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One Nation, Inhospitable?

Round One -- Response
Posted November 6, 1996


I applaud Professor Kennedy's comments on the welfare state (I would add transfer payments like education), affirmative action, and the general collapse of assimilative will in American society. But I can't really agree with his 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. (This wasn't always the case. At the end of the last century, Goldwin Smith's Canada and the Canadian Question was unflinching in its treatment of the problem Quebec posed to Canada, although Smith was a disciple and personal friend of W. E. Gladstone.)

The point is that people just get fed up when they think their society is being changed on them. This is undeniably what is happening in California -- and that's why the immigration issue is now manifest there, even though the economy is (pace Professor Kennedy) actually in an upswing.

To further pick on Professor Kennedy, I would question how "deeper and more consistent" American receptivity to immigrants is.

Immigration moves in major swings. It was low through most of the eighteenth century, when the American population grew mostly through natural increase. Mass European migration really began only in the late 1840s, immediately triggering Know Nothing nativism, and then surged again in the 1890s, when restrictive legislation was stopped only by a Presidential veto. There followed a protracted struggle and more vetoes, interrupted by the First World War, culminating in the restrictions of the 1920s. Meanwhile, the immigration of Asians was cut off as soon as it materialized. Moreover, there is a clear record of legislation against the arrival of immigrants who were either diseased or potential public charges extending right back into colonial times. Even in the much-celebrated Ellis Island period about 15 percent of arrivals were rejected on these grounds. Ironically, the United States has probably never been as unprotected against disease and potential public charges as (especially with the collapse of the southern border) it is today.

A lot of rosy myths grew up during the immigration lull in the middle of this century, many of them created by the offspring of immigrants themselves. The traditional American attitude was much more cautious.

I object to Professor Kennedy's description of the 1920s quotas as "notorious." All the evidence from the uncontrolled experiment of the 1965 legislation is that national origins do matter systematically in terms of economic assimilation -- the rule of thumb is that First World immigrants do up to ten times as well as Third World immigrants. Presumably this can be extrapolated to political and social assimilation. The quota legislation of the 1920s anticipated this finding. Moreover, 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. Whose country was it anyway?

In the real world, the principle of national-origin quotas makes perfect sense. And I believe it must ultimately be reinstated -- or the United States as we know it will be destroyed. (If it isn't already too late).

It is a common allegation, echoed by George Borjas, that the 1965 Ammendments attempted surreptitiously to maintain the American ethnic balance by favoring "family reunification," not recognizing how quickly and overwhelmingly the new immigrants would exploit this provision. But this must be set against the fact that the sponsors of the legislation -- among them Senator Edward Kennedy -- explicitly and most unsurreptitiously maintained that it would not alter the American ethnic balance. Overall, I would judge the legislation's supporters as not guilty by reason of stupidity.

I might also point out, in the interest of claiming victim status, that the 1965 legislation did incontrovertibly choke off immigration from Britain and Canada, which had been running well above the new ceilings. The British continued to emigrate -- at rates reaching 200,000 annually in the 1970s -- but they simply went to other places instead. The 1920s legislation is often denounced (insupportably in the context of the contemporary Congressional colloquy) as enacting a Nordicist agenda. By this token, the 1960s legislation must be considered clearly anti-Nordic.

I might humbly note that neither of my fellow participants addresses the question of whether immigration is necessary. Does immigration do for the native-born something that they cannot do for themselves? In the end, this is the only important question.

Isn't it?

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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