By Jonathan B. Coe, July 11, 2018
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls; but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). Such ancient Hebrew wisdom is relevant as we look at major public policies through different prisms (empirical, pragmatic, moral, anecdotal, sentimental [i.e., feeling]) and seek to make prudential judgments that will cultivate national stability and human flourishing.
A helpful resource in engaging in such an endeavor for American immigration policy is the 2003 memoir and extended essay, Mexifornia: A State Of Becoming, by classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson. Two previous essays in this magazine have shown that Hanson’s book has aged well and his cautionary tale has proven prophetic.
He writes with the authority of an eyewitness and fifth-generation farmer of hardscrabble, Swedish lineage, who knows the Mexican immigrant well and has lived in central California, the epicenter of immigration upheaval, all his life. There are few, if any, books available that help the reader see the issue through an anecdotal lens, as Hanson recounts in sobering detail what it’s like to live in Mexifornia, a place that is half-California, half-Mexico, and hurtling toward economic and social disintegration.
Daily life in Mexifornia means that Hanson’s property is a frequent target of general theft, a waste disposal site for tons of unwanted refuse, and a place for inebriated illegal aliens to abandon their unregistered and unlicensed vehicles (this happened five times in a twenty-year period) after careening off the highway and crashing into his vineyards, causing thousands of dollars of damage. He writes of other chilling realities: “Hundreds of gang-bangers venture out into the rural counties [of central California] to fornicate, shoot drugs, steal, rape, and murder. I pick up their needles and condoms, brandy bottles and tampons, nightly near our farm pond.”
When the anecdotal lens is quantified it becomes an empirical prism through which to see public policy. Anyone who is at least moderately conversant with the issues surrounding immigration will recognize the basic laundry list of profoundly negative outcomes that Hanson mentions that continue to this day: high crime rates among non-citizens; lack of assimilation of both first and second-generation Hispanic immigrants who end up sequestered in ethnic enclaves; alarming metrics concerning high school drop-out rates, illegitimacy, and welfare dependency.
As far as the politics of the situation, according to Hanson, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Those on the economic-libertarian Right like open borders because the influx of cheap labor means a better bottom-line, while those on the Left see millions of people who need their assistance and will become members of the Democratic Party.
The first is motivated by greed; the second by power. The former is seeing the issue exclusively through an economic prism; the latter through a political one.
Neither is looking at it through a moral prism that should provide crucial clarity in all discussion of public policy. Searching moral questions are not being asked:
Years ago, James Q. Wilson accurately pointed out that not fixing the “broken windows” in your neighborhood leads to more law-breaking. Can a country practice such a cavalier attitude towards the rule of law without disastrous consequences?
Scores of people from other countries have followed all the rules and waited years to immigrate here from, say, someplace like Senegal or the Ukraine. Is it uncompassionate to tell the undocumented that they need to go to the back of the line?
Are open borders a fair policy when legal citizens are seeing their wages driven down because of the presence of the illegals? Is this just especially to the black community who are losing unskilled and entry-level jobs to the undocumented?
Low-skilled illegal aliens have high rates of welfare dependency. Is it right for those who are here legally to pick up the tab?
Is it moral to not build a wall along the southern border and continue to enable the well-heeled oligarchs in Mexico City, who benefit from billions of dollars a year in remittances, to maintain their racist and oppressive policies against the masses of poor, rural Indians from central Mexico? Could the act of building a wall be like the co-dependent wife finally telling her husband, “No, I’m not calling your boss anymore to tell him that you have the flu when the truth is that you’re hung-over”?
Is it fair to those who are not of but who live in Mexifornia, and this includes millions of assimilated Mexican-Americans along with non-Hispanics, to have to put up with the cultural, moral, and economic disintegration that characterizes much of Mexifornia? How easy it is for white, liberal elites who live in their gated communities and upper middle-class enclaves to say, “Build bridges, not walls!”
This brings us to the pragmatic prism, and, as the late Charles Krauthammer notes, there’s a reason that people have been building walls for 5,000 years: they work. Exhibit A: the wall in San Diego has reduced apprehensions by 92 percent; Exhibit B: the wall in Israel has effectively neutralized terrorist infiltration.
In a chapter called, “The Old Simplicity That Worked,” Hanson can’t help but notice that the vast majority of Mexicans he grew up with in the 1950s and 60s learned the language, assimilated into American culture, and achieved economic and social stability as policemen, tradesmen, school teachers, business owners, state employees, etc. Until 1970, in California, there were “unapologetically coarse efforts [that insisted] on assimilation” rooted in the politically incorrect premise that “the United States is a place far superior to Mexico.” (Emphasis Hanson.)
This premise was not based on racial superiority but the superiority of the American experiment manifested in “democracy, freedom, uncensored media, diversity in politics, religion and ethnicity, open markets, private property, a vibrant middle class, secular government, civic and judicial audit, and more…” Much of the assimilation happened in grammar school, where, Hanson says, “teachers with degrees from normal schools in Texas and Oklahoma knew far better the fundamental differences between a flourishing multiracial society and a failed and fractious multicultural quagmire than do our present Ph.D.s from Stanford and Berkeley.”
These teachers knew that the Mexican immigrant could and should retain a pride in the music, dance, art, literature, religion, and cuisine of his native land, but should also be wise enough to jettison many of the core political, economic, and social values of the country he left behind. Why else make great sacrifices to come to America in the first place?
Concerning the Mexican immigrant in the 1950s and 60s, Hanson writes: “…he was here to stay and become an American, not to go back and forth between the old and new country. He was to become one of us, not we one of him. He was here because he chose to be here, and so was required to learn about us, not we about him.”
The old approach reminds me of Milt Stark, one of my English teachers in high school. He was a dinosaur. Yes, he was a bit stern, and, for the first six weeks of his class, he taught grammar (eee-gads!).
There was no grade inflation and he expected critical thinking and writing skills commensurate with a student in the eleventh and twelfth grade.
There was nothing therapeutic, touchy-feely or politically correct about him. More than anyone else he prepared me for college.
Hanson admits that the old policy that worked was not perfect, a bit stern and needed some fine-tuning here and there. However, the outcomes were far superior to those resulting from the current approach characterized by white, liberal elites and the Chicano Studies departments of California’s universities since the 1970s, who emphasize ethnic pride and past and present racism against the Mexican and the Mexican-American.
While writing the book, Hanson looked at a list of classes from the University of California at Santa Barbara for the academic year 2001-2002. He found sixty-two classes were listed under “Chicano Studies” with an additional thirteen similar courses on Latino and Chicano issues in the history department.
The entire catalog had only one course on the Civil War and no classes on the Revolutionary War or World War II. Looking back through the empirical and pragmatic lenses, what has such an emphasis wrought?
Just as an emphasis on self-esteem and victimhood didn’t raise test scores in our public high schools, the same approach, prominent now for over four decades, has failed to dent the negative metrics in the Hispanic community concerning crime, high school drop-out rates, illegitimacy, and welfare dependency. John Adams was right: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
In looking at the issue of immigration policy through the prism of sentiment, it often seems like the Left emotes accordingly: “I feel compassion for the plight of the illegal alien; there has been a history of racism that continues to this day; I want open borders.” As far as the present outcry: yes, it is a bad idea to separate parents from children at the border, but where, pray tell, was the outcry when the Ninth Circuit handed down the decision and the Obama administration implemented it just a few years ago?
As someone who was born and raised in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, eighteen miles east of Los Angeles, I have my own feelings about the situation. I do feel compassion for the Indian native of rural Mexico who finds himself and his family in grinding poverty with no hope of the fat cat oligarchs in Mexico City reforming national policy so he can improve his lot.
If I found myself in a similar situation, I would probably also come to the US illegally. However, when millions of people do such a thing, you end up with Mexifornia.
Again, building a wall forces Mexico City to implement policies that will have long-term, salutary effects for both countries. Open borders may feel good in the short-term, but it doesn’t do much good down the line as Hanson has demonstrated.
What compassionate Catholics and other Christians can do in the meantime is give of their time, talent and treasure to the poor in Mexico. In giving to organizations like Food for the Poor, over 95 percent of your charitable gift reaches the person in need. A number of organizations build houses for the poor in Mexico.
Such efforts come tumbling short of the Left’s dreams of a multicultural utopia, but at least, for the most part, fulfill the Hippocratic Oath in addressing the ills of Mexifornia: do no harm.
Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He has written for Catholic Exchange and The Imaginative Conservative. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.