In the preface to the second edition of their excellent book Immigrant America: A Portrait (1996), Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut speak of “the sharply politicized and increasingly acrimonious public debate on immigration in the 1990s.” Noting that “the twenty million foreign-born persons counted by the 1990 U.S. Census formed the largest immigrant population in the world, and admissions during the 1990s appear certain to eclipse the record set in the first decade of this century,” they register at the same time higher levels of “public alarm and nativist resistance” to immigration.
Readers who have followed immigration issues for a decade or more will recognize a familiar paradox here. It was in the 1980’s that attention began to be focused on the enormous surge of immigration following the landmark Immigration Act of 1965, including as well more than one million refugees from Southeast Asia. Critics of U.S. policy warned of dire consequences if immigration continued at such high levels; in response, immigrant advocates denounced the critics for nativism and xenophobia and often added the charge of racism as well, since the “new immigration” was substantially non-European. When Congress finally got around to updating and revising immigration policy at the end of the 1980’s, the result (the Immigration Act of 1990) was actually a higher ceiling for legal immigration.
So it has gone in the 1990’s as well. In 1995, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by Barbara Jordan, recommended that legal immigration be cut by roughly a third. President Bill Clinton initially endorsed the commission’s recommendation, but as immigration reform bills wound their way through Congress, with the final compromise signed into law on September 30, 1996, the Clinton Administration backtracked, shifting the focus to illegal immigration. With regard to legal immigration, far from following the Jordan Commission’s call for a substantial reduction, the 1996 law deals with procedural issues such as sponsorship, seeking to ensure that sponsors of new immigrants would indeed have the means to support them if necessary rather than adding to the burden of public assistance. Even these measures were denounced by immigrant advocates as “harsh.”
Here then is a puzzle. Americans hear of a “backlash” against immigrants—and in the next decade immigration increases to record levels. Public opinion polls repeatedly report that a majority of Americans would like to see immigration reduced—and the much ballyhooed reform bill does nothing to bring that about. Americans are told that immigration will be a major issue in the 1996 presidential campaign; as it plays out, however, there is virtually no mention of reducing legal immigration, let alone sustained debate on the subject.
Why is there this seeming disparity between rhetoric and reality, between public opinion and policy? Is the direction of U.S. immigration policy from 1965 to the present the result of choice or inadvertence? Or, as Keith Fitzgerald puts it, “Can a polity effectively choose its identity?” Immigration policy, Fitzgerald adds, “is about the face of the nation, or providing character to the national community.” How and why are the decisions that determine “the face of the nation” being made?
A good place to begin wrestling with those questions is Fitzgerald’s The Face of the Nation: Immigration, the State, and the National Identity. On the big shelf of books on immigration published in 1996, Fitzgerald’s is one of the most valuable. Nevertheless, let the reader be warned: This book does not yield its riches easily. Its pages of tiny type are filled with jargon-infested sentences. Moreover, Fitzgerald is a maddeningly repetitive writer. He tells readers what he is going to say three or four times before he says it, and then when he is done he repeats what he just said.
Fitzgerald’s point of departure is the observation by various critics—among them the Cornell University economist Vernon M. Briggs, Jr.—that U.S immigration policy is “meandering” and “aimless,” indeed irrational. Briggs wrote in 1986 that “The absence of any serious effort to forge an immigration policy based upon labor market considerations means that immigration policy today functions as a wild card’ among the nation’s array of key labor market policies. . . . This is a situation that no sensible nation can allow to continue.” Yet in the decade since, nothing has changed. “Why,” Fitzgerald asks, “did immigration increase during the recession of the early 1990s?”
The absence of any clear labor market rationale is only one of many anomalies. Having established that...
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