How to Grab the Immigration Issue, by Ron Unz
Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1994
The Republican Party has within its grasp long-term political control over several states, including California and Texas, the nation’s two largest (the Census Bureau reported this week that New York has slipped to third place). If it misses this historic opportunity, the consequences will probably not be victories for the Democrats, but instead the likely rise of ethnic separatism with dangerous consequences for America’s political stability.
The reasons are simple. Immigrants, primarily Asian and Hispanic, soon will become politically dominant in California and elsewhere, and their political allegiances will certainly determine the future of several states. Today, 30% of California’s population is Hispanic and 10% is Asian. Although for various reasons these groups currently represent just 10% of the electorate, nearly half of all children born in California are Hispanic. And even if immigration (both legal and illegal) ended tomorrow, Asians and Hispanics are destined to become a majority within a decade or so.
This might seem a boon to the Democrats. After all, most Asian and Hispanic voters today are registered Democrats, with Asian and Hispanic elites usually being very liberal. The Democrats’ support for bilingual education, multiculturalism and affirmative action would seem to cement their position.
But consider this. California Hispanics have regularly given national or statewide Republican candidates 40% to 50% of their votes, with conservative Republicans often doing especially well. California Asians have generally given Republicans a higher percentage of their vote than have Anglo voters. In fact, Hispanics are classic blue-collar Reagan Democrats, with the social and economic profile of Italian-Americans or Slavic-Americans. Asians are similar to Jewish voters, but without liberal guilt. Both should naturally become the core of a Reaganite GOP.
These immigrants will certainly not long remain Democrats. The three most anti-immigrant groups in American society are blacks, union members and environmentalists, and these are the three core constituencies of the Democratic Party, especially of its liberal wing.
The rise of xenophobia in black neighborhoods become evident during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were anti-immigrant pogroms more than anything else, with whites being merely a secondary target. And the nativist feeling among many environmentalists can be gauged by the genesis of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a leading anti-immigration group that has its roots in the environmental movement. The obvious incompatibility between immigration and an extensive social welfare state (in which low-skilled newcomers are mouths to feed rather than hands to work) only reinforces Democrats’ antipathy to immigration.
Thus it’s no surprise that some of the most virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric in California is coming from such liberal Democrats as Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Anthony Beilenson. (It is interesting to note that Pete Wilson, the leading anti-immigrant figure in the Republican Party, is both an environmentalist and a believer in the social welfare state.)
It’s true that some crucial non-Asian and non-Hispanic segments of the Democratic Party are pro-immigrant, or at least cosmopolitan (Jews, academic and media elites, top business executives). But although many in these groups have long recognized the failure of welfare policies and the harms of bilingual education and affirmative action, they have usually been unwilling to attack these programs directly. Once it becomes absolutely clear that these policies inevitably lead to anti-immigrant sentiment, these groups will split into pro-welfare state and pro-immigrant wings, with the pro-immigrant wing drawn toward the Republican Party. In fact, this has already begun to occur.
Under the right circumstances, this can be the issue that sparks a massive rollback of the welfare state and the ethnic group policies of the last 20 or 30 years, with these changes being backed by a dominant political alliance of Asians, Hispanics and conservative Anglos.
The danger is that anti-immigrant sentiment will come to dominant the Republican Party, the way it does the Democratic Party. Conservatives and Anglos have become enormously angry and frustrated over the growth of crime, welfare, affirmative action and the general decay of their society. This resentment is “politically incorrect,” and beneath the surface, but still extremely strong, and may have helped to inspire the Perot phenomenon. Direct expression of hostility toward the black underclass or the current welfare system is immediately denounced by a united phalanx of the media and political elites. However, the anti-immigrant views of extreme liberals such as Ms. Boxer and Mr. Beilenson provide the necessary political cover for conservatives to redirect their anti-welfare-state sentiments against immigration instead.
Take away such liberal policies as the welfare state, bilingual education and affirmative action, and survey data indicates that opposition to immigration among Republicans dwindles to insignificance. And it’s important to note that these liberal policies don’t have any deep support among ordinary immigrants, who tend to be self-reliant, entrepreneurial and assimilationist. For example, almost half of California’s native-born Asians and Hispanics marry into other ethnic groups.
Yet most politicians—even within the Republican Party—are riding what they see as an irresistible tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Such individuals are sacrificing the long-term future of the Republican Party—and of California itself—for momentary political gain.
This is dangerous. Within a decade or two, California might contain a large voting block of immigrants and their children, perhaps one-third to one-half of the electorate, alienated from both political parties. Combined with the continuing growth of bilingual and multicultural policies in the schools and ethnic separatist ideologies among college-educated elites, this will create the potential for the rise of a new political movement or party emphasizing ethnic and linguistic separatism. At best, California could slide into becoming a sunny Quebec; at worst, it could turn into something much more serious.
In 1820, Thomas Jefferson described the slavery conflicts culminating in the Missouri Compromise as a “firebell in the night.” Unless intelligent actions are taken by Republican Party leaders, our current immigration debate may someday be viewed in much the same light.
Mr. Unz, a Palo Alto businessman, is challenging Gov. Pete Wilson in California’s June 7 Republican primary.