Bill Ong Hing is the author of an excellent history of U.S. immigration policy, Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990 (1993). Asian Americans have traditionally been relegated to the periphery in overviews of immigration history, but, in that book, Hing showed that they belong at the center of the story. Hing, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in the late 1990’s, has devoted much of his career to immigration law and has represented many immigrants in deportation hearings. In addition, he has served as counsel to the international law firm Baker and McKenzie.
Scholar, activist, and legal expert, Hing thus brings an unusual range and depth of experience to his new book, To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation. The title is slightly misleading, since a good chunk of the book— roughly six of its eleven chapters—is given to challenging and contextualizing what Hing regards as virulent attacks on recent immigrants, largely Asians and Latinos. The subject is extremely important, and if Hing’s treatment of it is unsatisfactory, his failure is instructive, illuminating certain habits of thought that are pervasive in the immigration debate.
The matter of perception versus reality is a good starting point to gain a sense of Hing’s project and its limitations. Many Americans have the notion that immigrants are taking jobs from native-born workers and lowering the wages of those who remain employed. In some cases, this perception has been fueled by studies purporting to show that immigrants are a drain on the economy (meanwhile, other studies come to the opposite conclusion). In other cases, it is based chiefly or exclusively on firsthand experience or anecdotal evidence.
As anyone who has plowed through some of the dueling reports on immigration and the economy knows only too well, the issues are devilishly complex. There are so many variables that neither “side” can claim decisive victory in this debate. Hing has mastered an impressive body of research, and his own conclusion is that immigrants clearly benefit the economy in the long run, though he concedes some pockets of dislocation for native-born workers and some extra, short-term expenses for states (such as California) where immigrants are disproportionately concentrated. Here he seeks to be a voice of reason, arguing that the widespread perception of immigrants as a financial burden is not supported by the facts.
It must be said that Hing does not deal adequately with some of the economic concerns provoked by the massive influx of immigrants and refugees in the wake of the 1965 reforms in U.S. immigration policy. For example, one significant issue is the skyrocketing number of recently arrived elderly immigrants who are dependent on government aid. Most of these elderly immigrants were admitted under provisions of family reunification, and their sponsors in the United States had to swear that they had the financial resources to support the aging family members who were joining them. Once arrived, however, many of these immigrants went on welfare, and there was no enforcement of the sponsors’ obligation. The welfare reform legislation of 1996 sought to address this problem by eliminating key benefits to legal immigrants who are noncitizens, but—after protests from a variety of groups—many of those benefits were reinstated.
However, far more fundamental than the treatment of various disputed questions in recent immigration history is the way Hing frames his entire argument. “Is there any doubt,” he asks rhetorically, “that we are experiencing one of the most potent periods of anti-immigrant fervor in the United States?” There is, indeed, some doubt. In fact, one wonders how a scholar as knowledgeable as Hing could put forward such a thesis—and advance it as a truth so obvious as to be beyond doubt. The immigration total for the 1990’s has been near a record high. Despite the 1995 recommendations of the congressionally appointed U.S. Committee on Immigration Reform calling for a substantial reduction in legal immigration, the 1996 legislation focused on illegal immigration...
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