The Perpetual Controversy
THE inscription on New York's
Statue of Liberty (written by Emma Lazarus in 1883) invites the rest of the
world to "give us your tired, your poor...the wretched refuse of your teeming
shore." Europe, the invitation implied, was old, tired, and crowded. By
contrast, America was youthful, energetic, and expansive. Whereas a European in
Europe might amount to little more than a surplus body, a European in America
would find room and opportunity in which to make something more of himself. For
immigrants, the statue's offer meant a chance for a better life; for the United
States, it meant a fresh influx of participants in the work of building and
developing the nation. Theoretically, at least, immigration was a beneficial
arrangement all around.
America has outgrown its youthful days of seemingly infinite spaces and
opportunities. Today, people are more preoccupied with such problems as job
insecurity, diminishing resources, and mounting social tensions--concerns that
suggest a growing sensitivity to limits and to the idea that there may now be
simply too many people vying for too little.
While this shift to a less hopeful national mood may account in part for recent
high levels of contentiousness surrounding the immigration issue, articles on
immigration appearing in The Atlantic over the course of this century
demonstrate that immigration has always been an incendiary issue, even during
bygone eras of expansion and optimism.
In "Restriction of Immigration" (June, 1896) Francis A. Walker warned that vast
inpourings of southern European immigrants threatened to overwhelm and thereby
degrade American culture and institutions: "the question to-day is...of
protecting the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, and the
quality of American citizenship from degradation through the tumultuous access
of vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry." For this reason he
asserted that, "For one, I believe it is time that we should take a rest, and
give our social, political, and industrial system some chance to recuperate."
In "Immigration and the South" (November, 1905) Robert DeCourcey Ward spoke out
as a southerner against what he viewed as the North's "unloading" of
second-rate immigrants by sending them South. "The South," he asserted, "does
not want the 'derelicts' and the 'chronic discontents' of Europe. It does not
wish to burden itself with vast expenditures for the support of pauper,
criminal, diseased, insane, and physically defective aliens."
In "Races in the United States" (December, 1908) William Z. Ripley considered
what impact a recent shift in composition of the immigration flow (from
primarily Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic to primarily Mediterranean, Slavic, and
Oriental) would have upon the character of the nation: "the fundamental
physical question is, whether these racial groups are to coalesce to form
ultimately a more or less uniform American type; or whether they are
to....remain separate, distinct, and perhaps discordant."
In "The Chinese Boycott" (January, 1906), John W. Foster critized America's
discrimination against Chinese immigrants in America as racist, and described
several particularly egregious examples of mistreatment.
In "Immigration and the Labor Supply," (November, 1905) Don D. Lescohier argued
against a relaxation of immigration restrictions then in effect on the grounds
that an increased flow of immigrants into the labor pool would undermine the
improved labor standards that American workers were struggling to establish. He
argued that Americans should take advantage of an abatement in the supply of
available workers to "devote ourselves to constructive labor policies which
will...maintain the laborers' health, character, and intelligence."
Over the years, critics of America's liberal immigration policy have argued
that it ensures a continual influx of impoverished and unassimilable people who
profit from federal support programs like welfare while contributing little in
return. Extensive investigative reporting led James Fallows, in
How It's Affecting Us" (November, 1983), to suggest that the reality is in fact
the opposite: because immigration tends to select for those who are especially
resilient, adaptable, and hardworking, immigrants are probably more of a boon
to this country than a burden.
In "Timing is Everything" (January, 1994) Lowell Weiss compared the drastically
disparate fate of two groups of Vietnamese immigrants in America--those who
immigrated at the time of the 1975 Saigon evacuation and those who stayed
behind in Vietnam and suffered at the hands of the Hanoi government before
finally making their way to the United States.
In "The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau" (April, 1994) Roy Beck described what
happened when residents of a small midwestern city gamely agreed to welcome a
few Southeast Asian refugees as part of a church-sponsored resettlement
program: it was not long before Wausau found itself inundated with Laotian
immigrants and plagued by such problems as gangs, racial tension, a
preponderance of people on welfare, and schools deluged by non-English-speaking
students with high teen-pregnancy rates.
In "A Bold Proposal on Immigration" (June, 1994) Jack Miles argued that rather
than yielding to a sense of helplessness about the permeability of the
Mexican-American border and giving in to demands for concessions to illegal
immigrants in California, the United States can and should clamp down on points
of illegal entry into this country. "Backlash," he explained, "is ultimately
against a perceived and frightening loss of control, rather than against
Mexicans as a racial or ethnic group."
In "Must It Be the Rest Against the West?" (December, 1994) Matthew Connelly
and Paul Kennedy characterized the immigration issue as a problem of global
inequalities which--in order to forestall destructive mass migrations from
impoverished to wealthy regions--must be addressed through development and
family-planning aid to the Third World. Virginia Abernethy, in "Optimism and Overpopulation", takes issue with
Connelly's and Kennedy's assertations and questions the
conventional wisdom which holds that economic aid from the West is the key to
curbing population growth in poor nations.
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Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.