“Immigrants and American Values” by Ron K. Unz
The Family in America (Rockford Institute Center on The Family in America), May 1995
Immigrant alarmists often claim that current policies are leading America to a “clash of cultures.” There is certainly some truth in this claim, but an actual analysis of which cultures are clashing, and why, might surprise many conservatives.
Consider a recent book on California’s Mexican immigrants written by a group of social-service professionals from the Stanford University community. Titled Understanding and Working with Parents and Children from Rural Mexico, it is designed to build understanding between American suburbanites and Hispanic immigrants, whose cultural customs and behavior might often seem bizarre and disturbing at first glance. And what are those strange, foreign customs? As one example, children rarely talk back to their parents or other adults—as one researcher put it, they are used to being “seen but not heard.” Hispanic immigrants also put a heavy emphasis on “caring about the family, the extended family and friends; a spirit of cooperation and loyalty rather than individualism and competitiveness.” They strongly prefer that care of children be provided by parents and other family members instead of professional day-care centers, which seems very peculiar to these professional social workers. Even more alarming, Hispanic immigrants are willing to discipline their children by spanking for misbehavior and value strict obedience, instead of American-style independence. Worst of all is the immigrant attitude toward the relationship between men and women: “the rigidity of gender role is a very big problem…that needs to change.” Hispanic mothers concentrate on caring for home and family, while fathers see their role as being provider and protector for wife and children, serving as the head of the household. Naturally, all these values and customs seem complete anathema to the liberal academics writing the book, and more than a little quaint to the affluent suburbanites who might read it. But these were the conservative family values which built America, and they were generally unchallenged until America’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s.
The paradoxical notion that immigrants are often more committed to “traditional American values” than many present-day Americans is strongly backed by statistics. Whereas the traditional family consisting of a married couple with children is increasingly rare among white Americans—just a quarter of white households according to the 1990 Census—it accounts for nearly half of Asian and Hispanic immigrant households.
The welfare dependency rate for non-refugee immigrants of working age is a negligible two percent, about half the rate for America’s white population. Criminality is also relatively low, with non-citizens being imprisoned at a lower rate than their share of the American population. America’s most heavily Asian and Hispanic cities such as San Jose, Honolulu, and El Paso have some of America’s lowest crime rates. During the Los Angeles Riots, the only safe portion of the city was heavily Mexican East LA. Perhaps much of this is due to immigrant religiosity, which is far higher than that of the general population, and inclines toward traditional Catholicism or Evangelical Protestantism. Most immigrant neighborhoods seem more like a part of America during the 1940’s or 1950’s than like a part of America today. I felt very safe in a largely immigrant section of New York City during the years I lived there.
What then of the recent anti-immigrant backlash in California, a state otherwise known for its tolerance of “alternative lifestyles” and hedonism? The 1990’s saw the implosion of a speculative real estate bubble and major cutbacks in the federal-government spending upon which so many millions of middle-class California jobs depended, leading to hard economic times. Personal values rooted in nothing beyond material consumption cannot endure even a temporary end to affluence, and the collapse of California’s optimism was profound.
Under such circumstances, a desire for scapegoats is natural, and immigrants—content to lead a simple life centered on work, home, and church while earning their living as nannies or gardeners—are an obvious target. Their very happiness is an implicit reproach to those who have lived their lives dedicated to material wealth alone.
None of this should imply that immigrants are somehow immune to the forces of family disintegration which our welfare state has subsidized over the past few decades. Immigrant children tend to become substantially less church-going, law-abiding, and hard-working—thus more “American”—than their parents. And a few immigrant groups such as Puerto Ricans, Laotians, and Cambodians have rates of family-breakdown and welfare dependency that approach those of the black underclass. But this only reinforces what we already know concerning the terrible corrosive power of America’s failed social welfare state. And in the upcoming struggle to roll back that system, conservatives should recognize that immigrants can be crucially important allies.
Mr. Ron K. Unz, chief executive officer of Wall Street Analytics in Palo Alto, California, challenged Governor Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary, winning 34 percent of the vote.