Clearly we are at the beginning of a major debate on immigration. The issue has been raised most immediately in recent months by the immigrants, legal and illegal, now charged with the devastating bombing of the World Trade Center and with planning the bombing of other major New York buildings and New York transportation links; and by the interception of vessels carrying illegal Chinese immigrants approaching New York and California. But the issue is larger than how to control illegal immigration, difficult as this is. Despite the presence of a mass of laws, regulations and court rulings controlling immigration, we are shaky as a polity on the largest questions that have to be answered in determining an immigration policy: What numbers should we admit, of what nations and races, on what basis should we make these decisions, how should we enforce them?
To answer these questions we will have to define our expectations about immigration, its effects on American society, economy, polity. It is a serious question whether the American political system is capable of giving any coherent response to these questions. Indeed, it could be argued that we have not been capable of a coherent response since the key decisions, now execrated in all quarters, of the 1920s.
I should say execrated in almost all quarters, for there are now bold voices, such as Thomas Fleming in the obscure journal Chronicles and Peter Brimelow in the not at all obscure National Review, that raise the question: What was wrong with the decisions of the 1920s, and do they not have something to teach us? Those decisions banned almost all immigration from Asia, and limited immigration from the eligible countries of the Eastern Hemisphere (almost all European) to 150,000 a year. Most of that was reserved for the British Isles and Germany: Southern and Eastern European countries—the source of most immigration at the time—were limited to tiny quotas. We see this act now as racist in its preference for whites and discriminatory in its preference for Protestant countries and its sharp restrictions on the countries from which Jewish immigrants then came. It was also considered anti-Catholic, although Catholics could come in under the ample quotas for Ireland and Germany.
But we can phrase the intentions of the 1924 act in quite another way: it said that what America was in 1920; in terms of ethnic and racial makeup, was irk some way normative, and to be preferred to what it would become in the absence of immigration restriction; and it said that the United States was no longer to be a country of mass immigration. The 1924 law called for a remarkable scholarly exercise: determine the national origins of the white population. Each country would have a share in the quota of 150,000 proportional to its contribution to the makeup of the white population. That this system prevailed, with modifications, for forty years, suggests that the opposition to it, while impassioned, did not have much political power.
Despite the refugee crisis of the 1930s, the displaced persons crisis of the post-World War II period, it survived: the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 made little change in the overall pattern. The consensus of 1924 was finally swept away in 1965. The coalition that forced the abandonment of the arrangement of 1924 consisted of Jews, Catholics and liberals, who had for years fought against the preferences for Northwestern Europe and the restrictions on Asia. The new immigration act abandoned all efforts to make distinctions among nations on ground of race, size or historical connection. All would in principle be limited to a maximum of 20,000, kinder an overall cap of 290,000.
The dominating principles of the 1965 act were family connections and no discrimination on grounds of national origin. Italians, Poles, Greeks or Jews would not be limited by highly restrictive quotas in their ability to enter the United States to join relatives: Asians would no longer be limited to minuscule quotas. But the government expected no great change in the volume or ethnic and racial character of immigration.
As it happens, there were not many Jews left in Europe who wanted to conic or who could leave, even though Jewish organizations and members of Congress led the fight for a freer immigration policy. European prosperity soon reduced the number of Europeans who wanted to come; Communist rule restricted the number of Eastern Europeans who could come. Quite soon the composition of immigration changed from overwhelmingly European to overwhelmingly Asian, Latin American and Caribbean. This was unintended and unexpected, but it was accepted. It played no role in the next great effort to fix immigration in the late 1970s. No one raised the question of why immigration to a country that had been settled by Europeans now included so few Europeans. The new immigration issue of the late 1970s was illegal immigration, primarily from Mexico.
A major immigration commission was set up in 1978. Its recommendations were incorporated into the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration Reform Act of 1981, whose descendant finally became law as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That act addressed the illegal immigration issue with a deal: those already here could apply, with restrictions, to legalize their status, but further numbers of illegal immigrants would be stanched by imposing penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants.
In a few years further modifications were necessary. The new problem was that an immigration law oriented toward family preference meant preference for recent immigrants' relatives, those still linked by family connection to their emigrating relatives. This meant we would have few Europeans, who had immigrated a long time ago, and many Asians mad Latin Americans. Congress tried to deal with this through lotteries. But the lotteries could not be far Europeans alone: they had to include a host of "underrepresented" nations.
Yet another issue that became evident under the settlement of 1965, and the changes of 1986, was that the numbers of immigrants who had family preference limited those who might enter with valuable skills in short supply in the United States, such as highly skilled machinists. And so the last major modification in the 1990 immigration law increased the number of those who could enter on the basis of needed skills. But it was not possible politically to reduce the number who came on the basis of family relationship, so the total number of allowable immigrants was raised. This is the kind of compromise that knight surprise most Americans, if they knew about it. The total number of immigrants who can enter legally is now 700,000 (to which must be added 130,000 or so refugees, who come in trader a separate allotment, and those seeking asylum).
So we move from crisis to crisis, or at least from problem to problem. The next crisis, already upon us, is the specific impact of large numbers of immigrants on the major cities that attract them: Los Angeles, New York and Miami, pre-eminently. Here the issue is local costs, particularly for schools, hospitals, welfare services—costs that are inevitable when population rises. New York City reports that it added 65,000 immigrant children to its schools in 1992-93, and 46,000 in 1991-92.
This issue of immigration's cost is rather complicated. The immigrant population, despite the popular image, is not one of greater needs and lesser capacities than the American population. Rather, the immigrants are divided between those who come in with educational and work qualifications higher than those of the average American (most of the Asians) and those who come in with educational and work qualifications lower than those of the average American (mostly Hispanics and people from Caribbean countries).
And even within these large categories there are great differences by national origin. Some groups show a higher proportion on welfare than the American average (though almost none shows as high a proportion as American blacks and Puerto Ricans), sonic show a considerably lower proportion. Immigrants work and provide money to cities, states and the federal government in taxes. Many work in hospitals as doctors and nurses and technicians, provide health services in underserved areas, do important research and teaching in universities and colleges. So how do we reckon up the balance? And is this the balance we should reckon?
In our efforts to determine just what kind of immigration policy we should have, we resort eagerly to the calculations of economists. But there is no clear guidance there. Julian Simon claims that people are always an economic asset: increasing the number of people increases the numbers of consumers and producers. Other economists are doubtful that labor with poor qualifications is much of a benefit. Some point out that low-wage industries (garment manufacturing, for example) would go overseas in even greater proportion without low-paid immigrant labor. Others argue it should: Wily is the morn advanced economy in the world holding on to industries that have to compete with low-wage, developing countries? Some wonder who will provide service in restaurants and hotels, clean office buildings, take care of the children of high-paid professionals. Others point out that Japan manages to run hotels and restaurants with very few immigrants.
I have concluded that economics in general can give no large answer as to what the immigration policy of a nation should be. At the margin, one would think. where the good effects clearly are evident, economic considerations must prevail. But I recall an Australian economist confidently pronouncing the end of the Japanese miracle in a talk in Tokyo in 1962. Why? Because Japan could not to would not, for reasons of culture or xenophobia, import labor, as Europe was then doing, and labor shortages would call a halt to Japanese economic growth. Clearly, he had it wrong. The Japanese did not import labor, but did manage to maintain phenomenal economic growth.
But if not economics, then what? Politics? Culture? Here we move on to murky and dangerous ground. Thinking of the economist's comments on Japan in the 1960s, and contrasting suspicious and closed Japan with open Europe, then recruiting Yugoslavs and Turks, one wonders whether Europeans would now agree that their course was better. Immigration and the fates of the workers recruited from distant cultures and their children have become a permanent part of Europe's politics, spawning an ugly nativism there similar to that which closed America's borders in the 1920s.
This is no argument for the United States in its thinking about immigration, one might say. We are used to greater differences than the more homogeneous countries of Europe. We are a nation based not on a common ethnic stock linked by mystic cords of memory, connection, kinship, but rather by common universal ideas. But I am not sure how deeply rooted this view is among Americans in general. We all know the power of the sense of kinship, real or mythical, in keeping people together--or in tearing them apart. (This possibility is exacerbated by our affirmative action policies, which, while designed to advance those American racial and ethnic groups that have suffered from and suffer still from discrimination, are not limited to citizens or legal residents.)
The present-day restrictionist movement deploys the economic arguments, but it is the others that really drive it. Much of its current modest strength comes from the heirs of the Zero Population Growth movement and from environmentalists who argue that there are already too many Americans. But an equally strong motivation of the movement comes from the sense that there was—is—an American culture that is threatened by too great diversity. It is harder to make this argument publicly, for obvious reasons, since the question comes up: How do you define this American culture? Should it be or remain Christian or white or European?
The two kinds of argument are closely related. There are many Americans who regret the loss of a less crowded country and a more homogeneous culture. We are too prone to label them racists. There are indeed racists, and bigots, and the restrictionist movement will undoubtedly attract them in number. Yet the motives I have pointed to among the current destructionists, an attachment to a country more like what it once was, a preference for a less populated country, are not ignoble.
We go very far these days in testing motives for racism, if their effect is to bear differentially on ethnic and racial groups. It is true that a lower level of immigration, more preference for those with needed skills, a spin in favor of the "underrepresented," would all mean more Europeans, fewer Hispanics and Caribbeans and Asians. But the effects of such policies are not an index to the motives of those who advocate them. Nor would I call a motive that would prefer an immigrant stream closer in racial and ethnic character to the present composition of the American population necessarily racist. In British immigration law there is a category of "patrials"—persons born of British stock in other countries whose status is defined by ancestry, connection to Britain through parents or grandparents. In Germany, people of German origin, no matter how distant, have claims to immigration others do not. Israel has its "law of return "—which was the ground on which the country was labeled "racist." I would not describe any of these policies as racist: there is a difference between recognizing those who are in some sense one's own, with lines to a people mad a culture, and a policy based on dislike, hostility, racial antagonism.
One other element should be mentioned as making up part of the immigration restriction movement. One finds in it children of immigrants, and immigrants themselves, who admire the ability of America to assimilate immigrants and their children, but who tear that the assimilatory powers of America have weakened, because of the legal support to bilingualism in education and voting, because of the power of multicultural trends in education. It is easy to accuse such people of wanting to pull up the drawbridge after they have gained entry. They would answer that they fear the United States is no longer capable of assimilating those now coming as it assimilated them.
Is this a fair argument, or have the aging immigrants of the last great European wave and their children who may be found active in immigration restriction simply adopted the nativist prejudices of those who tried to bar them? But it is a different country: less self-confident, less willing to impose English and American customs and loyalty as simply the best in the world. We do not know whether this change in national mood and in educational philosophy and practice actually affects the rate at which immigrants assimilate, and much would depend on giving an answer as to what we mean by assimilation. Learning English? I do not think the new immigrants learn English at a slower rate than the older European immigrants. Taking up citizenship? This has always varied depending on the ethnic group. One sees the same variation among current immigrants, and if fewer become citizens one reason may be that there are now fewer advantages to citizenship as civil rights law spreads to protect aliens.
One even finds some anti-immigrant sentiment among the newest, post-1965 immigrants. This sentiment is directed primarily at illegal immigrants: it is exacerbated by the fact that there may be competition for jobs between older legal and newer illegal immigrants working at the same jobs. They may also share the same section of the city, and the older immigrants may see the new illegals contributing to neighborhood decline.
In time, American blacks may be numbered among the restrictionists. If there is indeed competition between immigrants, legal or illegal, and Americans, blacks are likely to be more affected than any other group. Up to now, the dream of the Rainbow Coalition has kept black members of Congress in the pro-immigration camp. I doubt that this reflects the dominant view among blacks.
My sense is that the state of American public opinion is now modestly restrictionist. The scale of immigration is larger than most people would choose, for a host of reasons: they don't think America should become a country of' mass immigration again, and see no good reason, economic or other, for this. They ask why the stream of immigration should be so unrepresentative of the nation that already exists. They support the need to admit refugees. They are against illegal immigration, even though they may benefit from the services of such immigrants. They think immigration policies should reflect our compassion (refugees), our respect for human rights (asylum seekers), the desire of immigrant neighbors to bring in parents, children and spouses, perhaps some brothers and sisters. They believe immigration policies should reflect our desire to improve the country—more of the kind of immigrants who become high-school class valedictorians and win science prizes.
That is about where I come out, too. There is no blueprint here, only a list of preferences that are not disreputable and should be respected. Whatever our policies are, however, I think our biggest problem will be to carry them out in a world in which so many see entry into the United States as a way of improving themselves.
How different would that be from what we have? When one considers present immigration policies, it seems we have insensibly reverted to mass immigration, without ever having made a decision to do so. Few Americans believe our population is too low, our land too lightly settled, our resources unexploited, our industries and commerce short of labor. But our policies, the result of various pressures operating within a framework of decent and generous ideals, end up looking its if we believe all this is true. The pressures consist of recent immigrants who want to bring in family members (no small group—there were 8 million immigrants in the 1980s), agricultural interests that want cheap labor, it Hispanic caucus that believes any immigration restriction demeans Hispanics, foreign polio,' interests that require us to take a substantial number of refugees, civil rights groups that expand the rights of illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
These interests are not necessarily distinguishable from ideals of generosity toward those in desperate need, compassion for those who simply seek a country with more opportunity, respect for a tradition, rather recently reminted, that asserts we are a nation of immigrants, should remain so and should be proud of it.
The fulfillment of these ideals does not, however, suggest that there are any moral and ethical imperatives that dictate we have no right to make the decision that the United States, as it stands, with all its faults, is what we prefer to the alternative that would be created by mass immigration. The United States can survive without large numbers of low-skilled workers, and would probably survive, if it was so inclined, without highly trained foreign engineers, doctors, scientists. At the level of the highest skills and talents we will undoubtedly always be happy to welcome immigrants—we did even in the restrictive '30s and +40s. In a world in which masses of people can move, or be moved, too easily beyond their native borders, we will always need policies to set limits as to what the responsibilities of this country are.
There is one kind of immigration restriction on which all (in theory) agree, and that is control of illegal immigration. Much would be required to stem it, and the 1986 act did not. We would need identity documents more resistant to forgery, more Border Patrol officers, better qualified investigators of claims to asylum and much more. The effort to control illegal immigration will he expensive if it is to be effective. We may he able to learn from the European countries now trying to stern illegal immigration. A stronger effort to reduce illegal immigration may serve as a prelude to it more effective immigration regime generally, and that will be task enough for the next few years. Or we may discover in the effort that such control requires measures that we simply don't want to live with. It will be valuable to learn that, too.
Nathan Glazer is a contributing editor of The New Republic.