Straight talk about immigration

Mona Charen
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Posted: Jun 27, 2003 12:00 AM

SAN DIEGO -- Victor Davis Hanson should be cloned so that his erudition, wisdom and humane enlightenment could illuminate every important national question. But wait, he already does address most of the pressing issues of the day.

In his books, his commentaries for National Review Online and Commentary, and his television appearances, Hanson seems to have been cloned already.

I once emailed a column he had written after Sept. 11 to a friend. It began, "As I was walking through my orchard, I was thinking ..." My friend emailed back, "He's had more thoughts in one stroll through his orchard than I've had in my entire life."

Hanson teaches classics at California State in Fresno. He is also a fifth-generation California farmer, and he has turned his considerable intellectual powers to the most vexing question facing California -- illegal immigration.

Hanson grew up among Mexicans and Americans of Mexican ancestry. Hispanics represented the overwhelming majority of students in his Selma, Calif., public elementary school, and his friends, colleagues, employees, students and relatives have always been Hispanic. Though Hanson makes an excellent case that immigration policy is badly out of whack, not to say insane, in California, part of the strength of his new book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, is his deep compassion for Mexicans and other immigrants.

Everyone knows that illegal immigrants come to America for a better life. Hanson fills in some of the blanks that most Americans may not know -- for example, the inflexible racism and two-tiered nature of Mexican society. Their country is so poor, and so backward, that most Mexicans have more in common with Egyptians and Indians than with Americans. They flee north because they can, and the Mexican government offers a wink and a nod, and often more, to facilitate this flow. Why? Hanson argues that it serves as a safety valve for Mexico itself. If the discontented could not flee north, pressure would build within Mexico for reform. And reform is exactly what the power elite in Mexico wishes to avoid.

It is simply impossible to conceive that a wealthy nation living next to a poor one will not have a problem with illegal aliens. But having lived in California all of his life, and having worked on a farm and witnessed the life of illegals close up, Hanson is in an excellent position to evaluate what has changed in the nature of immigration over the past 30 or so years.

Californians and other Americans have always had compesinos picking our fruit, mowing our lawns and bussing our tables. Mexicans do the work that native-born Americans do not want to do. And the work can be backbreaking.

Hanson describes picking peaches: "The 12-foot ladder is heavy and unstable, especially when you must clamber up among the top branches 60 or 70 times a day and then descend with 50 pounds of peaches. ... You tend to run rather than walk because at piece-rate labor, you can make $90 to $120 in a 9-hour shift. ... It can easily reach 110 degrees ... in the Central Valley ... and sometimes the labor contractor can withhold your check without cause, or deduct 30 percent of it for Cokes, rides to work and everything in between."

And yet while we have always employed Mexicans in this way, Hanson argues that the old assimilationist model worked far better for the immigrants themselves and for the larger society than the multiculturalist, separatist, gripe-obsessed, accusation-flinging culture we now enjoy.

Today, poor Mexicans continue to mow the lawns and turn the raisins in the sun, but they are no longer encouraged, far less forced, to learn proper English, adopt American history and culture as their own, and form lasting ties to their new nation. Instead, they are fed an unwholesome (and frequently false) set of fables about how wonderful and superior Mexico is, how precious their language and culture are, and how rapacious, cruel and intolerant the United States is.

Hanson compares some of his successful classics students, who can read Ovid in the original, with the students who major in Hispanic studies and are fed a diet of resentment and victimology. Who is likely to be happier and more successful?

Continuing down the current path will lead to a Mexifornia. At present, 70 percent of the public school students in Los Angeles are Hispanic, the rest a mix of Asian, black and a variety of other hues. The huge array of government services these newcomers expect and get are bankrupting the state and will continue to do so absent an abrupt change of direction.

Hanson argues forcefully for a combination of border patrol and assimilation. This is an incredibly important and timely book -- a must read not just for those interested in immigration or California, but for those interested in what America is becoming.