Immigration: the 250-year perspective
A federal judge on Wednesday opened the latest chapter in the tale of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, ruling on several provisions in favor of opponents of the legislation. As the battle ensues, it seems a good time to look back at U.S. immigration and ask, What’s different now? Peter Schrag, a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, explores the immigration debate throughout American history in his book “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America,” recently released by University of California Press. Schrag finds that the fear and loathing Americans now have of newcomers isn’t terribly different from the sentiments long abroad in the land.
By Peter Schrag
The echoes are eerily familiar. Immigrants, legal and illegal, take American jobs, undercut wages, bring crime and disease, and burden medical and other social services. They don’t learn our language and customs; their kids drag down the schools. The arguments come from radio and TV talkers, from FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, from scholars like the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard, and, of course, from politicians of almost every stripe.
But what they’re saying today -- mostly about Latinos -- was said a century ago about Italians, Slavs, Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Turks, and, before them, about the Irish and the Germans, many of them the same people from whom today’s immigration restrictionists are descended. The Chinese and Japanese, ironically, were to be excluded because they worked too hard
Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge and other proper Yankee Brahmins said it in 1890; some of the nation’s great progressives said it; the Know-Nothings said it. Even Ben Franklin said it back in 1751, warning that Pennsylvania was becoming "a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
A century ago, Armenians had to go to federal court to be legally regarded as white so they could be naturalized. Today a descendant of Armenian immigrants, Mark Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, among the nation’s most influential anti-immigration groups.
We call ourselves a nation of immigrants, and so we are. It’s long been a cliché that the children and grandchildren of groups once deemed unfit for our society have been among the most creative and energetic contributors to our economy, our culture and our strength as a nation.
Immigration and opposition to immigration have long been woven around each other like a double helix. We want them in good times and don’t want them in bad. We want immigrants as workers, as someone said, but we get people.
And yet, there are also huge differences. We now live in a global world where goods, capital and technology are supposed to flow freely across frontiers but, in this country at least, labor is not. The oceans are gone as effective barriers and so far the walls and fences, the electronic gadgetry, and the huge increase in the Border Patrol and other immigration personnel haven’t deterred the flow of people.
On the contrary, by making it harder to cross -- more expensive, more dangerous -- the enhanced enforcement has led many of those who once shuttled seasonally across the border to stay here and send for their families, thereby greatly increasing the population of illegal aliens. And as we are learning, there are other unintended consequences as well -- in off-shoring of jobs, in ancillary drug traffic and, as in the reaction to Arizona’s SB1070, in mounting foreign relations problems.
So we need new strategies to reduce illegal immigration -- through rigorous enforcement of the labor and worker safety laws, which may itself reduce the incentive of employers to hire and exploit illegal workers, and, most of all, through development of the Mexican economy and infrastructure, all conditioned, as the European Union did with Spain and Portugal, on reform of Mexico’s legal and economic institutions. If the United States spent a fraction on Mexican investment that it has spent in Iraq we might get a lot more for it.
Steven E. Levingston
July 29, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: judge ruling on arizona immigration law; u.s. immigrants in history
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