March 19, 2004

It not the Mexicans, it's Tim Berners-Lee's fault

This is part three - my last word on Samuel Huntington's article for Foreign Policy. You can also read part one and part two. Also, let me recommend a related review of some of Pat Buchanan's work over at The Shamrockshire Eagle. It's worth it.

Huntington's fears about Mexican immigration are couched in a language which does more to make his point than anything he actually says. At every turn, Mexican immigration to the US is described in the terms of an invasion or a military advance. This sometimes leads him into contradictions. He believes that concentrations of Mexicans in the Southwest are a part of what is unprecedented about Mexican immigration, and yet the growing numbers of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans relocating to other territories are described as a "beachhead."

None of this is really new. It's all happened before with German, Irish and Italian immigration. No one speaks of the establishment of a "Jewish beachhead" in southern California in the 30's.

There is so much to criticise about Huntington's analysis that I am forced to limit myself to the most interesting problems.

The impact of Mexican immigration on the United States becomes evident when one imagines what would happen if Mexican immigration abruptly stopped. [...] Debates over the use of Spanish and whether English should be made the official language of state and national governments would subside. Bilingual education and the controversies it spawns would virtually disappear, as would controversies over welfare and other benefits for immigrants. [...] The inflow of immigrants would again become highly diverse, creating increased incentives for all immigrants to learn English and absorb U.S. culture. And most important of all, the possibility of a de facto split between a predominantly Spanish-speaking United States and an English-speaking United States would disappear, and with it, a major potential threat to the country's cultural and political integrity.

Official bilingualism is an issue driven almost exclusively by three communities: Hispanic-Americans whose roots predate 1960 and whose claims are drawn from the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Miami Cubans who control south Florida politics, and Puerto Ricans who think they are as American as everybody else. Mexican immigration is secondary to all those casuses. Bilingual education started out as an educational reform movement designed to improve English knowledge and school outcomes for immigrant children. It became legally established in a landmark court case in 1974 - Lau v. Nichols - in which the San Francisco public school district was held to have violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by failing to offer a Chinese monolingual child ESL classes.

Neither of these issues would go away if Mexican immigration declined. Without Mexican immigration, it is almost certain that the Spanish speaking population of the US would continue to grow. Mexicans represent just slightly over half of all Spanish speaking immigrants to the US. If Puerto Ricans were counted, the figure would certainly be less than half. America's Spanish speaking population has never fallen in absolute size in its history and would still have a higher birth rate than the rest of the population even without new immigrants. The problem would hardly even be delayed.

I also have a problem with Huntington's desire to prevent immigrants from concentrating in areas where they might modify the demographic balance. I've shown that this is not how immigrants have generally behaved in the past, and the reasons why they act this way should be fairly obvious.

People are hesitant to leave their countries. This is something that citizens of nations that receive a lot of immigrants generally don't understand very well. Most people are emphatically not adventurous. The handful who are simply don't fit any particular pattern of immigration. When people emigrate from their homelands, they are leaving behind a whole social network and support system, plunging themselves into an environment where they are likely to have difficulty communicating and getting access to the most fundamental public services.

I should know - I've had that experience here in Belgium. Things that you can easily handle back home - where you know where to go and you know who to call - can be difficult or even impossible in a different country, even when language barriers are low and the culture is largely familiar. The most basic activities - finding a job, finding an apartment, buying food, paying bills - I've had difficulty with each of these things just moving from California to Belgium.

Imagine how much harder it is for someone moving from a poor country to a rich one. Imagine what it's like if you don't have money or speak the language at all.

People are gregarious. They form complicated social networks with family members, friends, acquaintances and institutions of all sorts in order to support themselves. In the West, we have subsumed many of these networks into a system of market relations that gives us the illusion of self-reliance. The networks that sustain us are hidden from view behind the single interface of commerce. The whole notion that society can be organised by the market as its single, all-encompassing institution is predicated on this illusion. Guy Debord called it the spectacle and described it in terms that bring to mind Morpheus' answer to what the Matrix is.

You need only move to another country to see this illusory self-sufficiency vanish before your very eyes. You quickly discover that you need a network of acquaintances just to find out how to do things that are done differently from where you came from. You realise how many of the opportunities available to you come from knowing someone who knows someone.

That is why immigrants congregate. It's why they have to congregate. Without those social networks, life is almost impossible in a strange land full of strange customs.

In the late 1970's, shortly after the Vietnam War, the US government undertook an experiment in preventing immigrants from joining together to form these sorts of social networks. It wasn't intended as an experiment, and like much public policy towards minorities was undertaken with the very best of intentions by people who sincerely believed that they were doing what was best for their charges. Immigrant concentrations do lead to ghettoization. Impoverished immigrants crowd together, generally in poor neighbourhoods, where schools and public services are often substandard. Poverty is self-sustaining primarily because it is so costly to compensate for the effects of poverty. That is why class is as much about culture as it is about income.

In the past, people didn't much care, but by the 1980's America had already undergone a major sea change. The all too apparent evils of segregation and ghettoization were known to everyone.

During the Vietnam War, the US had made heavy use of the services of an oppressed Indochinese ethnic minority located primarily in Laos. They are known by a number of names, but the one that seems to have stuck in English is Hmong. They were the poorest of the poor in Laos and Vietnam, and had every reason to assist Uncle Sam in its war against some of their neighbours. As the war wound down, many Americans felt a responsibility towards their Hmong allies - some for dragging them into the war in the first place, others for failing to secure their future by winning it. At any rate, after the war ended, thousands of Hmong fled Laos for refugee camps in Thailand, and the US government eventually agreed to resettle many of them in the USA.

In days past the Hmong would have been unceremoniously dumped in downtown LA or San Francisco and left to their own devices, but times had changed by 1980. The Hmong were among the most deprived ethnic groups in Asia - they did not even have a widely agreed upon way of writing their own language and were unlikely to be literate in any other. A few who had been to school spoke Lao or French but virtually none knew English. The old country had not offered them much in the way of professional training or experience selling their labour on the market. The people who relocated them from their Thai camps to the US feared the very worst - that left to their own devices they would join the very poorest and most deprived social strata in America. They were sure to need extensive support from the public treasury for years to come. This was especially problematic in the period when most of them came to the US - the stagflation years of the Carter administration and the hard economic times of the Volker recession.

So, in order to spread the expense as widely as possible and, it was hoped, speed up their integration into American life, the Hmong were to be settled across the country in small groups. The kinds of communities that the government chose to settle them in were generally small to medium sized cities of fairly uniform (and generally white) ethnicity.

In short, the pattern of Hmong settlement fits the very profile that Huntington falsely believes was the norm in America before the 1960's. This is the kind of demographic distribution that many people sincerely believed was best for immigrant groups in the long run.

It has been an unmitigated disaster.

It is not implausible that the Hmong would be better off if they had been unceremoniously dumped in some inner city neighbourhood. There are - according to the 2000 census - some 170,000 Hmong in the US. The largest concentration is in the Minneapolis/St-Paul metropolitan census district with some 40,000 Hmong, followed by Fresno with 22,500 and Stockton with 16,000. The rest are scattered in small pockets of 1000 to 8000 in small cities across the US. Wausau, WI, Merced, CA, Hickory, NC and a number of other small cities, particularly in Wisconsin, are home to pockets of a few thousand Hmong. Roughly half of all Hmong in the US are found in these scattered enclaves.

Hmong populations by state in 2000

Originally, nearly all of them were. The current Hmong population distribution is the result of 20 years of Hmong doing what people do naturally and clumping together in ways that form productive social networks.

There are plenty of horror stories about those early years of Hmong settlement. One that has come to me as a first person narrative involves efforts to settle the Hmong in Chico, CA. They were unloaded from the aeroplane and placed in brand new California-style apartments. The Hmong had never had electricity, much less electric lighting or stoves and had no idea how to use those things. So when it got dark, they made fires for light and for cooking in the living room.

The result of this experiment in immigration reform and social engineering has been uniformly negative. By every measure on which Mexican immigrants to the US score poorly, the Hmong score even worse. Where Americans believe that Mexican immigrants are a net drain on public services, the Hmong unquestionably are. Even now, 20 years after they began arriving, in 64% of Hmong households no one speaks English. In many of these small cities where they've been settled, they consume the majority of public social expenditures. The dot-com economy has not been kind to these single industry cities, so not only have they been settled in areas where there are no jobs, there is less and less tax revenue to support them through social services, and transfers from the Federal government are just not how Republicans handle local problems.

Although the relatively deprived background of the Hmong in their own countries certainly plays a role in their troubles integrating into the US, their dispersal to smaller communities has been, in my opinion, a far more important cause of their troubles.

When an immigrant group is concentrated, there is the possibility of building an economy within the community, one on which the next generation can build. Communities with large numbers of Vietnamese immigrants have not only ethnic grocers but also businesses like video rentals and travel agencies intended for other Vietnamese immigrants. When immigrants live near people of the same origin, they form associations - churches or social clubs for example - which are exceedingly important forms of social capital because they tell people when an apartment is going to be available, or when a job has opened, or explain how to get social services. These sorts of institutions have the same kinds of economies of scale as other institutions. These kind of social networks are a key bridge for immigrants because they enable them to interact with larger society through a small group of well-established and bilingual people. When people are concentrated, you can concentrate the resources to help them - ESL programmes, bilingual social workers and police, etc. When they are concentrated in a city, economic diversity reduces the whole city's risk of economic failure and ensures that at least some jobs are always available, making urban neighbourhoods the most stable place to put new immigrants.

Community associations have been critical to immigrant survival all over the world. Where an industrial age immigrant community is today well integrated, it is because they had those sorts of networks to support them. Dispersing an immigrant community deprives them of that essential capability for collective development.

So, what should we learn from the Hmong experience? First, Huntington is wrong to point to Mexicans as the only immigrant group causing problems. The per capita social costs of Hmong immigration are far larger than Mexican immigration, and Mexican immigration makes a far larger compensating contribution to US production. The Hmong are not the only other community with problems in America. The Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino communities are far more disadvantaged than a look at their middle class members alone would lead you to think.

But more importantly, the lesson people should take from this is that strictly integrationist policies can quickly become very, very damaging for immigrants and their hosts alike. It is not always in people's best interests to prevent ghettoization. Social and linguistic immersion is not necessarily the best policy.

For the Hmong things are slowly changing. A new wave of Hmong immigrants is arriving as the Thai government shuts down the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp, sending the last 15,000 or so unsettled Hmong refugees either back to Laos or to other countries where they have relatives. This means that new Hmong immigrants will be going only to those places where there are existing Hmong social networks. Advance is slow, but it is happening.

I said in the last post that Mexican immigrants leave Mexico because they are not vested in their communities south of the border. No job, no land, no prospects - that is what makes emigration attractive. But they come to America - as opposed to other wealthy countries - because there are already millions of Mexicans in the US. The social networks they need to survive in the United States are already in place. And these pre-existing social networks exist because when the US annexed Texas, California and the Southwest, tens of thousands of Mexicans already lived there. It is not Mexicans historical claim to the southwest that brings them there, it is their historical and continuing presence that brings millions of Mexicans to the US. The US would not have the level of Mexican immigration it has now if it had either ethnically cleansed the Southwest - which was unpalatable even in the 1840's - or had simply not annexed Mexican territory in the first place. In short, this entire problem is the work of James Polk, the 11th president of the United States.

The essential importance of social networks is something that is has drawn some scholarly attention in recent years. The term "social capital" is now bandied about as a potential solution to entrenched poverty all over the world. This isn't really a new idea - it's more a repackaging of an old one. In the past and in many other countries, the existance and importance of these sorts of networks has long been recognised. Guanxi is the Chinese word for it. It is only in America and western Europe where people believe that this sort of thing is either pre-modern or just another form of corruption. The significance of social networks is obscured by the kinds of beliefs that Americans have about their society and Huntington is a prime example of a victim.

Massive Hispanic immigration affects the United States in two significant ways: Important portions of the country become predominantly Hispanic in language and culture, and the nation as a whole becomes bilingual and bicultural. The most important area where Hispanization is proceeding rapidly is, of course, the Southwest. As historian Kennedy argues, Mexican Americans in the Southwest will soon have "sufficient coherence and critical mass in a defined region so that, if they choose, they can preserve their distinctive culture indefinitely. They could also eventually undertake to do what no previous immigrant group could have dreamed of doing: challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial, and educational systems to change fundamentally not only the language but also the very institutions in which they do business."

This notion of critical mass is a very illuminating metaphor. The term comes from nuclear physics. As more of an easily fissionable material - plutonium, for example - comes together in one place, then the chance of a neutron emitted by a spontaneously fissioning atom being absorbed by another one grows. When one atom absorbs a neutron, its composition changes and it becomes unstable, causing it too to fission, emitting still more neutrons. "Critical mass" is the point were there is enough material for this process to become self-sustaining, fissioning the entire mass in a few milliseconds. At that point, it becomes an atomic bomb. Yet another military metaphor.

There are some 30 million Spanish-speakers in the US, but according to Huntington, this is not yet a critical mass able to sustain itself indefinitely. Letzeburgish has some 300,000 to 400,000 speakers, has managed to sustain itself for centuries and is not considered at risk. It is clearly not population that makes one language community self-sustaining and another not. The density of speakers is not a relevant factor either - Spanish speakers are far more concentrated and more numerous in San Diego than Letzeburgish speakers in Luxembourg. Nor is segregation the controlling variable. Spanish speakers in the US are far more segregated from English-speakers than Luxemburgers are from their francophone and germanophone neighbours. Furthermore, every single Luxemburger I have ever met or even heard of was at least functionally bilingual in French and German and could pass as a native speaker of one or both, whether they also spoke Letzeburgish or not.

This whole concept of demographic "critical mass" is inappropriate. Very small communities - in some genuinely out-of-the-way places communities with under 100 members - have managed to sustain their languages. Very large communities - in some cases with tens of millions of speakers - struggle to sustain them. The relevant factor in language retention is institutional support. It is the social networks that cause immigrants to cluster together that also keep languages alive.

So, why then do immigrant languages disappear? They disappear when these social network that exist in symbiosis with them are destroyed.

The size, persistence, and concentration of Hispanic immigration tends to perpetuate the use of Spanish through successive generations. The evidence on English acquisition and Spanish retention among immigrants is limited and ambiguous. In 2000, however, more than 28 million people in the United States spoke Spanish at home (10.5 percent of all people over age five), and almost 13.8 million of these spoke English worse than "very well," a 66 percent increase since 1990. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, in 1990 about 95 percent of Mexican-born immigrants spoke Spanish at home; 73.6 percent of these did not speak English very well; and 43 percent of the Mexican foreign-born were "linguistically isolated." An earlier study in Los Angeles found different results for the U.S.-born second generation. Just 11.6 percent spoke only Spanish or more Spanish than English, 25.6 percent spoke both languages equally, 32.7 percent more English than Spanish, and 30.1 percent only English. In the same study, more than 90 percent of the U.S.-born people of Mexican origin spoke English fluently. Nonetheless, in 1999, some 753,505 presumably second-generation students in Southern California schools who spoke Spanish at home were not proficient in English.

English language use and fluency for first- and second-generation Mexicans thus seem to follow the pattern common to past immigrants. [...]

[W]ill the third generation follow the classic pattern with fluency in English and little or no knowledge of Spanish, or will it retain the second generation's fluency in both languages? Second-generation immigrants often look down on and reject their ancestral language and are embarrassed by their parents' inability to communicate in English. Presumably, whether second-generation Mexicans share this attitude will help shape the extent to which the third generation retains any knowledge of Spanish. If the second generation does not reject Spanish outright, the third generation is also likely to be bilingual, and fluency in both languages is likely to become institutionalized in the Mexican-American community.

One of the myths Americans have about their past - one that Huntington certainly thinks is true - is the three generation pattern of language disappearance.

The story goes like this: Immigrants arrive in America. The new immigrants learn English - either quickly or slowly - but it is always their second language. Incompletely learned, imperfectly used, it poses a barrier to their advancement. Their children - either US born or young children that they bring with them - learn English just as well as native speakers and are fluently bilingual. But, as adults they experience few barriers to advancement in American life and quickly cease to speak their home languages. The third generation can no longer speak any language but English.

This actually did happen to some immigrants. It is true of the bulk of Italian immigrant families, for example, and was common enough among immigrants from the 1924 to 1964 era in the US. Most Americans believe that this is the natural course of things. However, they are wrong.

First, as surprising as it may seem, integration often happens faster than the three generation pattern. In Europe the second generation often fails to retain their parents' native language. This is especially true of people immigrating from European nations' ex-colonies - they often feel quite fluent in the host country's language before arrival and will have little or no regard for their own native languages. They may simply never speak them, even to their own children. This often happens when a language is devalued in the minds of the immigrants before they move. Furthermore, when immigrants move into a country where their ethnic group is well-established, they may marry a partner of local origin who doesn't even speak their native language.

Second, except for the period from WWI to the 1960's, few immigrant groups to America followed this pattern. New immigrants generally arrived in packs, lived together, and kept their languages. They developed institutions and social networks that kept their languages alive.

Many Americans think America has always been an Anglophone country and that immigrants have always become linguistically integrated naturally. But, America's immigrant languages died for the same reasons that America's aboriginal languages have mostly died off. It wasn't death by natural causes, it was a goal of an explicit set of state policies.

Before the Civil War, most Native Americans could not speak English. Louisiana was a nominally bilingual state but for all intents and purposes it was exclusively francophone. Dutch and German were widely spoken, established languages. Dutch was an early casualty of industrialisation - America's long established Dutch communities lived near New York - but German remained the language of a large part of Pennsylvania until the 20th century.

After the Civil War, German was spoken across the upper midwest. There were public schools in German in several states. Unofficial bilingualism was normal in many of those places. Scandinavian languages were spoken in large, well-established enclaves across the Midwest. Spanish was spoken across the Southwest and by sizeable majorities in Arizona and New Mexico.

Gullah and Afro-Seminole have been spoken in the US since the colonial era. Russian was still used in the Pacific Northwest and in Alaska in the late 19th century. Chinook Jargon was the major language of interethnic communication in the Pacific Northwest until the end of the 19th century.

America has always been a multilingual nation. The US may not have a law declaring it to have an official language, but English monolingualism is the product of explicit policies designed to make it so. In 1864, the US banned the use of Native American languages in public schools. After the Civil War, the US suppressed French in Louisiana. Anti-French laws in New England destroyed francophone communities there, although some persisted even today. A wave of nativism at the end of the 19th century attacked everyone who couldn't speak English as "Unamerican." Anti-German sentiment in WWI ended German language institutions in the US, except in a handful of highly resistant communities like the Amish. Spanish rights in the Southwest were taken by decree, first in California in 1879, then in Arizona, and finally in New Mexico in 1912.

Hawaii was officially Hawaiian speaking when it was a monarchy. Unofficially, English was widely spoken by the nation's rich American investors. The Hawaiian Republic was officially English-only, and one of its first laws forbade education in Hawaiian. This policy was only abandoned in 1978.

The major East Coast cities - New York in particular - had extensive non-English-speaking institutional structures before 1950. New York city at one time had not one but two daily newspapers in Yiddish alone. Other immigrant languages were also supported by a range of businesses, services and media. Italian - probably the only language of mass immigration to follow the three generation pattern - was already devalued among Italians and was particularly disdained by other Americans. Furthermore, most of America's Italians spoke southern Italian dialects rather than the official Italian spoken in Rome, so they had very little media access. In the 50's, America's public schools worked hard to stamp out other languages.

The high water mark of American monolingualism came in Puerto Rico. After deciding that the US would grant independence to Cuba, it was decided that Puerto Rico should become an English-speaking territory, and someday a state. Spanish was banned from public schools and government was made monolingually anglophone. The very name of the island was changed to "Porto Rico." This policy was a failure. Puerto Rican children dropped out of school after the third grade, rarely learning English at all. Americans did not flock to the island to outpopulate the natives. The policy was scrapped in bits and pieces after 1950. Puerto Rico is now nominally bilingual with English, but is in reality as Spanish-speaking as Mexico.

My point is that languages are sustained by the social structures that support them and die when those structures are destroyed. America is monolingual where its attacks on minority languages and structures have succeeded and bilingual where they have failed. Minority community structures sometimes survive language loss, but generally don't unless some other force exists to sustain them.

America's monolingualism is not something that has been constant, it was constructed somewhat unevenly, at different times in different places, but it was an intentional act of policy.

This isn't even exclusively about immigrant languages or Native American languages. The existence of non-standard Englishes in America is the consequence of the existence of institutions and social structures that support them. Where people do not draw on those structures, their non-standard languages have disappeared. That is why there is a Black English - America didn't want black people in the mainstream's social structure, so they developed their own structures. The same applies to southern English, New England English and the vernacular of New York city.

What seems to bother Huntington about Spanish is that it is failing to fit this unnatural pattern that really has only applied to a few Americans and to a brief period. It isn't that Spanish-speaking immigrants are failing to learn English in the second generation - for they clearly are. He points out that among first generation Mexican immigrants 73% don't speak English very well. I don't have a reference at my fingertips, but IIRC, the figure for first generation Norwegian immigrants a century ago was 98%. Almost 90% of second generation Mexican-Americans speak at least as much English as Spanish in daily life. This is far higher than for most pre-1900 immigrant groups.

So the problem isn't that they are failing to learn English - despite anti-bilingual education rhetoric to the contrary - but that they are failing to forget their Spanish. But every large wave of immigrants in the past has kept their language into a third generation except where public policy acted to prevent it. Every immigrant - almost without exception - wants his or her grandchildren to speak the language of the old country.

Spanish retention is also bolstered by the overwhelming majorities (between 66 percent and 85 percent) of Mexican immigrants and Hispanics who emphasize the need for their children to be fluent in Spanish. These attitudes contrast with those of other immigrant groups. The New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service finds "a cultural difference between the Asian and Hispanic parents with respect to having their children maintain their native language."

I haven't seen the study Huntington is citing, but I am very suspicious of it because it runs against all of my experience with Asian immigrants. Every first generation Chinese immigrant family I have met - either in the US or Canada - sends its children to a special school on Sunday mornings to keep their Chinese skills up. Most of the Russian immigrants of the 1990s do the same.

There is more to question in Huntington's essay, but I think I need to stop there because there is something else I want to say. Huntington is onto something that is unprecedented, not about Mexican or Spanish speaking immigration, but about all sorts of immigration today. He is, of course, entirely wrong about what it is or where it comes from.

Indeed, one of the most irritating things about this article is that Huntington can't separate "Mexican" from "Hispanic" or even "Spanish-speaking." They are not synonyms. Miami's Cuban community is a very different sort of group than San Diego's Mexicans. Huntington surely doesn't want to advocate expelling America's long established Spanish-speaking community, or denying Puerto Ricans US citizenship. Yet, he expects that if only we stopped the Mexicans from coming, Americans would stop speaking Spanish, despite a century and half of evidence to the contrary.

Instead, I want to point out something that Americans don't seem to know, but that should make a difference to how they understand immigration. Virtually every immigrant to America wants to remain as they are, most of them want their children and grandchildren to remain loyal to their language and culture, and many of them plan to return home someday. Very few - almost none before WWI and very few now - arrive with any particular loyalty to America or desire to integrate.

None of this is new. A study of long term Finnish immigrants to the US in the 1950's claimed that nearly all of them planned to retire to Finland, and quite a few of them actually did. The single largest reason that Germans came to America in the 19th century was to dodge the draft. They planned to basically rebuild the lives they had in Europe in the new country. My ancestors were explicit about that - they came to Canada and the US so that people would leave them alone. Even the Miami Cubans always expected to overthrow Castro and go home. Many of the older ones still do, even though their US born offspring are a lot less enthusiastic. That pattern is quite common in US history - escaping the revolution and expecting to go back after the next "regime change." But, for a lot of American immigrants, it's all about the lack of opportunities at home and the belief that opportunities are greater in America.

New immigrants to the US do generally strongly want to learn English - if they don't speak it already - and to understand American customs. Those are survival skills. People who come to America to make money know full well that they will need them.

In that past, this lack of personal loyalty to America didn't make much difference. Third generation German monolingual Americans didn't have another country to be loyal to. Immigration in the 19th century was a once - or at most twice - in a lifetime experience for all but the super-rich. Even native born Mexican-Americans lived too far from the population centres of Mexico to feel strongly connected to the old country.

That is something that has changed.

In the 21st century, moving to the other side of the world doesn't even mean having to miss your favourite soap opera. The Internet will bring you your hometown paper in real time, no matter where you live. Satellite TV keeps you as well informed in the new country as you were in the old. And, even a quite low income can purchase the airfare for an annual pilgrimage to take the kids to see the grandparents. The numbers and concentrations of Mexican immigrants is not new. Their proximity to Mexico isn't even terribly important. What is new is that immigrants need no longer be completely cut-off from their old country.

Part of what made it so easy to undermine America's other languages in the past was that the social structures that maintained them were often so limited. The temptations of the anglophone mainstream were hard to resist. Mexican communities in the US now are no more appealing than, say, Chicago's Polish community was in the 1930's. Even the Mexican border communities are not very appealing. However, the equation changes when Mexico City is only $200 in airfare away. Even among the Hmong, probably the most disadvantaged immigrant community in America, some 10,000 travel to Laos every year.

In Silicon Valley, the European immigrants that I met were all still closely conencted to events in their homelands. Few planned to abandon their ties, and many said that they would return home to raise children. Even the Asian immigrants still went home annually and often viewed US citizenship as a legal convenience rather than a change of identity.

There are other factors that play into this as well. Barriers to entry into the media market are far lower today. The Hmong now produce a significant amount of media themselves and immigrant language TV and radio are pretty commonplace in America. Media from one corner of the US is readily accessible in the entire nation.

This primarily technological change is, I think, the predominant factor in the fracturing of American identities. People with a common set of ideas can far more easily find each other and form social networks than they could in the past. This has certainly been a factor in the development of gay and lesbian consciousness in America and I believe that it is what has enabled America's immigrant communities - Spanish-speakers in particular but not exclusively - to regain the upper hand over America's very systematic policy of integration. It is the end of isolation and the disappearance of distance that has made long-term multilingualism possible even in the most integrationist nations.

The Internet is not as revolutionary as its promoters in the 90s led us to believe. However, in this area I think it is an essential factor in the social transformation of America. I think that Huntington's concentration on Mexican immigration has blinded him to something more important: Almost all immigrants to the US remain to some degree culturally outside of the US mainstream and many of them will raise children outside of it.

I'm going to close this essay by making a prediction for the future. This trend is going to continue all over the world. People will increasingly have divided loyalties, and immigrants will integrate less, even when their language skills improve over past generations of immigrants.

Consider, for example, the difference in university tuition between America and the rest of the world. I expect that second generation immigrants from Europe and some parts of Asia will start returning to their parents' homelands for educational purposes. I expect immigrants' children and grandchildren to keep their parents languages in ever growing numbers, both as TV, the Internet and international travel offer more and more opportunities to keep their skills fresh, and as globalization makes those language skills more and more profitable to have.

I expect that America's integrationist policies will start to fail catastrophically as people move more freely around the world. Mexicans are only the tip of the iceberg.

I think there are really only two solutions. Either cut off virtually all immigration - not just from Mexico but from everywhere - and fight a rearguard action to keep America anglo; or adapt and accept that people will have more and more multiple identities and stop trying to fight the realities of a multilingual world. Pat Buchanan prefers the first, as most likely does Huntington. I vote for the second.


Posted 2004/03/19 21:42 (Fri) | TrackBack


please make sure to send a copy of this great essay to Mr Huntington!

I think you're absolutely right to point out that Huntington is superimposing reality with some axiomatic myths of the time he was socialised in. Alas, these myths blind him - and many others - to perceive the true nature of the phenonmenon they're trying to understand. It's the not the people that are different - it's the world they live in.

Posted by: Tobias Schwarz at March 21, 2004 2:30

Thanks, Tobias. I'm not sure I want to send a copy to Huntington. He'd probably ignore it, but if he didn't, I haven't really got the time to keep up my end of a debate.

Many of his fears really are recycled from the past. German and Irish immigrants used to evoke almost identical sentiments. They were couched in more nativist and often racist terms than Huntington has used, but they were the same sentiments.

Just as Americans have finally adapted to the idea that they don't all have to have the same colour skin or the same religion, they have to start facing the idea that they don't all have to speak the same language. That's how social change works - by the time you've solved a problem, it's no longer really a problem.

Posted by: Scott Martens at March 22, 2004 11:09

Scott -- Thanks for the able takedown. Please try to get it published in Harper's or someplace like that.
I have no statistics on this, just personal observations, but Chinese families who immigrated to San Francisco in the first half of the 20th century seem to follow the 3-generation pattern pretty uniformly. My wife, the granddaughter of immigrants, speaks no Chinese. Almost all of her contemporaries with immigrant grandparents likewise. However, she's been enthusiastic about sending our daughter to a Chinese-immersion public school. So here's what you could call a 4th-generation phenomenon: Chinese immigrant parents show little interest in Chinese immersion classrooms, while 3d-generation Chinese parents who don't speak any Chinese themselves will scratch and claw to get their kids into them. So do others: our daughter's class has more kids from families that identify as Mexican, African-American and Jewish than from immigrant Chinese households.
None of which has anything to do with Huntington, but there it is.

Posted by: Ted at March 23, 2004 3:02

From A Fistful Of Euros post:

Randy: There are so many instances of overt bias and bigotry in Scott Martens' thesis, that I would not be able to ennumerate them in a short post. The yardstick to use is applying a comparative analysis: whenever he criticizes America, one must ask "compared to whom? The Europeans?" And, of course, that is where the bias is.

For example, this passage:

"It makes me think of those idiots who see slavery as some sort of regrettable blot on the perfect government devised by the founding fathers, instead of seeing the real, enduring, structural and persistent effect it had and continues to have on American institutions."

In other words, Martens drags out the old slavery issue and insinuates that slavery still has an effect on America! (Racial prejudism, certainly, but not slavery - a typical European bias). We should ask why Martens brings this up, and not the effects of serfdom on Europe, which could be said to account for the deep class divisions still in existence in all European societies much more than the past era of slavery in America. Is he compensating for something?

But the main bias I'd point out, though, is this:

When Martens analyzes how Spanish-speakers in America get treated, he insinuates that there is a continuous, overt state (he doesn't specify at what level, federal, state or local) policy of repression against the use of Spanish. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans simply DON'T CARE if someone chooses to use a language other than English. The only time that they care - the only time that it matters - is if other citizens are forced to PAY TAXES to sustain someone else's desire to use a language other than English.

In most of the cases where localities have passed language laws in America, we can trace that it was initially a community budget issue: a local school board announces that more funds - higher taxes - are needed if the community is to accommodate a certain influx of non-English speaking students. Such instances have often led to a counterreaction from the electorate, because no one wants to see their taxes go higher. So the language issue in America is always about taxes, taxes, taxes, and the consistent desire of the American electorate to minimize more of these.

It's not surprising that he skirts the whole issue of taxation, and chooses to concentrate on such issues as cultural values, social structures, community support, and the like. Those are very socialist, Eurocentric interpretations of values, all of which get extolled in order to lay the groundwork for the assumption that society's taxes should be used to sustain, enhance, and support them. But in America, this is anathema. Society can function without these things (to the horror of Europe!), and not only function, but thrive... which is why the American example is such a threat to socialist Europe.

That is, after all, the underlying reason European academia (supported by taxation) has formed such an anti-American bias over the decades. America is the model that must be defeated for European socialism to be sustained.

Now, I'm not a fan of Huntington's recent thesis. I think Huntington is way off the mark, forgetting the power of American TV culture in eventually uniting all the disparate cultures within America. But we should keep in mind that what really riles socialists such as Martens about Huntington is not this thesis, but his much better work, "The Clash of Civilizations", which threatens the precious beliefs of socialists about the eventual triumph of multiculturalism. So, by extension, Martens' attack is an attack on that thesis, though this one is much more easy to defeat.

Yet that could have been done without resorting to all the anti-American bias.

Posted by: RSN at March 23, 2004 16:58

Your comments about Huntington's rhetoric also bring to mind the anti-Japanese rhetoric of the early 20th century, which culminated in one of the few acts for which the United States has publicly apologized: the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans in WWII.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at March 24, 2004 2:44

RSN - what leads to think that American racial prejudice can be discussed outside of the historical context of past slavery? Usually a statement like that is treated as quite favourable to the US, since it suggests that it is the continuing consequences of a historical entrenchment of racial inequalities, rather than present prejudice, that is the cause of present racial inequalities.

Compare the social status and income of black Canadians to black Americans. Racial attitudes in the two countries are quite similar on the whole, yet outcomes are quite different. The main reason is the black Canadians have never been an entrenched underclass, and black Americans are because of historical slavery. The North-South line still dominates US politics like the 800 lb gorilla, and even where it is no longer an overtly racially motivated distinction, it is no less the product of past slavery because of it. Present day American institutions do not exist independently of their historical roots, and a great deal of what America is today finds its root in the Civil War and in civil rights movement. You can't seriously believe that those things happened independantly of slavery.

As for the rest - I'm not sure what is particualrly anti-American in this post except pointing out that American policy has not always been benign. Nor did I say very much about Europe. I can't see anything in it to suggest that European treatment of immigrants is much better. Sometimes, Europe has been better than the US in its handling of minority and immigration issues, sometimes it has been worse. I haven't compared the US to Europe at all in this post.

My target is false beliefs among Americans about their own past, of which there are plenty. America was not founded on the rather high minded principles Americans like to think it was founded on. Many of those principles were deemed deeply anti-American for much of its history. America is a country like any other, one which is the product not only of grand accompishments but also horrifying failures.

The language issue in America is rarely if ever about taxes, and historically it never was. Those parts of the US which in the past were primarily non-anglophone supported their institutions through taxes in the same way as elsewhere. Do you deny that minority language education in America was suppressed by decreee? Or that bilingual and non-anglophone local governments where transformed into unilingual ones by legislation? The historical record is quite clear about it.

Furthermore, local government complaints about the costs of receiving immigrants still take a back seat to the kinds of things Huntington complains about: linguistic and cultural integration and complaints about the quality of immigrants in general.

Do you really think Americans are free to choose what language they speak when they deal with the government, or go to school, or look for a job? You have to be kidding. I invite you to try it sometime. Find me a public school in the US where students who don't speak English are offered a choice whether they want to learn it or not, or a median income job in the United States where a knowledge of English is not explicitly or implicitly required?

You're taking me to not talking about taxation. Did Huntington talk about taxation? Really, RSN, you've quite directly associated "Eurocentric" with socialism and the welfare state. I am socialist - I proclaim that quite freely - and I've been quite critical of the French government's policies on immigration lately. You've constructed this ideological complex about me, about Europe and about immigration policy that exists nowhere outside your own head.

Posted by: Scott Martens at March 24, 2004 9:39

Ted - yes, most of the immigrants who came to the US in the generation before the 1924 Immigration Act did integrate in that sort of way, but that was an era when nativism was a very powerful force in the US. One of the things that is interesting about pre-1960 Chinese integration is that, where Huntington complains that Hispanic immigrants don't marry outside their community and that that is preventing them from integrating, Chinese Americans were legally forbidden from marrying across racial lines and still became completely assimilated linguistically.

Jonathan - wars tend to bring out a lot of nativism in the US. WWI led to the disappearance of German in the US, but at least that was only about language. Germans aren't visibly different from anglos. With the Japanese, there were more visible marks of their origins.

I'm tinkering with the suggestion that America's more recent military adventures have some link to this sudden renewal of nativism. During the 90's nativism really seemed to be waning in mainstream US society. But such a conclusion would be purely speculative.

Posted by: Scott Martens at March 24, 2004 9:48

I think that there's a major divide in the American racial subconscious between conquered peoples and others. Africans, Mexican-Americans (however designated) and Native Americans all became Americans against their will. I think that there's a projective ascription of violence onto the victims of violence. It's something of a coincidence that these three peoples are "non-white" -- compare traditional anti-Irish prejudice in Britain.

Puerto Ricans and Filipinos seem borderline. Native Hawaiians -- I don't know, but they seem to have maintained themselves much more successfully than Native Americans on the mainland.

American treatment of voluntary immigrants, even Chinese and Japanese, is actually better than average. Compare Europe, which until recently has had little non-white immigration and hasn't assimiliated immigrants well.

Compared to Scott, I am more in favor of pressure to assimilate. I agree, though, that non-assimilation of Mexicans should not be an actual problem, and to the extent that it is, it's because the Mexicans (and Cnetral Americans) are immigating into a two-teir labor market and restratified society which deliberately does NOT give them the opportunities that past immigrants had. As I understand, this state of affairs was formalized in Bush's recent immigration proposal.

Posted by: Zizka at March 28, 2004 16:51

Compare Europe, which until recently has had little non-white immigration and hasn't assimiliated immigrants well.

Depends. France has managed to absorb its southern European and Polish immigrant populations of the early 20th century quite well, while Austria and Germany have assimilated their Slavic immigrant minorities (well, mostly--there may be a million Polonophone ethnic Germans in the FRG now) of earlier on. The trouble with European immigration nowadays, something like that of the African-American urban community, is that general economic trends and (particularly in Europe) the welfare state have tended to place unskilled and low-skilled labourers at an economic disadvantage, making economic integration if not social integration difficult.

Posted by: Randy McDonald at March 28, 2004 20:38

Re: the Hmong, it's worth mentioning that there is nothing in their culture that prevents them from thriving as immigrants. Since the 1970s, there has been a spectactularly successful Hmong community in French Guiana. The French government encouraged them all to settle in the same region, around the town of Cacao, where they proceeded to become the territory's main suppliers of fresh produce.

In fact, the Hmong are so successful in Guiana that they are now causing resentment among the locals.

Posted by: vaara at March 30, 2004 13:59

BTW, Matt Yglesias features a string of anti-Huntington pieces on his site.

Alexander Cockburn calls the guy "Mad Dog Huntington", quite justifiably I think.

Posted by: Zizka at March 30, 2004 22:15

Vaara - no, actually I didn't know about the Hmong in Guiana. But, the next time I use the Hmong as an example I'll remember it. It makes for a good point.

Randy - the problem in the US is identical. When there were plenty of unskilled and semi-skilled factory and construction jobs in France and Germany for the Algerians and Turks, there were no economic problems welcoming immigrants. As for social and cultural problems - in France there were few and in Germany they were ignored.

It is much the same problem in North America, although in the US and Canada the problem is larger than just immigrant communities - it is at least a major cause of racial discrepancies in income in both countries. According to some, it is the major cause.

Zizka - in Europe it really does depend. France and the Netherlands did quite well for their immigrants until the 80's. Germany has always been hard on them. The UK has been a mixed bag for its immigrants. A sixth of the British population has an Irish grandparent, and there is a sizeable class of well-integrated Asian professionals. And yet - there are troubling black and Asian neighbourhoods in every big city in the UK.

I'm not sure how much it is a conquered things as much as a sort of subtle recognition of not having another country. There have always been black people in the US - at least as long as there have been white people - and Native Americans date back ever further. In both cases, there isn't another country for them to be loyal to. The same applies, at least to some extent, to Puerto Ricans, but doesn't to other Spanish-speakers.

I do agree that the nature of the labour market is the real issue, not cultural values or language retention. I think most people will find a reasonable accomdation with their neighbours when none of them have any particular reason to feel threatened, and that it is economic insecurity that poses the biggest barrier to that.

I know this sounds Luddite, but I do wonder if the productivity revolution could have been held off for another generation, the world wouldn't be a much better place. The opportunities available to the unskilled and semi-skilled are much worse today than they were in 1965 both in the US and in Europe and possibly globally. This affects not only immigrants but all other minorities as well. Were there secure factory jobs for Spanish monolingual Americans, it is possible that the US might see a Quiet Revolution like Canada and Belgium had in the 50's and 60's, where these issues could be resolved peacefully as a civil rights matter.

Posted by: Scott Martens at March 31, 2004 10:11

As for social and cultural problems - in France there were few and in Germany they were ignored.

I'm not sure about that. In West Germany, at least, the problems of assimilating the deported Germans--from ex-eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, et al.--were given extensive coverage. I'd add to this list the assimilation of three million southern Italians into the north during Italy's post-war economic boom.

The UK has been a mixed bag for its immigrants. A sixth of the British population has an Irish grandparent, and there is a sizeable class of well-integrated Asian professionals. And yet - there are troubling black and Asian neighbourhoods in every big city in the UK.

Given the recency of those immigrant groups' arrival, though, I'm not sure if this is wrong. The description of Irish immigrant slums a generation or two after the Irish arrival in The Gangs of New York was equally grim.

Were there secure factory jobs for Spanish monolingual Americans, it is possible that the US might see a Quiet Revolution like Canada and Belgium had in the 50's and 60's, where these issues could be resolved peacefully as a civil rights matter.

I'm not sure. The Qu?b?cois and the Flemish were much more concentrated groups (geographically, organizationally, ethnically) than American Hispanics.

Posted by: Randy McDonald at April 1, 2004 3:02

"Hispanic" is the loosest of catchalls. National questions aside, the Salvadoran group is probably mostly refugees, but also includes a chunk of the wealthy class which supported the death squads who drove the refugees out.

I've wondered how that works itself out. "Hey! I remember you! Long time no see! My mom told me to ask you where you dumped my brother's body".

Posted by: zizka / emerson at April 2, 2004 23:53
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