Mexifornia and the Prophetic Voice of Victor Davis Hanson

Classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s extended essay and memoir, Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, has aged well since it’s publication in 2003, when it was met with significant criticism from both the Left and the economic-libertarian Right, who, according to Hanson, accused him of being a racist, nativist, and isolationist. Its grave concerns, related to immigration policy in the United States, have proven to be prescient, and its prescriptions are as salutary now as the day the book was published.

Fifteen years ago, the book emerged as a cautionary tale in which the reader was warned that, if current immigration policy doesn’t change in the U.S., what will emerge is something that looks like many towns in central California: half Mexico, half America, and hurtling toward significant cultural and economic decline.

The essay’s prescriptions of, among other things, increased border security and a strong emphasis on assimilation for the non-citizen, now seem self-evident, especially in the light of recent data. Hans A. von Spakovsky and Grant Strobl summarize two unsettling reports from the Government Accountability Office released in 2005 and an updated report in 2011:

The first report (GAO-05-337R) found [in 2005] that criminal aliens (both legal and illegal) make up 27 percent of all federal prisoners. Yet according to the Center for Immigration Studies, non-citizens are only about nine percent of the nation’s adult population. Thus, judging by the numbers in federal prisons alone, non-citizens commit federal crimes at three times the rate of citizens.

 

The findings [also in 2005] in the second report (GAO-05-646R) are even more disturbing. This report looked at the criminal histories of 55,322 aliens that “entered the country illegally and were still illegally in the country at the time of their incarceration in federal or state prison or local jail during fiscal year 2003.” Those 55,322 illegal aliens had been arrested 459,614 times, an average of 8.3 arrests per illegal alien, and had committed almost 700,000 criminal offenses, an average of roughly 12.7 offenses per illegal alien.

Out of all of the arrests, 12 percent were for violent crimes such as murder, robbery, assault and sex-related crimes; 15 percent were for burglary, larceny, theft and property damage; 24 percent were for drug offenses; and the remaining offenses were for DUI, fraud, forgery, counterfeiting, weapons, immigration, and obstruction of justice.

The data in the updated 2011 report confirmed the two reports from 2005. Spakovsky and Strobl readily admit that these reports don’t give us an accurate number of crimes committed by illegal aliens but add, “If there were a way to include all crimes committed by criminal aliens, the numbers would likely be higher because prosecutors often will agree to drop criminal charges against an illegal alien if they are assured that immigration authorities will deport the alien.”

However one parses these statistics, the evidence supports Hanson’s original thesis, and what he has written elsewhere, about the need for border enforcement, reliable identification cards, employer sanctions and the general vision of measured, legal immigration that is followed by an intentional program of assimilation.

Because Hanson’s book is equal parts extended essay and memoir, it doesn’t fit in the category of data-driven, academic literature. However, it is not untethered subjectivism: enough statistics are furnished to buttress his thesis and give the reader a sense of “the facts on the ground.”

Statistics usually give us a window of insight into a particular issue but they don’t tell us the whole story. In your local newspaper, you can read the most recent statistics of the National Basketball Association (per game totals of the leading players: points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, and steals) but you’re not getting the complete picture until you watch the actual game.

For example, you may have a player whose contributions don’t really show up on the stat sheet, but he greatly helps his team by diving for loose balls, setting picks, and playing tough defense. You wouldn’t notice this unless you watched the actual game.

With Hanson’s memoir, you feel like you’re watching the actual game. Yes, he is a renowned classicist and military historian, but he is also a fifth-generation farmer from a hardscrabble Swedish lineage, who has lived in California’s Central Valley, the epicenter of the immigration upheaval, for over sixty years.

For the first six grades of his schooling, he found himself part of a tiny white minority amidst a Mexican and Mexican-American majority. Because of inter-marriage in his immediate and extended families, Hispanics are well-represented in his family tree.

After all these years of living near Selma, California, and working side-by-side with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on his small farm, he confesses that he feels he knows them better than so-called whites and adds that, because of habit and custom, he “…feel[s] more comfortable with the people I grew up with, a population of mostly Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and whites who were raised with non-whites.” All in all, it would not be an exaggeration to assert that Hanson understands the current Mexican immigrant experience better than a fêted essayist like Richard Rodriguez, a critic of Hanson, who lives in a tony “restored Victorian” neighborhood in San Francisco.

If Hanson’s essay is an edifice, one of its pillars is differentiating between Mexican immigration and other past immigrations to America. Defenders of the status quo often say, “Sure there’s some negative statistics related to first-generation Mexican immigrants, but remember the first-generation of Italian immigrants, who were demeaned as little more than criminals.”

The problem with this assertion, Hanson avers, are the alarming trends among second-generation Mexicans he cites vis-à-vis poverty, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, high school drop-out rates, and criminal activity. For example, illegitimacy rates are higher in Mexico than in the United States, but second-generation Mexican-Americans have higher rates than those found in either country.

One in three Mexican-American males aged 18-24 in California has reported being arrested with one in five actually being jailed. The Los Angeles Unified School District is 73 percent Hispanic with a graduation rate of 60 percent; and, among those who have graduated, only one in five will have completed a curriculum that qualifies for college enrollment. Many enter college having to take remedial courses.

Hanson claims that one of the major factors is proximity: a campesino (peasant farmer), who is often of Indian extraction from rural Mexico, can leave Los Angeles and be in Mexico in three hours. Other immigrants, for example, from places like the Philippines, China, Japan, Basque Spain, the Punjab, are completely cut off from the Old Country and are forced to learn the language, assimilate, and join the melting pot rather than have their assimilation stunted in some ethnic enclave.

The Rio Grande is easily crossed, and Hanson writes that the semi-regular back and forth journey between the two countries can “nourish enough nostalgia for Mexico to war with the creation of a truly American identity.” Mexifornia becomes a permanent state of mind with the campesino having one foot, emotionally and intellectually, in each country: as a result, even after twenty years, 8 out of 10 Mexican migrants never become naturalized citizens, and remain in enclaves separated from the economic, social, and educational bounties that other immigrants have come to enjoy.

Professors of ethnic studies often advance the idea that, like African-Americans, Mexicans were not able to make the transition that the Irish and Italians did because of racism against the darker-colored immigrant. Hanson, the historian, agrees that there has been a significant history of racism against Hispanics in the American Southwest, but believes that this is only a partial explanation of their disappointments.

How else, he asks, can we explain the relative success of jet-black Punjabis, who have become prominent in professions in central California (medicine, law, agribusiness, and academia) or that Asians have a per capita income higher than California whites? Indian-Americans are as “unwhite” as Mexicans and yet are the richest ethnic group in the United States, earning a median income of $100,547 in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Another factor that makes Mexican immigration different, Hanson cites, is the role of the Mexican government and its complex relationship to both the immigrant and the U.S. First, there’s the elephant in the room that goes against the major tenet of multiculturalism that all cultures are equal: since things are so bad there (Mexico), they, the legal and illegal alien, want to come here (America).

Hanson accurately points out “that Mexico has never really had a history of sustained legitimate government, and only recently has taken the first steps in creating a multi-party system with free elections, an independent judiciary, and an open media.” He adds that “Market capitalism, constitutional government, and the creation of a middle-class ethic will never fully come to Mexico as long as its potential critics [the immigrants coming to America] go north instead of marching for redress of grievances on the suited bureaucrats in Mexico City.”

The economics of the situation are simple: an unskilled laborer from a place like the Sierra Madre is fortunate to make $25 a week. In California he can make the equivalent of over $13 an hour (if he doesn’t pay taxes), often with ample overtime. In 2015, Mexico received 23.4 billion in oil revenues and 24.8 billion in remittances from their migrants working mostly in the U.S.: what motivation is there, pray tell, to make major structural changes in your own economy when you benefit so greatly from the status quo?

In looking at the project of building a wall, the relationship of the co-dependent wife and her alcoholic husband comes to mind. The act of building and finishing a wall along our southern border is the equivalent of the wife telling her husband: “No, I’m not calling your boss anymore and telling him that you have the flu when the truth is that you’re extremely hung-over.”

Building a wall means that the US stops enabling Mexico and forces them to live with the consequences of their choices. It’s interesting that Mexico City can go to great lengths to turn Baja California into coveted, beach-front real estate for well-heeled Americans seeking a second home, but it can’t make the needed changes to create better economic opportunities for it’s poor rural Indians.

And, as Charles Krauthammer notes, there’s a reason that people have been building walls for 5,000 years: they work and their effectiveness exposes the fatuous social justice bromide, “Build bridges not walls.” Exhibit A: the wall in San Diego has reduced apprehensions by 92 percent; the fence in Israel has effectively neutralized terrorist infiltration.

A forthcoming essay will explore how Hanson puts a human face on the immigration issue in chapters two and three of the book (“The Universe of the Illegal Alien” and “The Mind of the Host”) and surveys what policies and programs have succeeded and which ones have failed. Such chapters reveal the compassion of someone who knows the campesino like a brother and is grappling with what it means to “love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34).

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He has written for Catholic Exchange and The Imaginative Conservative. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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