When Conner was a boy, in Dallas, his mother took in ironing and later did domestic work. He cites today's counterparts of his younger self as among the Americans the immigrant hurts. "To the extent that the initial targets of immigrants tend to be unskilled jobs and low-skill entrepreneurial opportunities—say a small construction company—those are the ways out of poverty for the energetic American. The guy who wants to work his way up—to him the immigrant is an obstacle. I would concede a gain in efficiency from immigration, but the cost is what we lose in upward mobility from the lower classes."
Conner's "concession" distills the economic argument against immigration to its pure form: immigrants can make the economy more efficient, but they can hurt the American lower class. Is this grounds for closing the door? I believe not.
For one thing, the analysis may be totally incorrect. Sixty years ago, Progressives and conservatives joined to oppose the New Immigration. The Progressives based their argument on the damage done to America's poor. Robert Hunter's *Poverty*, an influential Progressive tract, concluded that the immigrant stood between the American workingman and a better life. The Dillingham Commission, a government panel whose forty-two-volume study laid the groundwork for the immigration laws of the 1920s, also said that immigrants displaced American workers. Even so, the commission concluded that displaced workers found better jobs in an expanding economy. Oscar Handlin has said of its findings, "To the extent that immigrants contributed to that expansion, they actually helped to lift the condition of the laborers they found already there."
Is it necessarily any different now? In Texas and California, Mexican-Americans have been displaced by Mexican immigrants. Ricardo Romo, who teaches history at the University of Texas, says that his parents were displaced from their migrant laborers' jobs in South Texas. But "no one should assume that those who leave are worse off than if they had stayed," he says. "In many cases, there is substantial improvement when people move on. The kids go to better schools than their parents, they get into skilled trades."
Through the past decade, unemployment has been low in the very places where immigration, legal and illegal, has been the greatest: California, Florida, Texas. True, this is partly tautology—why would immigrants go where there were no jobs? But it also suggests that a growing economy, even though washed by waves of immigration, can create more opportunities for Americans than a stagnant one that freezes competitors out.
The Urban Institute's study of Southern California reported that the region's unemployment rates for all races and age groups were lower than the national average, and that the difference between rates for whites and for non-whites was less than elsewhere. This was true though Southern California is rivaled only by Miami in its concentration of immigrants and has a higher proportion of illegals. "One can conclude that the large undocumented population in Los Angeles did not increase unemployment among Hispanics or other groups in Los Angeles," the report said.
Even if the case against illegal immigrants is assumed to be true, is the solution to shield the entire economy from the bracing effects of immigration? Restrictionists often cite the case of Kemah, Texas, to suggest the tensions that even legal immigrants create. In Kemah, the commercial fishermen who had long worked the Gulf Coast found their waters dotted with Vietnamese in rival boats. The Vietnamese were here legally, admitted as refugees. They had scrimped, like the Nguyens, to lease or buy their fishing craft. The working-class whites of the region had initially tolerated them. When the Vietnamese "took low income jobs cleaning fish or working in restaurant kitchens, they were acceptable," Paul D. Starr, a sociologist from Auburn University, said recently in the Texas Observer. "But when they became fishermen—and competitors—attitudes toward them changed....The unpleasant fact is that the Vietnamese work harder and longer and under more difficult conditions than do most Americans."
The Vietnamese won, and American citizens lost—but they lost in the kind of economic competition that is supposed to be the engine of capitalism. Should the fishermen have been protected against the Vietnamese's willingness to work longer hours? Are we ready to say that fair competition is too much for Americans to withstand? Unless we are, there is no economic case against legal immigration.
Unfair competition is something else. Illegal immigrants, however admirable as individuals, are unfair rivals. They are often exploited, but that is not the real inequity. After all, they are here by their own choice. They are most unfair to the struggling Americans who hold similar jobs. Appreciating the immigrants' adaptability, we should welcome their lawful presence. Can anyone contend that what the Nguyen family enjoys it has "taken" from someone else? But recognizing the barriers that the black teenager, the white laborer, and the Mexican-American father confront, and the strains their frustration puts on the entire society, we should attempt to ensure that less of America's immigration takes place outside the law.
Assume for a moment that legal immigrants make an economy more efficient. Does that tell us all we need to know in order to understand their impact on our society? A national culture is held together by official rules and informal signals. Through their language, dress, taste, and habits of life, immigrants initially violate the rules and confuse the signals. The United States has prided itself on building a nation out of diverse parts. *E Pluribus Unum* originally referred to the act of political union in which separate colonies became one sovereign state. It now seems more fitting as a token of the cultural adjustments through which immigrant strangers have become Americans. Can the assimilative forces still prevail?
The question arises because most of today's immigrants share one trait: their native language is Spanish.
From 1970 to 1978, the three leading sources of legal immigrants to the U.S. were Mexico, the Philippines, and Cuba. About 42 percent of legal immigration during the seventies was from Latin America. It is thought that about half of all illegal immigrants come from Mexico, and 10 to 15 percent more from elsewhere in Latin America. Including illegal immigrants makes all figures imprecise, but it seems reasonable to conclude that more than half the people who now come to the United States speak Spanish. This is a greater concentration of immigrants in one non-English language group than ever before.
Is it a threat? The conventional wisdom about immigrants and their languages is that the Spanish-speakers are asking for treatment different from that which has been accorded to everybody else. In the old days, it is said, immigrants were eager to assimilate as quickly as possible. They were placed, sink or swim, in English-language classrooms, and they swam. But now the Latin Americans seem to be insisting on bilingual classrooms and ballots. "The Hispanics demand that the United States become a bilingual country, with all children entitled to be taught in the language of their heritage, at public expense," Theodore White has written. Down this road lie the linguistic cleavages that have brought grief to other nations.
This is the way many people think, and this is the way I myself thought as I began this project.
The historical parallel closest to today's concentration of Spanish-speaking immigrants is the German immigration of the nineteenth century. From 1830 to 1890, 4.5 million Germans emigrated to the United States, making up one third of the immigrant total. The Germans recognized that command of English would finally ensure for them, and especially for their children, a place in the mainstream of American society. But like the Swedes, Dutch, and French before them, they tried hard to retain the language in which they had been raised.
The midwestern states, where Germans were concentrated, established bilingual schools, in which children could receive instruction in German. In Ohio. German-English public schools were in operation by 1840; in 1837, the Pennsylvania legislature ordered that German-language public schools be established on an equal basis with English-language schools. Minnesota, Maryland, and Indiana also operated public schools in which German was used, either by itself or in addition to English. In *Life with Two Languages,* his study of bilingualism, Francois Grosjean says, "What is particularly striking about German Americans in the nineteenth century is their constant efforts to maintain their language, culture, and heritage. "