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Immigration: the 250-year perspective

Guest Blogger

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.

By 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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Comments

@CharlesMcKay1 -- Antisemitism is not the answer and only provides provides advocates of illegal immigration with yet more ammunition to pain supporters of actually enforcing the law as bigots.

As someone who supports strong enforcement of our immigration laws, I want to make clear that statements like yours are abhorent. You do not speak for the vast majority of people who support the rule of law and I strongly suspect you are a liberal who actually favors illegal immigration and posted your disgusting comment in order precisely because you want opponents of illegal immigration to be seen as bigots.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | July 29, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

CharlesMcKay1's comments were removed because they were inappropriate and violated Washington Post rules on posting.
Steven Levingston
Washington Post

Posted by: levingstons | July 29, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Noticing patterns is abhorrent to you, Woodbridge? Apparently the censors here agree. Fine... let's try that again...

Mr. Levingston's review of Mr. Schrag's work is... one more big-media figure, praising one more big-academia figure, selling one more slant on the Ellis Island sentimentalist view of immigration.

Read Samuel Huntington's classic "The Hispanic Challenge" for a more realistic assessment:

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1084558/posts

Posted by: CharlesMcKay1 | July 29, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

On a year on year on bases somewhere around 1,100,000 Mexicans enter the work force and at most there are somewhere around 500,000 jobs created. A goodly portion of the Mexicans who enter the work force and cannot find jobs go north. This means that in large measure the failure of Mexico explains why so many Mexicans enter this nation illegally. If you think this is a bad situation, it will in the short term get worse in a few years. Today Mexico is an oil exporting nation and in a few years it will be an importing nation which means the state will lose its largest revenue source, it will lose it leading export produce, and on and on. In addition, manufacturing in Mexico is decline, the Mexican government cannot collect taxes, it cannot educate its people,and on and on. The reason for this state of affairs is quite simple: the current state of affairs suits the elites that run Mexico. Furthermore, the Mexicans resent and reject any so-called interference from the United States. For example, the Mexicans refuse to allow foreigners to participate in the oil industry which is one of the major reasons for the decline of the oil industry. Mexico has made itself a failed nation state and refuses to take the steps needed to rectify the situation and it has found it useful to export its excess numbers to the United States. It has prevented an internal revolt and at the same time has been a major source of foreign currency. This is the ugly truth behind the mass immigration of Mexicans to the United States. There is something fundamentally wrong with Mexico and this needs to be faced in this country.

Posted by: jeffreed | July 29, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

I'm just waiting for the person -- I'm pretty sure there will be one -- who asks Steven Levingston "what don't you understand about the word 'illegal?'" and completely ignores everything else Levingston said.

Too bad, because Levingston wrote a fine piece that deserves thoughtful consideration.

Posted by: mamapanda | July 29, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

The people that live here and support the illegal immigrants must not have to work for a living or be very rich. Before these supporters talk, they should walk a mile in sombodys shoes that have lost everything and cannot get a job anywhere, with their kids wondering what happened and why they are living in a shelter or their car. And at the same time illegal immigrants are working here for cash and getting the support from our Government agencys that we have paid into for our whole lives so they would be here for all of us. Go ahead and take that first step and see if you still support people that have come here illegally and have stolen your job and dignety.

Posted by: randykree | July 30, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

You idiots keep dwelling on the word illegal like it really means anything to you. The truth is, I bet all you idiots have violated a million laws yourselves. Smoke pot? What is it about the word illegal that you don't understand? What? You don't declare all the cash income you receive? What is it about the word illegal that you don't understand?

Let's see, this land was invaded and illegally occupied by Europeans, and now you want to talk about what's legal? That's like a thief complaining about somebody stealing the car he stole.

Posted by: bendan2000 | August 1, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

National ID……..Required to work in the U.S.A……..

Sanctuary cities shall receive no Federal or State funds…….

Anyone, Individual or Corporation that hires an illegal shall:

1. Be fined $10,000.00 for ‘each’ offense…..
2. Mandatory 1 year in jail for individuals on each offense…..
3. Mandatory 1 year in jail for all officers of the corporation…...

DEPORT ALL ILLEGALS………..

Re-enter after deportation; MANDATORY 20 year prison term….

Above all; we must stop the ‘anchor’ babies from receiving citizenship….

Posted by: UpAndOver | August 2, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

You are purposely conflating legal and illegal immigration.
Nobody is fearful of strangers immigrating to this land. That is a Red Herring.
People are afraid of broken borders and no control over who enters.
To turn support for the rule of law and orderly immigration, into some racist, other-hating, b.s., is YOUR agenda.
If you make it about bigotry and cultural acceptance, you think you win the argument.
But that is not what it is about.
Nobody cares what color or ethnicity legal immigrants are.
We care about equal justice and laws before men.
For you to purposely confuse these issues, and bring up the same old "afraid of those who are different" crap? That makes you a fear mongering demagogue.

Posted by: johnL1 | August 3, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

You are purposely conflating legal and illegal immigration.
Nobody is fearful of strangers immigrating to this land. That is a Red Herring.
People are afraid of broken borders and no control over who enters.
To turn support for the rule of law and orderly immigration, into some racist, other-hating, b.s., is YOUR agenda.
If you make it about bigotry and cultural acceptance, you think you win the argument.
But that is not what it is about.
Nobody cares what color or ethnicity legal immigrants are.
We care about equal justice and laws before men.
For you to purposely confuse these issues, and bring up the same old "afraid of those who are different" crap? That makes you a fear mongering demagogue.

Posted by: johnL1 | August 3, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

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