Mr. Huntington's Nightmare

Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity
By Samuel P. Huntington • Simon & Schuster • 408 pages • $27.00

Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist and author of The Clash of Civilizations, argues in his new book that America (he calls the United States “America” throughout) cannot continue to open itself to other peoples and retain its essential character unless Americans “recommit themselves to Anglo-Protestant culture and values … that have been the source of their unity, power, prosperity, and morality as a force for good in the world.” The scale and persistence of Latino immigration, in Huntington's view, now put American unity into special jeopardy because the new immigrants arrive in a country that celebrates and even reinforces ethnic identities. Huntington particularly worries that Mexican immigrants, concentrated in the Southwest, will effectively reconquer the territory that the United States took from Mexico in the 19th century. He does not ask that these and other new immigrants become Protestants, only that they and their children acquire Anglo-Protestant individualistic values, speak English, and abandon their loyalties to their homelands in favor of the United States.

Although the focus on Latinos is new, Huntington's fears echo those expressed by Anglo-Protestants in the past about Irish Catholic, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and many other immigrants. Most American historians would agree that Anglo-Protestant values have a great deal to do with the origins of American national identity. Taking cues from John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Gunnar Myrdal, they have seen Anglo-Protestantism transmogrified into a robust civic culture to which the vast majority of the children of immigrants acculturate even as they hold on to their non-Protestant ancestral religious traditions.

But Huntington does not think that will happen this time without a vigorous national Protestant revival. America's civic principles, he contends, will not be strong enough to prevent the emergence of a second culture and separate nationality among Latino immigrants. The history of nations instructs us on that point, according to Huntington. Race, language, religion -- these, not mere political principles, are the stuff of nationhood.

Huntington's analysis differs sharply from the conclusions reached by the two federal commissions that during the past quarter-century have examined the Americanization of newcomers: the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (1978–81), headed by Theodore Hesburgh, and the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (1990–97), headed by Barbara Jordan. (I served as executive director of the first and vice chair of the second.) Americanization is realizable for newcomers, the Jordan commission concluded, “without regard to race, ethnicity, or religion.” Unlike Huntington, the commissions drew a sharp distinction between lawfully admitted immigrants and illegal aliens. Problems with English-language acquisition, for example, are much greater for sojourner illegal aliens than they are for Mexican immigrants who settle in American cities and towns and send their children to schools. But for Huntington, Mexican immigrants are a problem whether or not they have come to the United States legally.

In fact, there is no evidence to believe that Mexican and Central American immigrants and their descendants will maintain their political attachments to their ancestral homelands. Recent Mexican American history is reassuring on this point. There was a burst of interest in a Mexican-American “Quebecois” movement in the 1960s and '70s, but it has virtually disappeared as Mexican Americans have become more integrated into American politics. Thirty years ago, the Brown Berets and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance for Land Grants) made noises about political and cultural separatism. That the separatist movement has dissolved in the face of the large Mexican immigration of the 1980s and '90s has nothing to do with the growth of evangelical Protestantism. It does have to do, though, with the strength of traditional, mainstream civil-rights and other advocacy groups based on participation in the American political system.

Organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) have thrived using the rhetoric and methods of American civic traditions, based on individual rights. Antonia Hernandez, whose U.S. citizen father had been deported to Mexico in the 1930s during the expulsion of many Mexican Americans caught up in the sweep of illegal aliens, testified upon accepting the position of president and general counsel of MALDEF, “I had a lump in my throat when I took the oath of U.S. citizenship … . Because I wasn't born into the opportunities that this country has to offer, I don't take the rights and privileges for granted.”

An analogy between Quebec and the hypothetical Mexican American separatist movement does not hold up. The French Canadians of Quebec have not simply been pro-French language, but anti-English. But while Mexican American leaders have sometimes raised the preservation of language as a rallying cry for ethnic mobilization, they have not done so in opposition to the acquisition of English. Mexico lost more than half of its national territory to the United States after the Texas insurrection and the Mexican War, but Mexican Americans have no historic memory comparable to the French Canadian memory of the loss that followed the defeat of French armies by the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1763. In Quebec, the Catholic Church nursed that grievance and promoted French separatism. In contrast, the Church in the American Southwest called for the integration of Mexican immigrants and their descendants through instruction and preparation for citizenship, classes in English, and youth activities such as those promoted by the Catholic Youth Organization.

One of the most important reasons for the absence of a separatist movement in the United States is the difference between America's and Canada's founding myths. For Canada, the central myth is based on the idea of two nations forming a federal union -- each with separate cultures, languages, and religions; each nation a founding or charter member, and the cultures separate but equal. The implicit contract at the heart of the confederation guaranteed to the Catholic Church within Quebec its control of a regionally concentrated, French-speaking Catholic population. The founding myth of the United States as a home for all who seek individual freedom and opportunity -- regardless of ancestral nationality, race, or religious denomination -- has so far been working for Latin Americans much as it has for other immigrant groups.

Contemporary Mexican and Central American immigrants, especially those who enter the United States illegally, present special problems in adapting to American society. Compared with south Asian and (recent) African immigrants, they have relatively low educational and skill levels that retard their mobility. And because many continue to be sojourners rather than settlers in the United States, they are relatively slow in acquiring English. The concentration of Mexican immigrants in the Southwest -- somewhat exaggerated by Huntington -- also slows their acculturation. But their children born in the United States learn English, participate in civic organizations, and volunteer in disproportionate numbers for the armed services. Like other immigrants, they dream of freedom and success in the United States.

Huntington refers to Lionel Sosa's The Americano Dream, a book of advice to Hispanic entrepreneurs. According to Sosa, the “Americano dream … exists, it is realistic, and it is all there for all of us to share.” But Huntington declares, “There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and that society only if they dream in English.”

Actually, most of the grandchildren of Latino immigrants could not dream in Spanish even if they wanted to. But the more serious difficulty here is Huntington's persistent confusion of cultural differences with a failure to adopt American values. Most Mexican Americans find it highly desirable to live by such principles as due process of law, equal protection of the laws, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, and a system of government limited by checks and balances and separation of powers. Many are willing to fight and even die for such a system. Perhaps Huntington does not know the story of Sergeant Jimmy Lopez, one of the Americans held hostage by Iran in 1980, who wrote on the wall of the room where he was imprisoned, “Viva la roja, blanco, y azul!” (“Long live the red, white, and blue!”). Lopez was no less of an American for writing those sentiments in Spanish.

Lawrence H. Fuchs is a professor emeritus of American civilization and politics at Brandeis University and the author of The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture.