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America and the New Immigrant Experience : Los Angeles Times Interview : Gene McNary : Riding the Tiger of U.S. Immigration Policy

May 05, 1991|Jefferson Morley | Jefferson Morley is the political correspondent for Spin magazine. He spoke with Gene McNary in the commissioner's office at INS headquarters near Washington's Chinatown

WASHINGTON — "I knew nothing about immigration," Gene McNary cheerfully admits early on in a discussion of his qualifications to be commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service before 1989. That's when President George Bush named McNary, a four-term Republican county executive from St. Louis, to head the chronically overburdened and understaffed agency.

Coming from the ethnically homogenous suburbs of St. Louis, in the geographical center of the country, McNary's experience in public life couldn't have been farther--geographically or politically--from the contentious politics of immigration. But McNary suggests that his lack of a track record in immigration politics enables him to act an honest broker among scores of interest groups seeking to exclude or admit foreigners from the United States. McNary insists that his administrative experience has enabled him to take and maintain control of an agency that is going through its third reorganization in a decade.

The INS job will certainly be a test for McNary's political skills. The agency has been historically decentralized with immigration policies differing from region to region.

Immigration is also putting strains on the self-image and infrastructure of a country that welcomes the tired and the poor--but doesn't much care to spend tax money on them. Foreign crises pose a constant threat of disaster. The deterioration of the political situation in Cuba, for example, could set off another crisis like the Mariel boat lift of 1980, which brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States and overwhelmed INS facilities in a matter of months.

McNary, 55 years old, is married and has one child. In conversation, he displays the cautious, amiable style of a career politician. He delights in showing visitors to his office a plaque presented to him by his underlings at the U.S. Border Patrol. It shows a grizzled, slightly baffled cowboy and is inscribed, "There were a helluva lot of things they didn't tell me when I hired on with this outfit." Like many Americans, McNary seems to be learning something every day about the multicultural society that the United States is rapidly becoming.

Question: Is America a melting pot of ethnic and racial groups? Or is it a mosaic ? Answer: My judgment is that it's probably 80% melting pot--but around the edges is a mosaic. It may be that that's the way it always will be. I think it takes a generation or two for new groups, new people, to assimilate--become a part of the mainstream.

Q: Are we going to see more people coming to the United States from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe?

A: That's difficult to answer because it's such a mobile and changing situation in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. My judgment at this time is that we're not going to be greatly impacted by the movement over there. I think people will leave the Soviet Union and they'll go to other places, but we're pretty far away. We have fixed numbers. We'll take in people with our refugee program. There are 50,000 coming from the Soviet Union. We'll take in people with our legal immigration and those increased quotas. But as to any great influx, at the present time we don't see that.

Q: The Immigration Act of 1990 creates a new category of "diversity immigrants." Isn't it possible that there would be highly skilled doctors, professionals from the Soviet Union who want to get out of a somewhat chaotic situation there and come here?

A: I think we're expecting that. But that's consistent with the policy, U.S. government policy and the new law. The new Immigration Act '90 creates greater opportunities for people in Europe, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and all areas that have, in the last two or three decades, been adversely impacted (by U.S. immigration law). Just in the percentages (of immigrants admitted) those countries have had minor percentages compared to Asian and Hispanic immigration.

Q: If Congress asked you, "Do you think we should open the doors even more to this employment-driven immigration, hoping to get people from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe?" would you say, "Yes, we should open the door up further in '92 "?

A: I wouldn't right now, because we've just extended the numbers (of legal immigrants annually accepted into the U.S.) from 500,000, roughly, to 700,000. One of the virtues, in my judgment, of the law is that it provides for a triennial review. So it's a means of opening the valve a little bit to see what will happen and how it works in this country. Whether (admitting more legal immigrants) has some adverse repercussions on our own labor market, how it fits in with productivity, (the new law) gives us a chance to see what the experience is. If the new law proves successful and increased numbers would be even more beneficial, then we would increase the numbers in three or four years.

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