Don't Discount the Successes of the American Melting Pot

FOR some years now, the press has told the American immigration story largely in terms of problems: the numbers of immigrants; the threat to jobs of native-born Americans; whether the melting pot can be sustained; and whether melting pot is even the right metaphor or objective.

This hand-wringing is unfortunate - and misleading. It's misleading because it's ahistorical. The immigrant experience hasn't weakened or fundamentally altered the country. Rather, it has strengthened and renewed it.

This isn't pious hope; it's empirical reality. It's possible, of course, that this time the nation may not hold in its historic form. But since it has before, it ought to again. For one thing, immigration isn't unusually high by past standards - not as high, for example, as the 1950 to 1970 level. The percentage of resident population that is foreign-born is smaller today than in any preceding decade prior to 1950.

In preceding eras, immigration inspired much tut-tutting, and sometimes even nasty nativist reactions. That only makes current coverage more ahistorical. The historical record, however, should make us confident about our current experience.

The English philosopher and commentator, G. K. Chesterton, visited the United States in 1921 and a year later published what became a famous assessment of the country's immigrant experience. He noted that the US had been engaged in an experiment - the experiment of a democracy of diverse races that has been compared to a melting pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance - a solid substance. The melting pot must not melt, and it had shown no signs of melting, Chesterton thought. Its original form, which could be traced back to the nation's founding, was still firm.

The confusion to which many have succumbed as they've witnessed successive waves of immigration involves a misunderstanding of America's substance. Were it based on ethnicity, there would be problems as the ethnic mix changed. Were America primarily an ethnic entity, large-scale immigration could easily transform it. But in fact, the US isn't a different nation than it was in 1790, and we need to understand why.

America is an idea - a set of beliefs about people and their relationships and the kind of society that can best satisfy the needs of each individual. Were this idea unsuccessful in the marketplace - were later arrivals, or any large segment of the population, to lose confidence in the idea - the pot would melt. America might not cease to be a nation, but it would cease to be that of historic form. The simple empirical fact, however, is that the American idea remains wildly attractive.

This has been demonstrated again by a survey by the Gallup Organization (for CNN and USA Today) of a large cross-section of foreign-born Americans. The study tells an immigration story different from much of the current commentary. According to the poll, immigrants say they came to the US seeking economic opportunity and freedom for themselves and their children and they have not been disappointed. They say they have encountered some discrimination, but that on the whole they have been welcomed. They affirm traditional American values and display more optimism about the American experiment than much of the native-born population. All this isn't surprising, of course; the allure of the experiment brought so many here in the first place.

Census data also reveal flaws in the current telling of the immigration story. They document that immigration is not high by historic standards and show how much the US has gained in immediate socioeconomic terms.

Looking at educational background, foreign-born Americans resemble almost exactly the native-born populace in the proportion with college degrees. They resemble the native-born, too, in income levels.

Some newcomers start out with little education and low incomes, of course, but the US is a magnet for those with a high level of achievement. Indeed, if the Census data raise any concern, it's that we are too much the beneficiary of a massive brain drain.

Like any country, the US has plenty of social problems. But our experiment of a democracy of diverse races lays fair claim to being one of history's great successes. Where prudent reforms are in order, we should make them. But as we do, we shouldn't lose sight of our success.

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