The Problem with Amy Wax’s Immigration Argument

Migrants from Honduras walk next to the border fence as they prepare to cross it illegally, in Tijuana, Mexico, December 14, 2018. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
Europe is no longer America’s closest cultural match.

Last week at the National Conservatism Conference, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax stirred up controversy with a comment about immigration that, yanked out of context, seemed clearly racist. In context, it’s not racist. It’s just wrong. And the reason it’s wrong should help us understand a vital truth: American civilization is now quite clearly distinct from European civilization, and that’s a good thing indeed.

First, here’s what Wax said about immigration and race (via Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, with the most controversial elements highlighted):

Here’s the argument in a nutshell. Immigration policy should take culture into account, and the culture that most closely matches our own comes from Europe and the “First World.” Depending on how you define the “First World” (lots and lots of people live in China and Japan), that region is mostly white. So, proper immigration policy will result in more white immigrants even if the intent isn’t to bring in more whites.

She derides contrary arguments, including the idea that immigrant populations from all regions assimilate well into American culture, as the “happy fantasy” of “magic dirt” — the idea that mere presence in America transforms immigrants into productive members of the American civilization.

I’ve got three principal objections, the first of which is easy and obvious. There’s quite a bit of evidence that nonwhite immigrants (including nonwhite immigrants from developing countries) do very well in a key measure of American assimilation — economic industry. Yes, immigrants from Europe tend to do well, but Indian-Americans are a dominant economic force. The latest data from the American Community Survey demonstrates that Indian-Americans have a median household income of $114,261. Indian-Americans come from a nation that’s nonwhite, non-Western, and not part of the First World.

If you look at measures of assimilation other than income, black immigrants to the U.S. are “less likely to be in the U.S. illegally, more likely to be U.S. citizens and more likely to speak English” than immigrants overall. And black immigrants are coming largely from Africa and the Caribbean, not from the First World. Nigerian-Americans do particularly well. The bottom line is that skilled immigrants do well in the United States no matter where they’re from.

My next objection to Wax is that she wildly overestimates the extent to which European society represents some sort of cultural match with the United States. American culture and European culture have been drifting apart for decades on a key metric — religiosity. Secular nationalists may not care about this, but European-biased immigration is secular-biased immigration, and that will alter American culture in appreciable ways.

Many Americans don’t fully appreciate just how godless European culture has become. The data are clear and overwhelming. Comparisons between European and American measures of religiosity show that the vast majority of European nations aren’t as religious as the least-religious American states.

Poland, one of the most religious European countries, would be the 48th most religious American state, just below Connecticut in the percentage of adults who are “highly religious.” Every single other large European nation is far more secular than New Hampshire, America’s least religious state, often by a large margin. A mere 33 percent of New Hampshire adults are “highly religious.” Compare that to 11 percent in the U.K., 12 percent in France, 21 percent in Spain, 27 percent in Italy, 12 percent in Germany, and 17 percent in Russia.

Let’s put this as plainly as possibly: The intentional Europeanization of American immigration would represent the forced secularization of American culture.

My final objection relates to one of the core, virtuous objectives of the new conservative nationalism — social cohesion. Perversely enough, the most polarized population in America is the white population. On the Left, the segment of the population that most drives American division are secular, progressive whites. According to the crucial “Hidden Tribes” study of American polarization, left-wing polarization is being primarily driven by a “progressive activist” class that is disproportionately white, disproportionately college-educated, and disproportionately secular. On the right, the activist class is also disproportionately white. America’s black and brown populations are more moderate and more religious than white liberals.

And where can we find millions upon millions of highly secular white people who are hostile to American notions of free speech and religious freedom? That’s right, Europe. By contrast, where can we find millions upon millions of highly religious individuals who cherish the right to exercise their faith? Africa, Asia, and South America.

My own views are simple: American culture is so distinct that no single world region mimics it. American culture is so powerful that assimilation is the natural (but not immediate) immigrant process. It’s not the “dirt” that’s magical, but the ideas and opportunity that exist on this dirt are extraordinarily potent. They’ve been potent for more than two centuries, and they remain potent still.

At the same time, it’s prudent to recognize that unregulated mass waves of immigration can and do create unacceptable hardships on communities, straining safety nets and creating economic and cultural disruptions. A nation has to have borders, and it has to admit immigrants only at a sustainable and sensible rate.

Since skilled immigrants do well regardless of their race or country of origin, we should bias our system in their favor while continuing the American tradition of compassion for refugees fleeing oppression abroad. But Europe is not our cultural match. In many ways it’s our cultural rival, and any immigration system biased in its favor will socially engineer increased secularism into our national DNA.

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