It was "noble, revolutionary—and probably the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society." Thus did Theodore White, chronicler of all that is brave and optimistic about America, assess in 1982 the thing his country had done to itself seventeen years earlier. He was not talking about the decision to increase the commitment of American ground forces to South Vietnam, nor about the beginning of programs that would end in racial quotas and school-busing orders, nor about the inauguration of Medicare and other benefits whose costs the public would in the 1980s be struggling to pay. Rather, this most thoughtless gesture was the Immigration and Nationality Act amendments of 1965.
The new laws were not expected to increase the flow of immigrants to this country. Indeed, for the first time in America's history, they put limits on the numbers that could enter from Mexico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. But the laws did revolutionize the nature of the immigrant population. Back in the 1920s, when the U.S. first placed limits on the number of immigrants it would accept, the central principle of immigration policy was that America's new citizens should resemble its old ones. Under the "national-origins" system introduced in 1921, quotas for European immigration preserved the "racial preponderances" within the American population. Ireland, for example, could send each year 3 percent as many immigrants as there were foreign-born Irish-Americans counted in the U.S. Census of 1910. (In 1924, the quotas were made more restrictive. They were set at 2 percent of the ethnic representation among Americans, foreign-born and native-born, shown in the 1890 Census. ) The national-origins system was designed as a shield against the "New Immigration" of Poles, Italians, Slavs, and Eastern European Jews.
With the Immigration Act amendments of 1965, the United States announced that it would look impartially on the world. The Ethiopian, the Turk, the resident of Calcutta or Rangoon, would compete on equal footing with the Englishman and the German. America would open itself not merely to the tired and the poor but to the racial and ethnic balance of the wide world. The result, wrote Theodore White, was "a stampede, almost an invasion." The "sources of fresh arrivals [would be] determined not by those already here, but by the push and pressures of those everywhere who hungered to enter."
Those pressures are sobering to contemplate. According to the International Labour Organization, the total labor force of the Third World countries will be 600 million to 700 million people larger in the year 2000 than it was in 1980. To employ all those additional workers, the developing countries would have to create more jobs than now exist in Western Europe, Japan, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the other industrialized nations combined. Obviously, that will not happen, and some of those who cannot find work, especially in Latin America, will decide to leave.
"Especially" Latin America because the riches of the United States lie within easy reach of so much of Central and South America, and because population growth there is exceptionally fast. The combined population of the Latin American nations was about 150 million in the early 1950s. It is expected to be 845 million by 2025. Half of the people in Latin America are eighteen years old or under; they will be entering the labor force, looking for work in their countries or ours, in the next generation. Robert Fox, of the Inter-American Development Bank, points out that the total Latin American labor force is now about 115 million, but will be 197 million twenty years from now. "This is intractable," he has said. It is based on a population already born. Latin American countries would have to create an average of 4 million new jobs each year until 2025 [to accommodate the growth]. The U.S., with an economy five times larger, averages 2 million new jobs per year."
Regardless of these projections, the flow of immigrants from the Third World has already begun. From 1930 to 1960 about 80 percent of America's immigrants came from European countries or Canada. From 1977 to 1979, 16 percent did, and Asia and Latin America accounted for about 40 percent each. In 1979, the nine leading "source" countries for legal immigration were Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, China and Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. In tenth place, with 3 percent of the total, was the United Kingdom.
The structure of the immigration code meant that the Third World's share of new Americans was likely to increase. Under the post-1960 law, places in the immigration queue are assigned with grand indifference to ethnic origin but with careful attention to family ties. The immediate relatives of American citizens—parents, minor children, and spouses—are admitted without limit. In recent years, some l00,000 people have entered this way annually. In addition, the law provides for 270,000 immigrants each year (no more than 20,000 from any one country) in the "numerically limited" categories, which heavily favor less immediate relatives. Eighty percent of the 270,000 places are allotted to the adult children or the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, plus the immediate relatives of non-citizens who are here as permanent resident aliens. The remaining places go to those with skills considered valuable to the American economy, or to those who would simply like to come. The law's premium on family connections means that each new arrival from the Philippines or Korea eventually makes many others in those countries eligible for admission.
Beyond this change in the mix, there has been a change in numbers. In 1980, at least 125,000 Cubans and Haitians arrived in southern Florida and were admitted as "special entrants," a category invented to cope with the influx. Since 1975, the U.S. has accepted over half a million refugees from Indochina. More than 160,000 came in 1980 alone, which together with the Cubans and Haitians pushed that year's total for legal admissions to 808,000, the highest in sixty years.
And this is to speak only of lawful entrants. As Latin America's population has grown and its governments and economies have foundered, more and more of its people have looked northward for relief. In the mid-1970s, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Leonard Chapman, said that there might be as many as 12 million foreigners here illegally. Official estimates are now 50 to 75 percent lower than that, but no one can say with confidence how many illegal aliens are here and how many more are coming. In many of the big cities of the north, throughout the southwestern states, and in the labor-intensive farming regions of the east and west coasts, daily life provides signs of the illegal tide. Early this year, the attorney general of the United States, William French Smith, proclaimed, "Simply put, we've lost control of our own borders."
As the immigrants continue to arrive, the alarm bells have begun to ring. From liberals and conservatives alike have come warnings about the implications of the trend. Clare Booth Luce, the venerable Republican, has said that the immigrants will be more difficult to absorb because they are not white. Carl Rowan, a black Democrat, has written about the "immigration nightmare." Ray Marshall, secretary of labor in the Carter Administration, has claimed that we could worry much less about unemployment if we got rid of illegal immigrants. Jesse Helms and Paula Hawkins, two of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, have argued that if the U.S. doesn't help defeat the guerrillas in El Salvador, we will be flooded with Salvadoran refugees, as we were with refugees from Vietnam. Labor leaders have issued statements saying that immigrant workers are stealing Americans' jobs.
"Our immigration policy is making us poorer, not richer" Richard Lamm, the Democratic governor of Colorado, said this year. "It is dividing our wealth and resources." Last year, Lamm contended that America's economic "pie" had stopped growing and that "the unchanging pie dramatically alters an issue like immigration, for now additional people will have to take from that pie rather than contribute to it. . . . Who needs additional people when we cannot employ our own citizens?"
After many months of travel through the parts of the United States most affected by immigration, it is clear to me that something big is going on. To see Koreans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians contending for places with the Mexicans, Salvadorans, blacks, and "Anglos" of Los Angeles is to glimpse what New York must have been like when Ellis Island was more than a monument. To examine Miami's recent economic, political, and social history is to see Cuban and Haitian immigration as the event around which all others turn. In countless other places, from Brooklyn to rural Wisconsin, from Houston to Orange, New Jersey, the words heard in the air, the clothes and faces seen on the street, the courses taught in the schools, have all changed because of immigration.
But it is far from clear to me that the changes under way are ominous or bad.
The best-known "facts" about today's immigration are, in many cases, not facts at all. Because of the 808,000 people who were admitted legally in 1980, politicians and authorities have suggested that the U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented foreign flow. A well-respected immigration expert, Michael Teitelbaum, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written in *Foreign Affairs* that "immigration and refugee flows to the United States in the late 1970s were at or near the highest levels ever experienced...."
This is hyperbole. The year 1980 was the recent peak. One year later, after the Cuban and Haitian boatlift was over, and after the greatest surge of Indochinese refugees had passed, legal immigration fell to 697,000. By contrast, it was 1.2 million in 1907, and exceeded one million in five other years near the turn of the century. Today's figures do not include illegal immigrants, but the figures from the turn of the century (when there were few illegals) do not include anyone who arrived legally by ship in cabin class or by land, from Canada or Mexico.
Since the American population was so much smaller early in the century, the relative impact of immigration was far greater then. From 1880 to 1890, and again from 1900 to 1910, the average annual flow of counted immigrants was equal to more than one percent of the American population. From 1970 to 1979, it was *one-fifth* of one percent. The foreign-born made up 4.7 percent of the population in 1970; they made up 8.8 percent in 1940 and 14.8 percent in 1910.
Many politicians and experts assert that the U.S. is unique in its vulnerability to immigration. Governor Lamm, for example, says that "the unemployed...will never get jobs as long as we continue to take in twice as many immigrants as the rest of the world combined." The "twice as many" calculation simply fails to count nearly one million Ethiopian refugees who have fled to Somalia (a nation of 4 million people) and the 1.5 million Afghans displaced into Pakistan. In normal years, the U.S. does admit more immigrants and refugees than any other country, but Canada and Australia have accepted more relative to their population sizes. From 1956 to 1978, the U.S. never received more than 2.8 legal immigrants for each thousand in its population. During the same period, Canada's rate was as high as 17 per thousand, and Australia's rate was as high as 15.1.
Yet statistics are at best a crude indication of people's real concerns about immigration, and a statistical rebuttal is not enough. "It is difficult to explain to residents of the community that the Indochinese refugees are drying skinned cats out on the clothes line because they enjoy cats as a delicacy in their country," the mayor of Santa Ana, California, told a congressional committee in 1981. It is difficult to feel at ease about the impact of the new arrivals, difficult to guess whether the cultural fabric will stretch, as it has before, or finally be torn.
The unspoken question about the immigrants is *What are they doing to us?* Will they divide and diminish the nation's riches? Will they accept its language? Will they alter racial relations? Will they respect the thousand informal rules that allow this nation of many races to cohere?
Economists who study the effects of immigration take two very different approaches. One school views immigrants primarily as additional people—new workers in the labor force, extra purchasers in the national market. From this perspective, immigration can sometimes be valuable, if the labor it provides alleviates a shortage. Thus Western Europe needed immigrant "guest workers" to ease its labor shortage in the 1960s. And thus, contends the economist Julian Simon, immigrants can help the United States. The value of immigrants Simon says, is that they "represent additional *people* as people...[and] lead to faster economic growth by increasing the size of the market, and hence boosting productivity and investment." In addition, since so many of the immigrants are young, they can help offset the aging of the American work force. Most of those who see immigration from the labor-market perspective conclude, unlike Simon, that immigrants hurt a mature economy like that of the United States. If the immigrants are uneducated and unskilled—farmers, peasant craftsmen—they will drag down the overall productivity rate. They will, in effect, more narrowly divide the economic pie.
The other economic approach pays little attention to how many immigrants arrive. It concentrates instead on the economic behavior of those who survive the process of migration. This view is propounded by economists who place great stress on "human capital," the mixture of talents and cultural incentives that makes Germany economically different from England and Hong Kong from Macao. From this perspective, the ingenuity and perseverance that immigrants possess can make an economy richer, because immigrants will adapt and innovate and sacrifice in ways that non-immigrants are too comfortable to try. They make the pie larger for everyone to share.
I came to find the second approach more realistic, for reasons I can best present through the story of the Nguyen family, formerly of Saigon, now of Los Angeles.
In 1975, the four brothers and six sisters of the immediate Nguyen family lived in Saigon with their parents plus the extended family of nephews and brothers-in-law. The father ran a small import-export business. The children held clerical or professional jobs. Two were in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN); one of them had been a law student before he was drafted. One son was an architectural draftsman, and one was a lawyer. Two daughters worked as secretaries, one in a South Vietnamese government ministry, the other at the U.S. Embassy. Although the family was not part of Saigon's moneyed elite, it was respectably successful. Because of the daughter who worked for the Americans, the family was on a list of people the U.S. planned to evacuate if Saigon fell.
In the chaos that engulfed Saigon in April of 1975, the onetime law student, Mr. Nguyen, was the first of the family out of Saigon. (He has asked that his given name not be used) How did he escape? "In panic," he says. He made his way to Tan Son Nhut airport, where the rescue helicopters were supposed to land. He was thirty years old and spoke no English.
Mr. Nguyen was taken to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, then to Guam, and eventually to a resettlement base at Camp Pendleton, California. There he spent the next six months. In camp, he volunteered to work for the U.S. Catholic Conference, which was (and remains) heavily involved in resettling refugees. In time he came to be paid $5 a day for helping to coordinate the many details in finding homes for the refugees. When the camp closed, at the end of October, 1975, he was the last refugee released.
Across the vast expanse of the Los Angeles basin Mr. Nguyen traveled in search of work. His first break came in November. In El Segundo he found work as an assembler in a waterbed factory, for $2.10 an hour, then the minimum wage. After Mr. Nguyen had accepted the job, the foreman asked him for his address. "I told him I didn't know, because I didn't live any place yet. I was only going to rent a place after I got a job."
Mr. Nguyen had his first foothold, but not much more than that. He was taking home less than $400 per month, and was paying $120 for his room. On leaving the camp, Mr. Nguyen had been entitled to $300 for resettlement expenses, but he had refused the money. "I had pride. I wanted to feel that I had made it without any help," he says. "But I felt lonely and miserable. In those factories, you can't slow down." He was buoyed only by his glimpses of other Vietnamese adjusting to industrial life. "You see one person in the corner, he might have been a farmer in Vietnam. He survived, I can survive."
Three weeks later, he heard of another possibility, an opening with RCA. On his time off, he went to the RCA record factory and said that he'd had experience with studios and music back in Vietnam. The personnel man listened with feigned attentiveness and told him that he sounded like the man for the job. When Mr. Nguyen reported for work, he found that he would be putting labels on records for $3 an hour.
"I learned that money is really valuable in this country," he says. "You pay for it with blood and tears. I started thinking about that $300. Money is money. Why not collect it and put it in the bank and earn interest instead of just ignoring it?"
Having steeled himself to claim his resettlement bonus, Mr. Nguyen went into a religious-charities office to apply. While there he ran into the resettlement director, who knew of his work in the camp. The charities were looking for a man like him, she said. Mr. Nguyen started to tell her he couldn't speak English well enough, but she shushed him with the reassurance that he'd be put in a training program. The pay would be $660 a month. He accepted. By the end of 1975, Mr. Nguyen was a white-collar worker.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family has adapting to life in the newly christened Ho Chi Minh City. Nguyen Ninh, the brother who had been a draftsman, escaped purges directed at other technicians because, as he remembers now, "they needed our skills to make the machinery run." Yet he suspected that sooner or later his usefulness would end. One of his brothers named Viet, had been a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army and was being held in a "re-education camp." When Viet escaped from the camp, after two years' detention, he joined Ninh in a plan to flee the country.
With friends, the brothers bought an old boat from country people and then covertly brought it to the city to fortify it for an ocean voyage. None of them had been on the water, but they tried to teach themselves seamanship. One night in 1977, they set out, seven people in a boat that Nguyen Ninh says was not more than twelve feet long.
They hoped to reach Malaysia, but the winds blew hard from that quarter. On the eighth day at sea, the boat's engine failed, and they drifted where the wind pushed them.
"After the broken engine, we figure 99 percent that we die in the ocean," Ninh said this spring. "Nearly everyone who goes in a boat dies." Commercial ships passed, but they kept on going, some even adjusting their course so as to avoid entanglement with the troublesome boat people. The boat began to leak, and then it sank. The men were in the water, swimming, reckoning their remaining time in hours.
In the distance, a large, dark shape loomed. It was a freighter from Kuwait. Its captain, looking through his binoculars, was startled by the sight of men swimming in the ocean. When rescued, they were 200 miles from Vietnam.
They had avoided death, but for the next year the two Nguyen brothers lived as stateless men. Immigration officials would not let them go ashore at the ship's next stop, Singapore. They lived aboard ship till it returned to Kuwait, and when it got there they were jailed. Its next voyage was to Vietnam, they were told, and it would take them back home. The brothers tried to reach embassies, the Red Cross, the UN, but they got nowhere until a sailor agreed to mail a letter to Mr. Nguyen in California.
With efforts under way in Los Angeles and Kuwait, the men were classified as refugees and, after three months in jail, were turned over to the UN. They spent eight more months in a UN refugee camp in Greece, where they worked as farm laborers. After Mr. Nguyen was certified as their sponsor in the U.S., they were accepted as refugees. On June 22, 1978, they arrived in America.
Like their brother, they spoke no English on arrival, but they began learning as they looked for work. Beyond supporting themselves, they hoped to send money to the family members still in Vietnam, to help them buy their way out. Viet, the former ARVN lieutenant, got a job at a valet-parking outfit at the Los Angeles International Airport, for the minimum wage. Ninh became a carpenter's helper. A few months later, he found a place as a trainee draftsman with a machine-tool company.
Four sisters and a nephew were the next Nguyens to come over. They went by boat to a refugee camp in Indonesia. In 1979, they joined their brothers in Los Angeles.
Then the other two sisters escaped. One, Hai, had been a student; the other, Mai, had worked at the U.S. Embassy. In 1980 they set out on foot. With two children, they traveled west to Cambodia and then walked for seven days through the jungles of Cambodia to the Thai border. In Thailand, they were admitted to a refugee camp. There they stayed for six months. In 1980, with Mr. Nguyen acting as their sponsor, they entered the United States. They were among the 808,000 admissions that alarmed many Americans that year.
The family with which they were reunited had changed dramatically in the previous five years. Mr. Nguyen had become a citizen and was married to another Vietnamese immigrant. He and the other brothers were established in a way that would have been hard to imagine when they first arrived, as dispossessed persons. They had assimilated so fully as to see that in Southern California in the late seventies, the road to financial independence was real estate. After Ninh and Viet arrived, in 1978, the three brothers had pooled their money in hopes of buying a house. Each of them was eventually bringing home about $1,000 a month; by sharing living expenses, they saved about $2,000 a month. By 1979, they had accumulated enough for a down payment on a house in Downey, a respectable middle-class suburb. All three signed the mortgage.
Viet had saved enough money from his work at the parking lot to buy a small furniture store, too. As he was contemplating the investment, he told Mr. Nguyen that it would consume all his savings. Mr. Nguyen replied that if he lost the money, he could always earn it back, but if the gamble paid off, he'd be independent. Ninh was by then earning $10 an hour as a professional draftsman.
Mr. Nguyen, the Benjamin Franklin of the family, encouraged his sisters to train for better jobs. Hai took a course in accounting and wound up working for a Vietnamese dentist in Long Beach. Mai studied cosmetology. She did not like it, but her brother pushed her to see it through. She finished, and found a job in West Los Angeles. She made the sixty-mile commute daily, and by the end of 1980 she was earning $2,000 a month doing nails. By 1982, she had a chance to buy her own salon. The family pooled its assets and took out loans, and now she runs Mai's Beauty Salon, in Beverly Hills, hard by Rodeo Drive. The family's father finally arrived, having first escaped to Belgium and established himself as a baker.
All the while, Mr. Nguyen was improving his own position. He rented the house in Downey to other members of his family, eight siblings and in-laws. They pay $100 a month apiece, which covers the mortgage. Mr. Nguyen has moved with his wife to a second house. They have carefully worked out their financial timetable. In a few years, they will have retired the second mortgage on their home, and his wife can quit her job as a chief bank teller to have children.
When I went to visit the house in Downey, home to nearly a dozen people, counting the children, I was prepared for a sense of confinement, or of brave endurance amid squalor, or of practically anything except the serene order I found. It sits amid other unexceptional, modern California houses, with a vista of a distant freeway, on a street like a thousand others in the Los Angeles basin. Inside the house, the sisters and brothers, arriving late after long commutes from their farflung businesses, changed quickly into Vietnamese pajamas and kimonos and took their leisure in the living room. Delicately colored prints of Asian scenes hung on the walls. The dining table stood on a platform with a canopy overhead, giving the effect of an indoor gazebo. The only external indication of the struggle for advancement going on within was the seven cars that jammed the driveway and lined the curb.
The adults, thin and short, spoke in heavily accented English about their arrivals, which in some cases were only a year in the past. Two elementary school children, whose father was still in jail in Vietnam, appeared in American-style pajamas and shyly answered questions in American tones. The family is still saving money, in preparation for the mother and for the spouses and siblings yet to arrive.
Mr. Nguyen's job involves assisting many new arrivals from Indochina. He tells them that they must adjust to the "new life" in the United States, as his family has done. He warns them against welfare, although he says he cannot blame people for accepting the $600 a month, plus food stamps and medical benefits, that welfare provides. "I tell them, If you go on job training, you will learn the English faster. Welfare will make you lazy. You will hesitate to work and hesitate to speak English."
The Nguyen family is, of course, not typical of all immigrants. Its members, with their education and their white-collar backgrounds, started out several steps ahead of the peasants and farmers who fled at the same time. The refugee camps, however cheerless, and the resettlement bonuses, however small, were more help than many other immigrants receive. Most important, the Nguyens' status as legal, fully entitled participants in American society made it easier for them to establish credit, buy homes, start businesses, and move up the ladder rung by rung.
Still, there is something in their story that is typical of immigrants' histories. However hard it was to continue living in Ho Chi Minh City (or, in earlier eras, Pinsk or Palermo), it took a certain daring to set out in the boat or walk through the jungle. At worst, the emigrants would die or be captured. At best, they would arrive as uprooted foreigners, ignorant of the language and the mores that compose their new culture.
Some theorists speculate that the act of emigration is a kind of natural selection: those who are passive or fatalistic—or comfortable—do not take the step. Others suggest that the rigors of the passage teach the immigrants the skills they need to survive. In any case, there is little dispute that an "immigrant personality" exists, and that its elements are the same ones that, in retrospect, are so apparent in the nation's previous immigrants.
Compared with people who have not been forced to land on their feet, immigrants are generally more resourceful and determined. (A twenty-three-year-old man from El Salvador, who had come to the U.S. illegally and was working in Houston, told me that he could not understand all the talk about unemployment. Why, he himself was holding three jobs.) The full story of the immigrant personality would also include the psychological burdens of dislocation. But looked at from the economic point of view, the immigrant's grit and courage, and even his anxieties, impart productive energy to the society he joins.
This is different from saying that immigrants are valuable primarily for their specific talents. Some are, of course; the harvest ranges from Albert Einstein to Rod Carew. But through American history, the great masses of immigrants have not brought with them special skills. Most have come from the lower, but not the bottom, ranks of their native societies. They are people without advantages of birth who are nonetheless on the way up.
"Those who do come to the United States are those who are advancing within their own societies," says Ray Marshall, now of the University of Texas; "those who have attained the necessary knowledge of America and how to get here, and who have accumulated or been able to borrow the funds they need to pay for their airline tickets or to pay their smugglers."
The single most important quality in immigrants is the willingness to adapt. The very traits that persuade someone to move from Guatemala to Los Angeles, or even from Detroit to Houston, often enable the immigrant to find and fill economic gaps, which is what the Nguyen family did, and what many other immigrants have done.