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.
Not every immigrant becomes an entrepreneur; a man who pushed a hand plow in a Mexican village will probably pick vegetables or wash dishes if he comes to the United States. The more temporary the visit, the more likely the immigrant is merely to sell his unskilled labor, rather than look for a special niche. Economists distinguish such "sojourner" behavior from the attitude of the true immigrant. It typified many Italian sojourners in the United States eighty years ago and French-Canadians in New England until several decades ago, and probably typifies most illegal immigrants from Mexico in recent years.
Still, there is evidence beyond the anecdotal about the economic benefits immigration can bring to the new homeland. The Urban Institute, which has been conducting a study of the California economy in the 1970s, recently released its preliminary findings:
During the 1970s, when Southern California received more immigrants than any other part of the country, it also created jobs faster than any other, and its per capita income increased by 25 percent, also higher than the norm. Immigration was far from the only factor in these increases, the study reported; but, it said, the findings suggest, "at least at the aggregate level, that large-scale immigration did not depress, and perhaps increased, per capita income in the state"—that is, it did not divide the pie. On balance, the study said, the economic benefits to the region—results of the new human energy, the entrepreneurship, the adaptability— outweighed the costs, which primarily came from the immigrants' use of public services, such as hospitals and schools.
Although immigration is a divisive issue in Miami, almost no one disputes the economic bonus the Cuban community now represents. The first to flee Castro were mainly professionals and businessmen, who soon repeated their success here. The second and third waves were less select, more like America's other immigrants; the first-wave Cubans grumbled that those who had lived under communism had lost their drive. Still, they were absorbed into Little Havana, where they opened shops and restaurants and kept the town alive. Miami's Cuban population has helped make it the entrepot for Latin American trade, to the occasional sorrow of the Drug Enforcement Administration, but to the satisfaction of financiers.
Immigrants eagerly join the American race to get ahead. According to Barry Chiswick, of the University of Illinois, the sons and daughters of immigrants earn 5 to 10 percent more than others of the same age and educational level whose parents were native-born. The immigrants themselves, compared with native-born people of the same race and with the same amount of schooling, start out at a big earnings disadvantage. But, in a matter of years, even the first generation catches up with and then passes the native-born. This "earnings crossover" occurs after fifteen years for Mexican immigrants and after eleven for black immigrants. According to Thomas Sowell, a conservative black scholar, second-generation black-skinned West Indians in the United States have a higher average income than native-born white Americans.
Those opposed to immigration respond to these tales of success with three objections.
The first is demographic. One by one, immigrants may add to the national wealth, but collectively they frustrate efforts to limit America's population. Arguments about the ultimate "carrying capacity" of America's farmland, water supply, and other natural resources have been muted in the past decade, as American fertility rates have fallen. But many who are concerned about population growth naturally believe that each new immigrant puts ecological equilibrium that much further out of reach.
Those who advance this case often claim that immigration now accounts for half the total increase in the U.S. population. That is almost certainly not true. During the 1970s, the American population grew by less than one percent a year. The roughly 4 million legal immigrants admitted during that decade accounted for 21 percent of the growth. In comparison, the population grew by 2 percent per year from 1900 to 1910, and immigrants accounted for 40 percent of the increase.
If legal and illegal immigration combined did, as many environmentalists assert, account for half the increase in the 1970s, then there must have been more illegal than legal immigrants during that period. No one familiar with the subject believes that so many came. Lawrence Fuchs is a professor at Brandeis University who was executive director of the staff of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, the government body that in 1981 recommended changes in immigration law. The Census Bureau has estimated, he says, that in 1978 between 3.5 million and 6 million illegal immigrants were present in the U.S. Fuchs says, "Since we know that some of those have been coming since long before 1970, and since we also know that a large proportion of them are persons who go back and forth and are definitely not permanent residents, it is clearly fallacious to assert a number such as 50 percent without carefully qualifying it."
The demographic argument cannot be dismissed. But if immigrants bring adaptability to an economy, they may thereby increase the chances of finding new ways to use and conserve resources. Environmental concern means that we must strike a balance between two competing virtues: a sustainable population. and the invigorating effects of immigration. Too many of the environmental activists sound as if immigration is an unrelieved evil.
The second objection concerns international equity, even morality. It starts with the premise that immigration is a naturally selective process. Precisely because immigrants are so industrious, it is argued, the United States should not be skimming them from the poor nations of the world. Roger Conner, the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told a congressional committee in 1981 that the 808,000 legal immigrants and refugees admitted the previous year represented one five-thousandth of the population of the world. "Out of 5,000 impoverished people, we took one, taking the brightest, most able, most energetic, the best organized," he said. "We are taking the cream of each social class by the standards of their society...."We are taking the most energetic and talented."
In a human family of great riches and greater deprivation, a country as comfortable as the United States has an obligation to help. But of the varied ways in which America might advance the interests of poor countries, closing the door on their people seems one of the least effective, direct, or fair.
"We never heard this argument from experts in economic development or from the developing countries themselves," says Lawrence Fuchs. "We only heard it from Americans who oppose immigration."
Third, many people object to immigration because of the Americans it hurts. Overall, the nation might gain from immigration, they concede. But the benefits go to the most comfortable Americans, and the costs are absorbed by the least powerful and privileged.
Roger Conner is one of the foremost apostles of this view.
Conner is a compact, sandy-haired lawyer, thirty-five years old, with a puckishly all-American look. Like many other lobbyists in Washington, he seems to be struggling to resist grabbing his listeners by the lapels so as to be sure they'll hear all he has to say. In the past, he channeled his enthusiasm into the environmental movement, but, he says, he came to feel that immigration was the biggest environmental question of all. For the past four years, as executive director of and chief spokesman for FAIR, he has been asking Americans to re-examine their assumptions about immigration.
Conner is exasperated by the notion that you can understand the effects of immigration by looking at the immigrants. "They are the last people you'd want to talk with," he said this spring. "Of course it's been good for them. Especially for the first ten years, they will work very hard. But what no one ever does, when they're out talking with the aliens and hearing their success stories, is talk to the people who are paying the price."
Conner admits that most people may profit from immigration. The immigrants themselves do, and so do those Americans who don't compete with immigrant labor and therefore are free to enjoy its blessings. The benefits include fresher food (picked by immigrant field hands, instead of by machine), more pliant domestic service (provided by Mexican maids), smaller bills in restaurants (with Salvadorans in the kitchen), and lower prices for new houses (because of lower pay for the construction crew).
Whom does that leave out? In Conner's view, those who pay the price are the black teenagers, the white working-class fathers, the ambitious children of maids and janitors, who are just as eager as any Vietnamese or Mexican to move up the ladder but who find that the rungs have been knocked out. This is a disaster for them but not, Conner says, for the classes that make the laws and run the businesses.
"If the illegal aliens were flooding into the legal, medical, educational, and business occupations of this country, this problem would have received national attention at the highest level and it would have been solved," the labor economist Vernon Briggs, of Cornell University, has written. Lawrence Fuchs says that according to public-opinion polls the college-educated are the only group in favor of more immigration.
The economic argument against immigration is particularly troublesome for liberals. It pits the rest of the world's poor against the two American groups thought to have the most to lose from increased immigration: unionized labor, which says its wage levels would be depressed, and young, unskilled blacks, who would be nudged out of place for entry-level jobs.
At this point, it is important to emphasize the distinction, not always clearly stated, between legal and illegal immigration. If one were searching for the pure immigrant spirit, the place to look would be among the illegals, for every one of them has overcome some obstacle in order to be here. But because they cannot compete fully in the aboveboard economy (they have no legal redress if underpaid or mistreated; they have difficulty getting loans or rising into the white-collar world), their climb up the occupational ladder ends early. More important, from Conner's perspective, they put unfair pressure on the American citizens competing for similar jobs. A man outside the law will accept working conditions a citizen would not—and should not. Once the illegal immigrant has the job, the citizen must choose between accepting similar conditions or going without work.
What kind of work do the illegals perform? According to some academic theory, and to the folk wisdom of the Southwest, immigrants do the jobs that Americans "won't" do. Michael Piore, an economist from MIT, has developed a model of a "dual" labor market: some jobs are so dirty, so onerous, so poorly paid, that if immigrants were not there to take them, the jobs would not exist. Therefore, the immigrants who are filling them have not really displaced anyone else.
"People say, 'Why aren't blacks like the Haitians?"' says T. Willard Fair, the president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, where Haitians now hold many of the maid and bellman jobs in which blacks once got their start. "'Why don't they want to work?' The Haitians are behaving the way we did thirty years ago. We would work for anything, take any abuse in the workplace."
To most of those directly involved in the industries where illegal immigrants concentrate, it seems obvious that no one else is lining up for the jobs. Last December, Merle Linda Wolin, of The Wall Street Journal, went to see a number of businesses where illegal immigrants had been rounded up during the spring of 1982 in Project Jobs, a short-lived sweep against employed illegal immigrants.
At a furniture factory in Santa Ana, California, on a railroad-construction gang in Texas, in a food-processing plant in Chicago, and at other sites of hard work, Wolin found that American citizens had in fact turned up for the jobs when the immigrants were gone—but soon afterward, they had quit. The pay was too bad; unemployment compensation was, by comparison, an attractive deal. Former truck drivers and carpenters found it humiliating to sweep parking lots or to keep up with a racing assembly line. By the time the *Journal's* reporter arrived, six months after Project Jobs, the plants were again full of illegal aliens. A team of researchers, headed by Wayne Cornelius, the director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, found a similar pattern in California. "The attitude of many young people is that this is the dirty work of society," Cornelius has said, "and that people born, brought up and educated in the U. S. shouldn't have to do it."
What I learned on my tours over the same territory supported Cornelius's point. At a packing house in San Antonio, for example, men grunted as they hauled sides of meat from trucks into refrigerators. They disappeared as I, an Anglo in a rented car, drove up; Project Jobs had struck here. The beefy, red-haired foreman said that he'd be "happy" to have citizens in his work force if he could get them. Of course, he had "no idea" whether there were any illegal immigrants there. "It's against the law to ask." This is the convenient fiction that permits many employers to hire an illegal work force and pretend they haven't.
The agricultural industry in California, Texas, and Florida depends more heavily on illegal labor than any other industry does, and the growers have a more fully developed self-justifying rationale. Many protect themselves by saying they don't know who works for them, since the hiring is done by crew chiefs, acting as "independent agents." In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, "independent" contracting means that people cross the river between 4 and 6 A.M. and stand near the bridges in Brownsville and Progreso, waiting for crew chiefs to drive up and hire truckloads of workers for the day. In the inland reaches of Texas and other large agricultural states, commuter labor is not so feasible, and resident camps of illegal immigrants are an open secret. Growers say they have no alternative: they need Mexicans (or, in Florida, Haitians) to work the fields, because no one else would stick with the job. Americans can get food stamps and live like kings on welfare, I was told by orange growers in the Rio Grande Valley; but the Mexicans are grateful for the work. They are even grateful for the piece-rate wages—40 cents for a bushel of cucumbers, 35 cents for a sack of oranges—that usually work out to well under the minimum wage.
Even Alfred Giugni, whose job is preventing illegal immigration, says the growers may have a point. Giugni, a gigantic, mirthful man of mixed Italian and Hawaiian parentage, is the district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in El Paso. "In the 1950s, the people picking strawberries in Oregon were high school and college students," he says. "Now they're Vietnamese and illegal Hispanics. The employers like it, because they will work harder. Your high school student will work long enough to earn as much money as he wants, and then he'll quit."
In Houston, a city swollen with immigrants from the declining industrial cities of Michigan and Indiana and the turbulent societies of Central and South America, I spent several days talking with illegal immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. All had been successful by their own standards, but all operated along the margin that separates jobs "with a future" from work Americans "won't" do.
One of the women was in her forties and was wearing a housekeeper's jacket from an office-maintenance firm. She had been raised in El Salvador, and for several years taught elementary school there. She came to the United States in 1970, when she was in her late twenties, on a tourist visa. It expired after three months, but she decided to stay. She began to work as a live-in maid for three immigrant families who shared one house. Her pay was $40 a week plus room and board. By 1974, she was earning $75 a week for the same work.
"Next, I learn to drive, so I can make more money," she said. With more of the city to choose her employers from, she was able to raise her rate to $125 a week. "But I am so tired of living in. I look for other work." In 1977, she found a job as a nighttime janitor—"bathroom lady"—in an office building. After a month and a half there, "the company sees that I speak a little English," she said. "They have other Latin people working there. They put me in a supervisory position, give me $2.65 an hour. During the days, I still clean house for $30 a day. I take the bus, and from six to ten in the evening I clean the offices. I am working thirteen hours a day."
She maintained this pace until 1981. As she had moved toward bigger, more institutionalized employers, her treatment had improved, and she hoped to continue that trend. She went to the employment manager at one of Houston's best-known hotels and applied to be supervisor of the housekeeping staff. She was eventually hired, and after several months moved to a similar position at a new office center. She now earns and pays taxes on $18,000 a year. "Nobody ever asks me for my paper," she says. "Never. But my wages are too low I take care of a big place; I would be making more than $18,000 if I had my papers."
I also met in Houston an eighteen-year-old with a tousle-haired country-boy look, who was dressed in shiny black polyester trousers and a matching vest, worn over a white-on-white shirt. He left his farming village in El Salvador late in 1980, because, he said, "it is dangerous to be on either side." He took buses through Guatemala and Mexico, offered *mordida*—bribes—of $10 and $20 a shot to Mexican officials along the way, and reached the frontier near Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, by the end of the year. He crossed the Rio Grande, which at most places means nothing more than a wade, and hitchhiked out of Laredo to Houston. He located friends from his village, lived with them, and found a job at $3.40 an hour washing dishes in a well-known hotel. This wage was typical: outside of agriculture and domestic service, I found almost no illegal immigrants working for less than the federal minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, but many working at the minimum or just above it.
After a few days in the kitchen, the young man had heard enough from his friends to believe that he could find a less grueling way to earn his money. He found a job in a metal-pipe yard, which at least was outdoor work. He tried to improve his English, and, although it is still not good, he was able to apply for jobs in which he would deal with the public. He returned to the hotel, where he now works as a bartender, earning $4.25 an hour.
His companion, also from El Salvador, was a twenty-four-year-old with the intense, committed look of a radical intellectual. Of the several dozen Salvadorans I met in California and Texas, perhaps one quarter explained their immigration in terms of political oppression and human rights. The rest said they were hunting for work. This young man was one of the quarter. He said he had reluctantly left his wife and child behind, because he was "Looking for a country that would respect human rights." He took buses through Mexico until he neared the U.S. border, then waded the Rio Grande near Brownsville. He worked on farm-labor gangs on the vast, flat ranches of South Texas, hitched a ride to Houston, and started as a minimum-wage dishwasher in a hotel, the job he still holds. After he was established, he called for his wife to join him. She left their first child at home with her parents. Their second child was born in Houston late last year, a U. S. citizen.
These dishwashers and maids think they are doing jobs most Americans would refuse. But there is another view of illegal immigration: it holds that men and women like those I met in Houston are displacing Americans, directly or indirectly.
Donald Huddle, of Rice University, contends that citizens do want the jobs immigrants now hold. Huddle and other researchers surveyed the jobs that illegal immigrants were holding when they were caught and found that they paid from $4 to $9.50 an hour. He concluded, "These wages debunk the commonly held notion that illegal aliens are taking only those jobs that Americans don't want because they are so lowly paid." Vernon Briggs points out that in every broad category of work in which illegal immigrants are found, most of the workers are still American citizens. He says that therefore it is misleading to talk about "immigrant work."
A more fundamental objection raised to the "Americans won't do dirty work" argument is that it ignores the dynamic aspect of economics. Perhaps it proves nothing that citizens won't take the jobs now available in the packing house and the tomato field; perhaps those jobs are dirty and low-paid precisely because so much cheap labor is available to fill them. "If there were no illegals," says Ray Marshall, "the jobs would be different."
Businesses in the service sector, such as restaurants and hotels, would pass along the modest additional cost of hiring legal help. Who would notice the extra dollar on the dinner bill? Some farmers would be able to pass along the extra cost of picking grapes or oranges; others would use labor more efficiently or mechanize their fields.
Still other businesses would fold, but for them the restrictionists shed no tears. In part, they would be service "businesses," such as household help. What would happen if the border were closed tomorrow? I asked Alfred Giugni, in El Paso. "The only serious impact would be the maid situation," he said. "Everything else would work out. You get the impression that the only maids who are paid the minimum wage in El Paso are the ones who work for people in the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service]."
The other likely casualties would be garment factories, leather works, and other low-wage, labor-intensive businesses. "The jobs in which illegal aliens are not displacing American workers are those jobs in which American industry is competing with workers in newly developed countries," Dan Stein, an official of FAIR, has written. America's future lies with a skillful work force and high tech. "The fewer unskilled laborers there are in this country, the better off we should be," Vernon Briggs says.
In any case, Conner, Briggs, and others argue, it is a strange and greedy kind of social arithmetic that tots up those who might hypothetically be hurt by restriction but ignores those who are now paying the costs of uncontrolled borders.
Briggs notes government estimates that 29 million people, or nearly 30 percent of the employed civilian labor force, work in what he calls "the kinds of low-skilled industrial, service, and agricultural jobs in which illegal aliens typically seek employment." He contends that "farm workers, dishwashers, laborers, garbage collectors, building cleaners, restaurant employees, gardeners, maintenance workers, to name a few occupations, perform useful and often indispensable work. Unfortunately, their remuneration is often poor, in part because there is a large pool of persons available for these jobs."
"The victims of immigration are the marginal workers, with low education, who may not be hot to work sixty hours a week," says Roger Conner. "My own life as an employer teaches me that if an employer is looking for a minimum of hassle, he will look past these people—unless he has a reason to have to make it work with them. There is just enough truth to the notion that aliens make better workers that it nourishes the stereotypes and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. One reason there are so few opportunities for young black people on construction sites is that the aliens on the scene always have somebody available to bring in with them."
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. "
Yet despite everything the Germans could do, their language began to die out. The progression was slow and fraught with pain. For the immigrant, language was the main source of certainty and connection to the past. As the children broke from the Old World culture and tried out their snappy English slang on their parents, the pride the parents felt at such achievements was no doubt mixed with the bittersweet awareness that they were losing control.
At first the children would act as interpreters for their parents; then they would demand the independence appropriate to that role; then they would yearn to escape the coarse ways of immigrant life. And in the end, they would be Americans. It was hard on the families, but it built an assimilated English-language culture.
The pattern of assimilation is familiar from countless novels, as well as from the experience of many people now living. Why, then, is the currently fashionable history of assimilation so different? Why is it assumed, in so many discussions of bilingual education, that in the old days immigrants switched quickly and enthusiastically to English?
One reason is that the experience of Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century was different from this pattern. German Jews, successful and thoroughly assimilated here in the nineteenth century, oversaw an effort to bring Eastern European Jews into the American mainstream as quickly as possible. In New York City, the Lower East Side's Hebrew Institute, later known as the Educational Alliance, defined its goal as teaching the newcomers "the privileges and duties of American citizenship." Although many Jewish immigrants preserved their Yiddish, Jews generally learned English faster than any other group.
Another reason that nineteenth-century linguistic history is so little remembered lies in the political experience of the early twentieth century. As an endless stream of New Immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe, the United States was awash in theories about the threats the newcomers posed to American economic, sanitary, and racial standards, and the "100 percent Americanism" movement arose. By the late 1880s, school districts in the Midwest had already begun reversing their early encouragement of bilingual education. Competence in English was made a requirement for naturalized citizens in 1906. Pro-English-language leagues sprang up to help initiate the New Immigrants. California's Commission on Immigration and Housing, for example, endorsed a campaign of "Americanization propaganda " in light of "the necessity for all to learn English—the language of America." With the coming of World War I, all German-language activities were suddenly cast in a different light. Eventually as a result, Americans came to believe that previous immigrants had speedily switched to English, and to view the Hispanics' attachment to Spanish as a troubling aberration.
The term "Hispanic" is in many ways deceiving. It refers to those whose origins can be traced back to Spain (Hispania) or Spain's former colonies. It makes a bloc out of Spanish-speaking peoples who otherwise have little in common. The Cuban-Americans, concentrated in Florida, are flush with success. Some of them nurse dreams of political revenge against Castro. They demonstrate little solidarity with such other Hispanics as the Mexican-Americans of Texas, who are much less estranged from their homeland and who have been longtime participants in the culture of the Southwest. The Cuban-Americans tend to be Republicans; most Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans are Democrats. The Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens from birth, and who have several generations of contact with American city life behind them, bear little resemblance to the Salvadorans and Guatemalans now pouring northward to get out of the way of war. Economically, the Puerto Ricans of New York City have more in common with American blacks than with most other Hispanic groups. Such contact as Anglo and black residents of Boston and New York have with Hispanic life comes mainly through Puerto Ricans; they may be misled about what to expect from the Mexicans and Central Americans arriving in ever increasing numbers. Along the southern border, Mexican-American children will razz youngsters just in from Mexico. A newcomer is called a "T.J," for Tijuana; it is the equivalent of "hillbilly" or "rube."
Still, "Hispanic" can be a useful word, because it focuses attention on the major question about this group of immigrants: Will their assimilation into an English-speaking culture be any less successful than that of others in the past?
To answer, we must consider what is different now from the circumstances under which the Germans, Poles, and Italians learned English.
The most important difference is that the host country is right next door. The only other non-English-speaking group for which this is true is the French-Canadians. Proximity has predictable consequences. For as long as the Southwest has been part of the United States, there has been a border culture in which, for social and commercial reasons, both languages have been used. There has also been a Mexican-American population accustomed to moving freely across the border, between the cultures, directing its loyalties both ways.
Because it has always been so easy to go home, many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have displayed the classic sojourner outlook. The more total the break with the mother country, the more pressure immigrants feel to adapt; but for many immigrants from Mexico, whose kin and friends still live across the border and whose dreams center on returning in wealthy splendor to their native villages, the pressure is weak.
Many people have suggested that there is another difference, perhaps more significant than the first. It is a change in the nation's self-confidence. The most familiar critique of bilingual education holds that the nation no longer feels a resolute will to require mastery of the national language. America's most powerful assimilative force, the English language, may therefore be in jeopardy.
It is true that starting in the early 1960s U.S. government policy began to move away from the quick-assimilation approach preferred since the turn of the century. After surveys of Puerto Rican students in New York City and Mexican-Americans in Texas revealed that they were dropping out of school early and generally having a hard time, educational theorists began pushing plans for Spanish-language instruction. The turning point came with *Lau v. Nichols,* a case initiated in 1971 by Chinese-speaking students in San Francisco. They sued for "equal protection," on grounds that their unfamiliarity with English denied them an adequate education. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, saying that "those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experience wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful." The ruling did not say that school systems had to start bilingual programs of the kind that the phrase is now generally understood to mean—that is, classrooms in which both languages are used. The court said that "teaching English to the students...who do not speak the language" would be one acceptable solution. But the federal regulations and state laws that implemented the decision obliged many districts to set up the system of "transitional" bilingual education that has since become the focus of furor.
The rules vary from state to state, but they typically require a school district to set up a bilingual program whenever a certain number of students (often twenty) at one grade level are from one language group and do not speak English well. In principle, bilingual programs will enable them to keep up with the content of, say, their math and history courses while preparing them to enter the English-language classroom.
The bilingual system is accused of supporting a cadre of educational consultants while actually retarding the students' progress into the English-speaking mainstream. In this view, bilingual education could even be laying the foundation for a separate Hispanic culture, by extending the students' Spanish-language world from their homes to their schools.
Before I traveled to some of the schools in which bilingual education was applied, I shared the skeptics' view. What good could come of a system that encouraged, to whatever degree, a language other than the national tongue? But after visiting elementary, junior high, and high schools in Miami, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, several parts of Los Angeles, and San Diego, I found little connection between the political debate over bilingual education and what was going on in these schools.
To begin with, one central fact about bilingual education goes largely unreported. It is a temporary program. The time a typical student stays in the program varies from place to place—often two years in Miami, three years in Los Angeles—but when that time has passed, the student will normally leave. Why, then, do bilingual programs run through high school? Those classes are usually for students who are new to the district—usually because their parents are new to the country.
There is another fact about bilingual education, more difficult to prove but impressive to me, a hostile observer. Most of the children I saw were unmistakably learning to speak English.
In the elementary schools, where the children have come straight out of all-Spanish environments, the background babble seems to be entirely in Spanish. The kindergarten and first- to third-grade classrooms I saw were festooned with the usual squares and circles cut from colored construction paper, plus posters featuring Big Bird and charts about the weather and the seasons. Most of the schools seemed to keep a rough balance between English and Spanish in the lettering around the room; the most Spanish environment I saw was in one school in East Los Angeles, where about a third of the signs were in English.
The elementary school teachers were mostly Mexican-American women. They prompted the children with a mixture of English and Spanish during the day. While books in both languages are available in the classrooms, most of the first-grade reading drills I saw were in Spanish. In theory, children will learn the phonetic principle of reading more quickly if they are not trying to learn a new language at the same time. Once comfortable as readers, they will theoretically be able to transfer their ability to English.
In a junior high school in Houston, I saw a number of Mexican and Salvadoran students in their "bilingual" biology and math classes. They were drilled entirely in Spanish on the parts of an amoeba and on the difference between a parallelogram and a rhombus. When students enter bilingual programs at this level, the goal is to keep them current with the standard curriculum while introducing them to English. I found my fears of linguistic separatism rekindled by the sight of fourteen-year-olds lectured to in Spanish. I reminded myself that many of the students I was seeing had six months earlier lived in another country.
The usual next stop for students whose time in bilingual education is up is a class in intensive English, lasting one to three hours a day. These students are divided into two or three proficiency levels, from those who speak no English to those nearly ready to forgo special help. In Houston, a teacher drilled two-dozen high-school-age Cambodians, Indians, Cubans, and Mexicans on the crucial difference between the voiced *th* sound of "this" and the voiceless *th* of "thing." In Miami, a class of high school sophomores included youths from Cuba, El Salvador, and Honduras. They listened as their teacher read a Rockwellesque essay about a student with a crush on his teacher, and then set to work writing an essay of their own, working in words like "Garrulous" and "sentimentalize."
One of the students in Miami, a sixteen-year-old from Honduras, said that his twelve-year-old brother had already moved into mainstream classes. Linguists say this is the standard pattern for immigrant children. The oldest children hold on to their first language longest, while their younger sisters and brothers swim quickly into the new language culture.
The more I saw of the classes, the more convinced I became that most of the students were learning English. Therefore, I started to wonder what it is about bilingual education that has made it the focus of such bitter disagreement.
For one thing, most immigrant groups other than Hispanics take a comparatively dim view of bilingual education. Haitians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians are eligible for bilingual education, but in general they are unenthusiastic. In Miami, Haitian boys and girls may learn to read in Creole rather than English. Still, their parents push to keep them moving into English. "A large number of [Haitian] parents come to the PTA meetings, and they don't want interpreters," said the principal of Miami's Edison Park Elementary School last spring. They want to learn English. They don't want notices coming home in three languages. When they come here, unless there is total non-communication, they will try to get through to us in their broken English. The students learn the language very quickly."
Bilingual education is inflammatory in large part because of what it symbolizes, not because of the nuts and bolts of its daily operation. In reality, bilingual programs move students into English with greater or lesser success; in reality, most Spanish-speaking parents understand that mastery of English will be their children's key to mobility. But in the political arena, bilingual education presents a different face. To the Hispanic ideologue, it is a symbol of cultural pride and political power. And once it has been presented that way, with full rhetorical flourish, it naturally strikes other Americans as a threat to the operating rules that have bound the country together.
Once during the months I spoke with and about immigrants I felt utterly exasperated. It was while listening to two Chicano activist lawyers in Houston who demanded to know why their people should be required to learn English at all. "It is unrealistic to think people can learn it that quickly," one lawyer said about the law that requires naturalized citizens to pass a test in English. Especially when they used to own this part of the country, and when Spanish was the historic language of this region."
There is a historic claim for Spanish—but by the same logic there is a stronger claim for, say, Navajo as the historic language of the Southwest. The truth is that for more than a century the territory has been American and its national language has been English.
I felt the same irritation welling up when I talked with many bilingual instructors and policy-makers. Their arguments boiled down to: What's so special about English? They talked about the richness of the bilingual experience, the importance of maintaining the children's abilities in Spanish—even though when I watched the instructors in the classroom I could see that they were teaching principally English.
In my exasperation, I started to think that if such symbols of the dignity of language were so provocative to me, a comfortable member of the least-aggrieved ethnic group, it might be worth reflecting on the comparable sensitivities that lie behind the sentiments of the Spanish-speaking.
Consider the cases of Gloria Ramirez and Armandina Flores, who taught last year in the bilingual program at the Guerra Elementary School, in the Edgewood Independent School District, west of San Antonio.
San Antonio has evaded questions about the balance between rich and poor in its school system by carving the city up into independent school districts. Alamo Heights is the winner under this approach, and Edgewood is the loser. The Edgewood School District is perennially ranked as one of the poorest in the state. The residents are almost all Mexican-Americans or Mexicans. It is a settled community, without much to attract immigrants, but many stop there briefly on their way somewhere else, enough to give Edgewood a sizable illegal-immigrant enrollment.
In the middle of a bleak, sun-baked stretch of fields abutting a commercial vegetable farm, and within earshot of Kelly Air Force Base, sits Edgewood's Guerra School. It is an ordinary-looking but well-kept one-story structure that was built during the Johnson Administration. Nearly all the students are Mexican or Mexican-American.
Gloria Ramirez, who teaches first grade, is a compact, attractive woman of thirty-three, a no-nonsense veteran of the activist movements of the 1960s. Armandina Flores, a twenty-seven-year-old kindergarten teacher, is a beauty with dark eyes and long hair. During classroom hours, they deliver "Now, children" explanations of what is about to happen in both Spanish and English, although when the message really must get across, it comes in Spanish.
Both are remarkable teachers. They have that spark often thought to be missing in the public schools. There is no hint that for them this is just a job, perhaps because it symbolizes something very different from the worlds in which they were raised.
Gloria Ramirez was born in Austin, in 1950. Both of her parents are native Texans, as were two of her grandparents, but her family, like many other Mexican-American families, "spoke only Spanish when I was growing up," she says. None of her grandparents went to school at all. Her parents did not go past the third grade. Her father works as an auto-body mechanic; her mother raised the six children, and recently went to work at Austin State Hospital as a cleaner.
Ramirez began learning English when she started school; but the school, on Austin's east side, was overwhelmingly Mexican-American, part of the same culture she'd always known. The big change came when she was eleven. Her family moved to a working-class Anglo area in South Austin. She and her brother were virtually the only Mexican-Americans at the school. There was no more Spanish on the playground, or even at home. "My parents requested that we speak more English to them from then on," she says. "Both of them could speak it, but neither was comfortable."
"Before then, I didn't realize I had an accent. I didn't know until a teacher at the new school pointed it out in a ridiculing manner. I began learning English out of revenge." For six years, she took speech classes. "I worked hard so I could sound—like this," she says in standard American. She went to the University of Texas, where she studied history and philosophy and became involved in the Mexican-American political movements of the 1970s. She taught bilingual-education classes in Boston briefly before coming home to Texas.
Armandina Flores was born in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, across the river from Del Rio, Texas. Her mother, who was born in Houston, was an American citizen, but her parents had returned to Mexico a few months after her birth, and she had never learned English. Flores's father was a Mexican citizen. When she reached school age, she began commuting across the river to a small Catholic school in Del Rio, where all the other students were Chicano. When she was twelve and about to begin the sixth grade, her family moved to Del Rio and she entered an American public school.
At that time, the sixth grade was divided into tracks, which ran from 6-1 at the bottom to 6-12. Most of the Anglos were at the top; Armandina Flores was initially placed in 6-4. She showed an aptitude for English and was moved up to 6-8. Meanwhile, her older sister, already held back once, was in 6-2. Her parents were proud of Armandina's progress; they began to depend on her English in the family's dealings in the Anglo world. She finished high school in Del Rio, went to Our Lady of the Lake College in San Antonio, and came to Edgewood as an aide in 1978, when she was twenty-two.
Considered one way, these two stories might seem to confirm every charge made by the opponents of bilingual education. Through the trauma of being plucked from her parents' comfortable Spanish-language culture and plunged into the realm of public language, Gloria Ramirez was strengthened, made a cosmopolitan and accomplished person. Her passage recalls the one Richard Rodriguez describes in *Hunger of Memory,* an autobiography that has become the most eloquent text for opponents of bilingual programs.
"Without question, it would have pleased me to hear my teachers address me in Spanish when I entered the classroom," Rodriguez wrote. "I would have felt much less afraid....But I would have delayed—for how long postponed?—having to learn the language of public society."
Gloria Ramirez concedes that the pain of confused ethnicity and lost loyalties among Mexican-Americans is probably very similar to what every other immigrant group has endured. She even admits that she was drawn to bilingual education for political as well as educational reasons. As for Armandina Flores, hers is a calmer story of successful assimilation, accomplished without the crutch of bilingual education.
Yet both of these women insist, with an edge to their voices, that their students are fortunate not to have the same passage awaiting them.
It was a very wasteful process, they say. They swam; many others sank. "You hear about the people who make it, but not about all the others who dropped out, who never really learned," Ramirez says. According to the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 40 percent of Hispanic students drop out before they finish high school, three times as many as among Anglo students.
"Many people around here don't feel comfortable with themselves in either language," Ramirez says. Flores's older sister never became confident in English; "she feels like a lower person for it." She has just had a baby and is anxious that he succeed in English. Ramirez's older brother learned most of his English in the Marines. He is married to a Mexican immigrant and thinks that it is very important that their children learn English. And that is more likely to happen, the teachers say, if they have a transitional moment in Spanish.
Otherwise, "a child must make choices that concern his survival," Ramirez says, "He can choose to learn certain words, only to survive; but it can kill his desire to learn, period. Eventually he may be able to deal in the language, but he won't be educated." If the natural-immersion approach worked, why, they ask, would generation after generation of Chicanos, American citizens living throughout the Southwest, have lived and died without ever fully moving into the English-language mainstream?
These two teachers, and a dozen others with parallel experience, might be wrong in their interpretation of how bilingual education works. If so, they are making the same error as German, Polish, and Italian immigrants. According to the historians hired by the Select Commission, "Immigrants argued, when given the opportunity, that the security provided them by their cultures eased rather than hindered the transition." Still, there is room for reasonable disagreement about the most effective techniques for bringing children into English. A former teacher named Robert Rossier, for example, argues from his experience teaching immigrants that intensive courses in English are more effective than a bilingual transition. Others line up on the other side.
But is this not a question for factual resolution rather than for battles about linguistic and ethnic pride? Perhaps one approach will succeed for certain students in certain situations and the other will be best for others. The choice between bilingual programs and intensive-English courses, then, should be a choice between methods, not ideologies. The wars over bilingual education have had a bitter, symbolic quality. Each side has invested the issue with a meaning the other can barely comprehend. To most Mexican-American parents and children, bilingual education is merely a way of learning English; to Hispanic activists, it is a symbol that they are at last taking their place in the sun. But to many other Americans, it sounds like a threat not to assimilate.
"It is easy for Americans to take for granted, or fail to appreciate, the strength of American culture," says Henry Cisneros, the mayor of San Antonio. Cisneros is the first Mexican-American mayor of the country's most heavily Hispanic major city, a tall, grave man of thirty-six who is as clear a demonstration of the possibilities of ethnic assimilation as John Kennedy was. Cisneros gives speeches in Spanish and in English. Over the door that leads to his chambers, gilt letters spell out "Office of the Mayor" and, underneath, "Oficina den Alcalde." "I'm talking about TV programs, McDonald's, automobiles, the Dallas Cowboys. It is very pervasive. Mexican-Americans like the American way of life."
"These may sound like just the accouterments," Cisneros says. "I could also have mentioned due process of law; relations with the police; the way supermarkets work; the sense of participation, especially now that more and more Mexican-Americans are in positions of leadership. All of the things that shape the American way of life are indomitable."
In matters of civic culture, many Mexican-Americans, especially in Texas, act as custodians of the values the nation is said to esteem. They emphasize family, church, and patriotism of the most literal sort, expressed through military service. In the shrine-like position of honor in the sitting room. the same place where black families may have portraits of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, a Mexican-American household in Texas will display a picture of the son or nephew in the Marines. Every time I talked with a Mexican-American about assimilation and separatism I heard about the Mexican-American heroes and martyrs who have served in the nation's wars.
All the evidence suggests that Hispanics are moving down the path toward assimilation. According to a survey conducted in 1982 by Rodolfo de la Garza and Robert Brischetto for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, 11 percent of Chicanos (including a large number of illegal immigrants) were unable to speak English. The younger the people, the more likely they were to speak English. Ninety-four percent of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five could speak English, versus 78 percent of those aged sixty-six to eighty-seven. Not surprisingly the English-speakers were better educated, had better jobs. and were less likely to have two foreign-born parents than the Spanish-speakers.
The details of daily life in Hispanic centers confirm these findings. The first impression of East Los Angeles or Little Havana is of ubiquitous Spanish, on the billboards and in the air. The second glance reveals former Chicano activists, now in their late thirties, bemused that their children have not really learned Spanish, or second-generation Cubans who have lost interest in liberating the motherland or in being Cubans at all.
Ricardo Romo says that when he taught Chicano studies at UCLA, his graduate students would go into the San Antonio *barrio* but could not find their way around, so much had they lost touch with the Spanish language. At a birthday party for a Chicano intellectual in Texas, amid *pinatas* and plates laden with *fajitas,* a birthday cake from a bakery was unveiled. It said "Happy Birthday" in Spanish—misspelled. There was pathos in that moment, but it was pathos that countless Italians, Poles, and Jews might understand.
With Mexico next door to the United States, the Mexican-American culture will always be different from that of other ethnic groups. Spanish will be a living language in the United States longer than any other alternative to English. But the movement toward English is inescapable.
In only one respect does the Hispanic impulse seem to me to lead in a dangerous direction. Hispanics are more acutely aware than most Anglos that, as a practical reality, English is the national language of commerce, government, and mobility. But some have suggested that, in principle, it should not be this way.
They invoke the long heritage of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. As "Californios" or "Tejanos," the ancestors of some of these families lived on and owned the territory before the Anglo settlers. Others came across at the turn of the century, at a time of Mexican upheaval; still others came during the forties and fifties, as workers. They have paid taxes, fought in wars, been an inseparable part of the region's culture. Yet they were also subject to a form of discrimination more casual than the segregation of the Old South, but having one of the same effects. Because of poverty or prejudice or gerrymandered school districts, many Mexican-Americans were, in effect, denied education. One result is that many now in their fifties and sixties do not speak English well. Still, they are citizens, with the right of citizens to vote. How are they to exercise their right if to do so requires learning English? Do they not deserve a ballot printed in a language they can understand?
In the early seventies, the issue came before the courts, and several decisions held that if voters otherwise eligible could not understand English, they must have voting materials prepared in a more convenient language. In 1976, the Voting Rights Act amendments said that there must be bilingual ballots if more than 5 percent of the voters in a district were members of a "language minority group." The only language minority groups" eligible under this ruling were American Indians, Alaskan natives, Asian-Americans (most significantly, Chinese and Filipinos), and Spanish-speakers. A related case extracted from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals the judgment that "the national language of the United States is English."
So it is that ballots in parts of the country are printed in Spanish, or Chinese, or Tagalog, along with English. This is true even though anyone applying for naturalization must still pass an English-proficiency test, which consists of questions such as "What are the three branches of government?" and "How long are the terms of a U.S. Senator and member of Congress?" The apparent inconsistency reflects the linguistic reality that many native-born citizens have not learned the national language.
By most accounts, the bilingual ballot is purely a symbol. The native-born citizens who can't read English often can't read Spanish, either. As a symbol, it points in the wrong direction, away from a single national language in which the public business will be done. Its only justification is the older generation, which was excluded from the schools. In principle, then, it should be phased out in several years.
But there are those who feel that even the present arrangement is too onerous. Rose Matsui Ochi, an assistant to the mayor of Los Angeles, who served on the Select Commission, dissented from the commission's recommendation to keep the English-language requirement for citizenship. She wrote in her minority opinion, "Abolishing the requirement recognizes the inability of certain individuals to learn English." Cruz Reynoso, the first Mexican-American appointee to the California Supreme Court, was also on the Select Commission, and he too dissented. America is a political union—not a cultural, linguistic, religious or racial union," he wrote. "Of course, we as individuals would urge all to learn English, for that is the language used by most Americans, as well as the language of the marketplace. But we should no more demand English-language skills for citizenship than we should demand uniformity of religion. That a person wants to become a citizen and will make a good citizen is more than enough."
Some Chicano activists make the same point in less temperate terms. Twice I found myself in shouting matches with Mexican-Americans who asked me who I thought I was to tell them—after all the homeboys who had died in combat, after all the insults they'd endured on the playground for speaking Spanish—what language they "should" speak.
That these arguments were conducted in English suggests the theoretical nature of the debate. Still, in questions like this, symbolism can be crucial. "I have sympathy for the position that the integrating mechanism of a society is language," Henry Cisneros says. "The U.S. has been able to impose fewer such integrating mechanisms on its people than other countries, but it needs some tie to hold these diverse people, Irish, Jews, Czechs, together as a nation. Therefore, I favor people learning English and being able to conduct business in the official language of the country."
"The *unum* demands only certain things of the *pluribus,*" Lawrence Fuchs says. "It demands very little. It demands that we believe in the political ideals of the republic, which allows people to preserve their ethnic identity. Most immigrants come from repressive regimes: we say, we're asking you to believe that government should not oppress you. Then it only asks one other thing: that in the wider marketplace and in the civic culture, you use the official language. No other society asks so little.
"English is not just an instrument of mobility. It is a sign that you really are committed. If you've been here five years, which you must to be a citizen, and if you are reasonably young, you should be able to learn English in that time. The rest of us are entitled to that."
Most of the young people I met—the rank and file, not the intellectuals who espouse a bilingual society— seemed fully willing to give what in Fuchs's view the nation asks. I remember in particular one husky Puerto Rican athlete at Miami Senior High School who planned to join the Navy after he got his diploma. I talked to him in a bilingual classroom, heard his story, and asked his name. He told me, and I wrote "Ramon." He came around behind me and looked at my pad. "No, no!" he told me. "You should have put R-A-Y-M-O-N-D. "
In much of the world, political boundaries reflect ethnic divisions that have endured for thousands of years. Something more than loyalty to a political system is involved in being a German, a Thai, or a Japanese. Japan, in fact, refused to accept more than a few thousand Indochinese refugees, primarily on the grounds that so alien an element could never be absorbed. But the United States has enshrined the idea that ethnic origins may be surmounted or, better still, ignored. Once Englishmen, Africans, Turks, we are all Americans now.
The glory of American society is its melding of many peoples. But that has never been an easy process. Few threads run more consistently through American social history than concern about racial and ethnic change. Since colonial days, members of successive ethnic groups have warned that the American national character, embodied by their group, was endangered by incoming aliens. The roster of groups that represent the "American" character has slowly expanded: the original British and Dutch Protestants have been joined by Catholics and Jews, Central and Eastern Europeans, and, most slowly and arduously of all, people of color.
Although ethnic concerns obviously remain on Americans' minds, our public language lacks polite ways to express them. The U.S. must rely on political and linguistic terms when it attempts to discuss the complicated web of relations that constitute a society; it has no acceptable language with which to express concern about changes in the ethnic makeup. Mexicans may complain that gringo tourists have changed the character of Mexican resorts, and Saudi Arabians may worry about the effects of American expatriates on their culture. Everyone concedes that there is a Mexican or a Saudi character, and that Americans do not have it. But when Americans attempt to talk about the effect of Mexican immigrants on American society, the only terms that seem to be available are those of racism. The exhortation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty contains no notion of degree, no hint that immigration could change American society too much or too fast.
The United States has faced this issue once before. Its response to the New Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century was very different from the anti-immigrant feelings of the previous fifty years. Nativist groups had complained about the Germans and especially the Irish during the mid-nineteenth century, but there were few suggestions that they were racially defective. The hostility to Italians, Slavs, and Eastern European Jews, in contrast, was explicitly racial.
The Dillingham Commission, the official government body whose research paved the way for the national-origins quota system, published a "Dictionary of Races" as part of the scientific findings it released in 1910. The purpose of the dictionary, its authors said, was to ascertain "whether there may not be certain races that are inferior to other races...to discover some test to show whether some may be better fitted for American citizenship than others." The experts who oversaw the dictionary's preparation, according to Oscar Handlin's *Race and Nationality in American Life,* "agreed that there were innate, ineradicable race distinctions that separated groups of men from one another, and they agreed also as to the general necessity of classifying these races to know which were fittest, most worthy of survival."
By "race," these nativist intellectuals meant what would now be called ethnicity. In 1916, a New York socialite and scientist named Madison Grant published a book called *The Passing of the Great Race.* Grant's insight was that the European population might be divided into three distinct races. The Nordic race, the source of America's original British and German immigrants, was, "all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers and aristocrats...." The other two European races, the Alpine and the Mediterranean, were heavily represented in the New Immigration and were deficient in various ways. In the same spirit, Francis A. Walker, then president of MIT, said that the New Immigrants were "beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence...They have none of the ideas and aptitudes which...belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains."
Most of the quack-scientific theories used to prove the racial inferiority of the New Immigrants make for easy sport these days. Almost no one is contending that today's new immigrants are drawn from defective stock. If anything, the complaint from those who must compete against them is that they are too well equipped in the struggle for economic survival. The only group to earn widespread opprobrium was the several thousand Cubans who were released from prisons and mental hospitals in 1980 and sent to Miami as a small but very noticeable part of the Mariel boatlift.
While the central thesis of "racial" inferiority has no clear counterpart in today's immigration debates, the sense of unease about racial and ethnic differences does. The concerns Americans expressed about the New Immigration help clarify our responses to the immigration now under way.
The turn-of-the-century restrictionists agreed on a premise that seemed so obvious to them that it was often left unstated. The premise was that different races had certain ineradicable traits. Observe the Italian peasant in Calabria, the Jewish peddler in Minsk, and you have seen the future of these "races" in America, the argument went. The presumed effects on American culture ranged from a greater dependence on central government to a reduction in the average American's height.
As post-melting-pot sociologists remind us, American ethnic groups are different from one another. They have different religious preferences, different eating and drinking habits, different patterns of economic success. Ethnic identification affects our political behavior: American foreign policy, for example, would be different if it were simply "American," and not an amalgamation of Irish-American, Greek-American, Polish-American, Jewish-American, Cuban-American, Afro-American, Italian-American, etc., views.
Some people therefore wonder about the directions in which today's new groups will push tomorrow's American culture. For example, Griffin Smith, an attorney who is writing a book about immigration, points out that the English word "representative" and the Spanish word "delegado" appear side by side on the Texas ballot. "The English word exists in a matrix of history and tradition that the Spanish counterpart does not altogether share....Whatever else Spain gave to the New World, a sound political tradition was not high on the list. Immigration from Latin America brings with it that tradition and culture."
A theme in the early literature of restriction as strong as that of the ineradicability of ethnic traits was the idea that Americans' land was no longer their own, that foreign-looking people speaking foreign tongues had usurped territory that once was comfortable and familiar. In his influential book *Poverty,* published in 1904, the Progressive reformer Robert Hunter wrote,
"To live in one of these foreign communities [within American cities] is actually to live on foreign soil. The thoughts, feelings, and traditions...are often entirely alien to an American. The newspapers, the literature, the ideals, the passions, the things which agitate the community, are unknown to us except in fragments. During the meat riots on the east side of New York City two years ago, I could understand nothing....A few years ago, when living in Chicago in a colony of Bohemians and Hungarians who had been thrown out of employment by the closing of a great industry...I felt the unrest, the denunciation, the growing brutality but I was unable to discuss with them their grievances, to sympathize with them, or to oppose them. I was an utter stranger in my own city."
With minor alterations for local geography and updating of the ethnic groups, this might be the lament of English-speaking whites of Miami in the 1980s, or of the black and white populations of Los Angeles, confronting their newly polyglot city.
Robert Hunter and his contemporaries had far more reason to feel like strangers in their own land than most Americans do now. In their day the flow of immigrants was far heavier, in both absolute and relative terms. Moreover, the immigrants who were arriving in such numbers seemed more alien than even the Cambodians and Salvadorans who have come during the 1980s. "The people who opposed their entry—and they were more numerous and vociferous and seem to have felt even more threatened than now—made the point that Catholics and Jews were radically different," says Lawrence Fuchs, speaking of the New Immigration era.
Certain parts of the United States have recently felt a localized impact approximating that of the New Immigration. First on the list would be southern Florida, which received the 125,000 Cuban and Haitian "special entrants" in the course of one year; second, Los Angeles; and third, cities along the Mexican border, such as Laredo and Del Rio, where the human ripples from Mexico's economic catastrophe first touched the United States.
But through most of the country, the immigration of the past ten years has meant a gradual change in proportions, rather than the introduction of startlingly different populations that was so troubling early in the century. Most Asian immigrants are concentrated in the western states, with nearly a third of the nation's total in California alone. Although Asians are increasingly numerous in California, they have been an evident part of the state's population since the mid-nineteenth century, when Chinese contract laborers were admitted to work on the railroads. Although Latin American immigrants now also congregate in Chicago, Boston, New York, and other northern cities, the greatest numbers of them have settled in the same southwestern states where Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are part of the traditional ethnic mix. Neither the Asian nor the Mexican ethnic group has always been welcomed by the white majorities in these areas—the Chinese were the targets of exclusionary laws in the nineteenth century—but they have been there through the years, and their presence presumably blunts the shock effect of additional immigration.
In short, historical comparison suggests that today's immigration should not seem as threatening as the New Immigration did. The country was able to overcome that great dislocation; will it not overcome this one? There is an important qualifier to the confident assumption that it will, however. Precisely because the warnings issued by the racial theorists were taken seriously, the New Immigration came to an abrupt halt. With the passage of the national-origins law of 1924, the ethnic balance of the American population was supposed to be preserved. With the coming of the Depression, immigration ceased to be an issue at all; during the 1930s, more people left the United States than entered it. For more than forty years, until the immigration reforms of 1966, the U.S. had what Roger Conner, of FAIR, calls a "breathing space." The cycles of the assimilative process were able to run undisturbed for more than a generation, slowly bringing the masses of New Immigrants into American culture.
Now there is no let-up in sight. Therefore, if there were signs that the assimilative process was breaking down— that immigrants were not learning English, that they could not participate successfully in economic and political life—there would be grounds for fearing that the society could not bear the strain of further immigration. But if the immigrants are, as all evidence indicates, learning the national language, respecting the rules of political participation, and proving victorious in the economic arena, then precisely what threat do they pose? For better and for worse, America has always been an open, fluid, commercial culture. It has embraced those willing to play the game its way, and today's immigrants are as willing to do so as any of their predecessors have been.
What of the embedded, "ineradicable" cultural differences that today's immigrants may introduce? To judge them we must leave the realm of evidence and enter that of faith. Either you believe that American society, which has absorbed and adjusted to so much, will be overpowered by this new challenge, or you do not. My own, purely anecdotal impression, shaped by stories like those of the Nguyens and their Mexican and Korean and Haitian counterparts, is that American culture will prove resilient. "I certainly don't think the shift from Poles and Slavs to Koreans and Vietnamese is all that significant," the historian Stephan Thernstrom, of Harvard, told Barry Siegel, of the Los Angeles Times, last December. "That's not to say there are no strains, but nothing now portends what the country went through in the mid-nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century."
We are left, then, with the nasty question of how much resistance to immigration arises merely from color prejudice. Some of it undoubtedly does. This is an atavistic emotion, part of American history and perhaps even of human nature. But it is ugly and ignoble, and it deserves no reflection in American law.
At the bottom of all fear of strangers, especially those of a different color, is the idea that they will remain a culture apart, separated by race and behavior and aspirations from the surrounding society. The most sobering impression left by my exposure to today's immigrants—not at all what I started out looking for— is the reminder that such a culture already exists, and it is not made of those new to our shores.
Immigrants rarely get their start in the middle-class enclaves and the high-rent districts. When they move to a city, they settle in today's equivalents of New York's Lower East Side. In most cities, that means that Cubans and Vietnamese are moving into areas that for at least a generation have been home to American blacks. There they do their best to establish themselves. Predominantly black areas of Long Beach, for example, are becoming centers for Cambodian and Vietnamese merchants, doctors, and dentists. From such proximity, poisonous relations have grown.
To many American blacks, it seems obvious that the immigrants, so new to the country, have been more warmly treated than the blacks, who have been here all along. Marvin Dunn, a black psychologist at Florida International University, in Miami, says, "When the first wave of Cubans moved in, there was a deep resentment at all the financial assistance and resettlement aid the government was giving them, at the expense of social programs for people who had been living here. Now there is resentment at a system that would prefer to hire Haitians because they work more cheaply and complain less." Many blacks also point out that the jobs as porters, maids, parking-lot attendants, and hotel workers which their teenagers might otherwise hold are being filled by immigrants.
For their part, Dunn says, "The Haitians have a sense that we complain too much, that our children are out of control, that we don't do enough for ourselves." From Asian refugees, from Cubans, from black-skinned immigrants from the Caribbean, I heard blunt, ungenerous assessments of the black Americans among whom they lived. The contrast is probably sharpest in Miami, where, compared with American blacks, one immigrant group, the Cubans, is economically so successful, and another, the Haitians, seems better loved by the Anglo and Cuban communities, despite its dark skin. The Haitians may live four to a room in ramshackle boarding houses; they may have difficulty finding work, except on the labor gangs in central Florida's vegetable-growing regions. Still, they seem hopeful, determined, convinced that they can make a better life for themselves. "These Haitian families are very hardworking, moonlighting two or three jobs," said a white woman who coordinates Creole bilingual education at a heavily Haitian school. "They have a lot of confidence in the system, they have a lot of trust in the schools. Much more so than many American blacks, who have lost faith in the system."
The immigrants are on their way up, their children guaranteed a better life simply because they will be raised in Los Angeles or Miami instead of Pnompenh or Port-au-Prince. Their optimistic faith that hard work will be rewarded is precisely what is lacking among the black teenagers and young mothers with whom the immigrants share the inner-city streets.
Such an absence of faith cannot be incomprehensible when legalized segregation is but one generation in the past, when extralegal discrimination lives on, and when official policies, especially those built into the welfare system, imply that such people cannot really be expected to take responsibility for their fates. Still, the fact remains that the culture of the black underclass leaves its members worse equipped for economic advancement than immigrants who start out with less.
With some exceptions, such as the criminal minority among the Marielitos, immigrants do not engage in crime and violence. Although fathers often leave their wives and children behind when they migrate in search of work, they typically send money home for support. When I asked young men from Mexico or Haiti about the families they left behind, I usually got a detailed, up-to-date report. Families that migrate together or form after migration are generally stable. There is usually a father as well as a mother to provide an example to the children and to discipline them. There are exceptions to all these generalizations within the spectrum of immigrants, but most immigrants are closer to the pattern the generalizations suggest than are most members of the American black urban lower class.
Many black officials and intellectuals who fear that immigration is harming the black lower class recite the economic arguments about depressed wage rates and competition for entry-level jobs. But when they spoke to me with greatest passion, they were not talking about immigrants at all. Rather, they were explaining that their deepest fears arise from the cleavage within black society.
"Some people seem to think that all blacks are poor and dispossessed," says Marvin Dunn. "It's not true. There are two black Americas. One is doing very well, better than ever. It is taking advantage of the system, moving up. The other is getting larger as a group, and it is sinking deeper into the quagmire of despair. That is the group that threatens the rest of America, black and white."
It becomes a self-perpetuating system," Dunn says. People who have grown up in single-parent families, especially boys without fathers, are less likely to have a sense of family responsibility when they grow up. The high volume of children who are growing up outside a family network could ultimately cause the destruction of the black family structure."
"This is the black man's black problem," says T. Willard Fair, of the Miami Urban League, an imposing, flamboyantly outspoken man with a shaved head. Fair is a leading advocate of restricting immigration; he has allied himself with Roger Conner's organization, FAIR. He argues that immigrants' gains have been black Americans' losses, especially in Miami, where Cubans and Haitians have made blacks politically and economically "dispensable" to whites. He has recommended a one percent sales tax in Dade County to finance black self-improvement. But, he says, though more money and fewer immigrants are necessary conditions for black self-improvement, they will not be sufficient unless the pathological culture of the black lower class is directly confronted.
"White America created that problem," Fair says, "but they are not in a position to solve it. I am concerned that we are on the verge of losing a generation of children. They have no ambition, no hope for a better future. They live for the now. We have got to understand that unless we [blacks] as a people put some basic values back in place, all the other stuff we talk about—the high joblessness, the housing shortage—won't mean anything."
Strictly speaking, the lower-class cultural problem is not directly connected with immigration, except as the flow of willing foreign workers gives employers even less incentive to find a place for black teenagers. But if our attitude toward immigration ultimately turns on our notion of what makes a society cohere, then it invites speculation about the other ingredients of cultural cohesion. I, at least, have been left with the feeling that our major social challenge will not be assimilating the Minhs and the Garzas, no matter how many of them might come. Rather, it will be coming to terms with that part of American society most estranged from the rest, giving its members a reason to feel that they belong.
Twice in its history, the American government has undertaken a top-to-bottom re-examination of its immigration laws. The first time, the process took more than twenty years to complete. It began in 1907, with the appointment of the Immigration Commission, chaired by Senator William Dillingham, of Vermont, and continued through the late 1920s as successive "national origins" acts were passed.
The Dillingham Commission was able to write on a blank slate; when it began its celebrations, there was virtually no immigration law to revise. But by the time Congress approved the creation of a Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, in 1978, the immigration code had grown until it was exceeded in complexity and length only by the internal-revenue laws.
The original chairman of the Select Commission was Reubin Askew, the former governor of Florida. When he resigned, in 1979, to accept President Carter's nomination as the U.S. trade representative, he was succeeded by Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame. The fifteen other members of the Select Commission included four Cabinet members; four senators; four congressmen; and a state supreme court judge, a labor leader, and an official of the Los Angeles city government who were, respectively, of Mexican, Cuban, and Japanese descent. In all, half of the Select Commission's members could trace their lineage to the New Immigration. They included former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, and former Representative Elizabeth Holtzman. By contrast, all the members of the Dillingham Commission were descendants of Englishmen or Scots.
The Select Commission held public hearings in a dozen cities, from Albany to Phoenix. Like the Dillingham Commission, it hired scholars and consultants for studies of the economic, linguistic, demographic, and cultural implications of continued immigration. In March of 1981, it released its final report and recommendations; since then, these have focused the political deliberations about controlling immigration.
The legislative vehicle for the Select Commission's recommendations has been the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, named for its two sponsors, Republican Senator Alan K. Simpson, of Wyoming, who served on the Select Commission, and Democratic Representative Romano L. Mazzoli, of Kentucky, who did not. The bill passed the Senate last year, but a flurry of amendments kept it from coming to a vote in the House. It died at the end of that congressional session, but was reintroduced early this year. It has once again passed the Senate and is still awaiting action in the House.
The premise of the Select Commission's report and of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is that legal immigration is good for the United States but illegal immigration is bad. Immigrants work hard, save and invest, and create more jobs than they take," said Theodore Hesburgh, when presenting the Select Commission's findings to a congressional committee in 1981. "The children of immigrants, according to our studies, acculturate well to American life and actually seem to be healthier and to do better in school on the average than those of native-born Americans." Therefore, "it is in the national interest of the United States to accept a reasonable number of immigrants and refugees each year. . . regardless of the color, nationality, or religion of those admitted." But illegal immigration creates a climate of lawlessness. Its victims, Hesburgh said, include not only the working-class Americans whose wages are depressed but the illegal immigrants themselves ("the ones who are victimized by unscrupulous employers, those who die in the desert, or in the ballast tanks of ships") and those would-be immigrants denied admission ("the ones who are waiting patiently in line for so many years to come to the United States through the normal legal immigration channels").
Before this general principle can be applied to creating specific policies, three questions must be answered. First, can the U.S. accept as many immigrants as would like to come—that is, could it handle illegal immigration simply by legalizing the entire flow? Second, if it must exclude some potential immigrants, how can it most effectively do so? Third, how, then, should it choose which immigrants to admit?
There is almost no dissent on question number one. The population of the Third World nations is expected to increase by 1.6 billion in the next twenty years; more than 80 million additional people will enter the Latin American labor force before the end of this century. Perhaps Mexico will discover a way to feed and employ its rapidly growing population; but for the moment the flow of Mexican emigrants is on the rise. As Central America's population soars, its nations are disrupted by warfare and revolution.
In the face of such pressures, the U.S. has no choice but to limit immigration. The environmental consequences of a larger American population cannot be conclusively proved. What can be proved is that successful absorption of immigrants is largely a matter of proportion. The annual flow of legal immigrants has ranged between 400,000 and 800,000 through the past decade. Even those levels, so modest by comparison with the ones reached during the New Immigration, have provoked widespread uneasiness and concern. The Select Commission staff recommended that future net immigration be set at 750,000 a year. But after the Cuban and Haitian landings of 1980, the commission decided to recommend 500,000 a year, which was reflected in the original version of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill.
If the purpose of the bill is to open the door to legal immigration, this seems inordinately timid. Immigrants had a shock effect in 1980 because so many of them arrived unexpectedly in so few places. Regular, legal immigration is far less disturbing. If illegal immigration were more effectively limited, an increase in legal immigration might be tolerated; we would have less reason to fear that the situation was out of control. Relative to our current population size, total immigration of 800,000 a year would be one third the rate during the New Immigration; one million would be less than half as much. If immigrants add vigor to our economy and culture, can we not accommodate half as large an alien presence as our grandfathers did?
Still, as many as we choose to admit, more would desire to come. Somehow the flow must be controlled, and there would be no shrinking from the realities that implies. "Controlling immigration" means using the police and military powers of the state to thwart the desires of human beings whose only fault is having been born on the wrong side of a national border. There is no alternative to exercising those powers, but they should be effective and humane. Current practice is neither.
The main burden is placed on the Border Patrol, supplemented by sporadic campaigns by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detect pockets of illegal aliens in garment factories, restaurants, and other employment centers. The tools at the government's disposal are hardly fearsome to most. Although it is a crime to "enter without inspection," the punishment in most cases is deportation. For an immigrant from Nigeria or Korea, this is a serious sanction (and an expensive one for the U.S. government which pays the air fare back home). For Mexicans apprehended at or near the border, it is not. For them, deportation usually means a ride in a Border Patrol bus back to the river, and another attempt the next day.
Although illegal immigrants may be arrested if found in an American workplace, the employer who hires them faces no penalty whatsoever. The immigration code imposes a $2,000 fine or up to five years in jail on anyone who "conceals, harbors, or shields from detection" an illegal alien, but thanks to a clause known as the "Texas proviso," passed at growers' insistence in 1952, hiring an illegal immigrant "shall not be deemed to constitute harboring."
The Census Bureau estimates that 500,000 illegal aliens enter each year. That does not mean that the alien population grows by 500,000 a year, because a large but unknown number come temporarily as sojourners. Researchers from the University of Texas have attempted to estimate the number of Mexicans here illegally by seeing how many people (especially working-age males) disappeared unaccountably from the Mexican population between one Mexican census and the next. They determined that between 1.5 and 4.0 million Mexicans were illegally in the U.S. in 1980, which is a smaller number than has been suggested by "certain non-empirically based speculations on the subject."
Since the illegal immigrants themselves cannot be directly counted, the government pays attention to the things it can count—especially the number of people the Border Patrol manages to stop on the way in. This figure has soared. In 1965, the Border Patrol and the INS located about 110,000 "deportable aliens," mainly through efforts at the border. (The Border Patrol attempts to prevent illegal entry at the border; the INS supervises legal entry there and is in charge of "area control" in cities away from the border.) By 1970, the agencies found more than 320,000, and through the late 1970s they apprehended roughly one million illegal aliens per year, more than 90 percent of them from Mexico. After the peso devaluation of 1982, border stations reported another sharp rise in the number of people apprehended. In the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, for example, the number rose by 33 percent between August of 1981 and August of 1982. Through the first eight months of 1983, apprehensions were well above the 1982 levels.
Such increases reflect the increased pressures driving people out of Mexico and Central America. But the figures are also subject to bureaucratic distortions. As Border Patrol officials are the first to point out, a woman crossing for the day to work as a maid in El Paso looks just the same on the records as a young man from Nicaragua nearing the end of his thousand-mile pilgrimage north. The least significant immigrants—the thousands of day laborers who trudge across the Rio Grande as dawn breaks each day—are the easiest to catch. In border cities like El Paso, the Border Patrol can arrest virtually as many of these casual crossers as it chooses. When political attention is focused on apprehension figures, this is the way to build totals with less effort than is required to break immigrant-smuggling operations or to "cut sign"—that is, to track small bands of intruders through the mountains and desert.
Border Patrol officials also point out that apprehension totals omit the crucial return-migration figure. While visiting border stations in Texas and California late last year, I was told that northward activity might be light. The main flow would be to the south, back home for the holidays.
But even when all the limits to statistical precision have been noted, Border Patrol officials are unanimous in saying that more illegal immigrants are attempting to come. The conventional political wisdom is that the Border Patrol is doomed to impotence in controlling the flow. With 2,000 miles of unfortified border to survey and a total work force of 2,600, no more than 450 of whom are patrolling at one time, the Border Patrol is said to be hopelessly outmatched. "There is not enough money in the federal budget to have the Border Patrol stand arm in arm for 2,000 miles, which is what it would take," says Henry Cisneros, of San Antonio.
My own observations of border patrol activities left me moderately more optimistic about the patrol's potential. Yes, the border is vast, and no, it will never be sealed. When I asked Border Patrol and INS officials in El Paso and San Diego whether a very patient immigrant could be absolutely certain of penetrating, the answer was always yes. As I moved down the hierarchy, I heard increasingly skeptical estimates of how much of the flow was being stopped. The station chiefs and district directors said they thought that their men caught one illegal immigrant in two or three. In the vans patrolling "the line," I heard estimates of one in four to one in eight—and everyone was guessing. The old hands said that new patrolmen had to get used to the idea that it was just a job. You had to go out and serve your eight hours and do what you could. If you thought about all the ones who got through, you would soon burn out.
Nonetheless, it was also clear that the Border Patrol, however porous, made a big difference by its mere presence, much as highway patrolmen affect the speed of traffic even though they could never arrest everyone going over 55. Most of the activity is concentrated in a few well-known areas. Although the E1 Paso sector, second busiest after Chula Vista, south of San Diego, is responsible for 341 miles of border, 86 percent of the illegal entrants it apprehends cross in a ten-mile stretch around E1 Paso.
This is not the same thing as saying that 86 percent of all crossings are made in those ten miles, but it can hardly be surprising that immigration is heaviest in urban areas. In the El Paso sector, where the border arbitrarily divides one large urban population into the American city of El Paso and the Mexican city of Juarez, a Mexican who makes it the first fifty yards in from the border has the hardest part of his journey behind him. Once away from the river, he can mingle in street scenes dominated by Mexican and Mexican-American faces (300,000 of Juarez's one million residents have credentials to cross the border legally every day). The Border Patrolmen pride themselves on being able to pick out illegal immigrants by their dress and demeanor—everyone else will look at a Border Patrol car as it drives by, they say, whereas an illegal immigrant will suddenly stare at a lamp post—but the chances of blending in are better here than in the desert.
Perhaps because all sides realize that so many are getting through, there is a routinized, almost casual air to the Border Patrol's dealings with immigrants in El Paso. As I sat alongside the pilot in a Border Patrol helicopter, he relentlessly tracked a limping Mexican man and two Mexican women carrying string shopping bags, flushing them from a housing development where they attempted to hide, pinning them in a cul-de-sac as a van roared through the streets to apprehend them. The drama and terror of such a moment, or of the nighttime chases on foot through back alleys, seemed lost on the patrolmen—and on their quarry, as well. Each was doing his job; they would probably meet again, in the same way. Five minutes after tracking down the three, the helicopter pilot was chuckling as he buzzed a stocky Mexican man standing knee-deep in the Rio Grande. "We call him the old capitalist," the pilot said of the man, who had his trousers rolled up and was carrying others across the river piggyback. "He keeps regular hours, goes on vacation with his wife. As long as he stays in the river, we can't touch him."
There are higher stakes for both sides in Chula Vista, the busiest part of the border. Fewer of the immigrants are day-crossers. This is the northern terminus of a long migration path up the Mexican interior; a hundred miles farther north lie the incalculable opportunities of Los Angeles. In the Border Patrol's favor, the "line" does not split a city here. For at least a mile north of the border, open fields constitute a no-man's land. From a hilltop with a view of the border, patrolmen spend nights peering through infrared scopes, looking for the bright-green patterns that are would-be immigrants huddling in a riverbed or crawling through the grass. The scopes, originally designed for Army tanks, are probably more effective for the Border Patrol, since its targets can do so little to conceal themselves or to disrupt the Patrol's activities.
Almost a thousand people a day are apprehended in this sector; in the course of several hours on the hilltop, I watched patrolmen pick out a group of crawling or running green shapes every few minutes and then, by radio, guide patrolmen on horseback to intercept them. Unlike E1 Paso's sojourners, many of these people tried to escape. They seemed desperate at having been caught. It was an ugly and sobering business; this is what the abstraction of "controlling the border" really means. But it also suggested that the Border Patrol can be more than a fig leaf. The crucial variable, as with the police, seems to be presence, and more presence requires more money. The least controversial part of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is its recommendation that the Border Patrol be beefed up.
While a stronger border patrol might further restrict illegal immigration, it will not stop it. All parties to the political debate agree that poor people will continue to come to a rich country until life in their homeland improves.
Some claim that if international poverty is the ultimate cause of immigration, coping with poverty is the cure. Thus Senator Gary Hart, of Colorado, has said that immigration policy is really foreign policy. By encouraging economic development, we can reduce the pressures that drive people to our shores. Logically and ethically appealing as this approach may be, it is also utterly unrealistic, at least as the centerpiece of immigration policy. Through all its decades of providing foreign aid, the U.S. has helped other nations grow more wheat and produce more steel, but it has been spectacularly unsuccessful in sponsoring large job-creation projects in the Third World.
As its answer to illegal immigration, the Select Commission recommended the step that has become the most hotly contended feature of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill: "employer sanctions," which would undo the Texas proviso—that is, make it a crime to hire illegal immigrants.
The case in favor of employer sanctions is that jobs are the magnet for illegal immigrants, and if the jobs disappear, so will the incentive to migrate. Technical arguments rage about the circumstances in which limited employer-sanction programs have or have not proven effective in Europe or in certain American states. But there is a commonsense connection between restricting jobs and restricting illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants told me that the one place they had to produce plausible documents in order to be hired was southern Florida. (Elsewhere, employers asked at most for Social Security numbers and immigrants provided fake documents, a ruse expedient for both sides. ) Miami was also the only place where I saw illegal immigrants who had trouble finding work.
"The chief attraction of employer sanctions for me is that it controls jobs rather than people," the economist Michael Piore told a congressional committee in 1981. "I think it is more humane in general....Most undocumented immigrants come to work....If you could eliminate work opportunities, you would therefore stop the basic attraction. People do develop attachments to this country....Once those attachments develop, it becomes extremely cruel and, I think, in a fundamental sense, inhuman, to expel them."
Under the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, those entitled to work legally in the United States would have to carry some sort of identification. The bill leaves the details of the identification system vague and asks the President to report on different options within three years.
Three groups have formed an unlikely alliance to oppose this plan. Together, they were responsible for keeping the Simpson-Mazzoli bill from coming to a vote in the House last year. Business interests, including agricultural growers, claim that checking credentials will be yet another intolerable regulatory burden. Their real objection, especially in the case of the growers, seems to be the loss of a hardworking part of the labor force. In deference to growers' interests, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill includes a plan under which foreign laborers can be temporarily imported, usually for farm work.
Civil libertarians, including the American Civil Liberties Union, view the national identity card as another dangerous infringement on individual rights and privacy. "A secure verification system could very likely be built on a national data bank which would centralize personal data about all persons authorized to work in the United States," John Shattuck, of the ACLU, told a congressional committee last year.
To such assertions, Senator Simpson has replied that the national identity card would be nothing more than a forge-proof record of a Social Security number, which is already required when accepting most jobs, opening a bank account, registering at many universities, and participating in other aspects of modern life. How would civil liberties be harmed, he asks, by a more authentic card? Are they not more gravely threatened by continuing to encourage the flow of immigrants who live outside the full protection of the law?
Finally, Hispanic organizations oppose employer sanctions, arguing that a crackdown on illegal immigrants will become a crackdown on anyone who looks Hispanic. "Well meaning employers, fearful of government sanctions, will shy away from hiring us," says Vilma Martinez, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Racist or biased employers will simply use the fear sanctions as an excuse to avoid hiring us."
The supporters of the bill contend that, on the contrary, a universal identity card will protect Hispanic Americans. Since everyone will have to present his identity card, Flanigan as well as Rodriguez, the Hispanic will have ironclad proof of his right to hold the job. (Under the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, the employer would be obliged to ask for the card, and once it was presented, he would be obliged to accept it as proof of legally admitted status.) This has not convinced the Hispanic organizations, who represent the most formidable opposition to the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. Their arguments so persuaded Senator Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, that he became the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. The way out of this standoff may be through modifications of the bill, such as those proposed by Gary Hart. He has sponsored an amendment that would impose stiff penalties on employers who discriminate against employees on the basis of "national origin."
As a complement to its crackdown on illegal immigration, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill proposes an amnesty for illegal aliens who are already here. Anyone who could prove that he had been in the country since before a certain cutoff date would be granted the status of having been legally admitted. Under the current Senate version of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, anyone here before January 1, 1977, would immediately qualify for permanent-resident status, and anyone here before January 1, 1980, would qualify for temporary-resident status, which could be converted to permanent-resident status if the immigrant demonstrated competence in English within two years. The bill has not yet passed the House, and the House version includes amendments that would push the 1977 date forward to 1982.
We're never going to see again in this country what we saw in 1954 with Operation Wetback," says Alan Eliason, the Border Patrol chief in E1 Paso, speaking of the last large-scale attempt to round up illegal immigrants. "We are not going to go out and try to locate and deport several million illegal aliens. We don't have the resources. People won't stand for it. It's not going to happen." Senator Simpson also says that amnesty is inseparable from the basic goal of immigration reform: ending the two-class society in which some immigrants live outside the shelter of the law.
The major opposition to amnesty now comes from local governments. Once immigrants are free to step out of the shadows, it is argued, they will demand more public assistance. But if Orange County, California, or Dade County, Florida, or Bexar County, Texas, ends up bearing an unfair burden for this change in national policy, the federal government should offer reimbursement. It is no solution at all to pretend that the U.S. will ever evict the millions of legal immigrants who have already arrived.
That leaves the final question about immigration policy: Of the many who hope to come, how shall the U.S. choose which to accept? Admissions fall into two categories—normal immigrants and refugees—and each presents painful choices.
In addition to changing the ethnic mix among immigrants, the reforms of 1965 placed a higher value on family reunification. Before, under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, skilled workers had an advantage in qualifying for admission. Since 1965, potential immigrants have been considered in three tiers. First come the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, defined as spouses, children under twenty-one, or parents of citizens over twenty-one, who are admitted without limit.
Next come less immediate relatives, who have first claim within the annual ceilings of 20,000 immigrants per country and 270,000 from the entire world. Places within these "numerically limited" categories are assigned according to six preference categories, four of which are for relatives. First preference is for unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens; second for spouses and unmarried children of permanent-resident aliens; fourth for married children of U.S. citizens; and fifth for brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens. Together, these members of the extended family accounted for 190,000 of the numerically limited admissions in 1978.
Finally, there are immigrants without family ties to the United States, who, as a whole, have far bleaker chances of admission. Some qualify for third preference, professionals and people of "exceptional ability in the sciences or the arts"; otherwise they are relegated to sixth preference, workers in occupations with labor shortages, or to "non-preference," which is everyone else. In 1978, some 14,000 occupational-preference immigrants were admitted, along with their spouses and children, 16,000 in number. Only 54,000 people were admitted as non-preference immigrants or through "private bills," special legislation admitting immigrants one by one.
A sane immigration policy would continue the emphasis on reuniting immediate families. It is harder to see the justification for devoting so much of the limited quotas to members of the extended family. Admissions systems are inevitably arbitrary, but this is more so than most. It bestows benefits on certain families simply because an uncle or a cousin managed to immigrate in the past. It closes the door on the classic immigrant, the independent man or woman who sets out to make a new life. As of 1980, Mexico had a backlog of 173,000 non-preference visa applications; worldwide, 280,000 non-preference applications were pending. They will be considered only after the 807,000 preference-category applications are handled—which is to say, never. In recognition of this imbalance, and in an attempt to open the door to new "seed immigrants," the Select Commission proposed reducing the quotas for the extended family and increasing them for independent immigrants. Why not follow the logic to its conclusion? Keep the places for immediate family members, and open the rest of the queue to independent immigrants.
Refugees and applicants for political asylum present the most painful choices of all. The 1965 Immigration Act reserved 6 percent, or 17,400 per year, of the numerically limited visas for refugees. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the annual limit was raised to 50,000. But that law also gave the President enormous leeway in admitting refugees, and in fiscal years 1980 and 1981 President Carter determined that more than 200,000 refugees should be accepted, specifying a ceiling of 168,000 each year from Indochina and 33,000 from the Soviet Union.
If the major enforcement problem for the INS is stopping Mexican immigrants at the border, its major administrative problem is handling the claims for refugee status and political asylum filed by Haitians and Salvadorans. Almost none of the claims have been approved; fewer than one hundred Salvadorans, for example, have been granted asylum.
One technical obstacle to the Haitian and Salvadoran claims is that the Refugee Act of 1980 applies only to those who have already fled their homeland for some country of first asylum other than the United States. "Vietnamese in Thailand is eligible, but a Haitian who lands in Miami is not. He may apply for political asylum, but he must prove, like candidates for refugee status, that he is "unable or unwilling" to go home "because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." In principle, this might be read to include almost anyone subject to the generalized oppression of Third World governments. In practice, it covers almost anyone who wants to leave the Soviet Union or its satellites, including Cuba, and precious few others besides the Indochinese.
The stories told by Haitian and Salvadoran "refugees" lack the crisp distinctions implied by the law. A few give convincing testimony that specific revenge awaits them if they go home. A larger number say that life there would be worse than it is in the United States. They are, of course, correct; and that is the ugly reality of our refugee policy. Most of the world's population lives under some kind of repression. Even though America's upraised torch of liberty is the noblest part of its role in the world, the U.S. cannot provide a new home for all of the oppressed. To whom, then, should it offer shelter?
The policy would seem less arbitrary if it were more narrowly focused. The United States should accept as refugees those who have been political prisoners or have been singled out for persecution. In addition, we have a special responsibility in situations like Vietnam's, in which our policies have directly affected foreigners' lives. (Some who advocate asylum for Salvadorans say that the same reasoning should apply there, because of past and present U.S. influence in that country.) For the rest, the U.S. should make more room in its overall immigration quotas, offering a less arbitrary chance to the millions around the world who hope for a better life and who could, in unexpected ways, make our lives better too.