America is a nation of immigrants, but Americans have never really liked immigration. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Irish, Germans, and English flocked to our shores. During the 1870s, the Chinese began streaming to California. And millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans settled here between 1880 and 1920. Each influx prompted a debate among Americans—that is, among previous immigrants and their descendants. While there were many Americans who wanted to heed the Statue of Liberty’s poetic injunction to open a “Golden Door” to immigrants, there were even more who wanted to lock the “Golden Door” and throw away the key.
Despite what we like to think nowadays, the foes of immigration usually had more legislative success than the defenders. Time and again Congress passed immigration laws that can only be described as viciously racist. Asians—“Mongols” in the parlance of the turn-of-the-century eugenicists—were considered particularly dangerous. We passed a Chinese exclusion law in 1882, made a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan in 1907 to halt immigration of Japanese, and created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” in 1917. Jews, Slavs, and Italians were also considered racially and culturally inferior, so in 1921 and 1924 Congress passed national-origin quotas. The quotas were designed to freeze the ethic composition of the country by limiting entrance of any one nationality to a small percentage of the number of people of that nationality who were already in America. In their final form the quotas put an overall 150,000 ceiling on immigration from outside the Western Hemisphere. They shut out almost everyone except Northern Europeans and Canadians—and ironically, Mexicans, who were needed as farm workers. Nevertheless, millions of immigrants came here, raised families, prospered—became Americans.
Today, 27 percent of us are descended from someone who immigrated within the past 100 years. Now we children of immigrants are witnessing yet another major influx from abroad. During the 1970s this country experienced a net inflow of about 4.5 million legal immigrants, and perhaps as many as 3.5 million illegal immigrants came here as well. The pace of immigration will almost certainly quicken in the 1980s, though no one can say by how much. Roughly 80 percent of the new immigrants come from Latin America or Asia. Koreans run grocery stores on almost every street corner in Manhattan. Haitians harvest vegetables in the Florida sun. Indochinese dominate academic competitions in the schools of suburban Washington, D.D. Los Angeles is a latter-day Lower East Side, where Mexicans toil in garment sweatshops and Salvadorans labor on construction sites. By the year 2080, 37 percent of all Americans could be descended from someone who came here after1980.
Today no one openly espouses the anti-immigrant racism that was the conventional wisdom at the turn of the century. Still, popular sentiment is essentially opposed to more immigration. Polls show that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of banning illegal immigration and deporting illegal aliens. Two polls in recent years have shown that a large majority wants less legal immigration, too. A 1984 Newsweek poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe immigrants take jobs from American workers. That poll also showed that a plurality thinks too many immigrants are coming from Latin America and Asia.
Restrictionism is not only popular; it’s fashionable. For America’s elite, immigration, especially illegal immigration from Mexico, is a major source of concern. Former attorney general William French Smith has warned that “we have lost control of our borders. Ever-increasing illegal immigration threatens to engulf us.” Last fall, a committee of prominent Americans that included former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, and General Maxwell Taylor telegrammed House Speaker Tip )’Neill and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker to urge passage of the “vital” Simpson-Mazzoli immigration control bill. The Washington Post and New York Times editorial pages also were obsessed with passage of that bill (which narrowly failed to become law) and with the need to bring immigration under control.
The immigration laws we have on the books today are not explicitly racist. But no such law can avoid being arbitrary and unfair. Congress got rid of the national origins quotas in 1965 and replaced them with an overall limit of 290,000, which was reduced in 1980 to 270,000. The law gave 120,000 visas to the Western Hemisphere and 170,000 to the Eastern. It established a per-country limit of 20,000 for Eastern Hemisphere countries (in 1976, a similar limit was added for Western Hemisphere countries) and set a stingy 200-visa limit, which was later raised to 600, for “dependent territories” like Hong Kong and the British West Indies.
Immigrants are admitted according to a set of “preference categories.” The categories are designed mainly to promote the reunification of families and also to allow skilled or specially talented workers to come. The rules permit unrestricted immigration for dependent children of U.S. citizens and for certain “special immigrants” such as clergymen. After that, adult children of citizens have first dibs. Then come spouses and unmarried children of legal resident aliens. Third preference goes to professionals, scientists, and artists and their spouses and children. Fourth preference goes to married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their spouses and children. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens and their spouses and children have fifth preference. Last come skilled workers, and unskilled workers who can certify that they are coming to work in industries where labor is scarce.
The 1965 law gave each Asian country 20,000 visas that it never had before; and for each Asian who enters, several more relatives become eligible under the rules relating to family reunification. But James Fallows didn’t have it quite right when he suggested in the November 1983 Atlantic Monthly that the 1965 reforms put “the Ethiopian, the Turk, the resident of Calcutta or Rangoon… on equal footing with the Englishman and the German.” Putting the same limit on Third World countries, which have lots of people who want to come to this country, as you do on European countries, which have relatively few would-be Americans, results in striking inequities. For example, according to State Department statistics, Mexicans in the fifth preference category have to wait a minimum of nine years to get a visa, while fifth-preference Briton can get visas in four years. A German doctor (third preference) has to wait just nine months, while his Filipino counterpart has to wait at least 15 years. Fourth-preference Frenchmen can get visas right away, while Mexicans and Filipinos have to wait seven years. Sixth-preference Britons have to wait two years for their visas; sixth-preference Indians cannot get one at all. Adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens can get in right away—except for residents of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, which is still saddled with the 600-visa limit for dependent territories. Worldwide, there is a million-visa backlog, much of it in Mexico, Korea, the Philippines, India, Hong Kong, and China. No wonder so many Mexicans and Asians have given up on the legal system and have decided to immigrate illegally.
In any case, the moral logic of the preference categories is overwhelmed by the real reasons people want to live in America. Family reunification is a fine thing, for example, but it’s hardly fair to shut out thousands of other would-be immigrants just because they aren’t lucky enough to have a brother or sister living here. In other words, the emphasis on family reunification keeps out thousands of people who, like our ancestors who came here at the turn of the century, simply want to come to America to better their condition. And isn’t it rather cold-blooded to set a higher priority on scientists and professionals than on unskilled workers? Granted, as Werner von Braun no doubt could have told you, foreign-born scientists have important contributions to make. But as the flood of illegals attests, we need unskilled workers, too. Since when does a doctor have a greater right to dream the American Dream than a farm laborer?
Even more tragic are the inconsistencies in the way we treat groups of people who for one reason or another suddenly arrive at our border or on our shores looking for a home—bat people from Indochina, Haiti, and Cuba, and the Salvadorans who are fleeing their country now. Congress rewrote the laws on refugees in 19880, following the Indochina boat lifts. The law established an overall limit of 50,000 refugees per year, but authorized the president to exceed that ceiling in consultation with Congress, which is exactly what has happened every year since 1980.
The refugee law defines refugees as people feeing their native countries because of a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Under this law a Polish Solidarity activist counts as a “refugee,” but a Haitian peasant fleeing desperate poverty does not. The law is based on the fallacy that a clear moral distinction can be made between people who wish to immigrate for political reasons, and those whose motives are economic. Most people’s motives, of course, are mixed. They want a better, freer life. But are economic motives inherently less worthy than political ones? Let’s get specific. Would you rather be, say, a Polish doctor, or a Haitian can-cutter? Whose desperation is greater? To ask the question is to answer it. Yet last year we admitted 11,000 people as refugees from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and only 160 from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Those who don’t get refugee status can always apply for political asylum, but asylum decisions are based on the same well-founded fear rule as our refugee policy., and also seem to be heavily influenced by whatever the present policy toward the applicant’s home country happens to be. Last year, for example, 33 percent of all polish applicants got political asylum, as compared to only three percent of all Salvadorans. Curiously, except for the odd tennis star (remember Hu Na?), we no longer go out of our way to grant either refugee or political asylum status to those who want to leave communist China. Only 7.2 percent of asylum applications from China were granted last year, and only 30 Chinese were admitted as refugees. Most Chinese have to go through the same visa process, and the same long waits, as everyone else.
Anyway, nice distinctions between “political” and “economic” refugees inevitably break down in the real world. The result is inequity and hypocrisy. Making it nearly impossible for impoverished, oppressed Latins and West Indians to come here legally leaves them with no choice but to come here illegally. As the cases of the Salvadorans now and the Haitians in 1980 show, many will be desperate enough to try it. And so we have a choice. We can turn them away. But this is hard to reconcile with our country’s ideals. Does any of us really feel comfortable with Senator Alan Simpson’s call to deport Salvadorans to “safe refugee camps” in Honduras? Or we can grant case-by-case exceptions. IN the most highly publicized cases, or cases where the desperate are fleeing a country we don’t like, the rules will be bent, as they were for the Mariel Cubans. In other cases, the rules will not be bent; witness the Reagan administration’s recent policy of having the Coast Guard intercept boat loads of Haitian migrants off the Florida Keys and return them to Haiti.
There is really no way out of the inconsistencies imposed by a policy of restricting immigration. Somebody with a legitimate claim to come here always ends up being denied admission unfairly. Consider some alternatives. We could scrap the per-country limits and preference categories and just allot visas in proportion to each country’s population. Under such a system, Britain, with ten times the population of El Salvador, would have ten times as many visas, even though El Salvador has ten times as many people who want to come to the United States. We could simply hand out our 270,000 visas on a first-come-first served basis, or even run a lottery. But under such a system there would still be thousands more visa applicants than visas, which means there would still be thousands trying to come here illegal. And a lottery wouldn’t solve the dilemmas posed by emergencies like Mariel.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill merely tinkers with the inequitable preference categories and per-country limits, and doubles Mexico’s limit to 40,000. It raises the worldwide ceiling to 350,000, but the original version of the bill would have instituted a formal cap of 425,000 immigrants per year—including the immediate family members who now can enter without restriction. That’s about the number who come in legally now., but it’s probably less than half the current total rate of immigration, legal and illegal.
Simpson-Mazzoli has been hailed as a model of reason and generosity, primarily because it offers amnesty for illegals who are living here now. But it is fundamentally a restrictionist bill. If it worked, immigration would be cut in half. Senator Simpson has been quite clear about why he wants the bill. It is designed to “get control of our borders,” to dispel worries that illegal immigrants take American jobs, and to prevent America from splintering into dozens of linguistic and cultural groups.
To accomplish its goals, the bill sets up and enforcement apparatus designed to keep out illegals: employer sanctions, a national system of worker identification, a beefed-up border patrol. The trouble is, as long as there is work here for immigrants, and as long as there is an overall limit on immigration, people will still try to come illegally. Unless we’re prepared to become a different sort of society—measurably less free and open—they will succeed.
So we have a choice. We can either keep trying to restrict immigration, with all the absurdities and inequities that unenforceable goat inevitably entails, or we can simply let in more people. We could set a much higher overall ceiling—say, a million a year, approximately the number who actually come in now—and eliminate the per-country limits and the preference categories. Or, more radically, we could simply let anyone in who wants to come. We could open the floodgates.
Many people see practical objections—economic, political, cultural—to the morally tempting solution. Nobody knows what the actual effect of unlimited immigration would be, but the fears of the restrictionists are absurdly exaggerated. Immigration has always been good for this country. It has continually replenished our culture and our economy, making both the envy of the older societies of Europe.
Some immigrants do end up on welfare, but most become productive workers, paying far more into the system in taxes than they take out in social welfare costs. Those who are willing to take the drastic step of staring a new life in a new country tend to be bolder, more entrepreneurial, and more willing to work had and sacrifice than other members of their societies (or of this society). According to the Hoover Institution economist Barry Chiswick, those attributes help explain the fact that between 11 and 16 years after coming to America, the average immigrant is already earning at least as much as the average native.
Some immigrants do displace American workers, and the presence of immigrants lowers wages in certain segments of the labor market. Yet most economists are not convinced that these effects are as severe as restrictionists contend. A recent study by economists Barton A. Smith and Robert Newman of Texas border towns with big populations of illegal immigrants found that real wages were only eight percent lower than in other Texas cities. Immigrants don’t just earn money; they also spend money, which creates jobs for others.
Anyway, those who worry about fairness to present American workers often overlook the question of fairness to immigrants. A Haitian refused entry into this country faces more brutal consequences than an American who loses his job to a Haitian immigrant. In making the moral calculation, the claims of present American citizens must count for more. But surely the claims of others who would like to become American citizens ought to count for something.
The economic argument for restrictionism is a lot like the argument for protectionism. Both spring from resistance to economic change. Importing cheap foreign steel displaces American workers and disrupts existing patterns of wages and economic power; so does importing cheap foreign labor. The answer to this argument is basically the same, too. In general, the fewer obstacles to the free flow of labor, capital, and raw materials, the better for the economy as a whole. Those who are jarred most severely by the dynamic process should be compensated in some way. We have Trade Adjustment Assistance for displaced workers. Why not Immigration Adjustment Assistance?
Of course, this isn’t the turn of the century. There are almost a quarter of a billion people here already. Doesn’t that mean we simply don’t have the capacity to absorb more population, as we did 80 years ago? Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado is a major proponent of this theory, which is also put forward by restrictionist lobbies such as The Environmental Fund and the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR). Lamm asserted three years ago that “more people coming here means more population pressure on our own resources, more energy use, more traffic, more fertile farmland used for housing, more unemployment… More people mean more water use. We don’t have more water to give them.”
This argument is essentially impossible to disprove. It is also impossible to prove. When will we know that America is “full”? There are good reasons to doubt that it will be any time soon. The same fear of overcrowding was frequently raised as an objection to past waves of immigration. As a proportion of our population, today’s annual rate of immigration is much smaller than it was at the turn of the century. Also, it’s hard o show a direct correlation between population growth due to immigration and the overuse of resources. Eighty percent of the water used in the Southwest goes for irrigation, not for residential use, and much of it is wasted because of foolish federal subsidies. Prices for energy, food, and farmland have all been falling lately, hardly an indication that we’re about to run out.
But what about the cultural and political impact of more immigrants? Senator Lawton Chiles of Florida notes with alarm that “I think we would not recognize the United States as we see the United States today within a period of ten years if we do not regain control of our borders.” House Majority Leader Jim Wright worries about “a Balkanization of American society into little subcultures.” And Lamm fears that immigration will result in “a vast cultural separatism” that could “rend our country.” He suggests that the children of today’s Hispanic immigrants might grow up to lead a wave of “secessionist” riots in the Southwest to “express their outrage at this country.”
It’s true that if a lot of new people come here with a lot of new customs, languages, and ideas, America will look different. So what? Senator Chiles could have said the same thing in 1900, possibly about your ancestors and mine. Many did say it. One who did, but without reaching Senator Chiles’s conclusion, was the novelist Henry James. In August 1904 James returned to America after a 20 –year sojourn in England. One change that struck him most was the arrival of millions of aliens in his native New York City. In The American Scene, James expressed astonishment at the ingurgitation” of immigrants on Ellis Island bemusement at Italians “of a superlatively Southern type,” and wonder at “the hard glitter of Israel” on the Lower East Side. “What meaning , in the presence of such impression, can continue to attach to such a term as the ‘American character’?” James wrote. “what type, as the result of such a prodigious amalgam, such a hotch-potch of racial ingredients, is to be conceived as shaping itself?” But James predicted what eventually did happen to those ethnics: though the immigrants themselves may struggle to adapt, their children “will fully profit, rise to the occasion, and enter into the privilege,” becoming “the stuff of whom brothers and sisters are made.”
It might make sense to protect “recognizable” national characteristics in a society where the national identity is fundamentally associated with a single religion, or language, or set of folkways. Thus the French might well worry about the effect of immigration on their national culture. They have one—including everything from Catholicism to a taste for fine Beaujolais. But because we are a nation of immigrants, such things are much less important in defining our national identity. Our culture is an amalgam of many. Was the old Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and American newspaper of an Eastern European one? Is Taco Bell American or Mexican? Is gospel music American or African?
“Americanism” is basically a matter of political values. The only truly national tradition that defines us as Americans is our commitment to democratic individualism. Becoming an American means learning English—but even more fundamentally it means becoming a democratic citizen. That, after all, is a big reason why people come here.
Richard Lamm may be concerned about the potential disloyalty of today’s Hispanic newcomers, but one eminent political scientist, Samuel Huntington, is not. He points out in American Politics. The Promise of Disharmony that each wave of new ethnic groups has asserted the values of democratic individualism and equality as the oral justification for its efforts to gain acceptance and to progress economically in American society. After all, how did turn-of-the-century ethnics finally “assimilate”? By voting for the New Deal, joining the CIO, and fighting for democracy in World War II. Huntington suggests that far from undermining our democracy, today’s immigrants may well repeat the appeal of past ethnics to the “American Creed” as a way of legitimizing their claims to equality—with the result that everyone’s commitment to that creed will be refreshed and deepened. In other words, immigrants may have the effect of making America, more, not less, democratic; more, not less, unified.
Henry James understood this. He recognized that the arrival of aliens had the effect of forcing “native Americans”—the descendants of previous immigrants—to look within, and to ask themselves what it was that made them American. Anyone who visited Ellis Island in those days, James wrote, came back “not at all the same person that he went… He had thought he knew before, thought he had the sense of the degree in which it is his American fate to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien; but the truth had never come to him with any such force.” James recoiled from this unsettling recognition, expressing a longing for the “sweet and whole national consciousness of the Switzer and the Scot.” If our history proves anything, it is that such longings are altogether unjustified. The arrival of immigrants can only awake in us a deeper appreciation of, and gratitude for, our Americanness. So why don’t we let the in? It becomes us so much better than trying to keep them out.
Chuck Lane is a staff writer for The Washington Post and a former editor of The New Republic. He is the author of The Day Freedom Died.