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Yes, Immigrants Ought to Be ‘Conservative’


Harry Enten has a thoughtful piece in the Guardian in which he pushes back against Politico’s claim that immigration reform will be a “bonanza” for the Democratic party. If you’re interested in the question, you should read it. Enten is correct to question the scale of the bonanza, but I don’t think he’s correct in saying that it’s not hugely beneficial for Democrats.

Anyhow, this excerpt jumped out at me:

The article starts off promisingly enough with the premise that if immigration reform passed and undocumented immigrants became citizens, Latinos would start voting Democratic in even larger numbers. I can go along with this because the main reason anyone votes for or against a political party is for its economic platform, and 81% of first generation Latino immigrants say they want a “bigger government with more services”, compared to only 48% of Americans overall.

This seems to be supported by the data. My question is this: Why are people not up in arms? At what point did it become socially acceptable for the vast majority of newcomers into a society to want to change it? If most immigrants will be poor and will require a “bigger government with more services,” isn’t this an argument against letting them in?

As a general rule, it strikes me that it’s out of line to move to a country because you like the way things are there and then to try to change those things. I don’t care where you’re from, if you emigrated voluntarily — as I did from Britain — it’s because you thought your life would be better in the country to which you moved; because you wanted to be of that country; because you wanted to be American. And if it wasn’t, well it damn well should have been. It’s really not on to thank the people of that country for letting you become a member of their society and then to start agitating for the government to be bigger and, in inevitable consequence, for those people to pay for more services for you to enjoy. Or, for that matter, to walk over the border uninvited and then to complain when the people who made the laws you broke don’t jump too high in order to help you out. At best, doing so is bad manners; at worst, its downright treacherous. It’s illegal for legal immigrants to receive federal assistance for a reason. Would that there were a constitutional way of making it a lifelong prohibition.

I live in New York City. It is of constant amazement to me how often people say, “how on earth did you become a conservative?” Or, “what is with your obsession with the Constitution?” It amazes me that progressive Americans just presume that I’ll be an ally of theirs because I have a foreign accent and how readily they will start badmouthing the country with an “am I right?!” grin. They are almost certainly right in their presumption, but surely this should be the other way around? Immigrants are supposed to be conservative of the existing order and they are supposed to love the Constitution. If they’re not, as the data suggests, we have a problem. Take a look at the citizenship test. It is surprisingly prescriptive. As it should be: This country is based on a great idea, not the whim of the current caretakers, and worthwhile assimilation relies heavily on immigrants’ feeling excited by that idea. If we are now conceding that most of them are not, we have a real problem.

Three things are simultaneously true: Immigration can be — and has been – a wonderful thing; liberty is fragile; and America is different than most other places from which immigrants will come. Thomas Jefferson pondered on this paradox in the late 18th century:

But are there no inconveniences to be thrown into the scale against the advantage expected from a multiplication of numbers by the importation of foreigners? It is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together. Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent. Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason. To these nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies. Yet, from such, we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants. They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass. I may appeal to experience, during the present contest, for a verification of these conjectures. But, if they be not certain in event, are they not possible, are they not probable?

“Absolute monarchies” are not so much the problem nowadays, but the United States still enjoys a “temperate liberty” that the majority of other countries do not. The peculiar genius of America has been to bind its imports to that national ethos, rallying them around the exceptional ideals that made the country special. And it has been the expectation that new recruits will be bound. Why are we accepting so readily that the majority of people who come here will want to make changes?

This isn’t about expecting conformity of opinion or depriving immigrants of their voice: it’s about pushing back against the expectation that immigrants will be reformers by default instead of conservatives by default; it’s about questioning the widespread assumption that newcomers will try and make the country more like the places they left behind (if this is true, why do you put up with it?); it’s about challenging the oft-repeated idea that “demographics” doom limited government and other American tradition – as if this is okay. When exactly did this start? Does it really make sense that one should move here, go through the long and deliberate process, get a passport, and then set about trying to change things on the backs of the native population? Is that the American dream now? I certainly hope not. Why isn’t there more resistance?

UPDATE: Judging by the comments, I think my original post didn’t make my position clear enough, so I’ve made a few changes to clarify my meaning. To be clear: I’m not questioning that the vast majority of immigrants seem to want to change things, I’m wondering why Americans so happily accept this.