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Historian Christopher Browning Out of His Element When it Comes to U.S. Immigration Policy

author Published by Eric Ruark

The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history. It is the essence of what we mean by the word ‘unhistorical.’ – Herbert Butterfield

Christopher Browning, emeritus professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, penned a piece in the October 25, 2018, issue of The New York Review of Books. An historian of the Holocaust, Browning came to prominence with the publication of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

In an essay bereft of scholarly detachment, Browning argues that a “highly restrictionist immigration policy,” along with isolationist foreign policy, “left the unable to respond constructively to either the Great Depression or the rise of fascism, the growing threat to peace, and the refugee crisis of the 1930s.” President Trump’s protectionist trade and restrictionist immigration polices (at least in theory), are, according to Browning, leading the country down the same path.

No doubt the NYRB published Browning due to his reputation as a scholar, and indeed he has serious credentials in that regard. However, as he states in his opening paragraph, he is an historian of 20th Century Germany specializing in the Holocaust. This does not disqualify him from having informed opinions about American history or contemporary politics, though, as he clearly demonstrates in his essay, he lacks a basic understanding of either.

While the problems with Browning’s analyses are legion, he is most misguided in his Whiggish view of the post-WWII period. He construes recent history as an inevitable march of progress. A peculiar perspective for a historian of the Holocaust, but perhaps not so surprising for an academic with a narrow range of expertise who views 1945 as the advent of a new, improved world order; the Stunde Null from which an ascendant United States rebuilt Western Europe, and eventually the entire globe, in its own image.

Browning also belongs to a generation who enjoyed the greatest period of prosperity the world has ever seen, and, in the process, consumed both the nation’s and the earth’s resources to such an extent that future generations will struggle to avoid economic collapse and ecological catastrophe. One would hope he could look beyond the passions of the day, and past the end of his own nose, when evaluating the current political situation. This would mean rejecting the triumphalist view that history has been programmed to conform to the wishes of subscribers to The New York Review of Books. This he cannot do.

Browning reads like a man who would like to buy the world a Coke, and cannot fathom why the world prefers Diet Pepsi.

History Doesn’t Take Sides

A more circumspect thinker disappointed in the outcome of the 2016 election would question the conventional wisdom of professional pundits who make a living out of being wrong, and might even come to understand the difference between a statistician and a fabulist. Not the case for Browning. His worldview, his Weltanschauung, is so limited he can only see the election of Donald Trump as an event that threatens to bend the “arc of history” away from its natural course “toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom.”

What concerns us here is Browning’s condemnation of immigration restrictionists, but it is worth pointing out his histrionics in other areas. Browning charges that the United States is on the brink of “America alone” isolationism. He writes:

President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945.

If Trump keeps it up, he will produce the same sort of “‘international anarchy’ produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust.”

Love or loath Trump (or fall somewhere in between), it is unhelpful for a “serious” commentator to promulgate such sensationalism.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made about President Trump’s preference for unilateral trade agreements, and his use of tariffs to protect American manufacturing jobs. One can find fault with President Trump’s barbs directed at the leaders of some of America’s traditional allies, and his diplomacy towards China, North Korea, Iran, and yes, even Russia. There are legitimate arguments in favor of these policies, too. Browning, instead, likens protections for American workers to proto-fascism, and makes Trump out to be the next Neville Chamberlain (“a man in every other regard different from Trump.”).

Non-interventionism does not equate to isolationism, just as support for immigration restrictions is not the same as calling for an end to immigration, but Browning cannot judge an issue except as he perceives it in relation to President Trump, and so he presents a wildly distorted account of the the current state of affairs perched upon a caricature of the past.

In Browning’s recasting of history in the mold of present day politics, he ignores that President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in turning World War I into an ideological, existential fight to save Western Civilization (and that Wilson was a recalcitrant racist, even by the standards of his own day), and that the League of Nations, with or without the involvement of the United States, was not an adequate replacement for the forcible break-up of historical, multi-national and multi-cultural empires. Nor was the “right to national self-determination” equally applied. When Ho Chi Minh petitioned for an independent Viet Nam free from French colonial control, he was dismissed by the victorious powers. It certainly is not controversial to suggest that Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which placed the blame for WWI entirely on “the aggression of Germany and her allies,” along with reparations imposed on Germany, were major factors leading to WWII. Browning is the only historian I am aware of who argues U.S. immigration policy of the 1920-30s helped lead to the outbreak of renewed hostilities in Europe in 1939.

Immigration Expansionists Invoke an Invented Past

Browning links “crony capitalism” with “xenophobic nationalism,” and hence to the push for immigration restrictions, without the slightest recognition that crony capitalists are the ones pushing for major increases in immigration, as they always have. He repeatedly makes the accusation that restrictionists are motivated by racial animus towards immigrants, while ignoring that one of the main arguments in favor of immigration restrictions is the disproportionately negative effect mass immigration has on minority Americans. Browning apparently has no idea that the greatest economic advancements made by African Americans, and the greatest successes of the Civil Rights Movement, came during a period of low immigration following WWI and before changes in 1965 ushered in the current era of mass immigration. Immigration to the U.S. has quadrupled since 1965. The unemployment rate for African Americans today is about double that for Whites. Many Americans want an immigration policy that doesn’t disadvantage their fellow citizens. Does Browning?

If he were properly educated on American history, Browning would know that the Great Wave of immigration was not about embracing the huddled masses of Europe. Instead it was about displacing Black Americans from the labor force and preventing them from gaining economic standing as America underwent rapid industrialization following the Civil War. His version of U.S. immigration history likewise leaves out the fact that mass immigration from Europe drove rapid westward settlement, leading to the displacement and near eradication of American Indians.

Browning brings up the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which he claims was “aimed at preserving the hegemony of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants against an influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants.” This is a curious reading of history given that some of the most vociferous support for the legislation came from Irish, Jewish, and German immigrants. Labor leaders also called for a bar on Chinese laborers, among them Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, because employers were using them as strikebreakers.

Yes, race played a part in immigration politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most prominently among Progressives who supported a eugenicist program for improving social hygiene. This effort was promoted by, among others, the presidents of Harvard and Stanford Universities, and later by Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. The Ford Foundation, Carnegie Institution, and Rockefeller Foundation all supported eugenic research. Immigration policy for them was a tool of social engineering designed to bend the arc of history toward the greater good, as they judged it to be.

The motivation behind immigration restrictions a century ago were varied and complex, not at all like the rendition Browning would have us believe. We have every reason to study and understand the past, and to learn from it, but we are not bound by it, and we must not be beholden to a narrative of a past that never was.

Extremism in the Defense of Ideological Rigidity is no Virtue

Browning’s argument about U.S. immigration policy can be boiled down to a perverse syllogism.

I am an historian of the Holocaust. Immigration is good. Therefore, immigration restrictionists are kind of like Nazis.

In no way does Browning attempt to explain why it is unacceptable to support reducing annual admissions from one million a year to 750,000, or 500,000, or at all. Or why it is wrong to institute a merit-based admission system, and to get rid of a visa lottery that was instituted to help the Irish. He doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, or clarify whether it’s acceptable, in his view, to reduce admissions of guest workers, or to seek an end to illegal immigration. He does hint at an endorsement of de facto open borders, writing that the “prioritization of ‘law and order’ over individual rights” when it comes to immigration is “illiberal.”

Browning repeats the canard propagated by immigration expansionists that ending catch-and-release policies by detaining illegal aliens at the southern border violates U.S. asylum law. The truth is that very few illegal aliens from Central American have legitimate asylum claims, and such claims should have been made in the first country they entered after leaving their own. Those who have been detained entered the U.S. illegally and are held in comport with the law. This doesn’t prevent Central Americans from making defensive asylum claims. It does prevent them from being released to disappear into the interior of the United States. And it is important to point out that most minors who are in the custody of the U.S. government came into the country unaccompanied by any adult.

If the United States is to reestablish control over its border with Mexico, the temporary separation of families is inevitable. It is required under statute, and it is necessary to combat human trafficking of children, a common practice with which Browning seemingly has no problem. He also had no problem when the Obama Administration separated families, nor when it turned children over to traffickers. It appears something other than Browning’s recent discovery of his offended conscience is motivating his attacks on the Trump Administration’s enforcement actions. If he was truly concerned about keeping families intact at the border, he would have directed his ire at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said any change to current law “makes no sense.”

Browning didn’t raise a peep about President Clinton’s Trumpian rhetoric on immigration (nor Hillary Clinton’s), nor President Clinton’s endorsement of the Jordan Commission’s recommendations for a restrictionist immigration policy; nor when Senator Harry Reid railed against birthright citizenship; nor when Senator Dianne Feinstein complained about the effects of illegal immigration in California; nor when Barack Obama detailed in The Audacity of Hope how mass immigration depresses wages for American workers.

Browning goes so far as to call Mitch McConnell the “gravedigger of American democracy” and ludicrously compares the Senate Majority Leader to Paul Von Hindenburg, the German Field Marshall and President of Weimar Germany who appointed Hitler as Chancellor. One must assume Browning is aware that Donald Trump was not appointed President by McConnell but won the office through a free and fair election. Those of us who respect that process respect the outcome, whether or not we like the result. Further, McConnell has never been an advocate in the Senate for Trump’s agenda, drawing the ire of Trump’s base, and, at times, the President himself. Nevertheless, until McConnell becomes a card carrying member of the #Resistance, to Browning he’ll always be as bad as the guy who handed Hitler the keys to the Chancellery.

Immigration Restrictionists Occupy the Political Center

Donald Trump is President not because he tapped into some dark current of American politics, but because he made immigration restriction – a broadly popular position endorsed in some form or fashion by every successful Presidential candidate of the last 40 years, including his predecessor – the main theme of his campaign. Say what you will about Donald Trump, he was the only candidate in 2016 who recognized that bucking the political establishment on immigration gave him an enormous advantage in the race for President. Support for substantial reductions in immigration is as mainstream as support for affordable healthcare or quality public education. This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even social science. It’s just plain old good sense.

The failure of the political class to institute an immigration policy in line with the will of the American electorate is the main reason why Donald J. Trump is President of the United States. Whether or not Trump follows through on his promise to put Americans first when it comes to immigration remains to be seen. In order to accomplish this, he will have to push Congress to change existing law. This will be difficult since the Democrats have become even more committed to increasing immigration flows, and more opposed to the enforcement of current laws, with Democratic Senators even calling to “abolish ICE.” Leading members of President Trump’s own party also oppose necessary immigration reforms, though the retirement of House Speaker Paul Ryan may open the door to legislative changes that favor American workers.

The Trump Administration has so far fallen short on immigration reform. President Trump has pushed for building a wall on the southern border at the expense of legislation mandating the use of E-Verify, which would hold criminal employers responsible and would be much more effective at reducing illegal immigration. The White House gave feeble support to a bill that would have ended chain migration, allowing Speaker Ryan to sabotage legislation that likely would have passed with decisive leadership from the President. Initiatives like the zero-tolerance policy for illegal immigration, which is simply a recommitment to the enforcement of existing law, have not been effectually implemented, or defended in the face of relentless attacks in the media. Good policy in theory must be well put into practice, and the reason for these policies must be articulated in a format not limited to 280 characters.

At times, President’s Trump’s rhetoric has been unhelpful to those of us who have worked for immigration reduction long before he arrived on the political scene, but the movement is far deeper than what Trump says, or how he says it. It isn’t about Trump, it’s about the will of the American people.

The reasons Americans support immigration restrictions today are likewise varied and complex. Yes, some have racist motivations, but that number is negligible to the point that they have no influence on the immigration policy debate. This is plain to anyone with any comprehension of the dynamics of the debate and any intellectual honesty. Yet, hurling accusation of racism at immigration restrictionists is the first and, often the only resort, for those on the other side of the issue. In his recently published book, Reihan Salam, a child of immigrants, says something very important:

Immigration advocates tell us we have two choices: to be an open society that welcomes immigrants or a closed one that barricades itself off from the rest of the world. If you disagree with any aspect of the pro-immigration agenda for any reason, you must be heartless or racist. Rhetorically and politically, forcing this choice is shrewd, but it is a false choice all the same. The real choice, I will argue is whether we see the immigrants we welcome to our shores as permanent strangers to whom we have no real obligations other than to deliver them from the relative poverty of their homelands, or as free and equal citizens to whom we are pledging our loyalty in this generation and in those to come.

What drives the movement to restrict immigration isn’t animus toward immigrants but the support of a vast majority of U.S. voters who support reducing immigration levels. A Harvard-Harris poll earlier this year found 65% of U.S. voters supported ending chain migration, eliminating the visa lottery, and securing the border with Mexico in exchange for a DACA amnesty. This included 64% of African American voters, 68% of Hispanic voters, 64% of Democratic voters, 67% of independent voters, 63% of self-identified liberal voters, and 68% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

What immigration expansionists fear most is a measured, informed debate about immigration. They don’t have the facts, public opinion, or even history on their side. So they demonize their opponents instead, as Browning has done. This is the tactic of those who see America as the land where the help comes cheap and the dregs of society know their place.

If Browning wished to engage in a substantive analysis of what motivates immigration restrictionists, he could have discussed labor displacement and wage depression, and the absurdity of continued mass immigration of low-skilled workers at the same time rapid automation is eliminating many low-skilled jobs. Browning could have at least indicated that he doesn’t endorse immigration policies that undermine American workers, especially minorities. One has to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he does not support such outcomes, since it is uncivil to accuse someone of sinister motives without a credible basis for doing so.

What Browning can be charged with is promoting a political ideology that affords no legitimacy to those who hold opposing views. Quite frankly, Browning’s essay reeks of the same authoritarian mindset that laid the groundwork for the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century he so despises. Academics and intellectuals who should have and many who did know better gave their imprimatur to ideological movements whose adherents used intimidation and eventually violence to attain and maintain power. Instead of engaging in the realm of ideas and respecting democratic norms, they painted their political opponents as imminent threats to the social order, exactly as Browning describes the tens of millions of Americans who voted for President Trump, and many millions of other Americans who don’t believe the President’s positions on immigration brooks caparison to Hitler.

Like the claim that one is on the “right side of history” – with its menacing implication of what will happens to those who end up on the wrong side – claiming that the arc of history bends toward a particular outcome is to deny the agency, and ultimately the very humanity, of any individual or group who stand in the way of progress as defined by those wielding power.

Browning is nothing if not bien pensant, and that is what it so disturbing about his essay. It is not only irresponsible of someone of Browning’s stature to compare those who want to restrict immigration to Nazis, it is dangerous. I would remind Browning that he, too, is an ordinary man. He may wish to be more circumspect when writing publicly on issues of which he knows so little.

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

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