Like Good Americans


San Francisco -- Oops! How embarrassing it is for California's Gov. Pete Wilson to stumble across not only the fact that he had an undocumented immigrant working for him during his previous marriage but also that he and his ex-wife failed to pay Social Security taxes for her.

Since they hardly were the only household to commit this crime, it would not be nearly as embarrassing had Mr. Wilson not made the fight against illegal immigration a key issue of his governorship and his fledgling presidential campaign.

Frankly, I thought this sort of "nannygate" disclosure was a bum issue when it sent President Clinton's nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general into the tank, and I think it is a bum issue now. But I cannot help but be amused at how piquantly the governor's little embarrassment symbolizes the perennial and perpetual contradictions in the way immigration is viewed by otherwise good, patriotic citizens of this land built by immigrants.

Mr. Wilson and his former wife could have hired a legal, documented worker, but they would have had to spend more time searching and pay a lot more money for the labor. Those who denounce immigrants for the tax dollars they spend, conveniently leave out the tax dollars they pay, as well as the costs they save consumers for various services.

Let's face it: Immigration, as an issue, is not about immigrants. It is a measure of the public state of mind at any given time and its sense of economic security. When the national economy is doing well, we throw open the doors. When it turns sour, we turn nativist. California took just such an attitudinal turn after the post-Cold War loss of defense-related jobs a few years ago.

Americans get very emotional about immigrants. Generous amounts of scientific studies can back either side of the argument. But most people don't need scientific studies. Most people sound more like a suburban Washington businessman I met at a dinner party who said today's immigrants don't want to learn English and become "good Americans." After I had laid on perhaps a bit too heavy a layer of rebuttals to his popular nativist myths, he remained unmoved. "I know what I see," he said.

And that's that. People know what they see in issues like immigration. They are not about to let much truth get in the way of it.

"The tendency of the casual mind," the great columnist Walter Lippman once wrote, "is to pick out or stumble upon a sample which supports or defies its prejudices, and then to make it the representative of a whole class."

It is just such a casual mind that has produced what is, to my mind, a guaranteed hot-seller on the anti-immigrant front, a new book called "Alien Nation," by Peter Brimelow, a British-born naturalized citizen and senior editor at Forbes and National Review.

In keeping with a great American immigrant tradition, Mr. Brimelow wants to slam the door, now that he and his family have gotten in.

To frighten the rest of us into doing it, he cites the usual array of statistics of how much immigrants cost us in social services, then minimizes what they contribute, financially and otherwise. Instead, he cites abuses of social services by some immigrants, as if abuse is not a problem no matter who commits it. But, rather than suggest mere reform, he wants to go much further.

Mr. Brimelow gives his prejudices away full force when he writes of the "ethnic and racial transformation" of America and the diluting of its rich European heritage of which, as it happens, Mr. Brimelow the Briton, happens to be a natural-born product.

After citing the salient fact that the legions of immigrants who have poured in since the 1965 Immigration Act have been more nonwhite than European, Mr. Brimelow then raises doubts that non-Europeans are capable of melting into the melting pot.

Is he right to worry? Perhaps he might be soothed by our nation's rapidly rising intermarriage rate between whites and nonwhites. Marriages between Japanese-Americans and members of other racial groups now outnumber marriages between Japanese-Americans and other Japanese-Americans. The so-called "melting pot" still works.

Or I would call to his attention one Colin Powell. Had General Powell's Jamaica-born parents decided to go to England, instead of the Bronx, where he grew up, he quite likely would have risen, at best, to the rank of sergeant major as a black man in the queen's army.

Instead, he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and tops everyone's list of presidential favorites, no matter what ethnic or political background.

Maybe immigrant families like General Powell's are not European enough to soothe Mr. Brimelow's anxieties, but the great thing about America is its willingness to give them a chance anyway. Mr. Brimelow should, too, if he wants to be a good American.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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