The post-1965 surge in immigration to the United States, which first became the focus of extensive study in the 1980’s, has produced an extraordinary and ever-growing body of scholarship, ranging from highly specialized works to broad overviews. In 1998, a number of significant books were added to this shelf, including Roberto Suro’s Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America, Peter H. Schuck’s Citizens, Strangers, and In-Betweens: Essays on Immigration and Citizenship, and Jagdish Bhagwati’s A Stream of Windows: Unsettling Reflections on Trade, Immigration, and Democracy.
Another such book is David Reimers’s Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigration. Reimers is a distinguished historian whose earlier works include Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America (2d ed., 1992), the best account of its subject, and (with Frederick M. Binder) All the Nations Under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History of New York City (1995).
The title and subtitle of Reimers’s new book suggest that it may fall into a now well-established genre, which might be described as immigration advocates crying “Wolf!” Considering that immigration to the United States in 1997 totaled at least 1.2 million, including both legal immigrants and illegals, talk of “the turn against immigration” seems absurd on the face of it. Such hyperbole, alas, is the stock and trade of immigration advocates; so, for example, in To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation, Bill Ong Hing asks on his first page, “Is there any doubt that we are experiencing one of the most potent periods of anti-immigrant fervor in the United States?”
Reimers is too responsible a scholar to indulge in such rhetoric without qualification. Indeed, his brief introduction sounds a note of objectivity and balance all too rare in the immigration debate. While he states straightforwardly his conviction that “immigration is a net benefit to the United States,” he notes that “failure to deal with the problems of immigration can lead to a backlash,” and he acknowledges that immigration advocates have been guilty on this count. He adds, “Alien crime is a real problem that must be faced,” a contention repeatedly rejected by immigration advocates, despite the evidence; that “sponsors should be held more accountable for those they assist in immigrating,” a major goal of 1996 legislation now under many-sided attack from immigration advocates, who have described the emphasis on sponsorship accountability as “punitive” and unconstitutional; and finally, “nor can I see any reason to permit immigrants (and their children, for that matter) to be included in affirmative action programs,” a position rejected across the board by immigration advocates.
Yet while Reimers thus signals his independence from the “advocacy scholarship” so pervasive in immigration studies, that welcome resolve is only fitfully sustained in the course of the book. So much is this the case that, while Reimers himself explicitly refuses in his introduction to label mainstream immigration critics as racists, the back of his book carries endorsements that suggest otherwise. So Peter Kwong, the preeminent expert on New York’s Chinatown, says that “Reimers has written a definitive history of our latest anti-immigrant movement, which, he argues persuasively, was as racial and xenophobic as all other nativist movements of the past,” while Alan Kraut, author of a prizewinning historical study of immigration and health policy, says of Reimers that “no other historical detective reveals how often nativists are linked by common sources of right- wing funding even as they are joined by skepticism of newcomers and denial of the rich resource immigration has been for American society and culture.” It’s that right-wing conspiracy again.
One would hardly guess from Kwong’s and Kraut’s comments that polls consistently show a...
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