Immigration and E Pluribus Unum

Being pro-immigrant means preserving both our

You don’t have to be Pat Buchanan’s gin partner to admit that Weatherhead University Professor Samuel P. Huntington has offered a worthwhile contribution to our public discourse on immigration and Americanism. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. Okay, I realize that may have caused a fair number of readers to spray their Froot Loops or orange juice all over the page—so let me explain.

Huntington’s recent Foreign Policy article has prompted a visceral reaction among many Harvard students and instructors. His piece has been called, among other things, xenophobic. Such apprehension is understandable given the hyperbolic scapegoating of immigrants throughout history. It is understandable given the emergence of nativism and discrimination during other periods of large-scale immigration to the United States: whether from Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s; from China in the 1860s and 1870s; or from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century.

That being said, Huntington’s arguments, while surely controversial, are not at all xenophobic, though the Foreign Policy cover byline certainly doesn’t help dispel this notion. It reads: “Samuel Huntington on how Hispanic immigrants threaten America’s identity, values, and way of life.” This is misleading. It should instead read: “Samuel Huntington on how large numbers of unassimilated Hispanic immigrants who profess dual nationalities and thus dual loyalties to Mexico and the U.S. threaten America’s identity, values, and way of life.”

A confluence of factors, Huntington writes, makes contemporary Mexican immigration fundamentally different from past immigration. If allowed to continue at its current levels, and without improved assimilation, he argues, Mexican immigration threatens to create a “bilingual and bicultural” America with a massive ethnic bloc that does not “identify primarily with the United States.”

To be sure, Huntington’s thesis is not unassailable. He is, in my view, unduly pessimistic about the capacity of the melting pot to work for Mexican immigrants. There seems little historical or social-scientific merit to his contention that intrinsic “Mexican values” retard their assimilation. This argument is disturbingly reminiscent of the “Asian values” shibboleth that was used to justify authoritarian dictatorships in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. It’s obvious why Mexican-Americans would find it wholly offensive.


Huntington’s unfortunate “Mexican values” claim has heretofore obscured the more important question broached by his article. Namely: What are the cultural preconditions of American nationhood? As Huntington indicates, a seminal public debate of our time is the confrontation between traditional notions of Americanism and the dogmatic multiculturalism that exists in so many of our schools and public institutions.

The immigration question is inseparable from any such debate about American identity. It is a frequent (and annoying) conceit of pro–immigration liberalism that pro–immigration conservatism is an oxymoron. Such conservatives support an agenda that serves the long-term interests both of immigrants themselves and of a cohesive Americanism. They believe a program that is at once vigorously pro–immigrant and unashamedly pro–assimilation makes for a stronger America.

However, if assimilation is not taking place at a fast enough rate, then prudence and principle alike dictate a more restrictionist policy. As Huntington convincingly shows, that is the situation we face today vis-à-vis Mexican immigration. He quotes former National Intelligence Council Vice Chairman Graham Fuller, who says of the Mexican-dominated regions of the American Southwest, “We may be building toward the one thing that will choke the melting pot, an ethnic area and grouping so concentrated that it will not wish, or need, to undergo assimilation into the mainstream of American multi-ethnic English-speaking life.”

Moreover, as historian Michael Barone trenchantly observes, “The American elite of a century ago … championed the cause of Americanization and promoted assimilation of immigrants into the mainstream.” The same cannot be said of most American cultural elites in 2004. One need look no further than their unrepentant support for bilingual education. It is now clear to all but the fiercest ideologues that bilingual education has hindered Latinos’ upward mobility. But those who dare question its effect on immigrant families are continually smeared as racists.

In 1994, Al Gore famously mistranslated our national motto, E pluribus unum, as “out of one, many.” Lamentably, the balkanization implied by Gore’s mistranslation could eventually come to pass if we don’t rediscover the assimilationist, melting pot ideal. Acceptance of that ideal presupposes a faith in the basic virtues of American life and the essential decency of the American people. If Huntington’s forthcoming book, Who Are We?, helps reinvigorate that faith among our cultural elites, he will have performed a valuable service indeed.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.