The End of the American Dream?

Strategic View

I’ve been a Puerto Rican all my life. I’ve also been an American citizen all my life. My ethnicity tended to confuse representatives of foreign governments, who didn’t comprehend how a Puerto Rican could serve in the Central Intelligence Agency. Very easily, I would say.

Then I would usually segue into a discussion of America’s multicultural future. “The US is truly a rainbow nation and that is its most profound strength, its destiny.” I particularly liked to tease British counterparts, anxious for the special relationship to endure, that Hispanics would one day be the single largest ethnic group in the U.S. I speculated how the special relationship might work once the U.S. had a president of Spanish ancestry. (I believed, then and now, that the U.S.-UK special relationship would do quite well, but it was still fun to challenge their assumption that the relationship depended on a common Anglo heritage.)

I was also struck during my dealings with other countries that the essence of America’s appeal for the world is aspirational. Citizens of other countries believed the U.S. set a worthy example for the rest of the world to consider. This sense that the United States stood for something other than just itself was palpable; on more than one occasion, I was lectured to by foreign interlocutors as to the real meaning of America to the rest of the world.

Given how important I believe America’s multicultural identity is to its destiny and to its ability to influence other societies, I’ve been desperate to understand how President Donald Trump and his administration could justify its hasty Executive Order on immigration. Clearly, no current known security threats justified the actions. The Executive Order would have to offer the U.S. many benefits to outweigh its significant downsides. I didn’t achieve some clarity until I read that the Trump administration fears uncontrolled Muslim immigration will result in European-sized pockets of unassimilated Muslims festering in U.S. cities. Now that is a more serious argument, and if true, demands a thoughtful policy response. One reason this argument holds more resonance is that the West’s failure to anticipate the consequences of the significant Muslim migration to Europe is in my view the most notable sensemaking failure in the post-WWII era.

However, the Trump administration’s argument that Muslim immigration to the U.S. will follow the European pattern is just bad analysis. Let’s start with the numbers. According to the Pew report, the European Union was home to 19 million Muslims, or about four percent of the population, in 2010. Some cities in Europe, such as Brussels and Marseilles, have 15-20 percent Muslim population. Large numbers of Muslims arrived in Europe after World War II, often encouraged by governments desperate for workers. In almost all cases, the Muslim populations were poorly assimilated, often not allowed citizenship. Once the labor markets stabilized, many became unemployed and dependent on welfare benefits. Youth unemployment among young Muslims approaches 50 percent in some European countries.

Now let’s look at the U.S. numbers. The Pew Research Center estimated that 3.3. million Muslims lived in the U.S. last year, about one percent of the population. Washington D.C. may have the largest percentage of Muslim residents—two percent. The U.S. issues about one million green cards annually, of which 10-15 percent go to individuals from Muslim-majority countries. Pew estimates that by 2050, Muslims will comprise two percent of U.S. population because of immigration and higher birth rates.  By comparison, Muslims will grow to eight percent of Europe’s population by 2030.

The quantitative scale of Muslim migration to the U.S. will never match what occurred in Europe, but it is the qualitative difference that I find most significant. Unlike their co-religionists in Europe, Muslims who come to the U.S. so far have assimilated, becoming citizens in impressive numbers. Almost all Muslims who came to the U.S. before 1980 have become citizens; of those who arrived in the 1990s, more than 80 percent are citizens. American Muslims go to university at about the same rate as other Americans. There are some troubling signs, however, such as higher than average unemployment among young Muslims. What seems evident, however, is that there is no looming Muslim threat to the integrity of American society, and therefore no justification for the policies espoused by President Trump.

To be fair, the Administration has suggested it is seeking to only suspend immigration from seven countries until extreme vetting procedures can be put in place. I wonder what those extreme vetting procedures could be, given the careful scrutiny already applied to visa applicants worldwide. The Intelligence Community (IC), of course, has its own extreme vetting procedures. Obtaining a top secret clearance can take upwards of a year and cost thousands of dollars per individual. With such extreme vetting procedures in place, the IC must have a perfect record in preventing unauthorized disclosures of classified information…


Strategic View

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