The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience by Chilton Williamson Jr. (Basic Books, 1996, 202 pp., $23)
THE VISION, values and views Chilton Williamson Jr. expresses in The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience will certainly play a part in one of most hotly debated issues on the national agenda.
At best, Williamson's work redirects the discussion on immigration away from economic toward moral considerations. At worst, it is a poisonous polemic that denigrates anyone or anything associated with a positive perspective on immigration and immigrants. Few escape the author's critical comments, and his hit list ranges across the political spectrum from Woodrow to Pete Wilson.
Several arguments—the myth, the mystique, and the mistake—are central to Williamson's thesis. The myth: the United States was never and is not a nation of immigrants. The mystique: all justifications favoring or fostering immigration are false. The mistake: all consequences connected with immigration are deleterious.
Williamson, the senior editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, argues that “immigrationists" speak from sentiment rather than reason, and that a “new class" of pro-immigrant political, religious and economic policy makers have obscured the anti-immigrant will of the grass-roots “public class."
The author associates “immigrationism" with an array of other “isms,” including American exceptionalism, statist nationalism, universalism, globalism, multi-culturalism, materialism, and humanitarian imperialism. He also contends that chaos, the demise of traditional American culture, a loss of American identity and environmental degradation are the legacy and prospect of generous immigration policies.
Williamson's treatise is populist and elitist at once. It is also anti-Catholic. In his words, “…the old WASP culture remains the only national culture worthy of the name … because it represents today the inherited culture of an elite, an informal aristocracy of talent, learning, and accomplishment incomparably superior to the proletarian and peasant cultures imported by the immigrant waves from the Civil War to the present."
The Church's teachings and actions in defense and service of newcomers are challenged as “heedless of the views of the pewsitters,” “clumsy, wrongheaded, and fundamentally coarse moral discussion, moral blackmail,” and “false religion." Pope John XXIII's Pacem in Terris is equated with the Tower of Babel, while Scripture's admonitions to welcome the stranger are rationalized away.
Echoing Peter Brimelow's Alien Nation, the intent of Williamson's tract is to provide intellectual and moral sustenance to the cause of restricting immigration. For those who share and support his bias, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), his statements will offer succor. Most others, however, will find little fairness amid much bitterness.
Claiming the “high" ground isn't the same as achieving it. Despite his accusation that “immigrationists" lack logic, Williamson is himself guilty of committing multiple errors in logic. Besides ad hominem attacks and appeals to questionable authorities, the author offers contradictory claims to support his perspective. On the one hand, America is not, he says, a nation of immigrants because the principal and primary populations were “… a single German race …" who “… were in truth not immigrants at all, but colonists." On the other hand, he says, “the United States has become ‘a colony of the world’” because of the arrival of immigrants.
A second failing is the author's preference that the anti-immigrant will of the American people should be the guiding light of public policy on immigration. However, if the only true Americans are those who share “… a fundamental character, which is that of British culture …" and if “mmigration is a failure because assimilation … never really occurred,” then who exactly are these Americans whom policy makers should follow? Are the citizen progeny of past migrants part of American public opinion or not?
Third, the moral standards that Williamson advocates lack the idealism characteristic of values that guide pro-immigrant perspectives. Freedom, equality, fairness, family and humanitarianism are to be supplanted by ethnic purity, religious agreement, cultural preservation, ecological carrying capacity and communitarianism. Placing such prudential principles above the altruism that has defined and directed the spirit of America for more than two centuries is way off the mark.
Similarly, Williamson's disdain for the Catholic Church leads him to overlook the depth of its stance on immigrants. Christ was a sojourner Whose humanity brought dignity to all men. While Williamson denigrates indiscriminate benevolence, Christians are challenged to practice it. If America has, in part, false conscience toward immigration, then Williamson's view shows none at all.
Dr. Robert Moser is director of the Department of Refugee and Immigrant Services for Catholic Charities in San Diego, Calif.