THE WASHINGTON POST
June 17, 2005
One of the reasons for the success we've enjoyed in Afghanistan is that our
viceroy — pardon me, ambassador — there, who
saw the country through the founding of a democratic government, was not just
a serious thinker and a skilled diplomat, but also spoke the language and
understood the culture. Why? Because Zalmay Khalilzad is an Afghan-born
It is not every country that can send to obscure faraway places envoys who
are themselves children of that culture. Indeed, Americans are the only people
that can do that for practically every country.
Being mankind's first-ever universal nation, to use Ben Wattenberg's felicitous
phrase for our highly integrated polyglot country, carries enormous advantage.
In the shrunken global world of the information age, we have significant
populations of every ethnicity capable of making instant and deep connections —
economic as well as diplomatic with just about every foreign trouble spot,
hothouse and economic dynamo on the planet.
It is true that other countries, particularly in Europe, have in the last
several decades opened themselves up to immigration. But the real problem is
not immigration but assimilation. Anyone can do immigration. But if you don't
assimilate the immigrants — France, for example, has vast isolated exurban
immigrant slums with populations totally alienated from the polity and the
general culture — then immigration becomes not an asset but a liability.
America's genius has always been assimilation, taking immigrants and turning
them into Americans. Yet our current debates on immigration focus on only one
side of the issue — the massive waves of illegal immigrants that we seem unable
The various plans, all well-intentioned, have an air of hopelessness about them.
Amnesty of some sort seems reasonable because there is no way we're going to
expel 10 million-plus illegal immigrants, and we might as well make their lives
But that will not stop further illegal immigration. In fact, it will encourage
it because every amnesty — and we have them periodically — tells potential
illegals still in Mexico and elsewhere that if they persist long enough, they
will get in, and if they stay here long enough, they can cut to the head of the
In the end, increased law enforcement, guest-worker programs and other
incentives that encourage some of the illegals to go back home can only go so
far. Which is why we should be devoting far more attention to the other half of
the problem — not just how many come in but what happens to them once they're
The anti-immigrant types argue that there is something unique about our mostly
Latin immigration that makes it unassimilable. First, that there's simply too
much of it to be digested. But in fact, the percentage of foreign-born people
living in America today is significantly below what it was in 1890 and 1910 —
and those were spectacularly successful immigrations. And second, there is
nothing about the Catholic-Hispanic culture that makes it any more difficult to
assimilate than the Czechs and Hungarians, Chinese and Koreans, who came decades
The key to assimilation of course, is language. The real threat to the United
States is not immigration per se, but bilingualism and, ultimately,
biculturalism. Having grown up in Canada, where a language divide is a source
of friction and fracture, I can only wonder at those who want to duplicate that
plague in the United States.
The good news, and the reason I am less panicked about illegal immigration than
most, is that the vogue for bilingual education is now waning. It has been
abolished by referendum in California, Arizona and even Massachusetts.
As the results in California have shown, it was a disaster for Hispanic
children. It delays assimilation by perhaps a full generation. Those in "English
immersion" have more than twice the rate of English proficiency of those in the
old "bilingual" system.
By all means we should try to control immigration. Nonetheless, given our
geography, our tolerant culture and the magnetic attraction of our economy,
illegals will always be with us. Our first task, therefore, should be
abolishing bilingual education everywhere, and requiring that our citizenship
tests have strict standards for English language and American civics.
The cure for excessive immigration is successful assimilation. The way to
prevent European-like immigration catastrophes is to turn every immigrant — and
most surely his children — into an American. Who might one day grow up to be our
next Zalmay Khalilzad.