America's Meltdown Can't Be Blamed On Immigrants

Oh, the chutzpah of it all: California's guru of anti-immigration, Gov. Pete Wilson, breezed into the Big Apple to launch his presidential bid against a backdrop of - what else? - the Statue of Liberty.

You almost have to admire a guy with spin doctors of that proportion, who dare to transform the goddess of immigrants, Lady Liberty, into a symbol of America's new xenophobia. Oh yes, and what's the new inscription on the base? "Send back your poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free; we've got troubles of our own."

Of course, I'm biased. Not only did America's last great wave of immigration give my English, Irish, German, Scottish and French great-grandparents the right to bequeath me citizenship in a terrific country, but I myself snagged a husband out of the much-despised post-'60s immigration wave.

"Illegal immigration is not the America way," Gov. Wilson proclaimed, adding that taxpayer benefits for the same are "like giving free room service to someone who breaks into a hotel."

OK, so the guy has a point - even if, one suspects, he discovered it only after deeply contemplating his conscience, his consultants, his focus groups and his navel, not necessarily in that order.

The new Census Bureau study can only add fuel to the already incendiary debate. Almost 9 percent of people now living in America are foreign-born, the highest level since World War II, though well below the historic peak of 14.7 percent of Americans (a figure that includes all eight of my great-grandparents) in 1910. In California, 24 percent of residents are foreign-born; in New York, the figure is 16 percent.

More immigration is only partly to blame for America's shifting demographics: The surge in the proportion of foreign-born Americans comes in part from the continuing decline in native Americans' birth rates. If the offspring of other countries do come to people our land, it will be in part because the rest of us declined to have enough children of our own.

This is a fact that Peter Brimelow, author of "Alien Nation" (which launched our current immigration debate) and a more subtle analyst than most, has seized upon: There may have been more immigrants at the turn of the century, but at that time native-born Americans had larger families, which meant less dramatic ethnic changes as a result. Even more subtly, he argues that unlike today, at the turn of the century immigrants confronted a vigorous, growing, self-confident culture eager and able to transform foreigners into Americans.

I understand his fears. But whenever I am tempted to succumb to such anxieties, this is what always pulls me up short: It is not immigrants who are demanding bilingual, multicultural schools, it was not immigrants who created our current system of racial and ethnic preferences, and it was not immigrant children, but our own native sons and daughters, who first revolted against the America of their forefathers, building the counterculture of suspicion, rebellion and disillusionment that is now the intellectual mainstream. It was not aliens, in other words, who made alienation chic.

Immigration is an easy scapegoat for our own cultural meltdown, our failure to maintain and transmit to our children a unified and vigorous vision of American history, institutions and heritage. Our system of government is under assault and our way of life threatened by ignorance, crime and social disorder. But grind immigration to a total halt, and you've done nothing about this real cancer eating away at the heart of American civilization.

The fault, dear Peter, lies not in our immigrants but in ourselves.

(Copyright, 1995, Universal Press Syndicate)

Maggie Gallagher's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.