Toward sound immigration policy

Posted: May 21, 2002 12:00 AM
That the West soon will rethink its immigration policies -- or non-policies, as the case may be -- is the clearest political and social datum on display right now. By actions large and small, the West, post-Sept. 11, is declaring its dismay with open, porous borders. A few recent tidbits: -- Europe's rightward political drift, expedited by the assassination of the immigration critic Pim Fortuyn and French voters' growing admiration for his counterpart -- in certain but not all respects -- Jean Le-Pen. -- Nausea over suicide bombings that draw demented adulation in the Middle East instead of fierce condemnation. -- A prediction by the FBI director of suicide bombings in the United States: bombings unlikely to be carried out by Appalachian mountaineers or Westchester soccer moms. -- Dismay over revelations this week about the falsification of Social Security identities by foreigners using fake documents. -- A recent New York Times story on the broad approval that Australians accord their prime minister, John Howard, for using the navy to round up and return Iraqi and Afghan refugees. To which many would add anecdotal proofs: the unhappy comments often heard about language proliferation in a country -- this one -- where at least minimal command of English is supposed to be a prerequisite for citizenship. We know what it all adds up to: The outside world is making trouble at home. The right to enjoyment of hearth and home is the human right most deeply felt in all ages, all places. Ignore it, trample on it, and resentments arise. Resentments, deeply enough embedded, commonly seek and find political answers. Friends of immigrants and immigration -- I count myself strongly among them -- must work to make sure the answers, when they come, are sensible and fair. Where one might start is with some attempt to appreciate the viewpoint of the home folks. Commonly, among the national elite, overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly dismissive of people who read People instead of The New Yorker -- expressions of alienation receive a haughty hand-wave. Nativism! Racism! Yet in Rotterdam, the New York Times notes that "Rene Berkhof sometimes fears that his sons, 6 and 10, will speak Dutch with a Turkish accent. Mr. Berkhof, 38, sipping beer in a bar in the tough Delfshaven neighborhood, describes how the section, where he was born and raised, saw its Dutch population gradually displaced by Turks, Moroccans, Algerians, Surinamese, and others too exotic to name." We're not to care? Why? The discomfort and the safety of the majority are not factors that genuine opinion leaders should brush off -- as indeed they do less frequently since Sept. 11. No Westerner wants to be accused of racism. The civil rights movement and the fall of colonialism took care of that. But, then, race has never ceased to be a factor in human calculations. That reality requires recognition. What, then, do we in the West do to bring immigration policy to the sensible center, where it belongs -- room for more, of whatever race, but plainly not for everybody? We stress qualifications surely, matching up applicants with opportunities and needed skills. We proudly take refugees, as we always have, but without creating refugee-camp nations. Maybe most of all we work hard for full incorporation of immigrant populations into our respective nations: the ethnic ghetto as the merest way station to the larger community. An American, for instance, is entitled to insist that English remain the tongue to which newcomers accommodate themselves as rapidly and fluently as possible. The enemies of good immigration policy aren't immigrants. Those enemies are the "multiculturalist" thinkers of the past 30 years who didn't much like the West to start with and wouldn't be displeased to see its ways and norms disappear in a flood of Urdu or Mayan. They hate to tell anybody he must become, in certain specific ways, something other than he was born. That leaves a lot of telling to be accomplished by the rest of us.