undeniably a factor in such cohesiveness. There is thus a universal right, proceeding from nature, to preserve one’s own particular society. But the racial/national aspect is not the highest aspect of the constitution of man’s being.

The potential danger of racialist thinking, evident in its more extreme manifestations, such as Nazism and Afrocentrism, is that, by making an idol of race, it cuts man off from the transcendent — from God, from universal moral principles, from our common humanity. Moreover, as I just indicated, it is only within the larger constitution of being that man’s more particular needs and values, such as the national, can find their true meaning and justification.

It is thus a great mistake to blame Christianity (as some rightist thinkers do) for today’s globalist ideologies. Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is a story of brotherly love between like-minded individuals, not a prescription for the massive and coercive blending of entire nations. Indeed, Biblical religion is one of the very sources of the American nation. We should thus defend our way of life from the threat of Third-World immigration, not on the basis of a racialist ideology (with its reductive — and potentially demonic — view of man), but on the basis of an appeal to our cultural particularity, and which we, like any other nation, have a natural right to protect.

Returning to the issue at hand, I see two possible approaches to the problem Miss Richards has posed. The first is to reduce the total number of immigrants to a much lower number (say 200,000), while eliminating extended-family preferences and introducing a more equitable proportion of European immigrants relative to the total numbers. This would reduce the annual influx of non-Europeans from the 1.5 million we are currently receiving to something under 100,000. From a restrictionist point of view, surely this would be a scarcely-hoped-for deliverance.

The only practicable basis for achieving the total exclusion of non-Europeans that Miss Richards desires could not be racial, but environmental. This would mean excluding all Europeans as well, i.e., ending all immigration — an approach that has the advantage of cutting through the invidious race issue (and avoiding the sort of “numbers game” that Miss Richards dislikes) by simply excluding everyone. From an environmentalist, population-growth and quality-of-life perspective, as well as from a cultural perspective, this may be a plausible position to take, at least as a temporary measure while America gets its cultural and economic houses in order.

It has been argued that such a drastic reduction or total cessation of immigration, even if not formally justified in racial/cultural terms, would still be understood to be aimed at non-Europeans and would thus create difficulties regarding the status of non-Europeans already here. I do not see that as an insuperable problem. The immigration restrictions of the 1920s were aimed at keeping out further influxes of Southern and Eastern Europeans. Yet those groups, far from suffering any legal persecution, continued to thrive and become part of this society throughout the 20th century.

I fully recognize the paradoxical quality of the argument I have presented here, as well as its possible futility. It may well be that America has already become racially too diverse to be able to preserve and recover its common tradition on the cultural, non-racialist basis that I have proposed. But we must try. The only alternative, as immigration and multiculturalism proceed apace, is a deepening descent into the hell of ethnic tribalism.