'Give us your poor' – really?
Panic over immigration is nothing new in the US. But by now we ought to know better.
In the decade before World War I, more than a million immigrants arrived in the United States every year. They clustered in ethnically homogenous ghettos, continued to speak their native languages, retained strong ties to their homelands, and often were here only temporarily. (Almost two thirds of Italian immigrants, for example, eventually returned to Italy.) They typically worked manufacturing jobs at wages that most American natives considered unacceptably low. By the start of the war, some 15 percent of the US population was foreign-born.
In Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right, Michele Wucker, a fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, adds such historical perspective to the sound and fury of the current debate over immigration. That "Great Wave" of immigrants, she laments, has been "mythologized" in our collective memory: We imagine the beginning of the 20th century as a time when hopeful Europeans arrived on American shores and were readily welcomed and smoothly integrated into a booming young society.
But in reality, that era was much like our own. The US was in the throes of "massive demographic change," "economic transformation," and "geopolitical crisis," and the crush of immigrants – especially given its ethnic composition (Southern and Eastern, rather than Northern and Western, European) – prompted warnings of social dissolution, economic collapse, and rampant criminality. As Wucker notes, when it comes to alarm over the dire consequences of large-scale immigration, "today's Cassandras are strikingly similar to those who preceded them."
The proportion of immigrants in the US population is now higher than at any point since the end of the Great Wave. A significant number of these immigrants – more than 10 million, by most counts – are undocumented workers from Latin America and Asia. According to polls, Americans rank immigration as one of our most pressing problems. The clamor to "do something about it" has carried over into the White House, Congress, and statehouses nationwide.
But the difficulty, Wucker convincingly argues, is not the immigrants themselves but the way we deal with them. The American immigration system has taken shape through a series of "short-term measures that may sound good to a frightened public but in fact are making things worse." The product is a "mishmash of contradictory and ineffective immigration policies that work against our best interests and that today threaten our social cohesion and our economic well-being."
After Wucker's history lesson, much of "Lockout" focuses the immigrants often ignored in today's debates: the students and skilled workers who make up a significant part of total immigration. Fifty percent of research and development workers and 25 percent of doctors and nurses are immigrants (compared with 20 percent of low-wage workers). Thanks to a poorly functioning bureaucracy strained by a post-9/11 crackdown, such "high-end" immigration has plummeted in the past four years. This means, Wucker proclaims with a Thomas Friedman-esque mix of panic and patriotic cheerleading that "no longer can we take for granted that this country is the destination of choice for the world's best and brightest."
Wucker is less compelling when she gets around to addressing what some would call "low-end" immigration. "Lockout" is full of evidence that persuasively refutes some of the core concerns behind the current backlash against low-skilled and undocumented immigrants. On the question of assimilation, for example, the head of the US Census Bureau reports that "the immigrants counted in 2000 spoke English sooner and better and became educated more quickly than earlier generations."
Unfortunately, the whole of Wucker's argument is less than the sum of its parts. She seems so eager to portray herself as offering a "third way" on immigration policy – in fact, she recommends a set of measures not too different from those in the Senate's compromise immigration bill – that she never quite makes the powerful defense of American openness that is straining to break out.
In that sense, "Lockout," for all its insight and perspective, does not overcome the broad failure of the proopenness camp. Instead of forthrightly stating its case – and ensuring that the government puts in place programs to smooth integration and mitigate negative side effects – that camp has resorted to what Wucker calls the "wink-wink-nod-nod" approach to immigration policy: It hopes to maintain a status quo that is less than ideal (although better than many alternatives) simply by never talking about it.
The failure of that strategy explains at least in part how we got to where we are today, with policy once again being determined in a shouting match that is heavy on high-volume demagoguery and light on real discussion.
• Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.