I am generally in sympathy with Reihan Salam. (DISCLOSURE: I went to high school with his older sister, Rifat.) He’s an old-fashioned non-crazy conservative. I am not, but I sympathize with his pro-natalist and mildly-nationalist priors. I certainly support his skepticism about government intervention and his arguments against zoning laws. And he wants to abolish Stuyvesant! What’s not to like?
But sometimes the poor guy just has to twist himself into knots in order to convince himself that the “conservative movement” to which he’s hitched his professional wagon isn’t batshit crazy. You can see him attempting to justify the recent nativist turn in the GOP here.
Much of Salam’s article isn’t crazy. In fact, the entire first section is quite well argued. He says that the rise of Donald Trump is troubling and that the Republican leadership has no idea how to discuss immigration in an intelligent way.
If he had said the following in the second section I might disagree with the conclusion but not the analysis:
- Admitting poor immigrants is not in the national interest;
- It’s perfectly fine for Americans to want lower levels of immigration for whatever reason;
- The current immigration backlash ain’t got nothing on the events of 1917-31, which gave us such gems as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act and mob killings of Filipinos;
- So the GOP should favor a Canada-style system with a lower overall cap and strict employment enforcement.
But that wasn’t the argument that Reihan made in the second section. Rather, his piece suddenly made a 90-degree turn and started to argue that the descendants of the post-1965 wave of immigration aren’t following the path of their predecessors from the Ellis Island wave.
Lest I be accused of misrepresenting his argument, let me quote him: “Why haven’t less-skilled immigrants followed the path of the less-skilled Europeans who settled in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s?”
His argument has two parts: one about economic mobility, the other about social assimilation. I’m going to focus on social assimilation, which Reihan states is happening much more slowly for current immigrants than for their European predecessors. We’ll briefly discuss the economics at the end.
1. Reihan Salam’s argument
One what does Reihan blame this alleged slow assimilation? Well, he asserts, “The most important reason that today’s immigrants have had such a different trajectory from those of earlier eras is that in 1921 and 1924, Congress passed legislation that sharply curtailed immigration.”
Reihan goes on to talk about the Italians, who did indeed arrive in a single relatively short wave. (See the above figure.) Reihan: “The end of immigrant replenishment led to sharp increases in inter-ethnic marriages for Italian Americans and other white ethnics. Mexican Americans, in contrast, are part of an ethnic community that until recently was constantly being replenished by new Mexican arrivals, which in turn has sharpened the distinctiveness of Mexican identity.” The, same, he says, is happening to other goups. “Over the course of the 1990s, the percentage of Asians marrying whites, and Hispanics marrying whites, fell sharply.”
In other words, the reason behind the alleged difference between earlier immigration waves and the current one is that the current ones are continuously replenished by new immigrants. His sources are a book by Tomás Jiménez (Stanford) and a 2007 article by Zhenchao Qian (Ohio State) and Daniel Lichter (Cornell). Jiménez has an article that summarizes his main findings here.
And now comes the fisking you’ve all awaited. It is not that Jiménez, Qian and Lichter are bad scholars. They are great scholars. (Particularly Jiménez.) Reihan just gets their work wrong.
In fact, he gets their work so wrong that it’s hard to believe that he read them. (Rifat is a good sociologist — can I blame her for not schooling her little brother?)
2. Social assimilation
Let’s start with Jiménez. Jiménez has elsewhere pointed out the astonishingly high outmarriage rates of Mexican-Americans! Moreover, Jiménez points out that those outmarriage rates have risen for second and third-generation Mexican-Americans, despite the continual waves of new immigration. In other words, Mexican exogamy has proven resilient to replenishment.
Jiménez’s argument is that replenishment inflames native-born non-Mexican irritation at new Mexican arrivals, which spills over into over into continued prejudice directed at native-born Mexican-Americans. Let me quote Jiménez’s three conclusions:
- “First, non-Mexicans’ expressions of nativism sharpen inter-group boundaries.” Reihan could have said that immigration makes natives act like racist basterds, and it is a bad thing to be a racist basterd, so to discourage racist basterdism we should cut immigration. That is a perfectly legitimate argument. But it makes the GOP base look bad, so Reihan doesn’t make it.
- “Second, immigrant replenishment bolsters the salience of race in the lives of respondents. In a context of heavy Mexican immigration, non-Mexicans use racial markers as proxies for a combination of ancestry, nativity, and legal status.” Again, this makes the GOP look bad, so Reihan misrepresents Jiménez’s argument.
- “Finally, Mexican-immigrant replenishment sharpens intra-group boundaries by informing the criteria for ‘authentic’ expressions of ethnic identity. Mexican immigrants and the young second generation have come to define and police ‘Mexicanness,’ which entails, at the very least, speaking Spanish and having non-Anglo American tastes. Mexican immigrants and young second-generation individuals call into question respondents’ authenticity for not being able to openly display the cultural characteristics that might ‘prove’ their ethnic authenticity. Mexican Americans respond to these boundaries by attempting to avoid them altogether, and by providing a corrective to those who impose such boundaries. Respondents attempt to avoid inter-group boundaries by emphasizing their American national identity.” And that italicized conclusion is the opposite of what Reihan implies Jiménez argues.
To be fair, Jiménez does argue that Mexican migration is unlike the Ellis Island waves that produced the Brooklyn I grew up in. But Jiménez is not arguing that there is anything unprecedented about the continuing stream of Mexican migration. Rather, he explicitly points out that both the Germans and the Irish immigrated in century-long waves; if you want historical parallels to Mexican-Americans, those two groups are the ones you should look to. And if you wanna talk about hard-to-assimilate waves of endless immigration, by a people who had no reluctance to use politics to cram multiculturalism down the throats of hard-working English-speaking Americans, then you really wanna look at the Germans. (You gotta scroll down at the link for the relevant information.)
Reihan writes, however, as if the Italians were the first immigrant group to get off the boat in America.
Hey, Reihan’s from Brooklyn, I’m from Brooklyn, to some extent it’s understandable. I went to college honestly believing that a third of all the white people in America were of Italian descent. I mean this literally: my friend Dev Patnaik cracked open an encyclopedia and disabused me of that notion. (For some reason, I knew that my personal experience about the number of Jewish-Americans was not representative, but it never occurred to me that this might also be true of the cujines.) I completely get why Reihan might assume that the Italian experience is the normal expected baseline for the American immigrant experience.
But I was 18 and a college freshman. Salam is 36 and a major public intellectual.
Now let’s move on to Qian and Lichter’s findings. Compare column (1) and column (2) below. For people aged 20-34, intermarriages among native-born Asian-American men fell from 50% to 46%, while intermarriages among Asian-American women rose from 58% to 60%.
This is not the decline Salam writes about.
Moreover, column (2) excludes multiracial people. If you classify anyone who checks off the boxes as half-white as minority — i.e., you classify people the way the 1990 census did — you would compare column (1) and column (4) and find that between 1990 and 2000 interracial marriages for native-born Asian-American men rose from 50% to 55% and for women from 58% to 67%.
Nor do Qian and Lichter believe that intermarriage rates have declined for Latinos. They spell out why on page 85, where they attempt to account for confounding demographic shifts. Bottom line: “Intermarriage with whites increased significantly among native-born Asian Americans and Hispanics, by 36 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Significantly, these multivariate results are different from the modest 1990s’ declines in intermarriage reported in Table 2.”
Heck, Qian and Lichter don’t even find a decline in intermarrige for foreign-born Asian-Americans! Page 86: “Intermarriage ratios with native-born whites declined by 19 percent for foreign-born Hispanics, from 27 to 22, and increased by only 11 percent for foreign-born Asians, from 28 to 31, during the 1990s.” It is true that Qian and Lichter find the increase in intermarriage rates for foreign-born Asians smaller than they would have expected given the increase in the number of foreign-born Asians: in other words, they did find that foreign-born Asian-Americans became somewhat less likely to marry non-Asian native-born Americans between 1990 and 2000 when you control for everything else. But that seems a pretty small reed upon which to argue that assimilation slowed down during the 1990s.
3. Economic mobility
Reihan also talks about the skill level of immigrants and their economic success, but he makes no explicit time-series comparisons. All he does is point out that immigrants are disproportionately poor after which he asks, “Why haven’t recent less-skilled immigrants followed the path of the less-skilled Europeans who settled in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s?”
But that question makes no sense unless and until you establish that current immigrant waves are moving up the occupational and wage ladder more slowly than previous waves! Reihan does not do this. So I don’t have that much to say, other than that there is in fact a big literature on these issues. A not-bad place to start. For some economic history on the Ellis Island wave, see here. For even better economic history on the same topic, see this paper by Ran Abramitzky, Leah Boustan and Katherine Eriksson. For a broader look at current assimilation, see this piece by the very same Tomás Jiménez. For a complex long-term view, see this 2006 study by Jacob Vigdor (currently at the University of Washington). See also this NBER chapter on Mexican-Americans. Finally, this is a great short book comparing Italians from 1900 with Mexican migrants today.
Ironically, that latter three provide some support for Reihan’s underlying argument. To which, I repeat, I have some sympathy and could be convinced to support.
4. Summing up
In short, I am disappointed. Immigration restriction is a reasonable position. And I generally like Salam’s positions. Repeal zoning! Tax the childless! Good stuff, logical, makes America better. But I am saddened by this piece. It misrepresents facts in order to allow Salam to call for the Republican Party to address a cultural assimilation crisis that does not exist, except inasmuch as immigration is generating a native-born white backlash.
There is nothing wrong with the GOP being the party of immigration restriction. There is a lot wrong with the insane racist way that immigration restriction has come out in the 2016 primary race. Maybe you can justify the insanity, but Reihan only does so by misrepresenting the works he cites. For a broader takedown, using sources that Reihan doesn’t cite, see Alex Nowrasteh here.
I wag my finger at you, Reihan Salam of Brooklyn! Or in our shared old school vernacular, “You serious, B? Gedouttahere.”