Friday, June 11, 2010

Immigration: Contemporary Perception, Historical Reality

The immigration debate is raging again due to Arizona's recent law. Immigration is one of those issues that periodically flares up throughout the course of American history, and on few issues is the gap between popular opinion and historical reality greater.

A letter in this morning's Spartanburg Herald-Journal is a perfect case in point. The author starts with a typically silly straw man, a question addressed to "all who support open borders." While there must be some people who advocate that position, I know of no serious or influential political leader who does. The author is using that extreme position to discredit every critique of Arizona's new law--not a promising beginning.

Then comes the question, which the author clearly thinks is an argument ender: "Out of the 7 billion people on this planet, how many have the God-given right to live in the United States? All of them? No? Why not?" Let's leave aside the absurd idea that all of the world's people want to move to the United States. The U.S. does still remain the most desirable potential destiny for those seeking to immigrate. History tells us, however, that this is nothing new. In the roughly 100 years prior to the first comprehensive American immigration laws in the 1920s, approximately 60% of the world's migration flowed to the U.S. Not only did this influx of foreign population not ruin the country, it arguably contributed mightily to its growing prosperity and power.

But, one might object, things were different then--we needed people, we were sparsely populated. The letter's author predictably raises the specter of a time when "because of illegal immigrants ... there's no more room." The idea that we in the U.S. are running out of room also won't survive exposure to the facts. Guess where, on a list of 192 countries in the world, the U.S. placed in population density according to the 2006 CIA World Factbook. Give up? No. 142. In other words, 73% of the countries in the world have greater population density than the U.S. Of the countries with less population density, only Russia and Canada have a larger land mass. Of course, the U.S. could not accommodate literally everyone who might want to come here, but it is obvious that the U.S. could easily accommodate more than it currently does without coming close to the point where "there's no more room."

Where the letter writer commits her most egregious crimes against history, however, is in her next paragraph, in which she simultaneously romanticizes earlier immigration while demonizing today's immigrants. Her letter is a litany of misinformation and uninformed prejudice.

In the past, she confidently states from a position of profound ignorance, immigrants "learned and respected our traditions" and "they were proud to speak" English. In reality, the history of immigration to America is one in which ethnic groups tended to cluster together in their new home and continued to practice their own traditions, sometimes by choice, more often by necessity. In most cases, immigrants who did not speak English did NOT immediate learn and adopt it. Louis L. Gerson, in his 1964 book on the influence of immigrant groups on American foreign policy, observes that "non-English speaking immigrants ... would insist that their own language be used in their churches." This is no recent phenomenon, either, Gerson reminds us: "in the early days of the Republic, the refusal of the Methodist Church to fractionalize itself led to the formation of German Methodist bodies." Ethnic communities quite often created and supported newspapers in their native language as well. This idea that previous immigrants more readily spoke English is simply not true.

She also asserts that previous immigrants "didn't sneak in." What she fails to note is that prior to the 1920s, there were no numerical limits on immigration to the U.S. People did not "sneak in" because there was no need to--the doors were generally open. Unless, of course, you were Asian, in which case blatantly racist legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act kept you out. In supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act, President Grover Cleveland spoke in the same language that today's opponents of immigration use, calling the Chinese "an element ignorant of our constitution and laws, impossible of assimilation with our people and dangerous to our peace and welfare." How many people would say that of Chinese immigrants today?

The 1924 Immigration Act, the first general and permanent immigration law in American history, limited the number of immigrants in any year to 2% of the number of people from that country in the U.S. at the time of the 1890 census (i.e., before the large influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe). In short, it was an attempt (and a somewhat successful one) to rollback the ethnic composition of the country to what it was before the "bad" immigrants arrived. The 1924 law effectively invented the idea of illegal immigration, so when people say their ancestors came here legally, ask them if they came (like mine) before 1924. If so, it is a meaningless statement.

Perhaps most despicably, the letter writer tars those "who are illegally invading our Southern border" (thus leaving no doubt as to which illegal immigrants in particular bother her--the illegal Irishman or Italian working in a New York City bar or restaurant didn't come in through Arizona) by associating them with crime: "some of them smuggling drugs to our young, kidnapping and murdering our citizens." For the vast majority of immigrants who have entered the country illegally, that is the only illegal act they have committed. This exaggerated connection to crime is also nothing new in the annals of immigration, of course. Italians have long been tarred by the same brush. Of course some Italian immigrants were associated with the Mafia. The vast majority, however, like my mother's cousins in New York, were honest, hard-working people who simply wanted a shot at the American dream.

The idea that illegal immigrants are "bleeding our economy" and taking jobs goes back to the very first American law restricting immigration, the Page Act of 1875, which barred Chinese contract workers. The law's congressional sponsor said he wanted "to end the danger of cheap Chinese labor." Today that law is rightfully seen as a racist embarrassment, but substitute "Mexican" for "Chinese" and you'd find wide agreement with his sentiment today.

Lastly, the letter writer completes her tour of anti-immigrant stereotypes and cliches by raising the specter of political corruption. "Why is this being allowed to happen? Politics, power and votes! The law doesn't allow illegal immigrants to vote, but there's no restriction on their countrymen and their kinfolks who are here legally and will vote in their favor." The idea that immigrants have corrupted the political process also has a long pedigree in the U.S. Much of the criticism of the urban political machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on how "they" all voted the same way and thwarted "our" will. The idea of an unelected "city manager" to run the cities, which became prominent in the Progressive era, was in part due to this desire to remove the influence of ethnic voters and restore it to established white elites.

Perhaps it comes from living in a part of the country which has had relatively little recent experience with immigration, but this person's view of earlier immigrants could not be more inaccurate. Growing up as I did in New Jersey, with parents who grew up in New York City, I have a somewhat different view, as would anyone familiar with the ethnic neighborhoods of major cities. The suburban New Jersey town where I went to Catholic school had large numbers of students of Irish and German heritage (like me), as well as Italians and eastern Europeans, especially Poles. In recent years, it has been utterly transformed. Now, the street where my old school is located is filled with Indian restaurants, stores and other businesses. It isn't the same, not by a long shot; in many ways it is better, revitalized, renewed. That kind of change is not to be feared, though it always has been. But it has also almost always been for the better.

Yes, we need immigration reform, and yes, we need to establish better control over who comes into the country and how they come. But the answer lies in raising the number of people we welcome, in increasing opportunity, not in returning to the kind of irrational, racist, and exclusionary stereotyping that has too often marked immigration legislation in our national history, and typifies too much of the rhetoric in the debate today.


  1. Mark, great stuff, thank you. In the tech community, a lot of folks think the smartest thing the country can do would be to grant permanent visas to engineers and other highly trained technical folks. This could be folks who want to come here, and it could especially be folks who are trained here, get degrees in US schools, and may want to stay. Any historical precedents there, for trying to cull out the "brightest" from would-be immigrants?

  2. None that I know of, though several laws attempted to cull the least professional and thereby de facto you could say there was a preference of sorts. And of course when it comes to green cards, we do have a preference system: