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The Perpetual Controversy

April 1996

December 1994 Atlantic Cover 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 "Immigration: 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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