Don’t get immigration wrong - again

Michele Wucker
19 June 2006

Every American seems to be a self-styled expert on immigration. If only I had a dime for each time I've patiently endured yet another cocktail-chatter lecture from someone who, hearing that I was researching and writing about the topic, launches into a speech on what it means "to become American".

The cocktail lecture goes roughly like this: "A hundred years ago, everything was different. Unlike today's newcomers with their tight ties to their homelands, our ancestors left everything behind. They were different from immigrants who come today because they wanted to learn English and never go home again. It was easier for them to assimilate because America chose to close the doors, establishing strict national-origins quotas in the 1920s that all but cut off the contaminating flow of new people bringing backward Old World customs with them. Besides, it was easier for them to become Americans because, unlike immigrants today, they were white and so could blend in more easily."

This narrative is drawn from a mix of sources: elementary-school textbooks, media formulae, and the public need for a meaningful, digestible story of the national past. It is, unfortunately, skewed, selective, and self-serving. This makes it actively misleading and even, in its implications for present-day policy, dangerous.

The story reflects the way that America's collective memory of her immigrant history has fallen victim to a fashionable fascination with the future and disdain for the past – or at least for a past that does not suit contemporary political expediency.

In fact, just about everything in the cocktail-party version of the history of immigration to the United States – especially concerning what Americans think we know about the "great wave" of immigration from 1880-1920 – is wrong. These misconceptions feed into an increasingly rancorous immigration debate in the US: the quintessential "nation of immigrants" whose experience other nations still seek to learn from as they wrestle with new migrant populations of their own.

Michele Wucker is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, where she specialises in immigration and Latin American economies. Her website is here

She is the author of Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right (PublicAffairs, 2006 )

Also by Michele Wucker in openDemocracy:

"Argentina and the IMF: will they benefit from hindsight?"
(4 September 2003)

Michel Wucker has written a personal, reflective and incisive essay on immigration to America:

"Who we are, what we lost" (Tikkun, 2000)

A two–way street

I stumbled on some of these misunderstandings through an encounter with real as opposed to recycled history after the publication of my first book, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola. There, I had written: "Unlike the immigrants of the Industrial Revolution, who looked back as little as possible, [Dominicans and Haitians] kept up with what was going on at home." What seemed to me to be a stark difference soon dissipated, however, as I delved into the history behind the very myth that I had repeated, unaware of how far it was from reality.

As I researched more deeply for my current book Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right, I realised that I had made a comparison based on a false version of history which masked mistakes the US had made a hundred years ago and increased the likelihood that it would repeat them. And so, instead of writing about the differences between the waves of immigration at the beginning and end of the 20th century, I came to appreciate their similarities and connections.

A brief rebuttal of the party-chatter version goes like this. The idea that today's immigrants are so different from those who came during the great wave is inaccurate and divisive, but it also misses a key point – that immigrants' ability to integrate depends on the "host's" inclinations as much as on the "guests'".

The reality is that a century ago, many immigrants to America often crossed the ocean in both directions, and even when they settled for good in the United States they frequently sent considerable sums of money to families and political movements in their countries of origin. In that era, thirty-six out of every 100 immigrants left the United States to return to their homelands for good; today, only about twenty-three of every 100 go back. At the same time, immigrants to the US created home-country and ethnic networks as a major support-system precisely to help in learning English and aiding settlement in America.

As for race, the great-wave immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and from Ireland were "white" on paper only. Newspapers, magazines, congressional commissions, and bestselling books relentlessly conveyed the message that the newest immigrants – the very ones (from Poles to Irish, Greeks to Italians) seen by the majority of Americans today as uncontroversially and unthinkingly white – were racially inferior.

The restrictionist right may currently praise America as an essentially European nation, but its equivalents a century ago viewed Europe as an uncivilised influence to be avoided and protected against. Even so, the modern Americans whom the right wishes to see as homogeneous and uniform have not "given up" as much as it commonly supposes: they have simply transformed old cultures into ersatz ethnicities expressed through ethnic foods, heritage festivals, and a relatively newfound fascination with genealogy.

A volatile mix

Immigration touches on every aspect of American life and lies at the core of the country's national mythology. Partly as a result, there has long been a temptation for US immigration policy to be driven by irrational behaviour and an almost wilful blindness to self-interest. Politicians steer clear of this "third rail" of American politics, evading the management and solution of obvious troubles until they have worsened to the point of crisis. The consequence is that "solutions" swing from one extreme to another, and in each case prove inadequate.

This is evident in the cycle of immigration policies across the last nine decades, from the aftermath of the great war (1914-18) and the "red scare" (1919-20) to the controversies of today about quotas, border security, undocumented immigrants and amnesties.

In the 1920s, during a period when new quotas were put in place to restrict new immigration, the very ethnic associations that had dedicated themselves to the creation of new Americans were all but dismantled. Instead of uniting Americans around the civic and economic aspirations that had turned the United States from an upstart colony into a global power, the closing of the doors in the 1920s papered over the recent past with a new agreement to forget. As Americans neglected to seek ways to affirm what had brought us together in the first place, we learned to define ourselves instead by what we were "not" (a mentality with contemporary echoes in the attitude of "if you're not with us, you're against us"). This set us up for renewed conflict and soul-searching.

A period of four decades, when immigration levels were dramatically lower, was followed by the 1965 reform act which reopened the doors with an emphasis on bringing in family members. This increased immigration to record high figures, and replicated the social tensions that dominated the great-wave era. Congress did not respond (as it should have) by attempting to slow immigration to a more sustainable level; rather, it implemented a smoke-and-mirrors solution that made things worse.

The 1986 immigration reform ostensibly exchanged amnesty for better enforcement, but it was riddled with loopholes – so much so that, twenty years on, a huge controversy can erupt over the approximately 11 million illegal aliens living here. Meanwhile, neglect of the immigration bureaucracy has resulted in a situation so dysfunctional that the world's best and brightest are locked out, even as the rest of the world is now doing better at competing for their talent.

The bureaucratic debacle – which includes the fact that two of the 9/11 hijackers were issued with visas six months after the terrorist attacks – leads to a further fundamental point: the interlinkage between America's domestic policy and its relationships with the rest of the world.

The errors the US made in the early 20th century involved a complex of attitudes that connected immigration and foreign policy. Congress accompanied its draconian national-origins-based immigration quotas of 1921 and 1924 with the beginning of restrictions on international trade in 1922. The infamous 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act raised tariffs to their highest level ever and played into a global vicious circle of protectionism that worsened the great depression. This trade protectionism stemmed from a zero-sum view of the world replete with damaging myths: that another nation's gain entailed a loss to America; that a foreigner with a job implied that an American was being deprived of one; and that nobody could be American while acknowledging remaining ties to any other country.

Today, similar views feed a raging controversy over the "outsourcing" of jobs. The people who denounce outsourcing often oppose immigration; yet policies that have made it harder for high-skilled immigrants to come to the United States in the past five years have accelerated the exodus of jobs. This shortsighted view hurts America and the world.

Also in openDemocracy on the Unites States and immigration:

Caroline Moorehead, "From Mexico to California, and back" (November 2003)

KA Dilday, "The labour of others"
(April 2006)

Hank Heifetz, "Looking north: Mexicans in migration"
(11 April 2006)

Reason in the maelstrom

The arguments over immigration often face a recurrent dilemma: whom to let in to America, and what conditions should be attached to their presence? The temptation to close the doors, shut the windows and build the fences again is strong, but the arguments in favour of doing so will not solve the problems they supposedly are intended to fix.

A bill passed in the House of Representatives in December 2005 would have turned illegal aliens into felons and shut the borders, leaving no way for employers to legally hire the workers on whom they depend. Such laws have little chance at working, and thus would encourage everyone to thumb their noses at them. At the same time, they would drive immigrants underground – making it even easier for unscrupulous employers to exploit them and further tilting the playing-field against American workers whose readiness to defend their rights makes them less attractive as employees. This casts an ironic light on the argument that immigrants must be kept out to protect low-wage American workers.

The Senate, in the wake of the huge mobilisation of immigrant workers and their supporters across the United States in April-May 2006, has come closer to a necessary balance that includes both legalisation and enforcement. This is a positive departure from the House's enforcement-only approach. But the very lack of policy coherence and consensus, combined with the contradictory interests of interested parties to the debate, means that the most likely outcome is the postponement of the problem once more – leaving individual states to enact increasingly punitive measures.

Global economic and demographic changes, coupled with a changing geopolitical order, are as destabilising to the United States today as they were a century ago. Now as then, immigrants make an easy target to blame for increasing economic inequality, social and political insecurity, and the dissipation of common dreams. In this volatile, media-fuelled mix, history and culture have leapt out of the pages of elementary-school textbooks into an emotional maelstrom.

But the stakes are even higher today than they were in the early 20th century, now that the growth of the knowledge economy has given a clear advantage to those who can negotiate across cultural boundaries. If the United States repeats the mistakes of the earlier era and turns its back on the world once again, the country would lose the advantages that have come with its welcoming of all the world's peoples.

The solution is not to emulate past closure, but to open the windows of the mind in order to create immigration policies that benefit America, immigrants to her shores, and the world.

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