Many Chinese and Americans harbor doubts that immigration may destroy America. In “Who Are We,” Samuel Huntington expressed concerns that immigrants would dismantle mainstream Anglo-Protestant culture in the United States, plunging the nation into division and collapse. After a series of incidents in 2020, The Washington Post even altered its front page subtitle to “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” worrying that racial conflict and political polarization would ruin American democracy.
Some domestic scholars hold pessimistic views about America’s future. Jin Canrong and Zhang Weiwei believe immigration and racial discrimination could tear the United States apart. After the 2020 election, some liberals, dismayed by the loss of America’s founding virtues and its apparent corruption by the white left, also lost faith in the country.
I too have long pondered immigration’s impact on the United States, once thinking Huntington’s worries were justified. However, as I have deepened my studies over the years, doubts about this perspective emerged.
Many media figures and intellectuals compare the United States to Rome, seeing parallels between America’s current state and the Roman Republic’s end, and likening America’s contemporary racial diversity to the Roman Empire’s demise. With large numbers of foreigners in the military, mainstream white Americans unwilling to bear children, and ethnic minorities leading in fertility, they believe the consequence of whites not reproducing will be conquest by foreign races, as happened in Rome.
While popular, this view profoundly misunderstands both America and Rome. The latest scholarship shows Roman citizenship was always a legal, not blood-based concept, representing a way of life and system of values. Rome actively incorporated foreigners as early as the Republic. By the height of the Empire, most soldiers and emperors were non-Italians.
American identity is not dependent on blood either. America has had mixed ancestry from the outset, with English ancestry comprising just 12% of white Americans – most have German roots. Like Irishness, Americanness denotes legal and political identity.
Rome successfully assimilated subject populations, and by the 4th century AD, Gallic elites saw themselves as fully Roman, fluently using Latin. The senator Symmachus went to Gaul to study Latin under the grammarian Ausonius, completely accepting him as Roman and willing to be his pupil. By the 19th century, provincial elites were integrated.
This parallels today’s United States. Elites of diverse backgrounds share the same milieu. Obama has far more in common with white elites than with most black Americans. Elites unite around shared culture and values.
What truly dissolved Rome was the influx of Visigoths in the late 4th century AD. Retaining armed forces and leaders governing by their own laws, they formed disconnected islands immune to Romanization. These unassimilated groups then destabilized the Empire.
Previously, Rome absorbed local elites into the ruling class after conquest. Scattered barbarians were settled across the Empire. And while Rome recruited many foreign soldiers, they accepted Roman commanders and law. Barbarian leaders often lost power, with foreign servicemen frequently gaining citizenship afterwards.
Lacking organized power, outsiders rapidly assimilated. At its 2nd century peak, at least half of Rome’s 300,000 troops were foreign. Yet four of the five 2nd century emperors were Italian. This immigration did not threaten Rome. By the 4th century, Gauls and Carthaginians saw themselves as fully Roman.
What changed was the 4th century military defeat that allowed armed barbarians to enter Rome on their own terms, retaining leaders and laws while rejecting Roman governance and society. These unintegrated groups corroded the Empire from within.
Rome’s weakened finances left it unable to control such migrants. By the 5th century, barbarians could raid cities and seal borders at will, forcing Rome to accept barbarian kingdoms on its territory.
America faces no such challenge today. Modern states wield far greater control than antiquity. If contemporary refugee flows into Europe and America occurred in Rome, these armed masses might conquer the Empire. But modern immigrants cannot bear arms or defeat American or European armies. After arrival, they remain subject to local laws and government despite self-governing their communities. Immigrant elites join national politics through democracy, assimilating into the system.
Many Latin American immigrants have adapted to the U.S. political framework, with community leaders participating in elections and gaining state legislature seats. The most successful won federal office or even competed for the presidency. Their English fluency and command of U.S. history and law shows the immigrant elite has institutionalized, integrating into and defending the prevailing order rather than destroying it.
Beyond seizing some jobs and heightening crime, immigrants minimally impact America’s core political institutions. Concentrated minorities like African- and Asian-Americans permeate society. Others assimilate into social fabric, resembling Rome’s 2nd century integration.
However loudly African Americans may protest, or fiercely Latinos may displace working class whites, they cannot touch Washington. Immigrants follow rather than overturn the established order.
Europe’s Muslim communities certainly pose a greater challenge, retaining more of their distinct identity and extremist elements. Some even advocate restoring Sharia law, unlike in America. So the European situation remains more precarious than the American, since their immigrants may impose a contrary new order through demographic change. But even that lies generations away, with gradual assimilation more likely.
In sum, modern states possess vastly greater cohesive power than ancient empires, with unparalleled strength to assimilate populations. The sort of armed gangs that toppled regimes in antiquity cannot reoccur today.
Modern countries also wield financial and productive capacities ancient societies lacked. Late 4th century Rome couldn’t manage its refugee influx, but today’s robust economies can provide immigrants abundant welfare, defusing tensions.
Two immigration patterns emerge:
1. Broad geographic dispersal, integrating into the wider society.
2. Accepting the host nation’s laws and officials’ jurisdiction.
3. Elites participating in politics through domestic structures, mastering the national language, and joining elite circles.
1. Concentration in isolated enclaves detached from society.
2. Retaining parallel laws and leaders, rejecting the host country’s governance.
3. Elites fail to integrate into host country networks, acting outside its political frameworks.
America currently follows the first model. Modern regulatory power and technology differs radically from antiquity. By clinging to historical analogies, flawed conclusions may result. America shares superficial similarities with Rome, but stronger divergences emerge on examination. The U.S. government’s capabilities dwarf Rome’s. When assessing this unprecedented nation, we must seek truth from facts and keep pace with the times.