Wayne O'Leary

Roots of the Immigration Dilemma

Let’s stipulate at the outset that Donald Trump is wrong about a lot of things when it comes to immigration, whether it’s mass deportations, separated families, or unnecessary border walls. Mr. Trump is not wrong, however, about one fact of life: America does have an ongoing immigration problem, which ebbs and flows, and periodically rises to crisis proportions. It’s a problem that’s intertwined with our history and our politics, and inextricably connected in an almost insidious way to our national myth.

The US, it is reiterated constantly, is “a nation of immigrants.” That’s true as far as it goes, but no more true than is the case for numerous other countries. Australia is a nation of immigrants; so is Canada. And so, if you take the long historical view, are many countries of Europe.

But belief in American “exceptionalism” being what it is, we have made immigration the touchstone of our national narrative, a unique feature setting us apart. This has created inevitable dilemmas, especially in late years. It has prevented us, for example, from setting sensible immigration limits and controlling excessive population growth out of a fear of violating the supposed spirit of American nationhood — which means never saying “no” to those desiring to enter the country, legally or even illegally.

Politics gets involved, too, as when attempts to close the door slightly to entries from dangerous or problematic parts of the world run afoul of their compatriots already here, leading to charges of racism or ethnic bias in admissions. It becomes far easier to just leave the door open for those with active stateside political supporters, or simply acquiesce to domestic constituencies with a vested interest.

These constituencies, as delineated recently by New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter, include the business community, always eager for cheaper workers (which immigrants are); labor unions, anxious to grow by signing up new members from an expanded labor pool; and professional advocates, whose vocation is to protect immigration rights. Their combined activities effectively counter the myth that immigrants come to America for purely uplifting, idealistic motives related to freedom and liberty, rather than for mundane economic reasons.

Historically, there have certainly been noneconomic immigrants (fleeing democratic revolutionaries, such as the German “Forty-Eighters” and the anti-Soviet Hungarians of 1956, to name two such groups), but the overwhelming majority have come, like my own forebears, for economic opportunity. This was the primary motivation for the huge influx of job-seeking migrants from Latin America (chiefly Mexico) in recent decades.

That particular influx has begun tailing off, Donald Trump’s nightmares notwithstanding, because of increased southern-border surveillance and the slow US employment recovery from the 2008 recession, especially in construction and other blue-collar industries. (Since 2009, more Mexicans have departed the US than have entered, and annual Mexican immigration has fallen by 1 million a year over the last five years.)

But the general proposition holds true. Economic immigrants from Mexico have largely been replaced by incomers from Asia, mainly China and India. For millions worldwide in search of a better economic life, the US remains the golden door, and forces inside America have been striving throughout the postwar period to keep it ajar, if not straining at its hinges.

The movement to increase immigration to the US has been undertaken for good reasons and bad, for the best of motives and for less altruistic ones, but always it proceeds under the banner of “immigration reform.” It’s been a bipartisan effort, endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, and supported by virtually all presidents holding office over the past 50 years.

Modern immigration reform dates to 1965, with the Immigration and Nationality Act, pushed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and signed by LBJ, partly as a Cold War measure to win international allies. The 1965 act lifted the ceiling on legal immigration imposed in 1924 and ended the “national-origins” quota system in place since then, which had tended to favor Europeans. Following its passage, immigration surged (59 million arrivals from 1965 to 2015), and the proportion of foreign-born US residents last year reached its highest level (13.7%) since the peak year of 1890 (14.8%) and is poised to surpass that record in 2025.

Most of the newcomers were nonwhite and non-European; three-quarters came from Latin America and Asia, and they were able to use a family reunification provision to bring in relatives. These factors substantially altered the structural composition of the American population.

The 1965 law was reinforced in its effects by the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, which provided amnesty to several million undocumented immigrants, also largely from the Southern Hemisphere. An end to future illegal immigration was written into the Reagan legislation, but enforcement (based on employer sanctions) was never carried out.

Together, the 1965 and 1986 laws (and the 1990 addendum signed by George H. W. Bush that raised permissible immigration levels by 40%) formed the crux of today’s immigration crisis, which is presently being politically exploited. A willingness by Reagan and his successors to look the other way on post-amnesty violations, combined with LBJ’s disingenuous claim that his 1965 legislation would neither change the makeup of the country nor affect the everyday lives of most Americans, are directly responsible for Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade.

The statutory revisions produced a nation that has overnight gone from 84% white and European-based to 62%, a nation that has added over 11 million illegal residents in the past 30 years, a nation whose overall population has mushroomed by a third in barely half a century (primarily from immigrants and their progeny) with attendant pressures on land, housing, natural resources, and working-class wages.

Most troubling, this policy of social engineering was put in place by a detached political class disconnected from its constituents, a class that, as Times analyst Eduardo Porter trenchantly points out, simply by-passed American voters. The élites, conservative as well as liberal, just decided that enhanced immigration was in the best interest of Americans, whether they knew it or not.

No one asked the native majority if they wanted their country to be more crowded and congested, more ethnically diverse, more multilingual, or more multicultural. The policy was never debated, just arbitrarily implemented and presented as a fait accompli. Trumpism in 2016 is the predictable reaction to this lack of democratic transparency.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books. This is the first of two parts.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016


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