Alien Nation Review:  Journal of American Ethnic History, Spring 1998


Journal of American Ethnic History, Spring 1998 v17 n3 p87(7)

Alien Nation: Common Sense About America`s Immigration Disaster.

David M. Reimers.

© 1998 Immigration History Society

By Peter Brimelow. New York: Random House, 1995. xiii + 327 pp. Appendixes, notes, and index. $24.00.

The debate about immigration has produced scholarly and polemical books attempting to persuade the American public and Congress that immigration is either a disaster or that it is beneficial to the United States. Among the recent works, those by Peter Brimelow, Roy Beck, and Vernon Briggs, Jr., urge substantially reducing immigration, while Sanford Ungar, Peter Salins and John Isbister want to maintain the current level. Their audiences differ: Brimelow and Beck aim at the general reader, as do Ungar and Salins in the pro-immigration camp. Briggs and Isbister are scholarly works with a more limited appeal. In spite of their different points of view, these six books do share common ground. All focus on immigrants coming since 1965. The six also discuss immigration policy, and they all touch upon economic issues.

Peter Brimelow, an editor of both Forbes and The National Review, has received the most attention by critics, and his book has sold 60,000 copies. Brimelow begins with an extraordinary and inaccurate statement:

“There is a sense in which current immigration policy is Adolf Hitler`s posthumous revenge on America. The U.S. political elite emerged from the war passionately concerned to cleanse itself from all taints of racism or xenophobia. Eventually, it enacted the epochal Immigration Act . . . of 1965. And this, quite accidentally, triggered a renewed mass immigration, so huge and so systematically different from anything that had gone before as to transform – and ultimately, perhaps, even to destroy – the one unquestioned victor of World War II: the American nation.”

After attacking lawmakers for establishing such a radically different policy, he argues that the resulting immigration is an economic, cultural, social and environmental “disaster.” This poorly written book contains many errors. The first mistake occurs early, on p. xii, when he states that the last legal restrictions on Asians acquiring United States citizenship were dropped in the 1940s. The correct date is, of course, 1952. Another appears on the next page, when he says the 1980 Refugee Act was the first explicit recognition of refugees as a permanent distinct immigrant stream; refugees were recognized as a distinct category years before. There are many more mistakes in the text. Errors are bothersome and so are exaggerations. Brimelow believes that two to three million illegal immigrants arrive annually, of whom three hundred thousand to five hundred thousand remain in the country. His source is an unnamed Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesman. These estimates are high, and the INS recently has suggested that only two hundred seventy-five thousand undocumented persons settle yearly in the United States. The use of unreliable numbers to support a case is characteristic of Brimelow and of many others in the immigration debate. But more important is Brimelow`s belief that immigration harms both American workers and the environment.

While employing economic and environmental criteria in judging immigration, Brimelow returns again and again to the cultural and social implications: a changing American ethnic demography. He does not want to see so many immigrants of color: “Race is destiny in American politics. Its importance has only been intensified by the supposedly color-blind rights legislation of the 1960s – which paradoxically has turned out to mean elaborate race-conscious affirmative action programs. . . . It is simply common sense that Americans have a legitimate interest in their country`s racial balance. It is common sense that they have a right to insist that their government stop shifting it. Indeed, it seems to me that they have a right to insist that it be shifted back” (p. 264). Brimelow is himself a British immigrant, via Canada, who apparently wants to see more fellow white British coming and fewer immigrants from the West Indies, Asia and Latin America.

A more reasoned account is Mass Immigration and the National Interest, by Vernon Briggs, Jr., a well-known labor economist at Cornell University. He focuses on one issue: the economics of immigration. Briggs discusses the history of immigration to the United States and on the whole finds it was economically beneficial, at least before the last thirty years. He sees the Immigration Act of 1965 as a product of the Civil Rights Movement, but he is also aware of the importance of other legislation in bringing refugees and immigrants to America. What disturbs Briggs as a labor economist is that immigration policy is made with little attention to the labor market consequences: “Without the benefit of careful design and with little regard by Congress of the unexpected consequences that ensued, all of the major components of the nation`s immigration policy since 1965 have contributed to the return of mass immigration” (p. 183). Policy, he insists, should be driven by changing economic needs, not politics. Briggs also sees the flow of undocumented immigration as bringing still other laborers into the American economy.

What has been the result? For Briggs, America renewed mass immigration just at the time when the labor market was undergoing significant changes. The nation did not need as many industrial or unskilled workers as it did in the past. Now, as American blacks moved from farms to cities, they found increasing competition for jobs, especially at the lower end of the occupational structure. Briggs sees continued problems for those without high school educations, problems exacerbated by a continued influx of low skilled immigrants.

Much of Briggs`s work is based on common sense. We see chronically high unemployment for blacks and a lack of progress for those at the bottom at the same time that mass immigration, disproportionately unskilled, has been renewed, with many immigrants settling in cities where African Americans also live. Ergo: immigration explains the dire position of America`s black and other minority low wage workers. Briggs does little empirical work himself, but he marshals the studies of others to support his central argument. Some of the studies he cites do indicate that immigration accounts for job competition at the bottom and that a proportion of the declining wages of high school drop outs is due to this competition. And evidence exists, however inconclusive, that native-born workers avoid areas of high concentration of immigrants, perhaps because they fear labor competition. Briggs states that “If immigrants would have not entered these local labor markets in substantial numbers, wages would have risen, which would have attracted citizens to move into or to stay in these cities. The disproportionate number of unskilled immigrant workers, however, has had significant adverse effects on the wages of all unskilled urban workers” (p. 229).

Briggs`s argument is not fanciful. Even the National Research Council`s 1997 The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration noted that while overall immigration was good for the economy, its impact was uneven and that low skilled workers might have been inversely effected. But immigration alone does not cause the plight of the uneducated; there are cities (Detroit) with relatively few unskilled immigrants and much minority poverty. Such critics as William J. Wilson have suggested that the flight of jobs from the inner cities – not immigration – is the major factor in the sad condition of so many of America`s urban poor. Moreover, immigrants also begin businesses that stimulate employment and consumption, which in turn increase the demand for labor.

Roy Beck`s The Case Against Immigration also rests heavily on economics. Two of his ten chapters focus on black Americans, while another discusses the “high costs of cheap labor.” He makes a case similar to Briggs and adds that Americans are employed in jobs that immigrants alone are alleged to take. For evidence he notes that in areas where immigrants are few, American-born workers are employed in work often associated with low cost immigrant labor. In other cases, he notes, immigrants and native workers work side by side in some jobs. In one of the weaker sections of the book, Beck also says that immigration hurts the middle class, which he sees as shrinking. He presents little evidence for this contention, and in fact it is dubious that the middle class is under any immigrant-induced strain.

Unlike Brimelow, Beck does not belabor the changing ethnicity of today`s immigrants. But he does worry that mass immigration might kill “healthy” multiculturalism and lead to severe ethnic tensions and even violence. Like Brimelow, he also discusses immigrant crime and gangs. Nor is the impact of immigration on the environment neglected. Beck argues that environmental victories are constantly eroded by a growing population, and post-1970 immigrants and their descendants are contributing a significant proportion of the nation`s population growth. Immigrants are not bad people, writes Beck, but they are people who quickly become Americans and therefore polluters and consumers of resources.

Beck wants to stop these alleged adverse economic, environmental and social effects of immigration, and to do so, he insists, the nation must seek the right number of newcomers. The period 1925 to 1965, when immigration restrictions were tight, was one of the best times for the middle class and blacks, he argues. Then, immigrants averaged only 178,000 annually, and Beck believes that we should employ that number as the correct one for current immigration policy. This is a clever argument, but it omits the harsh years of the Great Depression and the role of the Federal Government and America`s domination of the world economy, not low immigration, as the causal factors fostering the prosperity of 1940 to 1965.

Peter Salins`s Assimilation American Style is “An impassioned defense of immigration and assimilation as the foundation of the American greatness and the American Dream.” The book is certainly impassioned but is short on careful analysis, and this exaggerated statement is not the only one. The author also claims that “immigration has always been good for America” (p. 40). Surely American Indians might have a different view.

At the book`s core is Salins`s belief that the United States has moved away from its traditional policy of assimilating immigrants to one that is anti-assimilationist, that encourages groups to maintain their differences. He sees the public schools and Americanization programs of the past as agents for successful assimilation and is clearly worried about bilingual education and policies, the attacks of a few Latino leaders upon Anglo civilization, the appearance of political correctness on college campuses, and other signs of ethnicity. Such a romance of the past ignores the sometimes and not always complete long process for immigrants and their children to lose their culture and assimilate into the American one.

Salins`s solution is not to decrease but to change immigration. He favors more diversity in the immigration flow, with immigrants being admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. He wants to see more persons who have high naturalization rates, which presumably means fewer Mexicans. But there is no guarantee that by abolishing family unification and skills-based categories that the immigration pattern will be more diverse. What if few Europeans want to come? Salins claims that his reforms mean that the “historic mission of American immigration would be better served by allowing more of the world`s most motivated immigrants – not just those who are lucky enough to have American relatives or to have received a good education – to realize the American dream” (p. 214). But is there any evidence that first-come, first-served immigrants would be better motivated than today`s newcomers?

Moreover, there is an unsettling part of history that Salins chooses to overlook. For German Americans the process of assimilation was particularly abrupt, as their native culture came under bigoted attack during the First World War and the German language was dealt blows from which it never recovered. Certainly, this is not an example we wish to follow again. More troubling is the fact that eastern and southern European migrants assimilated after 1924, partly because immigration from their homelands was drastically curtailed; for the next forty years little new immigration fed the ethnic communities. Then, too, World War II acted as a catalyst for Americanization. If Americans continue to pursue the anti-assimilationist policies of the present or Salins`s reforms do not work, are we then to restrict immigration as a way to achieve “assimilation American style?”

Such restriction is not what Salins has in mind, for he is a defender of the current rate of immigration. Fortunately, one does not have to cut immigration or alter countries of origin to achieve a more cohesive society. Salins is wrong about today`s immigrants and assimilation. There is no credible evidence that current immigrants are not learning English, finding work, and adopting American ways; and their children and grandchildren seem just as eager as prior generations to join mainstream American society. Indeed, it seems as if the current pressures for assimilation are more powerful than in the past. Besides, today`s immigrants are clearly enriching American life, even if they are making it less European.

Sanford Ungar`s Fresh Blood is a vigorous defense of current immigrants. Like so many defenders of immigration, Ungar states, “The United States is still a nation of immigrants, and by its very nature, it will always be one” (p. 366). This is one of those resounding statements, which unfortunately does not tell us exactly how many immigrants we should admit today. Should it be one million to keep the tradition alive, or five hundred thousand?

While Ungar provides no answer to this question, he does have some suggestions about undocumented immigration. He believes that the border controls are ineffective deterrents to illegal immigration, and he apparently wants people to come and go according to employment conditions. He argues, unconvincingly, that if it were easier to get in, then fewer border crossers would stay permanently. His basic premise is faulty. While the border can never be sealed, controls do make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to get to America. The issue is one of cost. Just how much is the nation willing to spend to cut undocumented immigration along the southern border? “Coyotes” get high prices for smuggling; a loose border would weaken their claims as experts for alluding the border patrol. We may have reached the stage where the cost to reduce illegal immigration further is simply not worth the price, but fewer controls along the border will undoubtedly mean more border crossers, and there is no guarantee that they will return home.

The suggestions about policy are secondary to his argument that immigration is good for America. His book “is based primarily on interviews” he conducted during the prior four years. He presents the reader with appealing stories of hard working immigrants, from refugees such as the Cubans and Hmong to Mexicans, Koreans, Ethiopians and Irish. It is difficult not to see the benefits of immigrants in these stories, whether to the United States or to the immigrants themselves. Ungar`s immigrants contribute to the American economy and culture, but individual accounts often leave out too much. Anti-immigration writers, such as Brimelow, can also point to immigrant contributions, but their immigrants bring drugs and crime not hard work. These reservations aside, Ungar has written a moving book and given us the human side of immigration.

John Isbister`s The Immigration Debate is the most balanced of the six books under review. The title tells the reader that this is not simply a narrow-minded argument for or against immigration; rather Isbister presents both sides in the immigration debate. Scholarly in approach, he sketches the background of the new immigration and details the debate. He especially emphasizes economics, the impact of immigration on wages, public finances and the total economy. He is cautious about some of the empirical studies, noting that they have faults that make the debates inconclusive. He is willing to admit the possibility that immigration has negative effects but notes that the Briggs-style argument that a “causal negative relationship between the two types of changes – large-scale immigration and the social progress of African Americans – cannot be demonstrated with any degree of precision, certainly not statistically. It seems plausible, however” (p. 159).

Isbister is generally accepting of the literature supporting the long range positive economic effects of immigration, which suggest that if there are some negative impacts, immigration must be seen as beneficial overall but with some tradeoffs. As for the environmental impacts, he acknowledges that over the long run immigration can impose “all sorts of scarcities in the United States” (p. 173). However, he reminds readers that human ingenuity can compensate for these scarcities. Isbister does remain unsure of the ultimate impact and notes that people have different opinions about crowding and open spaces.

As for the cultural critique of immigration, Isbister rejects attacks by the likes of Peter Brimelow and is optimistic, as is this reviewer, about the future emerging multicultural society. Less European, yes, but inferior, not really. We need to promote an egalitarian diverse society, not turn the clock back.

It is unfortunate that Isbister`s book was published by a relatively small press and did not get reviewed in the Sunday New York Times, as did Beck`s and Peter Brimelow`s. I do not say this just because he answered some of their criticisms, but because The Immigration Debate is a careful analysis of the complexities of immigration to America.

David M. Reimers New York University

David M. Reimers is Professor of History at New York University. He is the author of Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America (2d edition, 1992) and coauthor (with Frederick M. Binder) of All the Nations Under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History of New York City (1995). His Unwelcome Strangers: The New Movement to Restrict Immigration will be published by Columbia University Press in 1998.