I'm only the second generation of my family born in America, so I'll admit I'm a little sensitive about the current debate over immigration. One thing that really gets on my nerves is the idea that immigration threatens "our culture." America is nation of immigrants, so it is not bound by a cultural identity like many other states. The assertion that America has a cultural identity and that this identity can be subverted by demographic change feels almost racist to me.
Apparently, I'm not the only one. Former Bush administration speech writer Michael Gerson wrote a wonderful op-ed in today's Post about how this attitude may hurt the Republican Party's future:
In 1882, Congress passed and President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Today we don't name laws as bluntly as we used to. But anti-immigrant sentiments are very much alive, this time expressed in opposition to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007.
For a certain kind of conservative, any attempt to grant a legal status to illegal immigrants is as welcome as salsa on their apple pie. One conservative commentator claims that the law is "going to erase America" -- an ambition even beyond Ted Kennedy's considerable powers. Another laments that "white America is in flight" -- and presumably not just to Jackson Hole or Nantucket for the summer.
But the real passion in this debate is not political, it is cultural -- a fear that American identity is being diluted by Latino migration. Tancredo is the lowbrow expression of this fear. Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, whom Tancredo calls an intellectual mentor, presents the highbrow version. Huntington argues that Mexican migration is a threat to American unity and to the "core" of our cultural identity. "America," he says, "was created as a Protestant society just as and for some of the same reasons Pakistan and Israel were created as Muslim and Jewish societies in the 20th century."
Yet these are precisely the people that Tancredo Republicans are alienating. Not all Hispanics view immigration favorably, but 100 percent resent being targets of suspicion. When I talked this week with the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., a prominent Hispanic evangelical, he said of congressional Republicans: "This is a party closing its door to us, hijacked by extremists."
"All I hear," he told me, "from conservative leaders I work with, very socially conservative people, is, 'I can't continue to vote for a party that is exposing threads of bigotry and racism.' " Conservatives need to be reminded that Latinos -- Protestant and Catholic -- are, in some ways, different from the mainstream culture. Higher percentages attend church regularly. Higher percentages of Latino immigrants are married; lower percentages are divorced. "The elephant in the room," says Rodriguez, "is the Latinoization of America. What are the results? America will be a more religious nation. America will continue to be a nation that promotes family values. Wow, that really turns American culture upside down."
I'm extremely suspicious of nativism and populism, so I would have probably voted Republican in a different era. Not today though. Democrats may have a propensity for dovishness, populism and protectionism, but you can at least haggle with them over policy.
Republicans, meanwhile, have taken a page from the Confucian obsession with virtuous leadership: "To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it." Sound familiar?