Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2655
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. Immigrant-founded businesses, Beck suggests, usually try to hire only fellow immigrants; such businesses are, in practice, unlikely to be affected by government- enforced affirmative action. Finally, the very affirmative action programs that were intended to help African American descendants of slavery have, the author points out, been used by immigrants, such as Cubans and Asian Indians, who never suffered discrimination as intense as that suffered by African Americans and who do not really deserve the special help that African Americans ought to receive. Unfortunately, Beck’s distinction between legitimate native- born black beneficiaries of affirmative action and illegitimate immigrant beneficiaries of the program makes more sense for Southern California (where native-born blacks face immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America) than for the New York City area (where a good proportion of the immigrant population consists of blacks from the West Indies and Africa).
Beck is concerned with other negative effects of immigration besides the alleged harm done to the average American worker’s pay and working conditions. He considers the population increase brought about by post-1965 immigration to be a serious threat to the quality of America’s environment. Like other advocates of restriction, he sees mass post-1965 immigration as producing higher crime rates (especially from youth gangs) and greater welfare dependency, even though he sees such pathologies as a result of the process of unchecked immigration itself rather than as evidence of the inherent inferiority of any particular immigrant group. Not content to propound empty generalizations, Beck uses anecdotes from his journalistic travels to bolster such arguments. Thus, he shows readers how Southeast Asian immigration to Wausau, Wisconsin, led to higher taxes to pay for sharply higher welfare costs and the increased cost of public education, greater youth delinquency, and a general loss of community harmony as white Wausau’s resentment of the newcomers grew. Beck also tells how Storm Lake, Iowa, found itself faced with an increase in crime as a result of the new immigration fostered by the meat-packing companies, even though the Southeast Asian and Mexican immigrants did have jobs.
To clarify the problems posed by the influx of foreigners into the United States in the 1990’s, Beck goes beyond mere reportage, offering readers a sweeping interpretation of the history of American immigration from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Americans, he explains, have never given an unreserved welcome to immigrants. At the height of mass immigration from Europe during the period from 1880 to 1924, many Americans, appalled at the dire poverty of so many of the newcomers, demanded that immigration either be curtailed drastically or stopped completely. Unlike such opponents of immigration restriction as University of Maryland economics professor Julian L. Simon, Beck does not see unrestricted immigration as the key to American prosperity at all times. Instead, Beck views Americans’ willingness to curtail immigration in 1924 as the answer to the riddle of why the years from 1945 to 1965 were characterized by such widespread good times for the broad middle class, and by such a strong sense of national unity and purpose.
In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed a law sharply reducing immigration levels; these remained relatively low until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. With less immigration from abroad, the American labor force grew more slowly. By the 1950’s, Beck argues, the booming demand for workers, combined with the slow pace of labor force growth, made it possible for labor unions to win higher wages and better working conditions even for unskilled workers. Since all employers faced the same labor market conditions, being a benevolent employer was the profitable thing to do as well as the right thing to do. Higher wages gave employers an incentive to innovate technologically, making each worker more productive. The brisk demand for unskilled labor and the low levels of immigration enabled large numbers of unskilled African Americans from the rural South to secure relatively well-paying jobs in the mass-production industries of the North. Before the 1920’s, competition from European immigrants had kept African Americans from getting a secure foothold in such industries. Partly because of the spread of middle-class prosperity and partly the result of the paucity of newcomers, the culture of the United States in the 1950’s became more homogeneous than ever before or since. Paradoxically, Beck argues, individual immigrants were greeted more warmly by native-born Americans in the 1950’s than was the case either before 1924 or after 1965. To prove his point, he cites the example of a Chinese refugee restaurateur, a resident of the United States since the early 1950’s, whom Beck interviewed in Wausau, Wisconsin.
Readers could easily conclude that all that stands between the average American and the return of the boom times of the 1950’s is the passage of a restrictive immigration law. Unfortunately, the author fails to give sufficient emphasis to other factors besides low immigration levels that made the prosperous America of the 1950’s possible: the savings Americans had stored away during World War II; the heavy military spending, fueled by the Soviet-American Cold War that followed so rapidly on the heels of the end of World War II; the temporary absence of competition from the war-devastated industries of Japan and Western Europe; the improvements in productivity in agriculture as well as industry; and the introduction of jet travel and television.
The relative scarcity of labor in the 1950’s owed something to the low birthrates of the Depression years (1929- 1941) and to the high military casualties of World War II (1941- 1945), as well as to the reduced influx of foreigners; likewise, the post-World War II baby boom swelled the supply of labor in the post-1973 economy as much as did post-1965 immigration. To be able to judge critically Beck’s argument, readers must consult other books that explore the failure of the post-1973 American economy to deliver the broad-based prosperity of the 1950’s and 1960’s: Michael Elliott’s The Day Before Yesterday: Reconsidering America’s Past, Rediscovering the Present (1996), Jeffrey Madrick’s The End of Affluence: The Causes and Consequences of America’s Economic Dilemma (1995), Michael J. Mandel’s The High-Risk Society: Peril and Promise in the New Economy (1996), and Robert J. Samuelson’s The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995 (1996; see essay in this volume).
The call for a general reduction in immigration levels, besides being of dubious value as an economic panacea, may also be politically impractical. Beck differs from fellow author Peter Brimelow in being more worried about the increase in the total volume of immigration since 1965, rather than in the shift in the ethnic or racial composition of the immigrant flow. Many Americans can be found who agree that immigration levels should be reduced, just as many can be found who agree that the federal deficit should be reduced; disagreement erupts when the question arises of which potential immigrants from which countries should be excluded. Two leading advocates of immigration restriction, journalist Peter Brimelow and economist George Borjas, were actually born abroad (Brimelow in England, Borjas in Cuba). Then, too, it is probable that many white New Yorkers and Bostonians do not view increased immigration from Ireland as a threat to their well-being. The Immigration Act of 1924, which Beck so praises, was the result at least as much of fear of particular immigrant groups (East Asians and southern and eastern Europeans) as of a general desire for lower population growth. As of election year 1996, it was still questionable whether a successful coalition for immigration restriction could be created by appealing solely to a desire to check the increase in the numbers of people living in the United States.
In stressing some aspects of the immigration issue, Beck slights others. Little is included on illegal immigration. In the text, Beck mentions briefly, and tantalizingly, that immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Sudan have settled in the meat-packing towns of the rural Midwest. Readers gain no hint, however, of the special problems that immigrants from East Africa must face in adjusting to their new environment, or of how the meat-packing experience may have modified their traditional culture (the names of their countries are not even mentioned in the index). Readers who are less interested in the question of whether post-1965 immigration is good or bad for the United States, and more interested in learning something about the experiences of the post- 1965 immigrants themselves, in their own voices, should consult Sanford J. Ungar’s Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants (1995) and Sarah J. Mahler’s American Dreaming: Immigrant Life on the Margins (1995). Those interested in the impact of post-1965 immigration on American politics should read Georgie Ann Geyer’s Americans No More: The Death of Citizenship(1996) and Dale Maharidge’s The Coming White Minority: California’s Eruptions and the Nation’s Future (1996).
Beck’s work contains relatively few aids to readers. Between pages 19 and 20, thereare three charts showing the effect of post-1965 immigration on American population growth. The index is only moderately useful. The endnotes do provide a mine of sources for further reading and research; the names of most of Beck’s interview subjects, however, are cited only in the text itself and in the index. Unfortunately, Beck has failed to include any time line or red-letter dates in American legislation and executive action concerning immigration and the admission of refugees. There are neither photographic illustrations nor maps; the latter would have been helpful to readers who are unfamiliar with the American Midwest. These criticisms aside, Beck has provided an important contribution to the debate concerning American immigration.
Sources for Further Source
Business Week. XXII, April 22, 1996, p. 15.
Choice. XXXIV, September, 1996, p. 167.
Foreign Affairs. LXXV, July, 1996, p. 146.
National Review. XLVIII, November 25, 1996, p. 65.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 1, 1996, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 11, 1996, p. 52.
Times-Picayune. May 5, 1996, p. E7.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, July 21, 1996, p. 4.
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