(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The passage by the United States Congress of the Immigration and Nationality Act in November, 1965, together with rapid population growth and political upheaval in the world beyond U.S. borders, set the stage for a dramatic increase in American immigration levels in the three decades that followed. Until 1991, a pro-immigration consensus united liberals, who valued ethnic and racial diversity, with conservatives, who saw America’s attractiveness to immigrants as a propaganda asset in the Cold War against Soviet Communism. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the American economy slid into recession, however, controversy replaced consensus. Political commentator Pat Buchanan demanded immigration restriction in his unsuccessful campaign for the 1992 Republican presidential nomination, and the June 23, 1992, issue of the conservative magazine National Review published “Time to Rethink Immigration?” by Peter Brimelow, a British-born financial journalist for Forbes. Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, a book-length expanded version of that article, appeared in print shortly after Californians voted for Proposition 187, denying certain public services to illegal aliens, and just before Congress began to consider proposals to restrict immigration.

To stop illegal immigration across the Mexico-U.S. border, Brimelow advocates an increase in the size of the border patrol, physical sealing of the border, rounding up and deportation of all illegal aliens in the United States (questions about the legality and practicality of such an operation are not addressed), denial of all public benefits (including education of children) to illegal aliens, and the adoption of a national identification card. The number of legal immigrants permitted into the United States, he argues, should be cut back drastically, the basis for selecting immigrants should shift from family reunification to skills, and the special category of refugee should be abolished. Legal immigrants should be denied the right to benefit from affirmative action programs; the Hispanic category should be removed from the protections of affirmative action; bilingualism should be eliminated. Brimelow’s policy recommendations are found in the next to last chapter; in most of the rest of the book, he tries to persuade the reader of the need for such draconian measures.

Brimelow ridicules the benign generalizations and heartwarming success stories often found in media coverage of immigration. He points out that some post-1965 immigrants, far from being Nobel Prize-winning scientists and inventors, are completely illiterate; some are involved in organized crime, including the drug trade; some bring exotic diseases into the United States; some are on welfare rolls. The percentage of immigrants receiving various forms of public assistance in 1990 was, he points out, slightly higher than that of the native-born. He cites the Long Island Railway massacre of December 7, 1993, in which Jamaican-born Colin Ferguson tried to kill as many white passengers as possible, to bolster his argument for immigration restriction; he does not explain, however, how any conceivable system of immigrant selection could weed out all potential mass murderers.

Economist (and advocate of open immigration) Julian L. Simon argues that the American economy has benefited from post-1965 immigration, but Brimelow, relying heavily on research by the Cuban-born American economist (and advocate of immigration restriction) George Borjas, vigorously contests Simon’s assertion. The growth rate of the American economy, Brimelow points out, slowed in the three decades after 1965. While conceding that immigration does not increase unemployment of the native-born in the aggregate, he argues that it can lead to the displacement of unskilled workers.

Brimelow’s economic reasoning can be challenged on several grounds. The slowdown in economic growth after 1965 was clearly a result of many factors; it is entirely conceivable that growth would have been even slower without immigration. A drastic lowering of immigration levels might exclude from the United States not only potential welfare recipients and competitors for existing jobs but also scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs who could create new jobs. Americans, Brimelow forgets, are not only workers and taxpayers but also consumers, and work done by low-skilled immigrants benefits not merely the affluent elite, as he implies, but anyone who purchases California-grown strawberries (picked by illegal aliens) in the supermarket.

One powerful argument used by foes of immigration restriction was derived not from economic theory but from historical analogy. The Italian, Jewish, and Eastern European immigrants who arrived between 1890 and 1924 seemed frighteningly unassimilable at first; yet their descendants were assimilated into the white American middle class linguistically and economically. Similar progress, it was said, would ultimately be achieved by the descendants of post-1965 immigrants.

Brimelow contends that significant differences between past and present render such an optimistic prophecy unreliable....

(The entire section is 2107 words.)