Many Americans had, by the 1990’s, come to look back nostalgically on the American economy of the period from 1945 to 1965, comparing it favorably with the economically stressful era that began in the early and middle 1970’s. In the golden era of the two post-World War II decades, it was asserted, one breadwinner had been able to support a wife and children on a single income; in the last decade of the twentieth century, by contrast, the average American family needed at least two, and sometimes three or more, earners to make ends meet, as average real wages remained practically stagnant. By the 1990’s, it was asserted, unemployment was more common than in the 1950’s, and the condition of black urban ghettos was far worse than in the 1950’s.
Journalist Roy Beck points out what he sees as one major cause of the harsher economic climate of the 1990’s, compared with that of the 1950’s: the renewal of mass immigration to the United States as a result of the enactment of a more liberal immigration law in October, 1965. The constant supply of fresh immigrant labor, he argues, allowed American employers to break the power of labor unions, depress wages, cut benefits, and deny workers decent working conditions. The high levels of immigration during the 1980’s and 1990’s, Beck concludes, benefited an affluent minority of Americans at the expense of both the poor and the broad middle class. The emphasis on immigration as a cause of the declining economic fortunes of middle-class Americans distinguishes Beck from another leading advocate of immigration restriction, Peter Brimelow, the author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster(1995; covered in Magill’s Literary Annual, 1996); it also distinguishes Beck from most of those who have studied the malaise of the post-1973 American economy.
To make his case, Beck is not content to rest on generalities; he offers the reader the results not merely of library research, but also of his own journalistic legwork. Instead of confining his attention to the large cities that are often cited for evidence on the effects of post-1965 immigration, the author has taken the trouble of visiting small towns and rural areas in the Midwest and the South: Storm Lake and Hawarden, Iowa; Worthington, Minnesota; Garden City, Kansas; Cordova, Maryland; and Wausau, Wisconsin. The author interviewed scholarly experts and consulted scholarly books, articles, and newspaper reprints. It is his interviews with ordinary people in the areas affected by the new immigration, however, that provide especially valuable insights into the issue.
To counter the argument that it was foreign competition rather than immigration that undermined American workers’ standard of living from the early 1970’s onward, Beck looks at industries that are relatively well-insulated from such foreign competition: The meat-packing industry is his favorite example. In the late 1980’s, he tells readers, the meat-packing companies that had already relocated from big cities to small towns in an effort to cut costs and increase profits, began to make heavy use of immigrant labor (largely Southeast Asians and Mexicans, with some immigrants from eastern Africa). Such immigrant laborers, the author argues, made it possible for employers to destroy the once- powerful meatpackers’ union, bringing an end to the middle- class prosperity that the union had provided for native-born American meatpackers and their families in such towns as Storm Lake, Iowa, and bringing back to the industry the substandard working conditions once exposed in Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle (1906). In Cordova, Maryland, Beck alleges, the growing use of Mexican immigrant labor in poultry processing plants in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s robbed local African Americans of job opportunities that they had once had. In California, Beck argues, some of those most severely hurt by competition with recent Mexican immigrants were native-born Asian Americans and Mexican Americans as well as those Asian and Mexican immigrants who had arrived in the United States earlier.
Beck sees mass immigration as a threat, not only to the unskilled and the blue-collar workers but also to highly educated professionals. Against the notion, propounded by opponents of immigration restriction, that immigration is necessary to fill America’s need for scientific and technological talent, Beck offers evidence that the United States had, in the 1990’s, a surplus of trained scientists and a considerable unemployment problem among native-born scientists. He argues that American computer industry entrepreneurs, in their greed, have hired foreign technical and scientific talent because foreign professionals, like foreign unskilled laborers, are willing to work for less money. Although Beck does, all too briefly, take note of other factors (such as the end of the Cold War) that have reduced the demand for scientists in the United States, the casual reader may mistakenly infer that immigration is responsible for all the employment problems of native-born scientists in the United States, and that a halt in immigration would end those problems without producing any negative side effects. Yet foreign-born professionals do, after all, sometimes create new jobs (by founding new businesses) for the native-born as well as take existing jobs away from the native- born.
In the early 1990’s, opponents of immigration in Canada, France, Great Britain, and Germany were openly racist; in the United States in the same decade, such advocates of immigration as Peter Brimelow were often accused of being racist. Partly in order to ward off such an accusation, Beck argues at length that post- 1965 mass immigration has been particularly harmful to African Americans. Vehemently denying the contention of some conservatives that African Americans displaced by post-1965 immigrant competition were simply unwilling to work, Beck contends that native-born blacks, like native-born whites, can and will fill any job, however menial, if they are paid reasonable wages.
Immigrant competition for jobs with African Americans, Beck suggests, is not a completely fair contest. The post-1965 inflow of foreign labor, Beck contends, has given prejudiced employers a way to avoid hiring African Americans for jobs that they would otherwise have access to; the virtual disappearance of African Americans from the ranks of hotel janitors in the Los Angeles area is given as an example....
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