The myth of the falling sky
It was one of the bitterest, longest-running political standoffs in recent memory. On one side, business interests and immigrant advocates argued that we needed foreigners to do dirty, low-paying jobs native-born U.S. workers didn’t want to do. But much of the general public was wary if not angrily opposed to the immigrants, skeptical of these economic arguments and, more important, intensely frightened of how the newcomers were likely to change American culture. Democrats and Republicans were divided on the issue, ensuring that both pro- and anti-immigrant camps consisted of strange-bedfellow coalitions. The stakes could hardly have seemed higher: the very makeup of America, after all. The debate raged inconclusively for years before culminating in landmark legislation. What period of U.S. history is this? It could be the 1920s, the 1950s, the early 1960s, the 1980s or the 1990s -- take your pick.
Talk about deja vu all over again -- the debate is being repeated today, almost verbatim. Once again the stakes could hardly be higher. Some 1.3 million immigrants, legal and illegal, are arriving each year. One in nine U.S. residents began life in another country; the total foreign-born population now exceeds 33 million -- more immigrants than people in all of Canada. And the nation is again gearing up for a momentous immigration debate, this one prompted by President Bush’s proposal for a guest-worker program. Once again those who believe the influx is good for the nation make an economic argument -- that we need these foreign workers to sustain the country’s prosperity -- while opponents worry about what their presence will mean for American culture.
The authors of four new books on immigration could hardly come at the subject from more different perspectives, ranging from the far right to the far left and spanning the gamut from rudimentary study to political tract to sophisticated historiography. Reading them together can be dizzying: Sometimes the multiple perspectives seem to help one catch a glimpse of the truth, sometimes the books contradict each other. Still, they add up to a telling, informative story with a number of striking parallels that can’t help but command attention today.
Immigration to America is as old as the nation itself. In 1790, when the first census was taken, 40% of the population was of non-English stock. Benjamin Franklin, among other founders, was concerned that some of the newcomers might be unassimilable. (He wrote with alarm about the “Palatine boors” -- Germans who could never hope to acquire an Anglo-Saxon “complexion” -- “swarming” into Pennsylvania in the 1750s.) But in fact, the nation made little attempt to control its borders for the first 100 years of its existence. The influx quickened in the 1840s and ‘50s: primarily Germans and Irish, most of them Catholic. They were met by a vicious backlash focused on their religion: riots, church-burnings and the nation’s first significant nativist organization, popularly tagged the Know Nothing party. These waves gradually subsided, but others soon followed, including Asians arriving on the West Coast. The percentage of foreign-born in the U.S. population remained more or less constant through the end of the 19th century -- 13% to 15%.
The turn of the 20th century brought a second great wave of immigrants. Between 1880 and 1920, about 23 million newcomers entered the country -- a number roughly equivalent to the total U.S. population in 1850. By then, most of the native-born had accepted that Germans and Irish could become American, but again the new immigrants -- southern and Eastern Europeans -- struck many people as just too foreign to assimilate. Already in the early 1880s, before the immigration station on Ellis Island opened, anti-immigrant sentiment in California led Congress to pass the first law restricting who and how many could enter: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred virtually all working-class immigration from China until 1943. Nativist hostility, scientific racism and fear of foreign subversion mounted steadily in the ensuing decades as more and more southern Europeans poured in -- and finally, in 1924, Congress slammed the door shut.
Arguably one of the most radical pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress, the 1924 Immigration Act sharply restricted the annual influx to roughly one-sixth of what it had been just a few years earlier. More controversial still, the notoriously bigoted new law established a “national-origins” quota system designed explicitly to prevent further changes in the ethnic makeup of America. An “expert” commission was charged with determining the nation’s ethnic composition in 1920 -- the percentage descended from English settlers, from Germans and so forth -- and henceforth no country’s annual share could exceed that percentage. Not only was this scheme expressly intended to undercount the recent arrivals, but for the purpose of its calculations, the existing population was defined as whites only. In deference to Southwestern agricultural interests already in need of Mexican labor, there were no limits on migration from the Western Hemisphere. But beginning in 1929, the State Department administratively controlled the Mexican influx, adjudicating workers case by case and excluding anyone deemed “liable to become a public charge.” The Depression and World War II compounded the effects of these restrictions and the migrant flow shrank dramatically through the middle of the 20th century. Fewer immigrants came between 1930 and 1970 than had arrived in a single decade from 1900 to 1910 and the foreign-born share of the population shriveled to less than 5%.
Historians vary widely in their view of this period: Was brazen bigotry the exception or the rule for U.S. attitudes about immigration? Whatever the motives, can it be argued that the restrictive 1924 quotas ended up paying off, spurring the successful assimilation of the Ellis Island wave? These four authors disagree sharply. But for all the public’s fear and suspicion of immigrants, the nation could not stomach such a mingy, closed approach for long. In the late 1940s, domestic and international pressures were combining to push the door open again. The Truman administration defied public opinion to admit some half a million European war refugees. The Cold War-era McCarran-Walter Act renewed many of the restrictionist provisions of the 1924 law, but ruled importantly that Asians could no longer be barred from immigrating or naturalizing. Finally, in the 1960s, the civil rights movement blew the lid off the restrictionist regime put in place earlier in the century. The framers of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act had no idea just how dramatic a change they were introducing. But in the four decades since, the new law has combined with global forces -- jet-age transportation, modern communications and the international labor market -- to generate a vast new influx that rivals the Ellis Island wave in both size and perceived “foreignness,” sparking another round of the nation’s perennial immigration debate.
Of these new books, Roger Daniels’ “Guarding the Golden Door” is arguably the most useful for general readers. Clearly written, reasonably lean -- the details of this history can be mind-numbing for nonspecialists -- and on the whole, balanced in its assessments, it is an excellent primer, though sometimes lacking in imagination. The University of Cincinnati professor focuses on the history of Asian immigration, rectifying the way their part of the story is often neglected. He also supplements his narrative with useful thumbnail sketches of today’s newcomers: the contemporary Asian and Latino communities. If there’s anything to quarrel with, it is Daniels’ insistence that the restrictive era dawned in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act and that the gates were effectively closed for nearly a third of U.S. history. In fact, it could be argued that the door was not shut until 1924 and that it started swinging open again immediately after World War II -- a fairly negligible parenthesis.
“Unguarded Gates” by Otis L. Graham Jr. revisits much of this same history from a very different point of view. An ardent, unapologetic restrictionist, Graham plainly intends to correct what he believes to be a disastrously skewed understanding of America’s past. We are not, he writes in his opening salvo, a “nation of immigrants,” but rather “a nation of the native-born.” The Statue of Liberty is a misconstrued symbol, hijacked by romanticizing liberals to construct the “myth” that “asylum is the meaning of America.” The restrictionist movement has been misunderstood and worse, grossly slandered by historians who magnify the role played by a few ugly racists to tar the whole effort. Graham covers immigration history from start to finish -- from George Washington to George W. Bush -- from a restrictionist perspective, arguing that it has always been the majority view and that intellectually and popularly, it is once again triumphing today. This is simply not true: If it were, we’d hardly be debating immigration as intensely as we are, in Washington and across the nation. As for Graham’s substantive points, they might seem more persuasive if he took the trouble to present and rebut a single one of the other side’s arguments. But though he is not a bad storyteller, he rarely engages an issue in an honest or rigorous manner, preferring to heap sarcasm on what he sees as the purely “sentimental” arguments of his opponents.
Graham’s case in favor of restriction rests on three erroneous assumptions: that immigration undermines American workers (in fact, it helps expand the economy, enhancing U.S. global competitiveness and prosperity); that it is devastating the environment (on this, he all but neutralizes his own argument when he quotes approvingly from a 1948 treatise claiming that even then, at about half today’s population, the country had “long since passed” its “economically optimal” carrying capacity) and that the newcomers will prove fatal to American culture as we know it. This last charge is the most serious; today as throughout U.S. history, it is the inextinguishable anxiety that drives anti-immigration politics. But although this is every generation’s fear, over the course of the nation’s history it has never proved true. Benjamin Franklin’s “Palatine boors” didn’t destroy the republic: On the contrary, they strengthened it with an invaluable new work ethic. The Irish gave us a new political style and reinvigorated our music; the swarthy Ellis Islanders brought Italian family values, Jewish humor and the then precious mechanical skills of Eastern Europeans. As for the often-made argument that the Ellis Island wave would not have assimilated but for the “breathing space” created when we shut the door in 1924, there is no historical evidence that they would not have settled in anyway. And the 19th century influx, which loomed equally large in its era, assimilated perfectly well with no “time out.”
Mae M. Ngai’s “Impossible Subjects” is, if anything, an even more radical but deeply stimulating work from the opposite end of the political spectrum. A former labor activist, now an academic, Ngai focuses on illegal immigrants. At the heart of her book are four closely argued case studies of groups relegated to the margins of the U.S. body politic: houseboys and farmhands from the colonial Philippines barred from naturalizing in the 1920s; the Mexican guest workers and illegal migrants who have sustained U.S. agribusiness since the 1930s; the 120,000 Japanese Americans rendered all but illegal by wartime internment; and the thousands of deportable Chinese immigrants asked to expose undocumented kin in exchange for citizenship in the Cold War era. Ngai’s years in the archives show in her fascinating, richly textured accounts of these episodes. But, unfortunately, as powerful as her case is, she ultimately undermines it by pressing it to the point of politically irrelevant utopianism.
Ngai’s undeniable premise -- as pertinent today as ever -- is that the lawfully regulated part of our immigration system is only the tip of the iceberg. Even as we have allowed legal immigrants, mostly from Europe, through the front door, we have always permitted others, generally people of color, to slip in the back gate to do essential jobs -- but, because they were here as temporary workers or lacked papers, they were denied basic rights and, shockingly often in the last century, repatriated at will. “Illegal aliens are at once familiar and invisible to middle-class Americas,” Ngai writes. “Their labor is desired but the difficulties of their lives for the most part go unnoticed.” Far worse, because they can never be incorporated in the broader society, they live as a caste apart -- noncitizen nonpersons, giving the lie to the nation’s fundamental democratic principals. Ngai is not the first to notice these shadow Americans, but her sweeping indictment of the pattern is highly original and -- like a telling psychoanalytic insight -- obvious and devastating once stated. (Lisa Magana’s slim monograph, “Straddling the Border,” offers some contemporary evidence in support of Ngai’s thesis: a detailed account of how, in the 1980s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had little intention of cracking down effectively on employers who hired illegal Mexican laborers.)
Where Ngai goes wrong, I think, is in her diagnosis -- and, consequently, in her remedies. She claims that the caste society she describes is the inevitable result of national sovereignty: that borders inevitably create aliens and that, by drawing lines between citizens and noncitizens, nation-states inevitably violate human rights. But there is a far less radical explanation. In fact, this is precisely the kind of disastrous outcome one would expect when we Americans indulge rather than reconcile our need for foreign labor with our fear that newcomers will undermine our culture. Instead of trusting to America’s time-tested assimilative power, we have let in millions of illegal immigrants to do the work we need done but kept them on the margins, hoping they would eventually return home or, if need be, we could deport them. Ugly as it was, this stratagem worked for much of the 20th century; but it works far less well today, in large part because values are catching up with unsavory practices and exposing our hypocrisy. Not only left-wing scholars like Ngai but even the Republican president see that today’s illegal population must be brought out of the shadows and given rights.
What is the long-term solution? Surely we needn’t go as far as to abolish the nation-state, and, with it, the rights that come with being an American. A far better answer would be a more realistic immigration code -- ceilings more in line with the number of workers needed to fill essential jobs -- that gives migrants the same labor rights as the native-born and a choice of returning home or becoming fully enfranchised citizens. As these books show -- whatever the authors mean to argue -- this is how it worked for most of the millions of migrants who flocked to our shores, lured by the twin magnets of American opportunity and democratic values. Ngai is right that we must correct unjust practices that don’t live up to our best traditions. But the good news is that even as the perennial debate swells again, public sentiment is slowly inching in that direction. Of all the lessons the past teaches, surely those that pertain to immigration are among the most hopeful. If only more of the native-born could learn to trust our track record as a confident and successful nation of immigrants.