Politics & Policy

Immigrants Are People, Too

Moral decay doesn't stop at the Rio Grande.

Supporters of mass immigration on the Right often justify their position by pointing to the strong traditional values that immigrants are believed to bring with them. The president has uttered his mantra that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande” so often that it’s become a joke. Francis Fukuyama gave this storyline academic credibility in his 1993 Commentary article “Immigrants and Family Values”; more recently, he wrote that “Hispanic immigrants will help to reinforce certain cultural values like the emphasis on family.”

In effect, many on the Right (and elsewhere) see immigrants as vital allies in the culture war, representing a moral booster shot that will help reverse our decadence.

Unfortunately, this is some of the most absurd nonsense in a policy debate bursting with nonsense. A lot of the open-borders malarkey is just mathematically absurd, like the claim that importing high-school dropouts into a modern society can ever be a paying proposition (a claim demolished most recently by Robert Rector, here).

But the immigrant-family-values baloney is actually morally pernicious, because it objectifies the immigrant, turning him into a thing to be used for our convenience rather than a human being like any other. It turns him into a version of Rick Brookhiser’s “Numinous Negro” — the “hallowed Hispanic” or “magical Mexican,” if you’ll pardon the conceit, so brimming with family values that “contact with him elevates us spiritually,” as Rick wrote of the Numinous Negro.

But immigrants are not a people of our imagination, like our grandparents from Sicily or Lithuania frozen in time. They’re real people from real countries that are experiencing all the same stresses of modernity as we are, and reacting in the same ways.

For example: If immigrants arrived here with a magical store of family values, as Fukuyama seems to imagine, don’t you think their rate of unwed motherhood would be notably lower? Well, it isn’t. Heather Mac Donald pioneered the exploration of this topic last year in City Journal in “Hispanic Family Values?” And my Center for Immigration Studies has published a detailed analysis of birth records that backs up and expands on her reporting.

We found that the rate of illegitimacy among immigrants has been climbing even faster than among other groups; in 1980, before the past generation’s surge in immigration, immigrants did have lower illegitimacy, about 13 percent vs. 19 percent for the native-born. But as illegitimacy has risen, the gap has narrowed considerably, so that among both immigrants and natives, about a third of children are now born out of wedlock.

And this is immigrants collectively; Hispanics, who account for most of the births to immigrants, have an even higher illegitimacy rate of 42 percent. And native-born Hispanics have an illegitimacy rate of 50 percent, underlining a point Mac Donald highlights: “The dysfunction is multigenerational.”

And it’s not just a matter of low education. It’s true that illegitimacy becomes less prevalent the more schooling a person has, but even those Hispanic immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree have an illegitimacy rate of 18 percent, more than quadruple the rate for native-born whites with the same education.

The “immigrant family values” story also presupposes greater piety. But the proportion of Hispanics who told pollsters they have no religion is very similar to the rate for the general public. This is because, as a New York Times headline put it, “For Some Hispanics, Coming to America Also Means Abandoning Religion.”

Nor are the sending countries of immigrants a virgin source of untapped traditional values we can draw on. Illegitimacy, for instance, is rampant in sending countries, with the official rate in Mexico at almost 40 percent, 63 percent in the Dominican Republic, 73 percent in El Salvador.

We see the same thing in political developments in immigrant-sending countries. Mexico City’s local government, for instance, recently voted to legalize abortion despite intense lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise, homosexual unions are increasingly being recognized in Latin America, including in Mexico’s northern border state of Coahuila.

The point is not that immigrants are worse than we are, any more than the open-borders crowd’s claims that immigrants are better than we are. Instead, they’re just like we are, subject to the same temptations of modernity, polluted by the same filth of popular culture, making the same bad choices with the freedom we can enjoy here.

This may not be an argument for reducing immigration (there are plenty of those). But it certainly explodes any rational basis for arguing in favor of mass immigration based on a special immigrant commitment to traditional morality. There is no “family values gap,” and the sooner policymakers understand that, the sooner we’re likely to get an immigration policy consistent with our nation’s interests rather than one marinated in myths and nostalgia.

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