Early this month, New York played out a myth of our time.
It came in two parts. The first was supplied by Edwin Sabillon, a 13-year-old Spanish-speaking boy who appeared, alone and broke, in the city, telling authorities he had traveled 4,500 miles from Honduras to look for his father. His story was staggering. His mother had been killed by Hurricane Mitch. He had come part of the way by bicycle, part by hitchhiking. He swam across the Rio Grande at Brownsville, Tex. Making his way to Houston, he had hopped a freight train for Miami. Along the way, he raised money from sympathetic strangers, chiefly Hispanic. The tabloids celebrated his pluck and guts, and even The New York Times gravely got into the act.
Then, Edwin admitted that he had told a stretcher. His mother was in fact alive-it was his father who was dead. He had begun his trek in Florida, where he was living with his aunt. He had deceived not to profiteer, but as a way of acting out some acute and nameless youthful distress.
This was the beginning of the second part of the myth. Once New Yorkers knew the truth, they applauded themselves for believing the lie. Police Commissioner Howard Safir said that Edwin had pulled at New York’s “heartstrings”-and, by pulling, had showed how big and open the city’s heart was. Our credulity had been in a good cause. In Part 1, New York had roused itself to help someone. In Part 2, it applauded itself for its willingness to do so.
Edwin Sabillon was not only imaginative, but intuitive. With the skill of an artist and the luck of a beginner, he aimed his story straight at the heart of the establishment. Hard-nosed Giuliani-ites and liberal journalists flew together like a flock of pigeons, and fell together, like a row of clay ones. Whatever they think about the school board, the budget, or Amadou Diallo, on the resourceful Honduran they spoke as one. So powerful was their emotion that they maintained it even when he turned out to be a pseudo-Honduran. In the capital of free speech and pushing the edge, one orthodoxy reigns unchallenged. New Yorkers who acknowledge no other duty obey the duty to be sentimental about immigration.
The attitude is pervasive. The Statue of Liberty, with Emma Lazarus’ poem on the pedestal, is thought of as an icon of immigration-even though France originally gave it to commemorate the Revolutionary War. (The statue’s eyes look across the harbor to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where the Battle of Long Island began.) The perennial tussle with New Jersey over who owns Ellis Island is not about harbor-view real estate, but about sacred ground-the modern Plymouth Rock. Mario Cuomo and Rudy Giuliani are not just sometime political allies, but lifetime soulmates: proud of their immigrant parents, touchy about remembered or imagined slights to them and totally committed to a policy of maximum hospitality.
It wasn’t always so. I recently participated in a reading, sponsored by the Library of America, of selections from great New York diaries. Many passages that were not selected to be read showed an older New York’s attitude toward newcomers with premodern bluntness. “These Irishmen,” wrote Philip Hone in 1835, are “without a feeling of patriotism or affection in common with American citizens … This class of men are the most ignorant, and consequently the most obstinate white men in the world, and I have seen enough to satisfy me that with few exceptions, ignorance and vice go together.” George Templeton Strong in 1863 wrote that he was “sorry to find that England is right about the lower class of Irish. They are brutal, base, cruel, cowards, and as insolent as base.… No wonder St. Patrick drove all the venomous vermin out of Ireland! … Vipers were superfluous.” These weren’t the grunts of cave dwellers or riffraff. Hone and Strong were civic-minded men of affairs; Hone served one term as mayor.
But here is a funny thing. When official New York gave its immigrants the cold shoulder, they flourished. Four years before Strong’s blast, work began on St. Patrick’s Cathedral, under the direction of Archbishop John Hughes, a tough customer known as “Dagger John,” both for the spiky cross he affixed to his signature, and for his personality. The great church was a symbol in stone of Irish self-respect as much as piety. When there was immigration without tears, immigrants did well and (a patriot would say, and therefore) became Americans.
There are three schools of thought among modern supporters of unrestricted immigration. The first is frankly liberal, longing to slot immigrants into multicultural subcastes, to plug them into welfarist life-support systems, and to sign them up for the Democratic Party. Remember the glee that greeted Representative Bob Dornan’s defeat in California as a result of Orange County’s tilting Mexican-American. The second, headed by George W. Bush, calls itself “compassionate conservative,” and boasts about how strongly Mr. Bush runs with Mexican-American voters in Texas-which is a way of signaling that compassionate conservatives will give liberals whatever they have to in order to keep Mr. Bush’s Mexican-American strength up. How can they do otherwise? That strength is the proof of their compassion. The third is conservative and libertarian, and rejects both multiculturalism and welfare in favor of assimilation and self-reliance, but does not see that high absolute numbers of immigrants slow assimilation down, and that Statue of Liberty pieties on immigration play into the hands of liberals. Call the conservative libertarians compassionate conservatives by default; call the compassionate conservatives dead ducks.
Immigration is an issue that should be governed by prudence. The frontier and the Industrial Revolution needed hard labor. Silicon Valley needs bright young people. But the parameters should be set by our capacity to absorb newcomers and by their ability to work, not by reporters, mayors and police commissioners who project their own ancestors onto teenage fabulists.