The current debate over immigration policy cuts across the conventional political and ideological divides. It is also multifaceted. Probably the most important facet has to do with disagreements over the economic impact of both legal and illegal immigration: Are immigrants, in the aggregate, an asset or a liability to the economy? Do immigrants constitute an intolerable burden on the institutions of the welfare state? And, depending on how one answers the foregoing two questions, what would be a reasonable level of immigration and what should be the criteria by which immigrants are admitted? Then there is the civil liberties facet: would effective measures to curb illegal immigration endanger the civil liberties of everyone, citizens and noncitizens alike? I will not address these questions here (though I should freely admit that all my instincts are pro-immigration-hardly surprising in someone who came to this country as an immigrant himself). Rather I want to comment on another, also very important, aspect of the debate-namely, the cultural aspect.
An argument is being made that, given the massiveness and the ethnic character of immigration today, the traditional pattern of Americanization can no longer be relied upon to absorb all these people into the culture. In consequence, there is a real danger of American society being increasingly balkanized and overwhelmed by the social pathologies flourishing in a multiplicity of ethnic subcultures. This argument frequently has a repulsive racist undertone, but that fact should not lead one to dismiss it out of hand. On the face of it, the argument is not without intellectual merit; nevertheless, I believe, it is thoroughly mistaken.
The alleged problem here is the presence of large numbers of non- Americanized people. Their numbers should be reduced. Beyond that, however, the implied solution is Americanization. Whatever number of immigrants remain, every effort should be made to Americanize them (notably through the educational system). In this way, supposedly, political balkanization and a miscellany of social pathologies will be contained. I propose the opposite: Americanization is the problem, not the solution.
Contemporary American culture suffers from two (possibly, though not necessarily, related) pathologies. One is based in the so-called underclass. It is the one that is most prominent in public opinion. It includes crime, drugs, illegitimacy, and a chaotic breakdown of moral order. The other pathology, arguably much more serious because much more difficult to contain, is grounded in the elite culture (or, if you prefer, in the New Class). It is animated by an assemblage of more or less demented ideologies derived from the 1960s that have now completed their "long march through the institutions," debasing the educational system from top to bottom, politics and the law, the communications media, and increasingly the very fabric of everyday life.
The large majority of Americans is squeezed in by these two spreading "tangles of pathology" (to use Kenneth Clark's apt metaphor). There can be little doubt as to which of the two is spreading more insidiously. People from the underclass may steal one's car, disfigure the city streets, and burden one's tax bill with the unfortunate consequences of their lifestyle. But it is people from the cultural elite who are miseducating one's children, imposing intolerable burdens of government interference on the economy, institutionalizing a strange American replica of the Hindu caste system in politics and law, and creating a joyless world in which the most fundamental human relations, those between the sexes and the generations, are more and more poisoned.
The point to be made here is exceedingly simple: Both of these pathologies are thoroughly homegrown. It is native-born Americans who constitute the bulk of the underclass. It is native-born Americans who man the "commanding heights" and virtually all the lesser echelons of the elite culture. If lower-income immigrants fail to make it in America, it is not they but their children and grandchildren who steal the cars and deal in drugs-young people who were born here and who have become Americanized to the point where many of them no longer speak the language of their parents. And if immigrants successfully reach comfortable middle-class incomes, it is not they but their children and grandchildren who absorb and internalize the genuinely American lunacies of the elite culture.
I would even go one step further in this argument: If immigration were to stop completely, these twin pathologies would not diminish but intensify. As things are today, at least there are sizable numbers of people coming into this country who have strong beliefs about not stealing cars, about working hard and having strong families, and who have not yet learned that every encounter between a man and a woman is an exercise in power politics. Perhaps there is some hope in the expectation that at least some of them will slow down the Americanization of their offspring to the extent of transmitting these values to the latter. One should remember, too, that the balkanization of America-through a twisted logic of affirmative action, through quotas, multiculturalism run amok, and a perverse application of bilingual education-is driven, not by immigrants (who typically want none of these things), but by the graduates of the higher reaches of the American university system.
A modest proposal suggests itself here. Perhaps immigration policy should include a measured exchange of population. Any country from which large numbers of people want to come to America should be offered a deal. Its immigrant quota will be based on the number of Americans it will in turn admit as immigrants to it. For every American criminal deported to, say, Bangladesh, two Bangladeshis will be admitted to the United States. And for every professor of postmodernist literary theory that the University of Dacca can entice to move there (USAID could subsidize his or her salary), twenty Bangladeshis could come here. I can see a few constitutional problems that will have to be sorted out. But then America has no shortage of lawyers who can figure out ways to get around the details.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.