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Michael Barone on immigration politics a hundred years ago and now.

Monday, August 7, 2006

HH: It’s my great pleasure to talk from Mexico City with America’s preeminent political analyst, Michael Barone, who is…

MB: Hello.

HH: Hey, Michael, how are you?

MB: I’m well, Hugh. How are you?

HH: Great. What takes you back down to Mexico City?

MB: Just visiting friends.

HH: Okay. Now the new book is really the old book with a new reissue, and boy is it timely. The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again. And it’s out in bookstores now. I want to spend the bulk of our time, but I’ve got to get a prediction from you first. Does Joementum carry Lieberman over the line tomorrow?

MB: I guess I’d have to say probably not. And we’re…you know, this is a battle of turnout. Connecticut primaries have had very low turnouts in history, so…

HH: And is Cokie Roberts right, that a Lamont victory is disastrous for the Democratic Party, which she said yesterday on ABC?

MB: Well, you know, Cokie’s father was a Democratic member of Congress, and Cokie’s mother was a Democratic member of Congress, and held office for a span of 50 years, and I think she’s got it right.

HH: Okay. Well, we’ll talk more about that after the election. We’ll sort it out. Let’s get to the book, The New Americans. And I don’t want to pull any punches. In the new Preface, you take on the biggest argument that anti-immigrant forces have, is that the new immigrants aren’t assimilating. And you write, “the main threats to assimilation come not from the immigrants themselves, but from American elites who flinch at the mention of Americanization, and who find European style multi-culturalism more appealing.” So your reply, in essence, to the right-wing critics of immigration, is that they’re capitulating to left-wing demands that it not occur?

MB: Well, they’re functionally capitulating, if not intentionally capitulating. Yeah, I think a hundred years ago, I think we did assimilation better than we’re doing it now, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book, The New Americans. In Theodore Roosevelt, in 19…about exactly a hundred years ago, called for Americanization. And by that, he meant that we should teach the immigrants, and their children, to speak, read and write the English language, we should teach them about the fundamentals of our country, about the founding fathers and their proclamation of freedom, how those freedoms expanded over the years, how our system, our democratic system of representative government works. And we did a good job at that a hundred years ago. If I could replace today’s education elites with the people that ran the New York City public schools in 1910, I’d do it in a minute.

HH: Now Michael Barone, you and I occupy the vast middle ground, and I debated this last week with Grover Norquist on one side, an anti-immigration absolutist on the other. And my position is the freedom position, I think it’s your position, which is a high wall and a wide fence, that you’ve got to have a lot of immigration to satisfy the economy and the growth of America, but that you want to know who’s coming in, and you want to be picky about who gets to come in. Is that the Barone position?

MB: I think that’s essentially my position, Hugh. I mean, the fact is that our economy would not work as well as it does without immigration. That was true a hundred years ago, it’s true today. It’s certainly true for the high skill immigrants that we get. We’ve go no need to keep them out. And I think it’s true for the great bulk of the low skill immigrants. This immigration is coming because of economic motives. And you know, if you go back, Hugh, and look at the 1920’s, and the 1965 Immigration Act, they were centralized command and control, this sort of idea that we had in mid 20th Century that government can control everything. They set out specific quotas for different countries. They set out specific quotas for occupational groups and things, as if Congress in one enactment, or the immigration bureaucracy, with delegated powers, had the wisdom to decide just how many immigrants the United States needed, and just how many immigrants we could stand having, and where they should come from. Those limits have been undercut by two forces in the last twenty years. By the demand in the labor market, which has produced illegal immigration, just as the demand in the drug market has produced illegal drug traffic. And by family reunification provisions of the ’65 law, which have been carried over. I think we should make the immigration laws so that they regularize the flow of immigrants, roughly in tandom with the workings of the labor market.

HH: Now Michael, you also write, and this is so shrewd, and I think people have got to hear it, and they hate to hear it, that is that the overwhelming number of Mexican immigrants, or the number of Mexican immigrants who want to bring the Mexican system of law and government to the United States is miniscule. The overwhelming majority of Latin and Asian immigrants are interested primarily in work. They are open to assimilation. And Mexican immigrants are frequently devoted to Catholicism, or increasingly evangelical Protestantism, which assists them in assimilating in the United States. In other words, a lot of the hand-wringing is simply misplaced when it comes to the political agenda of the immigrants, and their unassimability.

MB: Yeah, I mean, we also…those marches in Los Angeles with the Mexican flag and the cries for reconquista, I guarantee you that the kind of people leading those marches were the sort of professors of Chicano studies at third line Cal State Universities. And that a lot of people in them were just kids having a lark for the day.

HH: Now they might have been saying we’re not…we are very proud to be Mexican, but it doesn’t mean that that pride translates into a political agenda.

MB: Yeah, what I’d suggest to people who are concerned about what the Mexican immigrants want to do to our political system is go talk to some Mexican immigrants, as I have done over the years in the streets of California, and across the country, and ask them if they want to see the Mexican system of law and government in the United States. And I will tell you they will get laughter from that. People laugh and laugh and laugh as if that’s the most ridiculous idea they’ve ever heard.

HH: But let’s also deal with the reality of illegal immigration, that it’s tremendously costly in a non-fair way. It burdens particular communities, and particular services, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, the emergency health care system of all of California, and the border states, and that the cost of illegal immigration is disproportionate on some areas, and the benefits, the labor pool, are spread across the country. That’s an imbalance, Michael Barone, which is eroding at the idea that immigration is good for the country.

MB: Well, I think that’s true, Hugh, and I think another thing is true, which is it’s simply a bad idea to see laws systematically not followed. It is not a good idea. You know, we had a 55 mph speed limit in this country for a while, until I think the 1990’s, when Congress had the wisdom to say okay, we’re going to let the states set their speed limits, because it wasn’t being enforced. There’s a corrosive effect on non-enforced laws, and I think that’s when the people who are sounding this anti-immigration thing say laws ought to be enforced, I think they’ve got a good point.

HH: But you also point out that a lot of our problems with illegal immigration, in the new Preface, come from visas being issued to terrorists, and people being able to kind of wander in and out, that the security issue, while is a very tiny number of the total number of illegal immigrants, is a real issue, post-9/11.

MB: Well, that’s right. And if we regularize immigration, we have a better chance to keep tabs on the security issue. I mean, some proposals for this, you know, envisage an identity card for immigrants, or perhaps a national identity card. For years, that idea’s kind of stuck in my craw, as I suspect it has on a lot of people on both the right, left and center of American politics. But at the same time, there are advantages to having that. I mean, Mexico has a voter identification card, which is high tech, which is very hard to forge, which has been kept intact, and which in fact, has meant that the Mexican elections probably have a lot less voter fraud in non-registered voters voting, than we get in many states in the United States.

HH: Michael, I like the fact that you note that you’re an Italian and Irish ancestry, and also of…

MB: Scotch.

HH: Scotch and Germans out of West Virginia.

MB: Yeah.

HH: You’re quite the melting pot in your own person.

MB: Well, and I think a very many Americans are. You know, you hear some people say today that the United States is going to become a majority minority nation, that a majority of us are going to be minorities. Well, they’re talking about the minorities as defined by the census now: Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and so forth. The fact is that we have long since been a minority nation, if you go by the definitions of a hundred years ago. And one of the things I point out in The New Americans, a hundred years ago, Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish immigrants were called different races…

HH: Yeah.

MB: And people thought they would never blend in, would never be interwoven into the American fabric. Well, now they, you know, that obviously has been proven false, and now the census just classifies them as white. And people on the multi-cultural left, of course, regard them as white oppressors and so forth. It would have surprised my ancestors who came over on a boat to Ellis Island from Sicily, or came over a ferry from Canada to Detroit in the 1890’s, to be told that they were part of the oppressor class.

HH: This is a very un-PC book, because you talk bluntly about, “the Irish, the Blacks, the Italians, the Jews, the Latinos, the Asians,” the high achievers you call them. It’s jarring, even though it’s very familiar to those of us who grew up in…you’re from Detroit, I’m from Northeastern Ohio. They’re not that different, in many respects. They had every immigrant group.

MB: Well, except that people in Ohio misguidedly root for Ohio State.

HH: And usually win as a result. But the fact remains…

MB: Oh, we’ve got a dispute about that, Hugh.

HH: They are ethnic melting pots in and of themselves, with almost all of the ethnicities of America in them. And it wasn’t always easy, but they did eventually coalesce into workable communities, although sometimes with a dominant ethnicity. Are the Latinos different, Michael Barone, because Italians and Jews and Irish were white?

MB: Well, I think the answer is, I’ve put it in my book, Blacks resemble Irish, Latinos resemble Italians, Asians resemble Jews. Resemblances aren’t complete, but they’re substantial. And the Italians…the Latinos resemble the Italians of a hundred years ago. You say, and as most Americans would say today, well, the Italians are white. They weren’t referred to such at the time. I mean, one of the things I cite in the book is 1912 testimony by an expert on ethic groups to a committee of the United States Senate, and the Senator says is the Italian a white man? And the expert says no, sir. He is a Dago. That was…it was a different race. That was a hundred years ago. You know, my grandfather was referred to by some of his West Virginia in-laws by a word that starts with N, which I will not repeat on your air, because he had olive skin, and dark, curly hair, apparently in a non-pejorative way.

HH: And many believed the Irish were simply sub-human. I mean, the Brits carried with it, and you’re writing a book about this now, a genuine belief in the sub-humanity of the Irish.

MB: Well, that’s right. You know, the warring Gaelic tribes, and so forth. The first big mass inflows of Irish immigration came in the 1840’s, when a lot of those Irish spoke Gaelic and not much, if any, English. They were thought to be a different race. They were identified as such. If you read the children’s book, Girl of the Limber Lost, written about 1904, which is a lovely read to read to a child, particularly a girl, at one point, the writer says the boy had an Irish face. Well, she was writing for readers who had a definite sort of idea of what an Irish face looked like.

HH: Right.

MB: It was racially distinct to the Americans of 1904. Today’s Americans are kind of puzzled by that reference, because while there a great many of us who are of Irish descent, most of those of us who are, are not totally of Irish descent, and the stereotypical ethnic appearances are different in this America where we’ve been interwoven into the American fabric. But it just shows you what can happen. I mean, Hispanics now, people classified as such, are marrying people of non-Hispanic, to a degree of about 40%, among people that the census classifies as Asians. The “inter-marriage” rate is even higher.

HH: And so, are you going to argue, Michael, as I hope you will, that Latinos will soon…will find themselves as assimilated as Italians? That they will be as “white” as the Italians are now, even though the Italians were not thought to be white then? Is that what you’re arguing?

MB: I think that that’s where we’re on the road to now.

HH: Yup.

MB: And I think you can see it in your Los Angeles metropolitan area. Go to lots of middle class neighborhoods in Orange County. I suppose some of the East Coast elites, the sort of New York Times type will still say Orange County is an all-white enclave, with the implication, you know, the Ku Klux Klan is keeping people of color out. They haven’t spent much time in Orange County lately.

HH: Michael Barone, I love the chapter on Asians, the high achievers. It writes at one point, “The massive Asian immigration to the United States was triggered not by an event in Asia, but inadvertently, by the Immigration Act of 1965.” And then you go on to write that they are the model minority when it comes to crime, when it comes to achievement, that their politics are really kind of unpredictable. What’s the impact on the Asian influx been on America, and how large is that influx?

MB: Well, that influx now is, you know, if you talk about Asians since the 1965 Immigration Act, we’re looking at the magnitude of five million people, or something like that, from the different East Asian and South Asian countries. By and large, it’s been an immigration of very high skilled people. There’s some low skill components to it, but it’s been massive. If you go to Silicon Valley, or other areas of technological innovation, and you ask the question, how much of this innovation would have been achieved without immigrants from Asia, the answer is, a whole lot of it wouldn’t have been. I mean, we’re massively better off as a country, and the world is better off as a world because these people came over here, and in an area where they could have the kind of success that people can have in America. And there is a real contrast, Hugh, in a sense between 1940’s America. I mean, there was tremendous anti-Asian feeling, and specifically, anti-Japanese feeling during World War II, only partly because the Japanese were our military enemy. And they were routinely portrayed as apes, as sub-humans, as animals. We know about the internment of the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. That was a highly popular stand. It was one of the things that Earl Warren ran for as governor of California in 1942. So that was, you know, there is a world of difference between the attitudes of ordinary Americans to Asian immigrants today, and in the last several decades. And with what they were within the lifetime of my parents in the 1940’s.

HH: But you do write the parallel with Jewish-Americans, who also arrived, achieved extraordinarily, encountered ceilings as a result, and a great deal of predjudice. And eventually, it became not even a question of discussion that merit would win out in America. Is that happening with the Asian population? Because in some public institutions and private institutions, their rise was resented, especially in California in the U.C. system.

MB: Well, what’s happened is that we’ve had racial quotas and preferences working against Asians today, as they worked against Jews from the 1920’s up through the early 1960’s. You know, you had the old Ivy League colleges and universities would admit very few Jews, and some of them made the justification well, we depend on alumni giving, and obviously, these Jews are never going to earn any money and be able to give us any money. Yeah, you’d have to be really dumb to believe that. Anyhow, now, what we see is these racial quotas and preferences which favor low scoring people among…who are classified as Black and Hispanic get in places, and you have to have very high scores in the Asians to get into the selected schools like Berkeley and UCLA. Nevertheless, those schools still have an Asian population that’s substantially disproportionately higher than that of the aged cohort that they represent in California. And the achievement levels are outstanding. I think these racial quotas and preferences are repugnant. I think they’re outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which I supported in ’64, and support today. On the other hand, I think the damage to the Asians themselves is not enormous. If they don’t go to UCLA, they’re going to go to UC Riverside, or UC Davis, or some other campus. And many of them will have great success in the world, nevertheless. But I think it’s kind of a blot on our nation that we have racial quotas here.

HH: Agreed, although the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt may have to take issue with the apparent heirarchy that puts UC Davis below UCLA that you put out there, but we’ll leave that for another day…the Aggies are very proud. The Eastern European mass of would-be Americans is large. And who can blame them? Russians, Ukranians, Poles, less so Poles, but some of the devastated economies of the former Soviet Union. In America’s interest to admit liberally from this area?

MB: I think it probably is in America’s interest. In effect, we’re sort of in competition for those immigrants. Since Poland and the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and other countries have come into the European Union, they’ve had free immigration within those boundries. And in the recent French election, there was a lot of complaints among the French about Polish plumbers. My own view is that if the French plumbers weren’t getting the plumbing done, it’s a good idea to have some Poles come in and do it. You know, Polish is now a language spoken by a substantial number of people in the Irish Republic, which is an immigrant receiver now. So we’re getting a competition for those people from some parts of Western Europe, and other parts of the world, including Australia. I think that’s a benign competition. Total immigration around the world, about half come to the United States. That’s people voting for us with their feet, and with their whole lives.

HH: Now we’ve got about a minute and a half, Michael Barone. The immigration debate has been a sour one over the past six months. Your book came out in 2001, was obscured by 9/11. It’s a fresh start for people to approach it as an immigration optimist. But can you, as a political analyst, see how immigration can be saved from sort of the savagery that’s been engendered over the last six months?

MB: Well, I think we have to realize that immigration should do two things, which it did better a hundred years ago than it is doing today. Number one, we need to regularize immigration, and make it work in tandom with the labor market. That means border security. And it means some forms of guest worker and/or legalization provisions that can work in tandom with the labor market. I’m not going to get into the details. The Pence/Hutchinson proposal is for free market guest workers. It’s a very interesting approach on this. Second, assimilation. And here, the federal government in the immigration bill is not the only actor. The actors are also the schools, which are responsive to local voters. The actors are also people in the corporate world, people in the university communities, people all over our society. We want to promote assimilation, not these multi-cultural ghettos that we’ve seen erupt in violence in Europe. That’s not the American way. We should not go down the European multi-culturalist route.

HH: Michael Barone, a wonderful book. The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again. It’s linked over at, America. Michael, talk to when you get back to the United States, and I hope you’re wrong about Lieberman tomorrow. We’ll be talking.

End of interview.

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