The Real Immigration Debate America Needs

It's time to dispel the myths about assimilation in the United States.

Assimilation has finally become a part of the national debate about immigration. This is to be welcomed, as the subject has too often been swept under the rug, where it lies unsettling all that is above.

There are, however, a few myths floating around the discussion of assimilation. Let me enumerate—then dispel—three of them.

One is that immigrants today are ethnic or racial "minorities," who are such unique victims of discrimination and ill treatment that they require remedial benefits to overcome these hardships.

A second is that today’s immigrants are assimilating in the same manner as immigrants before them. Curiously, immigration enthusiasts who make argument number one often make this argument, too. The irony is that, while many immigrants have, indeed, achieved economic integration, patriotic assimilation has been inhibited by government actions taken as a result of Myth #1.

The third is that the nation-state, and all the freedoms and individual rights associated with it, can survive the end of assimilation into one national culture tied by bonds of affection and shared experience. Curiously again, this argument is made by some of the people who make arguments one and two.

It’s always best not to assume moral turpitude among our opponents. Their glaring logical inconsistency is, however, a legitimate target. In a recent special report for the Heritage Foundation, I take aim at all these shibboleths.


Myth #1

It would be hard to find a time when immigrants—here or in any other country—didn’t find they had a very high mountain to climb to get to those “streets of gold.” Certainly it was the case during the first two major surges of immigration in the colonial era. The Germans who fled religious persecution and the Ulstermen who came to find a better living seldom found a welcome wagon parked outside their doors.

Benjamin Franklin echoed the sentiment of many “native” colonists as he worried about both the Germans' refusal to speak the native tongue (English) and their impact on politics. In a 1753 letter to the botanist Peter Collinson, Franklin wrote:

"I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties; Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many Books from Germany; and of the six printing houses in the Province, two are entirely German, two half German half English, and but two entirely English; They have one German News-paper, and one half German. Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch 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 Bonds and other legal Writings in their own Language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German Business so encreases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say."

And that was Franklin being nice! Two years earlier, he went even further: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them…."

The Scots-Irish of Ulster fared no better. In 1720 the city of Boston passed an ordinance that directed “certain families recently arriving from Ireland to move off.” When they did just that, and moved off to Worcester, a mob torched their church. Bostonians become no more "open-minded" or "politically correct" as the decade wore on. In 1729, they rioted to prevent ships carrying Scots-Irish immigrants from docking in Boston Harbor.

The “pacifist” Quakers of Pennsylvania didn’t like them any better. As Former Sen. Jim Webb described in his very good book on his ancestral people, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, Provincial Secretary James Logan griped that “a settlement of five families from the North of Ireland gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people!” Eventually, most of the Northern Irish headed south and west toward the mountains of Appalachia, where their descendants live to this day.

Succeeding surges of immigrants—the Catholic Irish and Germany’s "economic" immigrants of the mid-1800s, and the Jewish, southern and eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants who came through Ellis Island after 1890—also received a rough welcome.

The Founders, and the leaders who followed them, never considered intervening to "remedy" prejudicial behavior by giving the newcomers special privileges or benefits, by attempting to apportion their participation in society through quotas or by creating a culture of victimhood that rewarded victim status. The Scots-Irish of Andrew Jackson’s day likely would have shot anyone who called them “victims.” It should still not be tried today.


Myth # 2