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Rethinking Immigration: Intent Must Shape Policy

July 24, 1994|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and an international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business in Los Angeles

In many ways, the debate over the "Save Our State" initiative could better be described as the "Same Old Stuff." Although the share of foreigners in the total U.S. population is only half of what it was at the turn of the century, the Draconian initiative demonstrates that, in times of economic stress, immigrants still serve as convenient scapegoats.

Yet, advocates of legal immigration should not neglect the legitimate issues raised by SOS. To that end, they need to determine the intent of new immigrants and how that affects their adopted communities. Short of that, the immigration debate will continue to be waged in a rhetorical fog.

From a policy point of view, the question of intent divides immigrants into two classes. The first, and probably the vast majority, seeks to become citizens and integrate into the mainstream of American society. The second, mostly illegal, consists of temporary sojourners whose interest is to make enough money here to return home in improved circumstances.

The question of intent transcends the current, virtually actuarial debate over the economic effects of illegal immigration. After all, studies on both sides can argue, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, the relative dollars-and-cents merits of this generation of illegal immigrants. Instead, the focus should be on the probable long-term consequences of large numbers of undocumented, unassimilated people in the midst of an already highly charged multiracial society.

This means addressing forthrightly the issue of legality. Most immigration advocates seem reluctant to do this. To a large extent, their reticence is a response to the broad-brush attacks of nativists. Not surprisingly, a New York Times/CBS News poll last summer revealed that 68% of all Americans thought most immigrants were here illegally. In truth, there is only about one illegal immigrant for every three permanent legal newcomers.

Equally disappointing is the immigration activists' failure to acknowledge the critical differences between potential citizens and sojourners. Accepting illegality as a quasi-permanent and legitimate condition is tantamount to tolerating the creation of a "parallel society," in which immigrants stay, usually for economic reasons, for a prolonged period without ever being expected to become full-fledged members of the larger society.

The embryo of such a "parallel society" exists in Europe, where large numbers of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East live in a kind of non-citizen nether world. Considered virtually unassimilable by many Europeans, they are a source of growing urban unrest as well as easy targets for far-right groups.

To many Americans, large populations of illegal immigrants and growing separatist tendencies among ethnic minorities presage a similar scenario here. Their anxieties are stoked when the legitimacy of citizenship is challenged by immigrant advocates who suggest that states such as California are little more than "stolen" provinces from Mexico and thus have no moral claim to control their borders.

Stressing cultural separateness rather than the traditional integrationist model also contributes to the rise of an parallel society. This is most evident in attempts to institutionalize publicly funded bilingual education. Initially designed to accelerate the learning of English, bilingual education is increasingly used as an agent of "reinforcing ethnic identity," according to one education official in New York.

The final step toward creation of a parallel society is the contention that voting rights should be extended to immigrants on issues that most directly affect them, such as who runs the school board. This approach dramatically departs from a tradition that has worked remarkably well over the generations: Most private ethnic, cultural and religious organizations have defined their primary mission not as promoting "group rights" but as easing the entry of newcomers into the broader linguistic, political and economic mainstream.

Particularly important in this regard is public education. In the past, public schools were not expected to serve as incubators of ethnic identity but as training grounds to prepare youngsters for a successful life within the predominant, English-speaking society. During the last great wave of immigration, public education did yeoman's work in helping the children and grandchildren of Calabrian paisanos or refugees from Eastern European shtetls match and then overcome students whose families had been resident here for centuries.

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