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Stephen H. Legomsky


Excerpted from: E Pluribus Unum: Immigration, Race and Other Deep Divides, 21 Southern Illinois University Law Journal 101, 106 - 111 (Fall, 1996) (citations omitted)

 
The United States always has been, still is, and I hope always will be, a country of immigration. To put the U.S. in perspective, though, this is certainly not the only country that has accepted large numbers of immigrants. In fact, if refugees are included, one can identify several countries much smaller and much poorer than we are who have actually accepted more in recent years. African nations have absorbed especially large numbers; Tanzania, Zaire, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire each have been harboring hundreds of thousands of refugees. Iran and Pakistan have housed several million Afghan refugees. Germany and other European nations have taken in hundreds of thousands of Bosnian refugees. Millions of refugees have fled to various countries of the former Soviet Union. 

 The United States, therefore, is not alone in accepting immigrants and refugees. Still, over the long haul, we have had what by worldwide standards would have to be considered a liberal immigration policy. 

 Moreover, we see immigration in distinctive terms. It is a core ingredient of our national identity. Immigration is who we are as a people. We celebrate our immigrant ancestry. We are proud of it. It is part of our emotional, and even our spiritual, makeup. Anyone who has had the chance to visit Ellis Island, to walk through the Great Hall, and to see and hear the powerful images of the past, has felt the spirituality of the immigrant experience. Immigrants built America. They epitomize the pioneer spirit. When I think of past waves of immigrants, I think about their initiative, work ethic, and family values. Most of all, I think of their optimism. You don't travel long distances, leave your friends, your familiar surroundings, and possibly your life savings behind, and come to a strange place where you don't know the culture and at first might not even know the language, unless by nature you are an optimistic person--unless you believe you can build a new life for yourself and for your family. 

 If all that is true, then why is there so much anti-immigrant sentiment today? One possibility is that today's restrictionism is really nothing new. Today's immigrants happen to be predominantly Asian and Latino, and they are receiving a rough reception. Perhaps, however, contemporary anti-immigrant sentiments are no worse than those directed at the Irish and the German immigrants in the mid-1800's, or the Chinese in the late 1800's, or the Japanese around the turn of the century, or the Italians, Greeks, and Eastern European Jews in the early twentieth century. This sort of thing seems to happen every time there is a period of large-scale immigration, and the belligerence and the meanness seem to pass by about the second generation or so, when people begin to realize that the immigrants were perfectly all right after all. Then, amazingly enough, those immigrants become the shining examples to whom future immigrants are unfavorably compared. I like to say that the U.S. has two venerable traditions. One is to admit immigrants. The other is to complain that today's immigrants just aren't of the same caliber as yesterday's. 

 But there is more to it than that. The particular strain of anti- immigrant feeling that we see today seems particularly virulent when viewed through contemporary lenses. Some undoubtedly will disagree, but I believe that on other racial and ethnic issues our modern laws, values, rhetoric, and actual behavior all reflect much greater acceptance of ethnic minorities than was the case at the turn of the century or even twenty years ago. Obviously, we still have a great distance to travel, but at least the progression has been upward. What is so striking is the absence of a similar evolution in our attitudes toward immigrants. As noted earlier, anti-immigrant fervor is evident not only in some of the high-immigrant states, but also in the halls of Congress. Why now? What accounts for the present strength of these sentiments? No single monolithic force explains it all. Just as we vary so dramatically in our general goals, perceptions, and attitudes toward life, so too when it comes to immigration, different concerns are driving different people. Here are some of the operative forces: 

 A. The Economy

 Much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric touches on the state of our economy. The actual state of the economy, however, is probably less important here than the public perception of it. Today there seems to be less optimism about the long- term future of the economy than there used to be. In the past, at least since the Depression, there have always been economic ups and downs. But no matter how bad things got for a spell, most people felt an inner confidence that, eventually, things would get better. That optimism was the source of great comfort. I am not so sure people feel that way today. When insecurity sets in, human nature is to worry less about other people and to seek out scapegoats. 

 I call immigrants scapegoats because immigrants are not to blame for our economic troubles. The restrictionists argue that immigrants take jobs and that immigrants receive welfare, education, and other government services. Yet, the economists are not in consensus on either of those issues. Immigrants do, of course, take jobs. But they also create jobs, in the same ways that citizens do--by consuming goods and services. Every time immigrants buy groceries, clothes, televisions, VCR's, computers, or automobiles, they create jobs for Americans. Immigrants also start new businesses that have revitalized decaying urban areas and that have produced new jobs for Americans. Many years ago the U.S. admitted a refugee named Wang, who settled in Seattle and started Wang Computers. As a result of the seemingly innocuous decision to admit that one individual, thousands of Americans got jobs. 

 The fiscal question is trickier. Immigrant children receive a free public education, and some immigrants receive welfare. Yet, like everyone else, immigrants pay taxes. They pay income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, gasoline taxes, and social security taxes. 

 Do immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in government services? It depends on whom one asks and on several other variables. For all levels of government combined--federal, state, and local--the more credible studies show immigrants to be a net fiscal benefit, paying significantly more in taxes than they receive in government services. Immigrants are, however, a net cost for some states and most local governments. Consequently, residents of high-immigrant states are indirectly subsidizing residents of low-immigrant states. Since the total fiscal impact is a net positive, the solution might be federal reimbursement to selected states rather than a reduction in immigration. 

 B. Racism

 The word "racism" tends to get tossed around casually and often thoughtlessly these days. Yet, if we think of racism in its common usage--to mean any prejudice toward particular races or ethnic groups--then it seems undeniable that racism is a substantial part of today's anti-immigrant sentiment. I want to be clear. It would be wrong to accuse a person of racism simply because he or she believes that immigration ought to be reduced. Surely, however, there are restrictionists who deserve to be called racists. When Pat Buchanan refers to "Moscow's Jewish Mafia," or Cuban "psychotics and criminals," or Mexicans seeking "prey" rather than work, or non-European" immigration "swamp[ing] us," and when those lines generate tumultuous applause, then it is fair to say that racism is at work. Some of the private sector rhetoric in California during and shortly after the Proposition 187 campaign only reinforces that conclusion. Again, I emphasize I am referring to only some of those in the anti-immigrant movement. 

 C. Fear of Balkanization

 All around us we see secession movements. The Soviet Union has crumbled into 15 pieces. The largest of those pieces, Russia, is now trying to stave off secession in Chechnya. The consequences of the breakup in Yugoslavia are seen daily on the evening news. Czechoslovakia has split in two. Closer to home, Quebec is teetering on the brink of secession from Canada, and there are secession forces operating in Chiapas, Mexico. All of this comes at a time when, in the United States, there are difficult domestic issues related to the notion of group rights. These include affirmative action, consideration of race when legislative districts are drawn up, and  ilingual education. I do not suggest that most Americans consciously connect immigration to all of these latter kinds of controversial issues. I do believe, however, that at some instinctual level many people fear that the United States is breaking up psychologically and that we are drifting away from "e pluribus unum." There is no evidence that immigration is in any way responsible, but there might be some public perception to the contrary. 

 D. Fear of Crime

 Crime and personal security have become central issues in peoples' daily lives. Immigrants, however, are neither more nor less law-abiding than the native-born U.S. population. In fact, the percentage of immigrants who are in state prison (the overwhelming bulk of the United States prison population) is actually lower than the corresponding percentage for U.S. citizens. Again, however, the popular perception might well be otherwise. 

 E. Sustained High Levels of Immigration.

 Immigration used to ebb and flow. There were some tall waves, but they were usually followed by ebbs. So, the native population had a chance to catch its breath, and by the time they did so, people could look up and see that the arrival of immigrants did not mean the end of the world. Today, that is not the case. Immigration levels have remained relatively high for several decades. 

 F. Anger About Illegal Immigration

 People are angry, and understandably so, about illegal immigration. It offends many of our instincts. People resent large scale violations of any law, especially by outsiders. They particularly resent this kind of violation, because we, as a nation, have the right to decide who comes in and who does not. Illegal entry denies us that right. Apart from all of that, the lack of a more effective border control hurts our national psyche; it makes us feel ineffectual. Not surprisingly, therefore, people are upset about illegal immigration. The problem has been that, in the present political climate, fine distinctions are easily lost. People take out on legal immigrants the frustrations they feel about illegal immigration. 

 G. Ignorance About Immigration Law

 Very few members of the public realize how restrictive our current immigration laws actually are. Only those who fall within a few specific categories are admitted, and then only if they are not within any of the statutory exclusion grounds. 

 I have often wondered what public opinion surveys would reveal if the pollsters solicited specific views about the particular categories of immigrants whom we now admit. Suppose, for example, a poll asked this question: "If you are a United States citizen or a lawful permanent resident, should our immigration laws allow you to bring in your husband or your wife, and your young children, if they were born abroad? Assume they meet all the usual screening requirements: they are not criminals, they don't have contagious diseases, they have a means of support, etc. Should they be allowed to come in?" I would expect the overwhelming majority of respondents nationwide to say "yes, of course." Little would most people realize that by answering yes to just that one question, they would already be approving almost half of all immigrants admitted to the United States. 

 After that, admittedly, public approval would probably be more marginal. Suppose, for example, United States citizens were asked: "What if your son or daughter has turned 21? Should he or she still be allowed to rejoin the family?" Or, "Should your parents be permitted to join you?" Those votes could be closer, but my guess is that there would still probably be majority support. If so, then the public would now have endorsed a majority of all legal immigration. 

 For other categories, there would again be divisions of opinion, and I concede that approval ratings might be less clear. The main point is that most people would be surprised to learn how little fat there is in our immigration program. It is easier to favor simply "reducing immigration" than to find specific categories that we would really want to eliminate or even substantially reduce. 

 The upshot is that different people have different reasons for resisting immigration. Some of those reasons are perfectly respectable; others, I would suggest, are indefensible.

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanks to Derrick Bell and his pioneer work: 
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