PERSPECTIVE ON IMMIGRATION : Neo-Nativists Feed on Myopic Fears : No industrial country is able to keep foreign workers from settling in; once here, they become ‘our own.’

<i> Wayne A. Cornelius is director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. His most recent book, "Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective," will be published by the center later this year. </i>

Southern California has gained international notoriety as the hotbed of neo-nativism. Numerous groups have emerged here in recent years to protest the ineffectiveness of U.S. immigration controls. In illegal immigrants (or immigrants in general), they find convenient scapegoats for virtually every ill afflicting California today, from the crisis in public finance to rising crime rates to environmental hazards. These groups prey upon the fears and lack of knowledge of the average citizen, creating doomsday “Third World-ization” scenarios out of a jumble of unrelated facts and unsubstantiated assertions.

Like their counterparts in the 1920s, the neo-nativists claim incessantly that today’s immigrants--predominantly Latino--are resisting assimilation into U.S. culture. In fact, the available evidence runs in the opposite direction. Example: A survey of 5,000 immigrant eighth- and ninth-graders in San Diego and Miami, released last month, found that most of them were bilingual but preferred to speak English. Where “cultural assimilation” is a problem, it has less to do with immigrants’ attitudes than with the lack of resources for facilitating their assimilation. For example, English-as-a-second-language classes, especially for adults, are hugely inadequate to the demand.

In the midst of a recession, particularly one that has hit California the hardest, it is easy to argue that current levels of immigration are excessive. There are fewer jobs available and more people chasing them. But this view ignores a critical fact: Native-born workers and immigrants cannot easily be substituted for one another. Skilled workers who are laid off will seek retraining or move to a market where their skills can be employed; they will not seek work as housecleaners or gardeners.

Neo-nativists also vastly overestimate the capacity of governments to control immigration, through legislation, border patrols, identity cards and other police-type measures. A two-year study by researchers based in UC San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies has found that, with the arguable exception of Britain, no major industrialized country--not even Japan--has achieved tight control over illegal entries, overstaying of visas by foreigners who enter legally, or applicants for political asylum who are turned down and disappear into the labor market. Even though the political pressure to restrict immigrants may be high and rising, the capacity of governments to control immigration flows is limited and declining. The reasons are similar in each country: depressed fertility rates among native-born residents; labor forces growing much more slowly than in previous decades; rapidly aging populations; native-born young people shunning the kinds of jobs typically held by immigrants; small and medium-sized businesses struggling to survive in a globalized economy that requires lower production costs and other advantages that immigrant labor can provide.


The neo-nativist groups are distracting public attention from major problems that should concern us: the acute shortage of low-income housing in most cities, the deficiencies of our public schools and our health-care system, and inadequate funding for public services due to the tax-cutting mania that began in California in 1978 with passage of Proposition 13. California also suffers from an unfair distribution of the tax revenues contributed by immigrants themselves, with the federal government keeping the lion’s share and returning to heavily impacted states and localities considerably less than is needed to provide basic human services to the immigrants they are absorbing.

These are the real problems. They certainly were not caused by immigrants, and they can’t possibly be solved by building a Fortress America to keep out immigrants--even if we could actually do so without turning the country into a police state. Take the case of low-income housing. Federal and state laws require every city in California to have a plan for providing low-income housing opportunities. But 75% of the localities are out of compliance; many cities have never even filed such a plan. The neo-nativists want to have it both ways: They don’t want poor immigrants living 12 to a room in tenements, or in squatter settlements within eyeshot of their upscale houses; yet they will fight to the last ounce of their strength to prevent the siting of low-income housing within their communities.

Another example of the extreme myopia of today’s anti-immigrant groups is their push to limit access to basic human services on the basis of immigration status. The neo-nativists seek to persuade us that, if only the immigrants and their dependents can be kept out or sent back, there would be no need to provide such services. The problem with this argument is that no major industrialized country in the world is succeeding in preventing the emergence of a more-or-less permanently settled population of foreign workers and their dependents.

The issue of providing social services to immigrants is, fundamentally, a federal/state revenue-sharing problem. The cost savings that would result from denying basic services to immigrants are vastly exaggerated. Moreover, these savings would be greatly offset by the future costs for health care (emergency and chronic illness), remedial education, unemployment compensation, welfare and law enforcement that would result from failing to develop the human capital represented by the new immigrants and their children.

Americans disturbed by high unemployment, sluggish economic growth and cutbacks in public services understandably believe that “we should take care of our own.” What they may not realize is that a significant portion of newly arrived immigrants in this country are, and will continue to be, “our own.” The key question in the immigration debate in all of the world’s mature industrialized countries is whether they will choose to invest in the human capital they are receiving from Third World countries. Can the United States afford to have a stigmatized, undereducated, poorly housed “permanent underclass” of foreign-born people and their offspring--people with no prospects for improving their lives and their incomes and contributing more to the tax base? If we follow the prescriptions advocated by the neo-nativists, that is exactly what we will get. And all of us will have to live with the long-term consequences of that shortsightedness.