The best way to make Americans


THE “MERIT-BASED” immigration system enshrined in the all-but-dead Senate “grand bargain” was one of the reform bill’s more controversial elements. Those who railed against it might think it’s a victory that it was shelved along with the bill. They would be wrong, because merit-based immigration is probably a prerequisite to the next immigration bill and the one after that. It’s part of what conservatives will demand in order to grant some form of amnesty.

Of course, that doesn’t make it right.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 20, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 21 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Immigration historian: Gregory Rodriguez’s June 11 column on immigration reform proposals quoted the “late, great scholar” Oscar Handlin. Handlin, who taught at Harvard, is 92 and living in Cambridge, Mass.

Don’t kid yourself. If there had been an immigration point system in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of your ancestors would have been denied entry to the United States. Sure, maybe the Irish would have had a natural advantage by speaking English, but they wouldn’t have scored many points with either their skills or educational attainment.

The truth is that during the period of unrestricted immigration -- before the U.S. erected systemized barriers to entry in the 1920s -- fewer than 2% of newcomers were highly skilled. Throughout most of our history, the average immigrant came from the lower, if not the very bottom, ranks of their home societies. They were men and women with few advantages, willing to sacrifice and work hard to better their lot. Heck, that’s why they came here in the first place.


There was a time when we lauded our humble heritage, when we loved log cabin stories and guys from Hope. But in an era in which the wife of an ex-president is the leading candidate to succeed the son of an ex-president in the White House, we’re looking more like a nation of oligarchs than “the homeless, tempest tost,” a place where prestige and wealth are handed down rather than earned.

ON ONE HAND, immigration reformers’ attempt to prioritize skills over family reunification is a response to the changes in our economy. We live in a technologically advanced, information-driven society, and engineers from abroad help us flourish. But on the other, the effort to push highly educated workers to the front of the line for visas is a vote of no confidence not only in the ability of today’s native and foreign-born working classes to climb their way up the proverbial ladder but in the ladder itself.

It is true that the gap between the earnings of immigrant and native-born workers has gotten wider. It’s also true that success in our specialized economy requires more education and sophisticated skills than it once did. But it’s just as undeniable that upwardly mobile aspiration and the generational escape from poverty by immigrant families have been key ingredients to America’s success, both social and economic.

The late, great scholar Oscar Handlin once wrote that the “history of immigration is the history of alienation and its consequences.” In his classic book, “The Uprooted,” Handlin detailed the losses, burdens and sadness that so many newcomers suffered during great migrations to the United States. “In our flight, through the newness,” he concluded about America’s immigrant character, “we discovered the unexpected, invigorating effects of recurrent demands upon the imagination, upon all our human capacities.” Handlin urged Americans not to “forget the experience of having been rootless [and] adrift.” He hoped we would not become trapped in “a tangled web of comfortable habits.”

But the political shift in favor of highly skilled (i.e. privileged) immigrants suggests that we have done just that. It is an indication that the immigrant struggle, once our national narrative, is no longer considered a collective rite of passage. We’ve forgotten that, like a presidential campaign that proves the mettle of the candidates who survive it, the rigors of migration and adjustment are what turned us into Americans. That shared sense of having arrived with little and been blessed with so much helped nurture our patriotism and bind the nation together.

Addled by our comfort, we are stripping our national narrative of its grit and determination. The new story is sanitized and suburbanized. It envisions America as a nation of status maintenance rather than of striving; as a land not of opportunity and risk but of middle-class caution, where we value credentials over ambition and raw energy. From this perspective, immigrants shouldn’t struggle upward but walk straight into an office cubicle.

There’s nothing wrong with welcoming high-tech workers. But to turn others into guest workers with little chance of permanent status, and to legislate an end to the belief in aspiration and mobility, is to betray the essence and beauty of our history.