Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 10); Immigration and the Host Culture: Two Sources of Rejection

Those who know that they stand to benefit by immigration in the forms of cheaper goods and more affordable services may still oppose immigration on broad cultural grounds. Many think the nation is endangered by immigration and that the state should actively protect he nation even if immigration is economically advantageous. This idea is about coterminous with traditional xenophobia, usually perceived in English as a sort of neurosis. Nevertheless, it may also be well reasoned. It’s useful to separate cultural objections to immigration into two categories. There are objections based on revulsion and others based on the fear of cultural dilution.

Cultural Revulsion

Cultural revulsion toward immigrants is part of general anxiety about strangers that may be hard-wired in all humans: Babies do dislike most new faces. Once, the strangers prove harmless, the revulsion may dissipate quickly. Sometimes though cultural revulsion centers on tangible issues, including the immigrants’ own well articulated beliefs and customs. That’s especially true where culture intersects with the political system or with the moral order of the host country. Two examples. First, separation of church and state, of religion and government, is a pillar of American democracy (and of several other democratic countries, such as France). It’s a guarantee against a form of despotism historically familiar to people of European background. (The founding Pilgrims saw themselves as refugees from religious persecution, after all.) The separation acts like a firewall protecting us from old horrors still fresh in the collective memories of literate Euro-Americans. It was not so long ago that my own ancestors were burning people alive for wrong thinking, I know. (Not that I am not tempted today.)

So, other things being equal, I would rather not be surrounded by people for whom this customary belief is alien or indifferent. Other things being still equal, I would be slow to admit immigrants from a religious culture where this separation is itself religious anathema. Many Muslim immigrants come from countries where the lawful punishment on the books for apostasy is the death penalty, administered by the state, of course, by government. I realize it’s rarely applied but it’s on the books and it probably slows down the impulse to look out of the window of one’s own religion.  In some of those countries, atheism is considered apostasy. This kind of attitude may be both widespread and tenacious. I will never forget a street demonstration of Pakistani attorneys shown on TV protesting the fact that apostasy was not punished by death in their country. The same happened ten years later in Bangladesh.

Even those secular immigrants from Muslim areas who deplore the fact that apostasy is a capital crime in their country of origin probably still have a sense of  moral normalcy that differs much from mine. I suspect they would go easy on milder forms of government interference in the religious sphere, and vice-versa. I fear that they would not rise against certain abnormalities, government punishment of particular religious or irreligious stances, for example, as fast as I would, and others who come from a secular society. As a case in point, I take the public declarations of major French Muslim organizations following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. To my mind, mixed with sincere expressions of regret, was the suggestion they favored religious exceptions to the constitutional French principle of freedom of expression.

At a minimum, I am concerned that even nominal foreign Muslims would be a drag in a fix, or in some fixes. Frankly, I mean that I would expect from them on the average a degree of social obscurantism not compatible with their level of education. Thus, the professor and television personality Tarik Ramadan, an elegant and articulate man of culture, was the face of intellectual Islam in the French speaking world until recently. When confronted by a French journalist not long ago, however, Ramadan famously weaseled out of condemning the stoning of adulterous women. (I saw the relevant video.) It’s hard to make him my trusted neighbor although I am sure he would do the right thing if my house were on fire.

Here is my second example of cultural revulsion toward immigrants, an apolitical and non-religious example: In a wide swath of Africa, little girls are routinely subjected to a painful, grotesque and dangerous form of genital mutilation misleadingly called “female circumcisions.” (One of my sources of information is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoirs, Infidel. I have read others over the past fifty years. Ali reports that she was subjected to this atrocity herself. I have known personally two victims of the practice.) Like many other Americans, I think there is a point where peaceful coexistence with routinely committed crime becomes complicity with the same crime. I don’t want to live anywhere near people who practice this custom. Even those from the same groups who do not practice it but tolerate it in the name of tradition are unacceptable to me. (Incidentally, it is not a Muslim custom although many practitioners believe it is.) I don’t even want such people to exist undisturbed in the polity to which I belong. For this reason, I would rather have in my neighborhood 5,000 new illegal Mexican immigrants than one hundred Somali admitted legally. My preference based on revulsion illustrates how there are concrete different cultural reasons to oppose immigration not rooted in blind, ignorant “prejudice” or “pre-judgment.” But overt public discussions are often limited to the feared cultural dilution large immigration may cause that I consider below.

Under current conditions of political correctness, where a religious test may be unthinkable, my objections regarding the separation of  religion and government would lead, of course,  to the easiest solution, the exclusion of most Muslim immigrants. President Trump tried this on a small scale in 2017 and 2018, with a small minority of potential immigrants. The decision was first frozen in the courts and then thawed. As I write, it’s not being implemented. Exclusion is an extreme solution and probably not necessary. I think I could devise a test about separation of religion and government if I were asked. The test would be given to anyone without exception seeking to emigrate to the US. It’s far from a ridiculous proposition. When I first came to this country there was a test to spot Communists. However effective it was in such spotting, it kept many European Communists out, from prudence. I knew some personally.

Culture Dilution (or Erosion)

There is also the fear without a name, or without much of a name, that lurks in the background of many animated discussions of immigration. Much of it is taking place on-line. It’s the fear that one will find oneself a stranger in one’s own land and, ultimately, that one will disappear to some extent, and one’s children to a larger extent. It’s the fear that one’s children’s children will exist as one’s descendants in the flesh alone. This fear is puzzling because it’s always true that children are unlike their parents. It’s difficult to figure why people are so attached to their collective vertical membership, to that identity. (The Lebanese author, Amin Maalouf, explores this issue poignantly in his 1998 Violence and the Need to Belong -Time Warner – English edition: 2001) It’s difficult to fathom why parents wish their children to be like them although they, the children, will surely live in a different world. It’s even more difficult to understand why, at a given time, people choose, put forward, one of their memberships, that one, over the several others available. Why, “American” rather than say, “college professor”? Why “mother” rather than “vegan yoga practitioner”? (The April 2018 issue of National Geographic addresses tangentially some issues of identity.)

This apparent amorphousness of the underlying belief does not mean that identity matters little. Perhaps, the reverse is true. As I pointed out, it’s at the center of the concept of nation. Emotion-based reactions may be all the stronger because people don’t know what they are thinking, only what they are feeling. That’s one reason the concept of “nation” and associated symbols give rise to intense discussions. Many realize that their knowledge of their own country is spotty but they know what they feel when the national anthem is played. Curiously, of all the collective identities available, the national identity is one of the most heavily invoked, by Americans, certainly, but also by Bosnians, and possibly, even by Haitians. It seems to rise instantaneously in the presence of the culturally different. It matters so much that people kill and die for it. It also motivates them to play good soccer (“football”) as the splendid team from tiny Croatia demonstrated in the 2018 World Cup. (It came in second, after France.)

Once, I wrote a scholarly article and traveled half-way around the world to deliver it at an academic meeting, mostly for the pleasure of reading aloud the Greek title I had devised for it:


It’s the fear that that which is inside your head will be stolen, that which makes you a member of your group, so that you will cease being yourself. No doubt, it’s real enough to deserve its own name. The presence of many immigrants bearing a different culture activates this fear.

The fear of cultural dilution is not necessarily all futile. The mere presence of immigrants often actually waters down perceptibly the host culture including, first in some haphazard ways and then, in its most valued features: That which was important still is important but less so. New and different facts of life crowd out the old. Suddenly, your diner coffee, heated for hours on end, tastes just as bitter as it always did but now, you realize it. Several of the local AM radio channels play only rancheras during your commute instead of news in English. Soccer partially replaces football. The girls who used to stand on the sidelines and cheer football players now play soccer themselves. Your own children may grow up playing only soccer. They accuse one another of being “offside” when they score that goal but they don’t mean what you think they mean. Your world is still there but it’s become a bit faint; its vivid colors are turning toward black and white. Baseball will still be played but its big events will have to compete for television time with God knows what, not activities you condemn necessarily, but activities that don’t ring a bell for you, Norwegian curling, for example.

Not everything is negative in involuntary culture change. I have mentioned elsewhere how immigrants will enrich the national culture, in matters of food and of music, most obviously, and even with respect to manners. A large influx of immigrants in one’s native culture is like a forced journey in place though. Some people like to travel; others just hate it and there is probably no remedy for the latter’s rejection. To accommodate them, probably – probably – requires that immigrants be admitted slowly, in small numbers at a time. Below, I consider in a limited way actual hostility toward immigrants.

Note: I may not be the right person to gauge attachment to the culture one grew up with. Like many an immigrant, I may be more indifferent to it than most. Those who love the culture of their mother country usually don’t leave and, if they do, they return. I am the other kind of immigrant although, frankly, I often miss tête de veau sauce ravigotte. (Don’t ask!)

Appendix Two

Gains from Cultural Hybridization

Here is a sort of immigration fairy tale: In my town of Santa Cruz, California, a long time ago, landed separately two musicians from Morocco, one from the mountains and one from the gates of the desert. How these two musicians arrived here specifically, I am not sure. I sort of know how each got his green card; it may have been the old fashioned, honorable way, on their backs, so to speak.

Both were very well trained on several instruments in their traditional music, the music of the Amazigh minority to which they both belong (also known as “Berbers,” a name they don’t like.) They sing and compose in their native language, Tamazight, but also in English, in French, and in Arabic. They formed a tiny band. They played in the streets, in cafes, anyplace that would have them. Soon, they felt their duo-plus format was too constraining. One by one, they recruited local musicians with different skills and no training at all in Moroccan music, or in anything approximating it. The music they played changed, of course, it changed gradually in particular under the influence of the Western recruits. It became somewhat “inauthentic,” as the busybodies would say. After fifteen years, the group had the nerve to enter music festivals in Morocco itself. In 2015 or 2016 the group won a national award in that country. The group is called “Aza,” which means “Renaissance” in their language. (Please, buy their album on-line.)

The point of this story is that those two immigrants enriched in obvious ways, not only American culture, but world culture, if there is such a thing. They invented a new sound, a sound no one in the world had ever heard. It’s also a sound that may never have come into existence without them. This story makes me proud as an American. I want more such invention.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 9]