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The myth of the falling sky

Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882; Roger Daniels; Hill and Wang: 328 pp., $30 Unguarded Gates: A History of America's Immigration Crisis; Otis L. Graham Jr.; Rowman & Littlefield: 242 pp., $26.95 Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America; Mae M. Ngai; Princeton University Press: 378 pp., $35 Straddling the Border: Immigration Policy and the INS; Lisa Magana; University of Texas Press: 132 pp., $37.50, $16.95 paper

March 14, 2004|Tamar Jacoby | Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of "Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to Be American."

It was one of the bitterest, longest-running political standoffs in recent memory. On one side, business interests and immigrant advocates argued that we needed foreigners to do dirty, low-paying jobs native-born U.S. workers didn't want to do. But much of the general public was wary if not angrily opposed to the immigrants, skeptical of these economic arguments and, more important, intensely frightened of how the newcomers were likely to change American culture. Democrats and Republicans were divided on the issue, ensuring that both pro- and anti-immigrant camps consisted of strange-bedfellow coalitions. The stakes could hardly have seemed higher: the very makeup of America, after all. The debate raged inconclusively for years before culminating in landmark legislation. What period of U.S. history is this? It could be the 1920s, the 1950s, the early 1960s, the 1980s or the 1990s -- take your pick.

Talk about deja vu all over again -- the debate is being repeated today, almost verbatim. Once again the stakes could hardly be higher. Some 1.3 million immigrants, legal and illegal, are arriving each year. One in nine U.S. residents began life in another country; the total foreign-born population now exceeds 33 million -- more immigrants than people in all of Canada. And the nation is again gearing up for a momentous immigration debate, this one prompted by President Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program. Once again those who believe the influx is good for the nation make an economic argument -- that we need these foreign workers to sustain the country's prosperity -- while opponents worry about what their presence will mean for American culture.

The authors of four new books on immigration could hardly come at the subject from more different perspectives, ranging from the far right to the far left and spanning the gamut from rudimentary study to political tract to sophisticated historiography. Reading them together can be dizzying: Sometimes the multiple perspectives seem to help one catch a glimpse of the truth, sometimes the books contradict each other. Still, they add up to a telling, informative story with a number of striking parallels that can't help but command attention today.

Immigration to America is as old as the nation itself. In 1790, when the first census was taken, 40% of the population was of non-English stock. Benjamin Franklin, among other founders, was concerned that some of the newcomers might be unassimilable. (He wrote with alarm about the "Palatine boors" -- Germans who could never hope to acquire an Anglo-Saxon "complexion" -- "swarming" into Pennsylvania in the 1750s.) But in fact, the nation made little attempt to control its borders for the first 100 years of its existence. The influx quickened in the 1840s and '50s: primarily Germans and Irish, most of them Catholic. They were met by a vicious backlash focused on their religion: riots, church-burnings and the nation's first significant nativist organization, popularly tagged the Know Nothing party. These waves gradually subsided, but others soon followed, including Asians arriving on the West Coast. The percentage of foreign-born in the U.S. population remained more or less constant through the end of the 19th century -- 13% to 15%.

The turn of the 20th century brought a second great wave of immigrants. Between 1880 and 1920, about 23 million newcomers entered the country -- a number roughly equivalent to the total U.S. population in 1850. By then, most of the native-born had accepted that Germans and Irish could become American, but again the new immigrants -- southern and Eastern Europeans -- struck many people as just too foreign to assimilate. Already in the early 1880s, before the immigration station on Ellis Island opened, anti-immigrant sentiment in California led Congress to pass the first law restricting who and how many could enter: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred virtually all working-class immigration from China until 1943. Nativist hostility, scientific racism and fear of foreign subversion mounted steadily in the ensuing decades as more and more southern Europeans poured in -- and finally, in 1924, Congress slammed the door shut.

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