The American Enterprise Institute recently hosted a book discussion between Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume and AEI president Arthur Brooks, on the future of the conservative movement and Brooks’s new book, “The Conservative Heart.” During the question and answer time, Brooks was asked to comment on why so many immigrants, while morally conservative, vote for liberal Democrats in such high percentages. He gave a valid answer: immigrants don’t feel as welcome and included within the Republican Party. As an immigrant, I would like to give another answer.
One of the reasons my family fled Iraq was that my father did not see a future for us there. He brought my sister and me to America so we would benefit from education and work opportunities, opportunities made possible by this country’s embrace of free enterprise. This is true of most immigrants, no matter their national origin. Whether the immigrant is from India, China, Japan, Syria, Iraq, or any of the Latin American countries, most people who come to the United States are coming for a better economic future for themselves and their families. For a dozen generations, America has offered and delivered this to her natives and her immigrants alike.
Many immigrants do well in this country because they capitalize on so many of the opportunities that some natives spurn. They work hard—as my father did, holding three jobs at one point—to make a better life for themselves and their families. Mothers and fathers sacrifice so their children, that first generation, can do well in school, access higher education, and take jobs with upward mobility. Many immigrants prod their children to go into professional fields so they will have higher incomes, and so they can take care of their parents when the time comes.
All of these economically driven characteristics, coupled with fairly conservative family values, should put a high percentage of immigrants squarely within the conservative camp and at least nominally in Republican politics. But it doesn’t. Why?
The answer lies in how immigrants think about, and understand, society and the role of government.
Nearly Every Other Country Is Socialist
I would venture that a large majority of immigrants, whether they are from Greece, Iraq, India, or anywhere else, have similar presuppositions regarding government. Although some of these countries are quasi-democratic in their government structure, they all have one thing in common: They are all socialistic to one extent or another. There is government-run healthcare, pension systems, and a host of other benefits.
This means immigrants coming from these countries are predisposed to think of government in socialistic ways, to think that the natural function of government in large part is to redistribute economic resources. They expect government to provide healthcare and other social services. They expect government to act as caretaker, measured by the degree to which they were content or discontent with these aspects of life in their native land.
This way of thinking may not make sense to a good portion of the American political landscape, but it makes perfect sense in the immigrant mind: America may be the land of opportunity, but it of course has a government, and immigrants will project their own presuppositions onto the government when they arrive (legally or illegally). But unlike most Americans, who benefit from the residue of classical Western political philosophy (though few are well versed in it), these immigrants have been fed socialism since they were at their mother’s breasts. It is completely consistent that when they come to this country they would take whatever education and economic opportunity available to them and they would follow whichever political party is also handing out social services.
With the newness of the cultural and political climate immigrants experience, they may just not notice the disconnect. In my experience as an immigrant among a community of immigrants, I have noticed that if immigrants and their children learn some of the tenets of classical political philosophy (or even deal with taxes and bureaucratic hurdles for their gas station and mini mart for several years), they begin to understand the tradeoffs between economic liberty and redistribution. Upon reaching this point, I’ve seen some shift to conservative politics.
Preaching to People Isn’t the Answer
I say this not as an economic scholar but as an immigrant myself, and as someone who has wrestled with her immigrant community on these very issues. There is a fundamental and deep-rooted assumption about government as fundamentally a social services provider which the Republican Party, scholars at AEI, and other conservative think tanks must overcome in order to reach the immigrant mind.
This is the real hurdle for conservatives: How to explain to immigrants that the free enterprise system that gives them economic opportunity and mobility goes hand-in-hand with the idea of small government which doesn’t (can’t, and shouldn’t) provide cradle-to-grave services.
But let’s not make the gnostic mistake of thinking it’s only about what’s in people’s heads, that this is a war of ideas only. Or that all we need to do is “educate those immigrants.” In the end it’s not more information or better communication between the conservative movement and immigrant communities that’s needed. As Brooks put it in the aforementioned Hume interview, conservatives need to stop fighting against ideas and fight for people. Remember that immigrants are people with hearts, not just ledgers.
This is why I’m excited about what I’m hearing from Brooks. For him, this is not an either/or issue, it’s a both/and. It is the mind and the heart, it is ideas coupled with solidarity with our fellow human beings. I hope Brooks can convince many conservatives to turn to flesh and blood people and fight for my fellow immigrants.
Immigrants Need to Learn the American Heritage
I want to offer my insights and observations of life on the ground with immigrants. I want to hear pundits and candidates bringing these ideas to the table, now, before the 2016 election, in hopes of doing better with immigrant communities. Natural-born Americans need to remember that immigration changed from the days when men and women came on a boat longing for government to leave them alone to earn their own way and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Although most immigrants still come for economic opportunity, many come with expectations and a divergent philosophy from that of our Founding Fathers.
How to create a melting pot out of all this? At this moment in history, we are in a disjointed and weakened state because natural-born Americans have not upheld their own heritage—the American Proposition. With individualism on one side, and pluralism on the other, we have lost our “constitutional consensus whereby the people acquires its identity as a people and the society is endowed with its vital form,” as John Courtney Murray calls it in “We Hold These Truths.” This is where the Democrats have an edge; They promise the immigrant: “You can have your cake and eat it too.”
My husband and I are teaching our children to recognize the fallacy in such promises. We are training them to understand that one of the beauties in life is hard work, and that the most fruitful work can be done when one is free to work. This may or may not translate into money. We’ve given our children the example of my husband’s employers; two men who started a forward-looking engineering and technology business from a garage. They worked hard and created a multi-million dollar business.
This company has given my husband and many others the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills in fruitful, creative work. This gives my husband the ability to provide for me and our five children. It gives me the ability to be a stay-home-mom while simultaneously responding to my calling; to use my writing to create a better society for my children and my fellow man. This in turn will affect the choices our children make throughout their lives.
And so on and so forth. All of this happened because two men were able to start a business in their garage and to a large extent, be left alone to operate it as they saw fit. If we lose this, and other acknowledgements about how American ideals create the culture and economy that immigrants seek, we ultimately lose what brings them here.