One Nation, Inhospitable?Round One -- Opening Remarks
Posted November 6, 1996
Why are Americans in such a mean mood toward immigrants? First, it remains to be seen just how much meanness is out there, and how deep and durable it is. Anti-immigrant feeling, or "nativism," is a familiar phenomenon in our history, but it is episodic. The classic study of nativism in the United States, John Higham's Strangers in the Land (1955), makes a persuasive case that anti-immigrant feeling in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries waxed and waned in inverse ratio to swings in the cycle of the society's confidence in its general economic and social health. The basic vocabulary and emotional template of nativism were constants; but nativists had little scope for consequential action except under specific conditions. When the economy was healthy and confidence strong, the overall emotional valence of nativism remained low. Hard times, conversely, nourished nativism. The soundness of Higham's conclusion seems to me to be underwritten by its conformity with common sense.
Host: Jack Beatty
Senior editor, The Atlantic Monthly George J. Borjas
A professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Borjas is the author of Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy (1990) and Labor Economics (1996). His article "The New Economics of Immigration" appears in the November, 1996, issue of The Atlantic. Peter Brimelow
A senior editor at Forbes magazine and The National Review, Brimelow is the author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster (1995).
David M. Kennedy
The Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University, Kennedy was the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in the past academic year. His article "Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?" appears in the November, 1996, issue of The Atlantic.
Higham even suggests that the historic high point of nativism -- marked by the
closure of unrestricted immigration in the early 1920s, and especially by the
All this is an elaborate way of saying that nativism is arguably a sub-dominant theme in our history, one that has the opportunity to flourish only under
If that historical perspective is accurate, it suggests that present-day nativism, of the type Governor Wilson has exploited and energized, is principally the product of general social and economic stress -- especially, in California, stress induced by the end of the Cold War and the rapid build-down of several big defense contractors. Now that those shocks have been absorbed and the California economy is showing signs of recovery, we should expect that anti-immigration
Having said that, I should add that current anti-immigrant feeling is fed by one factor that does not have an adequate historical precedent: the intersection of attitudes toward immigrants and attitudes toward the welfare state. The great immigrant tide of the past century washed ashore well before there was any significant welfare apparatus, at any level, local, state, or federal. The post-1965 immigrant wave has arrived, of course, in the post-New Deal and post-Great Society era, and the issue of immigrant dependency is thus substantially new. To be fair, most of Governor Wilson's campaign against unrestricted immigration has focused on this issue, and it is not an illegitimate one. It would be difficult to defend an immigration system that provided incentives for large numbers of people to enter a host society --whether legally or illegally -- for purposes of becoming socially and economically dependent on the productive members of that society. In that light, though surely one might disagree about the details and the appropriate policy approaches, the principle of restricting welfare access even to legal immigrants doesn't strike me as mistaken in its premises. The situation is somewhat analogous -- and analogously vexed -- to the situation of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and the reforms suggested to AFDC in the recent welfare legislation. No one can argue strenuously that truly dependent and needy children should be denied public assistance. The trick is to devise a system that discourages people from placing children in that circumstance in the first place. So far, we do not appear to have been clever enough to come up with ideas of how do that -- short of simply cutting off benefits to children and immigrants alike, that is. But the effort to find a policy device that provides the proper mix of incentives and disincentives shouldn't be reflexively dismissed as retrograde.
As for migration as the "euthanasia of memories" -- it is, of course, an old theme, one lyrically evoked many years ago in Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted (1951). But if the euthanasia of memory -- a poetical description of "assimilation" -- was once the historical norm, here again, I think, in our own time we are in the grip of a different cultural matrix, one that has erected an elaborate set of mechanisms not simply to sustain memory, but to make political and economic advantage out of the preservation of memory -- or, more precisely, the preservation of separate group identities. Affirmative action and set-aside programs are the specific devices that do this work, and here again we confront the intersection of feelings toward immigrants with feelings toward a much broader range of issues and polices -- in this case, policies that originated out of concern for African-Americans in the heyday of the Civil Rights era but that have now been extended to many other social sectors. The rewards of separatism were much lesser a century ago than they are today, when many groups have acquired a vested interest in maintaining distinct identities, a degree of interest that goes well beyond the natural human desire not to lose contact with one's cultural patrimony. To the extent that this peculiar legacy of the Civil Rights movement works to encourage particularism and retard the assimilation of immigrants today, one can only say that this is an ironic result of a policy originally intended to catalyze the integration of blacks into the broader society.
Americans in a mean mood toward immigrants? As an immigrant myself, I welcome the chance to assimilate idiomatically as follows: Baloney! Americans are in fact extremely, indeed excessively, tolerant of us. Perhaps the most notable exception: native intellectuals and policy wonks who hate having their romantic delusions about immigration dispelled by critics with actual experience.
It is quite obviously absurd to expect Americans to enjoy being forced to subsidize immigration. This forced subsidization did not happen during the last great influx, from 1890 to 1920, because the welfare state did not then exist. It did not happen when Franklin D. Roosevelt fashionably insulted the Daughters of the American Revolution, because immigration was not then taking place. The middle years of this century saw one of the greatest of the many immigration lulls that have occurred since Colonial times and that have always been crucial to the process of assimilation. But forced subsidization is precisely what is happening now.
There is no mystery about why immigration is flaring up as a political issue. It always flares up when the numbers get high (1840s, 1890s) and it only fades when the numbers fall, either spontaneously (1850s) or through legislation (1920s). High numbers force hard choices on policy makers, such as cutting legal immigrants off welfare and throwing illegal immigrants out of school. Low numbers mean these choices can be evaded. And when immigrants are radically different from natives, culturally and ethnically, the effect of high immigration is vastly exacerbated.
The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, which touched off the current influx, perversely guarantee both high numbers and radical differences. To gauge this, remember that the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the American population will stabilize at 275-290 million without immigration. But with immigration, the projection is a population of 400 million by 2050. And whites will then verge on becoming a minority, because this immigration is in effect arbitrarily restricted to a few Third World countries. There is no precedent for this transformation in the entire history of the world. Those who favor this policy have an obligation to explain why they want to change America. They will have plenty of opportunity. The numbers are enough to fuel an inferno.
The long academic argument about the relative skills, success, and fiscal impact of the post-1965 immigrant wave is now essentially over, although Washington and
This academic argument, however, is irrelevant to the real question, which is not Does immigration do harm? but rather Is it necessary? Does immigration do something for native-born Americans that they could not do for themselves through other policies?
Immigration is a luxury not a necessity. It might have been mildly useful if the 1965 law had not so substantially de-emphasized potential immigrants' desirable skills as a criterion for admission. The ability of American society to absorb immigrants gave it a marginal advantage over, say, Europe. But this advantage has been frittered away by thirty years of irresponsible policy.
Underlying this is the American elite's convulsive inability to handle questions of race -- or anything that can be twisted to resemble race -- and its unspoken but profound conviction that the American people must never be trusted on such matters. Current immigration policy is an expression of this pathological anti-racism.
Our host, Mr. Beatty, has posed questions of great import. I will concentrate my discussion on the assertion that Americans are in a "mean mood" toward immigrants.
The current mood in America does not arise out of a vacuum. We must keep in mind that the demographic, social, and economic impact of immigration varies by time and place, and that the so-called "national mood" is shaped by the public's perception of and reaction to these variations. In some periods and places, immigration may well have a very positive impact on society and the economy, and as a result the mood toward immigrants is quite welcoming. But at other times and places, the effect is less benign, and perhaps even harmful, and, not surprisingly, the mood darkens.
Our current mood can be traced back to a historic event that took place thirty-one years ago: the enactment of the the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965. Partly because of this legislation, the number, national-origin mix, and skill composition of immigrants admitted to the United States began to change drastically, despite promises from key supporters of the amendments that no such changes were likely to occur.
This legislation, for example, made family ties with persons already residing in the United States the prime determinant for the granting of visas. One cannot fault a cynic for interpreting
This argument, however, fails to account for two distinct trends. The first is that economic and social conditions in the traditional "source countries" of Western Europe improved dramatically in the postwar era, thus removing the economic motivation to move to the United States. Even if immigration policy had not changed in 1965 we would probably have witnessed a decline in immigration from these countries.
In addition, the 1965 amendments build in a "multiplier effect" in the allocation of visas to close family members. Suppose, for example, that a married couple enters the United States and both spouses become naturalized citizens. Both can then sponsor the entry of their siblings. If these siblings are married, they can then sponsor the entry of their spouses and children. After some time, the spouses of the siblings can sponsor the entry of their parents, their siblings, and so on. The existing legislation, therefore, creates the potential for a geometric, Malthusian-type growth in the size of the immigrant flow. Once an economically motivated immigrant group establishes a beachhead in the United States, the law opens up many opportunities for other members of that group to immigrate as well. One immigrant today can mean a lot more tomorrow.
The immigration wave that we have witnessed during the past thirty years has had effects far beyond those envisioned by the authors of the 1965 amendments. With little planning and with even less warning, this legislation opened up a historic chapter in the history of U.S. immigration. Unless our policy changes, there is no obvious congruence of forces that will moderate the size of the immigrant flow or improve its skill mix.
No wonder Americans are in a mean mood about immigration. They got a lot they didn't bargain for: an increasing number of poor immigrants; a reduction in employment opportunities for less-skilled workers already in the United
Some of these demographic, social, and economic concerns have probably been exaggerated by those who have a restrictionist or close-down-the-borders agenda. But, for most of us, the concerns are real. One need not be a "nativist" or a "racist"-- accusatory buzzwords for many in the pro-immigration movement -- to see that there are problems and that these problems need to be taken care of. If we ignore these concerns now, we will only exacerbate their social and economic impact in the future.
Forum Overview Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty
Round One -- Posted November 6, 1996
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.