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Optimal Population--New Immigration Issue

July 06, 1986|JAY MATHEWS | The Washington Post

SAN YSIDRO — In 1880, Wisconsin competed feverishly for immigrants with other Midwestern states, printing 10,000 pocket maps of the state with legends in German and Norwegian and arranging for their circulation in Europe.

Today, California has an initiative on its November ballot that would require all official documents to be in English only. It is one sign of growing concern about the impact of immigration, and it underscores the differences between the great immigrant surge of 1880 to 1920 and the flood of immigration that began after World War II.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 11.3 million immigrants arrived between 1940 and 1980, fewer than half the 23.4 million who came during the previous surge. More than 5.2 million arrived between 1881 and 1890 and nearly 8.8 million from 1901 to 1910, the two decades when immigration was highest.

Since then, the most legal immigrants to arrive in a single decade were the estimated 4.5 million who came in the 1970s.

Legal immigration in the 1980s is expected to exceed that total, and some estimates of illegal immigration would put the total near the turn-of-the-century mark. Advocates of immigration controls say the country has less space and fewer resources for newcomers now.

For the first time in 200 years of debate, it is being suggested that there is, in the words of immigration historian Loy Bilderback, "an optimal population size for the United States." In the last century, he said, the issue was only "what kind of immigrants to admit rather than how many."

The ethnic mix of arriving immigrants also has changed. A century ago, it was almost entirely European, except for about half a million Chinese and Japanese arriving on the West Coast. Now, it is largely Latin American and Asian.

Unlike their 19th-Century counterparts, modern immigrants face a body of law and a huge bureaucracy that deal specifically with them. Part of the bureaucracy--the San Diego sector headquarters of the U.S. Border Patrol--is housed in a beige stucco building here in this little California city overlooking the barren fields of the Mexican border.

With no Southern California agricultural and industrial boom to attract them, few Mexicans made the crossing here, legally or otherwise, a century ago. Today, Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Robert C. Gilson keeps an 18-inch model of the Statue of Liberty that has greeted immigrants in New York since 1886.

But his statue's inscription, written by INS Western Regional Commissioner Harold W. Ezell, does not mention huddled masses or breathing free. It says, "Her book of laws symbolizes legal immigration that makes our country great."

Gilson, whose family originated in Scandinavia, Germany and England, said many Border Patrol officials have replicas of the statue and revere its ideals. "But that was from a time when we could admit everybody, and we can no longer do that," he said.

Peak Immigration in 1907

Immigration peaked in 1907 when 1,285,349 immigrants arrived, and fell off sharply after quotas were enacted in 1921, limiting immigration from each country to the proportion of such immigrants already in the United States. The numbers rose again after World War II, accelerating after 1965 when restrictions were eased for Eastern Hemisphere countries and imposed for the first time on Western Hemisphere countries.

The postwar peak came in 1980, when 530,639 regular immigrants, 207,116 Indochinese refugees and 150,000 Cuban and Haitian boat people entered the country, according to Patrick Burns of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The year's total of more than 887,000 counted immigrants did not include illegal immigrants. Mexicans make up the largest group of illegal immigrants, and Robert Warren, INS statistical chief, estimates that up to 250,000 illegal Mexicans may have arrived annually in the 1970s.

If the numbers have fluctuated and the mix has changed, Bilderback says one thing endures. The attitude that "the people who came here 100 years ago were wonderful but the people who are coming in now" are less desirable "is an absolute constant in American history."

But until the current debate, he said, "nobody doubted the U.S. capacity to absorb an infinite number of people."

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