Immigration: The Perpetual Controversy

Writers dating back to the nineteenth century argue the merits and pitfalls of American immigration

On the afternoon of April 10, 2006, more than 150,000 people from all across America descended on the Washington Mall. Joining forces with Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, a D.C.-based immigrant rights group, they marched past the Washington Monument and the White House. Across the country—in Dallas, Phoenix, New York, Seattle, and Chicago—thousands of other protesters took to the streets, opposing newly proposed laws that would make it difficult for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

These events suggest that, despite the Statue of Liberty's call for the world's tired and poor, America is still struggling with the issue of immigration. Some insist that foreign workers contribute to America's prized diversity as well as its economy. Others beg to differ, painting mass immigration as a parasitic force that strains the school system and saps welfare funds. Throughout the generations, Atlantic authors have taken up both sides of this ongoing debate.

As early as 1896, Atlantic writer Francis A. Walker warned in "Restriction of Immigration" that a vast influx of southern European immigrants threatened to overwhelm American culture and institutions. Until the 1830s, he argued, America was "almost wholly a native and wholly an acclimated population." All of this changed with the arrival of what he called "large numbers of degraded peasantry." Suddenly, the United States ceased to be a classless society. The newcomers were willing to take on undesirable jobs, and already-established Americans became unwilling to work alongside "those whom they did not recognize as of their own grade and condition."

Rather than viewing the immigrants’ poverty and lack of education as a temporary problem that would vanish with future generations, he argued that their presence had forever destroyed the wholesome, hearty American way of life.

Through all our early history, Americans, from Governor Winthrop, through Jonathan Edwards, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, had done every sort of work which was required for the comfort of their families and for the upbuilding of the state, and had not been ashamed. They called nothing common or unclean which needed to be done for their own good or for the good of all…. So long as manual labor, in whatever field, was to be done by all, each in his place, there was no revolt at it; but when working on railroads and canals became the sign of a want of education and of a low social condition, our own people gave it up.

In conclusion, Walker argued that it was time for the nation to take a break and resolve its new social and economic issues before opening its borders to the world once more. "The problems which so sternly confront us to-day," he wrote, "are serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews."

A decade later, Atlantic author, John W. Foster took a different tack, defending newcomers against what he saw as blatant discrimination. In "The Chinese Boycott" (January 1906), he criticized the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1894, which put a hold on Chinese immigration, and condemned Americans for their treatment of already-present Chinese residents. He referred to United States vs. Ju Toy, a 1905 Supreme Court case that ruled that Chinese immigrants had been "deprived of due process of law for the protection of their liberty and property."

Foster cited several particularly egregious examples of this mistreatment, including an instance in which Boston police and immigration officials descended upon the Chinese quarter, seizing people without producing any warrant for their arrest. The raid was especially cruel, he noted, given that it happened "on the day and at the hour when the Chinese of Boston and its vicinity were accustomed to congregate in the quarter named for the purpose of meeting friends and enjoying themselves after a week of steady and honest toil."

Such behavior, he insisted, was "not to our credit as a Christian and liberal-minded people." He quoted President Theodore Roosevelt who, in a recent speech, had declared that Chinese immigrants should enjoy "the same right of entry to this country, and the same treatment while here, as is guaranteed to citizens of any other nation."

In "Races in the United States" (December 1908), William Z. Ripley questioned whether groups such as the Chinese and the Slavs would "coalesce to form ultimately a more or less uniform American type" or "remain separate, distinct, and perhaps discordant." He noted that America was in the midst of a great experiment, having become a nation of unparalleled diversity.

The most complex populations of Europe, such as those of the British Isles, Northern France, or even the Balkan States, seem ethnically pure by contrast. In some of these places the soothing hand of time has softened the racial contrasts. There are certain water holes, of course, like Gibraltar, Singapore, or Hong Kong, to which every type of human animal is attracted, and a notably mongrel population is the result. But for ethnic diversity on a large scale, the United States is certainly unique.

Ripley discussed various patterns of intermarriage—between Jews and Irishmen, Russians and Italians, Germans and French Canadians. Citing Darwin, he argued that "a powerful process of social selection is apparently at work among us" and expressed his conviction that the culture, if not the physical traits, of the Anglo-Saxon would prevail. White Americans, he concluded, were faced with a unique responsibility: to ensure that, "in due course of time, even if the Anglo-Saxon stock be physically inundated by the engulfing flood, the torch of its civilization and ideals may still continue to illuminate the way."

Many years later, James Fallows invoked natural selection in an entirely different context. In "Immigration: How It's Affecting Us" (November, 1983), he suggested that immigration tends to select for those who are especially resilient, adaptable, and hardworking. Countering those of his contemporaries who feared, much as Walker had, that liberal immigration policies would bring an endless influx of inassimilable peasants, he argued that immigrants are probably more of a boon to this country than a burden.

Fallows told the story of a Vietnamese family, the Nguyens, who had fled their country in 1975, ending up at a California resettlement camp. Mr. Nguyen found work in a waterbed assembly factory for $2.10 an hour, later moving up to a job at RCA where he placed labels on records for a $3 wage. Over the years, he managed to bring over other family members, who crossed the ocean in old boats. By 1979, they had managed to collectively save enough money to put a down payment on a house in a respectable middle-class neighborhood. When Fallows visited their home, he found adults returning from their daily commutes and children discussing their day’s studies in unaccented American English.

Although Fallows conceded that the Nguyens were exceptionally adaptive, he opined that, "compared with people who have not been forced to land on their feet, immigrants are generally more resourceful and determined."

In 1996, however, David M. Kennedy raised the question, "Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?" According to Kennedy, the United States has thus far "benefited handsomely from its good fortune as an immigrant destination." He credited immigration for supplying much-needed labor to a growing society and for maintaining pluralism, ensuring that no single group or culture could ever dominate a country that was intended as a land of individual freedom. But he went on to point out that recent immigration patterns have changed. In contrast with previous years, when most immigrants were young, today more and more older immigrants are arriving, and the welfare system must struggle to support their large families. At the same time, productivity has come to rely more on knowledge and training, diminishing the value of unskilled labor.

Kennedy also noted that the influx of immigrants from one nation in particular—Mexico—is bringing not pluralism but a new dominant culture to certain parts of the country. And because of their proximity to their native land, Mexicans are less likely to integrate into mainstream society than were previous generations of Hungarian or Chinese immigrants: "No previous immigrant group had the size and concentration and easy access to its original culture that the Mexican immigrant group in the Southwest has today."

Even so, Kennedy concluded, "the answer to our original question—Can we still afford to be a nation of immigrants?—is yes." In order to live up to America’s mission, keeping the door open for those in need of liberty and opportunity, he wrote, "we will have to be not only more clever than our ancestors were but also less confrontational, more generous, and more welcoming than our current anxieties sometimes incline us to be."