During Cold War debates about the merits of capitalism and communism, Americans offered a simple gauge: the movement of people. “You have the Berlin Wall,” the argument went. “We have the Statue of Liberty. If communism is a blessing, why do people flee Cuba for America, not the other way around?”
Ronald Reagan, the hero of modern Republicans, knew that immigrants were not a threat to our way of life but a reinforcement of it. He welcomed them as allies, self-selected for their attraction to democratic ideals. They came here not because they wanted to change America but because they admired it as it was.
“I have always believed there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans,” he said in 1986, “to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world who had a special love for freedom and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land to build a new world of peace and freedom and hope.”
Imagine what Reagan would think of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who abhors foreigners like a deadly virus. On Monday, King tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Last year, he declared, “Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.” This week, King insisted that immigrants are “importing a different culture, a different civilization, and that culture and civilization, the imported one, rejects the host’s culture.”
King was talking about Middle Easterners, but his suspicions extend to undocumented immigrants, most of whom come from Latin America. He claims they are “refusing to assimilate into the American culture and civilization.”
Among the alleged sins of Latino immigrants are that they drag down wages and give birth at public expense. But if there’s anything worse than poor foreigners, it’s rich ones. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist, has complained (inaccurately) that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia.”
He sees their numbers as trouble because, he says, “a country is more than an economy. (It’s) a civic society.”
Yes, it is. And Silicon Valley is a proud product of ours, showcasing the wonders that intellectual and economic freedom can create. It’s absurd to think immigration undermines our civic life. Immigration has always been inseparable from our civic life. What is it about high-achieving Asian-Americans that Bannon finds threatening to our way of life — aside, that is, from their race?
From the start, immigrants have elicited groundless panic. Bannon, a Catholic, forgets that Catholic immigrants were once seen as fundamentally hostile to democratic principles. The eminent 19th-century Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher warned that “the subjects of the pope” would “subvert our free institutions.” Beecher would be surprised that subjects of the pope now dominate that free institution called the Supreme Court.
The court also has three Jewish justices, which would offend supporters of the Immigration Act of 1924. It was designed to keep out Jews, among others, who were seen as genetically inferior and politically radical. Jews, however, confounded anti-Semites by succeeding and integrating into American society just as every previous immigrant group had.
There is no reason to think newcomers from Latin America or the Middle East will be any different. King and others believe Islam is irredeemably violent and hostile to freedom and democracy — hence his opinion that admitting Muslim refugees amounts to “cultural suicide.”
But he underestimates the power of American culture. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 89 percent of American Muslims say there is never a justification for an individual or group to target and kill civilians — compared with only 71 percent of Protestants and Catholics. American Muslims are also more favorable to same-sex marriage than evangelical Christians are.
The fear that foreigners will poison our culture or destroy our government has no basis in experience. “Basic indicators of assimilation, from naturalization to English ability, are if anything stronger now than they were a century ago,” University of Washington scholar Jacob Vigdor has written about Hispanics. “Muslim immigrants in the U.S. are highly assimilated, presenting a strong contrast with Muslims in most European countries,” he told me.
The vast majority of today’s immigrants, it’s clear, can be expected to uphold our best political ideals and cultural traditions. King and Bannon? Not so much.