»  National Review Online

May 28th, 2002

  The Great Attractor


Our Sun is one of a hundred billion or so stars making up the Milky Way galaxy. This galaxy, in turn, is one of 30 or so making up what is called "the Local Group" of galaxies; and the Local Group is merely an outlying member of a much bigger conglomeration named the "Virgo Supercluster," composed of thousands of galaxies. Around 20 years ago astronomers discovered that this entire assemblage, in all its unimaginable vastness, was being pulled through space at around 1.3 million miles per hour in the direction of some object 200 million light years away in the southern-hemisphere constellation Hydra.

Astronomers thereupon dubbed that object "the Great Attractor." Its precise nature is the topic of some debate. It can't be well seen because of obscuring interstellar dust in our line of sight. What can be detected non-optically doesn't seem massive enough to exert the stupendous gravitational pull required. There is some talk of "dark matter" making up the difference, but this creepy-sounding substance seems to be controversial. When I recently got an email from a reader who is actually a professor of astronomy, I asked him: "Where is this 'dark matter' your colleagues talk about so much?" He replied: "Inside their heads, mostly …"

Meanwhile, down here in the sublunary sphere, there is a different sort of Great Attractor: the United States of America. Everybody wants to come to America — had you noticed? And even people who do not actually want to live here are making sure their children have the right to do so. A story in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday revealed that every year around 5,000 South Korean women come to the U.S. on tourist visas simply and deliberately for the purpose of giving birth to a child here. That child is then, under the current (and, as a matter of fact, highly debatable) interpretation of the 14th Amendment, a U.S. citizen.

There are many reasons why South Koreans want to do this. They want their kids to come to school in the States, to spare them the oppressive and intensive Korean educational system. They want their sons, when older, to evade that nation's compulsory military service. They fear another war with the North. And they want the child to be an "anchor baby" — that is, they want the child, when old enough (21 under current U.S. law), to sponsor them and their relatives for immigration.

These South Korean "obstetric tourists" are merely the tip of an iceberg. Hong Kong and Taiwanese women do the same thing; and you may be sure that mainland China will not be far behind the trend. (When Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. in 1979, Jimmy Carter urged him to permit free emigration from communist China. Deng smiled sweetly back at the president and said: "How many of our people would you like? Twenty million? A hundred million?") And, of course, there is no need to go to the trouble of doing it all openly: thousands of babies are born every year to illegal immigrants. Every one of them is a U.S. citizen.

Americans pay little attention to their country's immigration laws and policies. Immigration-law reform does not figure highly on those lists of "major concerns" that Americans register when polled — far behind favorites like "education," "affordable health care," "crime" and so on. Most Americans, if you asked them a question about U.S. immigration law, would give you a wrong answer. Since acquiring my own citizenship last month, I have grown weary of people who, after congratulating me, add: "Now you'll have to pay U.S. taxes! See how you like it!" (As a U.S. resident, first on an "H" visa, then on a Green Card, I have been paying U.S. federal, state and local income taxes, and F.I.C.A., since 1985, as the law requires.)

Meanwhile, out in the rest of the world, U.S. immigration law is studied with great intensity by hundreds of millions of people. Do you know the difference between a "J" visa and an "L" visa? My mainland-Chinese relatives all do, even the teenagers. (Especially the teenagers.) In Bombay, Beijing, Bangkok, Buenos Aires and other cities all over the world, there are small industries, employing tens of thousands of people, whose sole product is advice on gaming the U.S. immigration system. These people know U.S. immigration law and practice far better than ordinary Americans do — far better, probably, than most I.N.S. or U.S.-consular staff. They know other stuff, too: like, for example, which U.S. officials can be bribed. These things are their lifetime's study, their obsession and their daily bread.

(Right here, in the middle of writing this piece, I took the Sunday-afternoon phone call from my brother in England. In among the talk about family affairs, house prices and summer-vacation plans, my sister-in-law suddenly dropped this: "Oh, by the way, our next-door neighbor wanted me to ask you about getting a U.S. working visa. How long does it take, normally? …")

The status of this country as the Great Attractor is a new thing in the world. There have of course been "top dog" nations before, but none of them had this particular worry. During its 500 years of existence, the Roman Empire had plenty of troubles on its borders, but until the very last years those troubles were more a question of raiding parties intent on a quick spell of plunder, followed by a return to their own forests and deserts, than of people wanting to settle. For most of the empire's existence, there were no large numbers of Persians, Germans, Scots or Scythians trying to sneak in to enjoy the peaceful benefits of citizenship. Likewise in the high summer of the British Empire, there were not thousands of Indians, Egyptians and Africans storming across the English Channel to savor the delights of living in Queen Victoria's damp, smoky little island.

Nowadays we have modern communications that bring images of our standard of living into the hut of every Mongolian yak-herder and Indonesian rice farmer, and we have modern means of transportation to melt away the distances involved. We have other things, too: the swelling populations and shrinking resources of the Third World, the corruption and insecurity in nations where modernization was applied as a coat of bright paint on corroded metal and rotten wood, the failure of utopian socialism and of all the high hopes of post-colonial independence. Over large parts of the world's surface, life simply isn't worth living, and people have lost all faith in the ability of their own countrymen to govern them fairly and let them enjoy freedom. They peer across the oceans hungrily in search of something better.

People everywhere, even the most illiterate subsistence farmers, have a clear idea in their minds of the desirability of different countries. Most desirable is America. Slightly below that is the rest of the Anglosphere — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Some way behind come Japan and the west European countries, where life is tolerably good, though without the free-wheeling liberties of the Anglosphere. And behind that comes … everywhere else: the loser nations, the garbage-dump nations like Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, Bangladesh, with their corruption and injustice, their gross inequalities and stifling bureaucracies, their crony capitalism and environmental degradation.

Americans simply have not adjusted to this new state of affairs. Most certainly the U.S. Congress has not. Years go by with no significant immigration reform. Did I say "years"? Decades have in fact gone by: the immigration regime of today is in all essentials (there has been some tinkering at the margins) the one established by the 1965 Act. No serious reform seems to be contemplated. If you try to get an immigration conversation going among educated Americans, set a stopwatch as you start. Before two minutes have elapsed, someone will have called you a "racist."

There are, I believe, some noble impulses underlying American indifference to these issues. The core value of American culture is liberty — the freedom to do as I please, without interference from the authorities (unless, of course, what I please is obviously anti-social). Well, among the liberties we cherish, is not liberty of movement one? If it pleases a person to leave his country and come to America to improve his life, should we not applaud and encourage that? You hear this kind of thing all the time, usually spoken quite sincerely, from immigration enthusiasts. Has our nation not been improved by hard-working immigrants throughout her history?

Well, yes, she largely has. The world changes, however, and sometimes the mere passage of time turns things into their opposites. A hundred years ago the right to immigrate into this country could plausibly be seen as allied in spirit to the liberties cherished within the country. Today the two things are no longer in alliance — they are now in fact antithetical. That is to say, if we want to preserve the liberties we enjoy inside the U.S.A., we should severely curtail the liberty of people from outside to cross our borders; and the better we do the second thing, the more we shall be assured of the first.

There is now, as there has never been before, a plain trade-off between restricting the immigration rights of foreigners and reducing the liberties of citizens. Minefields along the Mexican border, or a national i.d. card? A new, stricter interpretation of the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause, or I.N.S. surveillance of maternity wards? An end to "family reunification" chain-immigration, or swelling welfare dependency paid for with oppressive taxation? A bar on any immigration from certain unfriendly nations, or more intrusive and cumbersome security procedures at airports, malls, national parks? An overall reduction in all immigration, or further assaults on the lives and property of citizens by rogue aliens because an overburdened I.N.S. cannot do the necessary checking? Tight border controls are no longer an insult to our national spirit of liberty; they are the guarantor of it.

It is not a shameful or disreputable thing to wish for your government to control the nation's borders. This country probably needs some immigrants; she may even need some unskilled immigrants. But how many? From where? Speaking what languages? Practicing what religions? Owing what allegiances? It is nice that Mexican peasants are willing to cut our lawns and trim our hedges for low wages; but might there not be Latvians, or Ghanaians, or Greeks, or Sri Lankans, who are just as willing? Would Americans at large prefer more of those, and fewer Mexicans? Or would Americans at large perhaps prefer that our own teenagers do the work, as I am told they once did? We don't know, because nobody dares to ask these questions for fear of being called a "racist."

One day our galaxy, along with the several thousand others in our supercluster, will arrive at the Great Attractor with, presumably, an almighty WHOOOMPH! Fortunately that day is several billion years in the future. Down here in this other Great Attractor we have considerably less time to sort out a rational immigration policy. Perhaps we should at least start talking about it.