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One Nation, Inhospitable?

Round One -- Opening Remarks
Posted November 6, 1996

Forum Overview


Why are Americans in such a mean mood toward immigrants? First, it remains to be seen just how much meanness is out there, and how deep and durable it is. Anti-immigrant feeling, or "nativism," is a familiar phenomenon in our history, but it is episodic. The classic study of nativism in the United States, John Higham's Strangers in the Land (1955), makes a persuasive case that anti-immigrant feeling in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries waxed and waned in inverse ratio to swings in the cycle of the society's confidence in its general economic and social health. The basic vocabulary and emotional template of nativism were constants; but nativists had little scope for consequential action except under specific conditions. When the economy was healthy and confidence strong, the overall emotional valence of nativism remained low. Hard times, conversely, nourished nativism. The soundness of Higham's conclusion seems to me to be underwritten by its conformity with common sense.

Host: Jack Beatty
Senior editor, The Atlantic Monthly

George J. Borjas
A professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Borjas is the author of Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy (1990) and Labor Economics (1996). His article "The New Economics of Immigration" appears in the November, 1996, issue of The Atlantic.

Peter Brimelow
A senior editor at Forbes magazine and The National Review, Brimelow is the author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster (1995).

David M. Kennedy
The Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University, Kennedy was the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in the past academic year. His article "Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?" appears in the November, 1996, issue of The Atlantic.

Higham even suggests that the historic high point of nativism -- marked by the closure of unrestricted immigration in the early 1920s, and especially by the

Peter Brimelow responds:
"I object to Professor Kennedy's description of the 1920s quotas as 'notorious.' . . . I just don't see that the Americans of the 1920s were in any way obliged to transform their society, no matter what liberals in the 1990s think."

See the rest of Brimelow's response.

notorious quota laws of 1921 and 1924 -- was less the crescendo of a long-swelling wave of anti-immigrant sentiment than it was the product of the extraordinary cultural upheaval of the First World War and its aftermath, especially the severe depression of 1921-1922. Those circumstances provided a unique moment when nativism triumphed; had the moment been briefer or less traumatic, we might never have had the highly restrictive legislation that we know as the National Origins Act of 1924 -- or we might have had its equivalent only a decade later, when the Great Depression hit.

All this is an elaborate way of saying that nativism is arguably a sub-dominant theme in our history, one that has the opportunity to flourish only under

Peter Brimelow responds:
"I can't really agree with Professor Kennedy's somewhat reductionist, sub-Marxist dismissal of 'nativism' as simply an epiphenomenon of hard times. In fact, I think it illustrates the extraordinary difficulty that intelligent liberals now have in recognizing the power and legitimacy of human differences."

See the rest of Brimelow's response.

peculiar, and stressful, circumstances. Our deeper and more consistent attitude toward immigrants is considerably more favorable and receptive, as demonstrated by the fact that the country made no serious effort to restrict immigration until nearly a century and a half of nationhood had gone by, and by what I regard as the remarkably peaceful accommodation in American society of the millions of immigrants in the past century -- peaceful measured against the abundant examples of truly ugly conflict that have marked cultural confrontations in other societies.

If that historical perspective is accurate, it suggests that present-day nativism, of the type Governor Wilson has exploited and energized, is principally the product of general social and economic stress -- especially, in California, stress induced by the end of the Cold War and the rapid build-down of several big defense contractors. Now that those shocks have been absorbed and the California economy is showing signs of recovery, we should expect that anti-immigration

George Borjas responds:
"Professor Kennedy's reactions, as expected, derive from his knowledge of historical experience. But his reactions are also marked by a conflict between poetic and factual conceptions of immigration."

See the rest of Borjas's response.

feeling will subside, at least somewhat. Wilson, in short, may be behind the curve on this issue, not in front of it. His failure to ignite much enthusiasm for his presidential bid outside California might be taken as evidence in support of this hypothesis.

Having said that, I should add that current anti-immigrant feeling is fed by one factor that does not have an adequate historical precedent: the intersection of attitudes toward immigrants and attitudes toward the welfare state. The great immigrant tide of the past century washed ashore well before there was any significant welfare apparatus, at any level, local, state, or federal. The post-1965 immigrant wave has arrived, of course, in the post-New Deal and post-Great Society era, and the issue of immigrant dependency is thus substantially new. To be fair, most of Governor Wilson's campaign against unrestricted immigration has focused on this issue, and it is not an illegitimate one. It would be difficult to defend an immigration system that provided incentives for large numbers of people to enter a host society --whether legally or illegally -- for purposes of becoming socially and economically dependent on the productive members of that society. In that light, though surely one might disagree about the details and the appropriate policy approaches, the principle of restricting welfare access even to legal immigrants doesn't strike me as mistaken in its premises. The situation is somewhat analogous -- and analogously vexed -- to the situation of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and the reforms suggested to AFDC in the recent welfare legislation. No one can argue strenuously that truly dependent and needy children should be denied public assistance. The trick is to devise a system that discourages people from placing children in that circumstance in the first place. So far, we do not appear to have been clever enough to come up with ideas of how do that -- short of simply cutting off benefits to children and immigrants alike, that is. But the effort to find a policy device that provides the proper mix of incentives and disincentives shouldn't be reflexively dismissed as retrograde.

As for migration as the "euthanasia of memories" -- it is, of course, an old theme, one lyrically evoked many years ago in Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted (1951). But if the euthanasia of memory -- a poetical description of "assimilation" -- was once the historical norm, here again, I think, in our own time we are in the grip of a different cultural matrix, one that has erected an elaborate set of mechanisms not simply to sustain memory, but to make political and economic advantage out of the preservation of memory -- or, more precisely, the preservation of separate group identities. Affirmative action and set-aside programs are the specific devices that do this work, and here again we confront the intersection of feelings toward immigrants with feelings toward a much broader range of issues and polices -- in this case, policies that originated out of concern for African-Americans in the heyday of the Civil Rights era but that have now been extended to many other social sectors. The rewards of separatism were much lesser a century ago than they are today, when many groups have acquired a vested interest in maintaining distinct identities, a degree of interest that goes well beyond the natural human desire not to lose contact with one's cultural patrimony. To the extent that this peculiar legacy of the Civil Rights movement works to encourage particularism and retard the assimilation of immigrants today, one can only say that this is an ironic result of a policy originally intended to catalyze the integration of blacks into the broader society.

Return to the top of Round One -- Opening Remarks.


Americans in a mean mood toward immigrants? As an immigrant myself, I welcome the chance to assimilate idiomatically as follows: Baloney! Americans are in fact extremely, indeed excessively, tolerant of us. Perhaps the most notable exception: native intellectuals and policy wonks who hate having their romantic delusions about immigration dispelled by critics with actual experience.

It is quite obviously absurd to expect Americans to enjoy being forced to subsidize immigration. This forced subsidization did not happen during the last great influx, from 1890 to 1920, because the welfare state did not then exist. It did not happen when Franklin D. Roosevelt fashionably insulted the Daughters of the American Revolution, because immigration was not then taking place. The middle years of this century saw one of the greatest of the many immigration lulls that have occurred since Colonial times and that have always been crucial to the process of assimilation. But forced subsidization is precisely what is happening now.

There is no mystery about why immigration is flaring up as a political issue. It always flares up when the numbers get high (1840s, 1890s) and it only fades when the numbers fall, either spontaneously (1850s) or through legislation (1920s). High numbers force hard choices on policy makers, such as cutting legal immigrants off welfare and throwing illegal immigrants out of school. Low numbers mean these choices can be evaded. And when immigrants are radically different from natives, culturally and ethnically, the effect of high immigration is vastly exacerbated.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, which touched off the current influx, perversely guarantee both high numbers and radical differences. To gauge this, remember that the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the American population will stabilize at 275-290 million without immigration. But with immigration, the projection is a population of 400 million by 2050. And whites will then verge on becoming a minority, because this immigration is in effect arbitrarily restricted to a few Third World countries. There is no precedent for this transformation in the entire history of the world. Those who favor this policy have an obligation to explain why they want to change America. They will have plenty of opportunity. The numbers are enough to fuel an inferno.

The long academic argument about the relative skills, success, and fiscal impact of the post-1965 immigrant wave is now essentially over, although Washington and

George Borjas responds:
"One very useful by-product of Mr. Brimelow's work -- whether one agrees with it or not -- is that he has thrown down the gauntlet: let those who claim that immigration imparts huge benefits state their case and show their cards."

See the rest of Borjas's response.

the major media don't seem to know it yet. This summer studies by the RAND Corporation confirmed the contention of Harvard economist (and my fellow panelist here) George Borjas and others: the new immigrant wave is relatively less-skilled and more prone to draw upon welfare than native-born Americans. It is probably a net fiscal burden, arguably modest overall but undeniably onerous in specific jurisdictions.

This academic argument, however, is irrelevant to the real question, which is not Does immigration do harm? but rather Is it necessary? Does immigration do something for native-born Americans that they could not do for themselves through other policies?

David Kennedy responds:
"I'm less confident than Mr. Brimelow that there is no imaginable case for the economic necessity of immigration. Most historical migrations have been principally driven by market forces -- supply, demand, and pricing in the labor markets, to be precise -- and those forces come as close to constituting a 'necessity' as anything that economics has to offer."

See the rest of Kennedy's response.

Here, perhaps surprisingly, there is no real dispute. No economist seriously maintains that immigration is necessary. They could hardly do so given the counter-example of Japan, which has outstripped U.S. economic growth since 1955 by a factor of three without any immigration at all. The reason, basically, is that labor and capital are far less important factors of production than the intangible that economists call "innovation." Those California agribusinesses could mechanize. But why should they -- particularly when their labor supply is subsidized by the welfare state?

Immigration is a luxury not a necessity. It might have been mildly useful if the 1965 law had not so substantially de-emphasized potential immigrants' desirable skills as a criterion for admission. The ability of American society to absorb immigrants gave it a marginal advantage over, say, Europe. But this advantage has been frittered away by thirty years of irresponsible policy.

Jack Beatty responds:
"Experts differ. Yet Brimelow has no shade in his mind on the issue. His sulfurous certainty that immigration is harming the United States needs mitigation by reality."

See the rest of Beatty's response.

Since the 1950s not more than 13 percent of Americans -- that's THIRTEEN percent -- have ever told pollsters they wanted to see immigration increased. Yet during that time it has quintupled. And the elite consensus that imposes immigration is maintained with hysterical fury. (An attempt to protect California taxpayers of all races from being robbed by illegal immigrants of all races, for example, is in this debate described as "ethnic cleansing" of schools, a statement that catches this fury fairly.)

Underlying this is the American elite's convulsive inability to handle questions of race -- or anything that can be twisted to resemble race -- and its unspoken but profound conviction that the American people must never be trusted on such matters. Current immigration policy is an expression of this pathological anti-racism.

Return to the top of Round One -- Opening Remarks.


Our host, Mr. Beatty, has posed questions of great import. I will concentrate my discussion on the assertion that Americans are in a "mean mood" toward immigrants.

The current mood in America does not arise out of a vacuum. We must keep in mind that the demographic, social, and economic impact of immigration varies by time and place, and that the so-called "national mood" is shaped by the public's perception of and reaction to these variations. In some periods and places, immigration may well have a very positive impact on society and the economy, and as a result the mood toward immigrants is quite welcoming. But at other times and places, the effect is less benign, and perhaps even harmful, and, not surprisingly, the mood darkens.

Our current mood can be traced back to a historic event that took place thirty-one years ago: the enactment of the the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965. Partly because of this legislation, the number, national-origin mix, and skill composition of immigrants admitted to the United States began to change drastically, despite promises from key supporters of the amendments that no such changes were likely to occur.

This legislation, for example, made family ties with persons already residing in the United States the prime determinant for the granting of visas. One cannot fault a cynic for interpreting

Peter Brimelow responds:
"Overall, I would judge the legislation's supporters as not guilty by reason of stupidity."

See the rest of Brimelow's response.

this emphasis on family reunification as a backdoor way of ensuring that immigration does not alter the ethnic composition of the U.S. population. After all, if only those who have relatives already residing in the United States can qualify to enter the country, we can't expect immigration to change the country's national-origin mix.

This argument, however, fails to account for two distinct trends. The first is that economic and social conditions in the traditional "source countries" of Western Europe improved dramatically in the postwar era, thus removing the economic motivation to move to the United States. Even if immigration policy had not changed in 1965 we would probably have witnessed a decline in immigration from these countries.

In addition, the 1965 amendments build in a "multiplier effect" in the allocation of visas to close family members. Suppose, for example, that a married couple enters the United States and both spouses become naturalized citizens. Both can then sponsor the entry of their siblings. If these siblings are married, they can then sponsor the entry of their spouses and children. After some time, the spouses of the siblings can sponsor the entry of their parents, their siblings, and so on. The existing legislation, therefore, creates the potential for a geometric, Malthusian-type growth in the size of the immigrant flow. Once an economically motivated immigrant group establishes a beachhead in the United States, the law opens up many opportunities for other members of that group to immigrate as well. One immigrant today can mean a lot more tomorrow.

The immigration wave that we have witnessed during the past thirty years has had effects far beyond those envisioned by the authors of the 1965 amendments. With little planning and with even less warning, this legislation opened up a historic chapter in the history of U.S. immigration. Unless our policy changes, there is no obvious congruence of forces that will moderate the size of the immigrant flow or improve its skill mix.

No wonder Americans are in a mean mood about immigration. They got a lot they didn't bargain for: an increasing number of poor immigrants; a reduction in employment opportunities for less-skilled workers already in the United

David Kennedy responds:
"Why should there be tension between immigration and affirmative action? As I view it, in practice there has been not so much a competition between immigration and affirmative action as there has been an embrace of affirmative action by various immigrant groups for their own benefit."

See the rest of Kennedy's response.

States; a sizable increase in welfare expenditure in the places where immigrants tend to cluster; a little-discussed but potentially explosive tension between immigration and affirmative-action quotas; and the potential that the children of new immigrants will remain poor and form a new underclass. All of these factors have combined to raise serious and valid concerns about the impact of immigration.

Some of these demographic, social, and economic concerns have probably been exaggerated by those who have a restrictionist or close-down-the-borders agenda. But, for most of us, the concerns are real. One need not be a "nativist" or a "racist"-- accusatory buzzwords for many in the pro-immigration movement -- to see that there are problems and that these problems need to be taken care of. If we ignore these concerns now, we will only exacerbate their social and economic impact in the future.

Return to the top of Round One -- Opening Remarks.

Forum Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted November 6, 1996

Round Two -- Posted November 20, 1996

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