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Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America by David M. Reimers (Columbia University: $25; 319 pp.)

February 09, 1986|Leo R. Chavez | Chavez is co-author of "Mexican Immigrants in Southern California: A Summary of Current Knowledge" (Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego). and

Almost everyone has strong feelings about immigration. A "flood" of Third World immigrants, we often hear, shows that America has "lost control of its borders." Yet many of us lack the understanding of the history of immigration policy that David M. Reimers provides in "Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America."

Reimers focuses on how the Immigration Act of 1965 helped legalize immigration from the Third World by abolishing quotas based on the national origins of the American population; these restrictions, Reimers writes, had intentionally favored Europeans.

Instead of quotas, the 1965 Act created a system of preferences for immigrants with family members in the United States or with skills that were in short supply in the U.S. labor market.

Despite these seemingly progressive changes, Reimers provides evidence that U.S. policy-makers thought the majority of immigrants would continue to be European. In fact, argues Reimers, officials believed that the 1965 Act would place Asians at a disadvantage, since few Asians had relatives in this country.

Reimers' work is also insightful in showing how policy-makers decried the evils and ills of undocumented immigration while making sure it continued. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act made it a felony to willingly import, transport or harbor undocumented workers. However, farmers in Texas and California successfully lobbied for an exception known as the Texas Proviso, which held that employment of undocumented workers did not constitute "harboring." Congress made it a crime to smuggle undocumented workers while at the same time ensuring that employers could hire such workers with impunity.

Reimers concludes that undocumented immigrants, on the whole, contribute positively to the U.S. economy. He also stresses the ability of American society to absorb immigrants. Finally, he argues for a more balanced policy on refugees, one which would consider fairly the plight of people fleeing places such as El Salvador and Haiti.

"Still the Golden Door," however, has its limitations. The latest research has shown that Reimers overestimates the number of undocumented immigrants in the country. Moreover, Reimers concentrates on how migrants are "pushed" out of one area and "pulled" into the United States--a focus that ignores theories about the causes of international migration, especially within a world economic system.

Reimers skillfully examines legislative history, but his arguments about social and political issues sometimes lack supporting material and analytical development. For example, his argument that Mexicans are the least likely immigrant-group to develop permanent "ties" to the United States is based solely on naturalization rates. But ties that bind an individual to a place also include the birth of children and grandchildren, a steady job, and enduring relations with neighbors and friends.

Overall, "Still the Golden Door" is a comprehensive work that will serve as an excellent resource. The reader is left with a better understanding of how immigration policy has been made and why it is so difficult to change.

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