The Immigration Hot Potato

Globalists and nativists square off over reform plans.

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Article created by The Century Foundation.

As President Bush tries to use the immigration issue to establish his credibility as a non-lame-duck president, he, like many policy makers before him, feels pressure from two sides, the nativists and the globalists. Will he stake out a position clear enough to establish where he stands?

The United States was built, and continues to be built by immigrants. Yet there has almost from the start been a strong streak of populist nativism that wants to limit new immigration. In contrast to this position, many Americans are content with high rates of immigration. These globalists may look to their own family histories, to international human rights issues, or to their business interests in choosing to support immigration.

In the nineteenth century, immigration surged twice, each time resulting in heightened nativism. First, the potato famine of the 1840s brought two million Irish immigrants to the United States by 1880. Then, toward the end of the century, immigration surged from Southern Italy as well as Central and Eastern Europe, where Jews fled persecution.

The backlash against Irish immigration was buttressed by long-standing anti-Catholic bigotry. Anti-Catholic provisions were embedded in the original state constitutions of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey. John Jay, who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, sponsored a provision in the New York constitution that required foreign-born Catholics to renounce the pope before being eligible for citizenship.

The mass immigration of the Irish contributed to the rise of various secret anti-immigrant societies in the 1850s (whose members were called “know-nothings” because of their reluctance to answer questions). At its peak in the mid 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement had seventy five members of Congress and had elected governors and controlled state legislatures in many parts of the country. By the end of the decade, however, its principle political flag bearer, the American Party, split (over slavery) and in the presidential election of 1860 carried only one state, Maryland.

The nativism that flourished with the Know-Nothings and later with the Ku Klux Klan and other working class movements, received support as well from elite circles. One of the most interesting documents reflecting the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment among the rich and powerful is an article in the June 1896 Atlantic Monthly by Francis A. Walker. Mr. Walker was a distinguished scholar and administrator; he was the first President of the American Economic Association, President of MIT, and the Superintendent of the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Census.

Walker advanced the thesis that immigration in the late 19th century had not increased population in the United States but simply suppressed reproduction by our Germanic stock, replacing it with “vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of eastern and southern Europe.”

His sentiments are so reminiscent of current nativist attacks on the late 20th century surge in immigration from Latin America and Asia, that I will quote at length:

The Italians who have recently come in such vast numbers to our shores do not constitute a desirable element of the population, either socially or politically . . . Does the Italian come because the Irishman refuses to work in ditches and trenches, in gangs; or has the Irishman taken this position because the Italian has come? . . . [I]f the administrators of Baron Hirsh’s estate send to us two millions of Russian Jews, we shall soon find the Italians standing on their dignity, and deeming themselves too good to work on streets and sewers and railroads. But meanwhile, what of the republic? What of the American standard of living? What of the American rate of wages?

The immigrant of former times came almost exclusively from western and northern Europe . . . Only a short time ago, the immigrants from southern Italy, Hungary, Austria and Russia together made up hardly more than one percent of our immigration. Today the proportion has risen to something like forty percent and threatens soon to become fifty of sixty percent, or even more. The entrance into our political, social, and industrial life of such vast masses of peasantry, degraded below our utmost conceptions, is a matter which no intelligent patriot can look upon without the gravest apprehension and alarm. These people . . . are beaten men from beaten races.

Within the decade between 1880 and 1890 five and a quarter millions of foreigners entered our ports!…The problems which so sternly confront us today are serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews.

One valid point in Walker’s attack on immigration is that immigration of unskilled workers tends to depress wages at the low end in the United States. That is the main reason many business interests oppose clamping down on immigration. The cosmopolitan attitude of highly educated globalists is made easier by the fact that they are more likely to employ than to compete with immigrants in labor markets.

Perhaps we should judge proposals to deal with immigration by how well they deal with the costs immigration imposes on low-wage American workers.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have so far yielded much to the temptations of nativism. Indeed, both the Republicans and the Democrats depend on voters from both the nativist and the globalist camps.

All of Mr. Bush’s inclinations appear to be with the globalists, especially with the business interests who would like to see a continued flow of new immigrants, eager to work. But much of his ultra-conservative base shares the biases of the nativists, who want to see tight restrictions on new immigration.

Unlike many other economic and social issues, the position on immigration does not divide neatly on party lines. Both the Kennedy-McCain proposal to reform immigration law and the “guest worker” proposal that President Bush has mooted claim to offer new legal routes to immigration combined with stricter enforcement of immigration law. This convergence, basically on the side of globalism against nativism, is good for America.

But beyond these proposals to organize and legalize continuing flows of new immigrants, we should demand of our leaders that they offer proposals to support the income and mobility of American workers.


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