Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Buchanan's lament -- PATRICK J. BUCHANAN calls it La Reconquista -- the steady takeover of the American Southwest by the Mexican culture from which it was wrested in the first place. He marshalls his argument at length in a new book, The Death of the West, and in the the March issue of The American Enterprise, where a lengthy excerpt appears.

"Fully one-fifth of all people of Mexican ancestry now [reside] in the United States," Buchanan writes. "The number of people pouring in from Mexico is larger than any wave from any country ever before. In the 1990s alone, the number of people of Mexican heritage living in the US grew by 50 percent to at least 21 million."

The problem, as Buchanan sees it, isn't just numbers. He describes Mexican immigrants as being "not only from another culture, but of another race" -- a key fact, he claims, since "different races are far more difficult to assimilate than different cultures." And unlike immigrants of old, "millions of Mexicans have no desire to learn English or become US citizens . . . Rather than assimilate, they create their own radio and TV stations, newspapers, films, and magazines. They are becoming a nation within a nation."

It is the oldest lament in US history: There are too many immigrants, they are swamping our good American stock, they'll never blend in with the rest of us, and we've got to shut the door before they ruin America.

In a debate with the scholar Ben Wattenberg for the PBS program "Think Tank," Buchanan -- whose ancestry is half-German -- reached for a historical contrast: Today's wave of Mexican immigrants, he said, are different from the "folks who came from Germany to the United States and . . . fully assimilated in America, so much so that nobody knows who they are."

But Americans certainly knew who the Germans were when they were pouring across the border, and the immigration alarmists of the time sounded much the way Buchanan does now.

"Measures of great temper are necessary with the Germans," Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1753. "Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation, and . . . 'tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they entertain. . . . Few of their children in the country learn English . . . and of the six printing houses in the province, two are entirely German, two half-German, half-English. . . . Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch [i.e., Deutsch] and English; the signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German. They begin of late to make all their . . . legal writings in their own language, which . . . are allowed in our courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters."

Stop the flow of Germans into Pennsylvania, Franklin warned, or "they will soon so outnumber us, that . . . we will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."

A few generations after Franklin agonized over immigration from Germany, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was worrying about the influx from Central and Southern Europe. To slow it, he proposed a literacy requirement -- one that immigrants from Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Italy would be less likely to meet.

"The races most affected by the illiteracy test are those whose emigration to this country has begun within the last 20 years," Lodge explained in March 1896, "races with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and who are most alien to the great body of the people of the United States."

Nothing about Buchanan's complaint is new: not his conviction that Mexicans are of a different "race," not his dismay at their supposed unwillingness to embrace English, not his dread that California and the Southwest will be overwhelmed if the swarm of newcomers isn't cut off. Americans have been hearing dire predictions about the pernicious effects of immigration for 250 years, yet we bestride the world today as the most powerful, prosperous, and productive nation in history. Far from weakening America's greatness, the constant arrival of immigrants would seem to be a secret of our success.

It is especially odd to hear Mexican immigration attacked as a threat to America's Western, Christian values. As Wattenberg notes in his debate with Buchanan, the twin roots of Mexican and Latin culture are the Catholic religion and the Spanish language (Portuguese in Brazil's case). "Now, last I heard," says Wattenberg, "Spain and Portugal are still part of Europe. Catholicism is a very vibrant part of Christianity. What is your problem with . . . Mexican immigration?" It is a challenge Buchanan never quite gets around to answering.

Immigration is America's national growth hormone; choke off the flow of newcomers and we will end up choking ourselves. Immigrants are one of the great engines of American progress; they benefit us at least as much as we benefit them. How strange that someone as passionate about American greatness as Buchanan is manages to miss that point so completely.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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