An immigrant-bashing mood is rising in America.
Last year, Californians voted to cut off public education and welfare benefits for illegal immigrants. This year, Congress is slashing welfare benefits for legal immigrants. In Campaign '96, immigrants are sure to be demonized as a threat to America's well-being—and to its very identity.
It's a ripe time for scapegoating. There's economic insecurity, and anxiety about where society is heading. Politicians are already catering to this sour mood with pseudo-solutions to crime and welfare. So get ready for demagogues to raise the specter of an America weakened and balkanized by hordes of newcomers.
As a magnet for dreams in a world of woe, the United States can't escape the delicate and emotion-laden challenges of managing a tide of would-be residents.
But crying "A pox on them!" helps not at all. What's needed is an open, fair-minded review of immigration—one that clearly distinguishes the more than 800,000 legal immigrants per year from the hundreds of thousands who sneak in.
The flow of illegals is a crisis that calls for a range of initiatives—from stronger law enforcement to more financial reimbursement to hard-hit states such as California, Texas and New Jersey. Still, contrary to the hype, legal immigration is not a crisis, and therefore policymakers ought to act with great care.
The prospects for sane decision-making were bolstered last week with a
Commission on Immigration Reform report that touts the benefits of legal immigration, while recommending a reduction in the numbers and changes in the priorities for acceptance.
This agenda is in sharp contrast to a competing, slam-the-door approach that's abroad in the land—an attitude that, however understandable its economic roots, remains steeped in racial and ethnic prejudice.
The polemical assault on immigration has just landed on bookshelves everywhere in the form of a cheeky book, Alien Nation, by Peter Brimelow. Let's give the author, a Brit turned U.S. citizen, his due. He is correct that catering to newcomers can go too far—for example, long-running bilingual curricula that slow a student's integration into American society.
He also points out that the average immigrant today is less job-ready, and more of a welfare risk, than the average citizen. He and the blue-ribbon commission agree that the 1965 Immigration Act, which emphasized family reunification, put too little emphasis on job skills.
Mr. Brimelow also delights in discrediting some giddy estimates of immigration's economic benefits vs. its costs. In so doing, he makes a case that immigration is not economically necessary to the United States. (After all, Japan Inc. has soared with a closed-door policy.) He falls far short, however, of proving that it's not beneficial overall.
But Alien Nation is thoroughly unpersuasive—and at times offensive—in arguing that the last 30 years of immigration have been a "disaster," and that for the next three to five years, legal immigration should be slashed or cut off entirely.
This apocalyptic vision seems to be animated less by economics than by ethnicity: The author believes that as immigration changes America's complexion, literally and figuratively, it gravely erodes national identity and unity.
Currently, four out of every five legal immigrants are Hispanic or Asian. Sometime in the next century, maybe 70 years from now, white Americans will slip below 50 percent of the population—becoming the largest minority group. "There is no precedent for a sovereign country undergoing such a rapid and radical transformation of its ethnic character in the entire history of the world," he warns.
Racial and ethnic shifts already cause social friction in places such as Miami and Los Angeles. Mr. Brimelow claims these frictions are sure to spread and worsen. Why risk that future, he asks, when the nation could change the rules to favor whites again—as they did before 1965.
The answer, of course, is that this is America, not some cut-and-paste colony or czar-hatched empire. Beginning with 1776, America has done more than a few things without precedent in world history.
If the original settlers had followed Mr. Brimelow's lead, almost everybody from New York to L.A. would look like John Cleese or Margaret Thatcher. Instead, America is a mosaic that has incorporated—never without friction, but never with disaster—such "aliens" as Italians, Nigerians, Mexicans and Vietnamese.
Pessimists such as Mr. Brimelow, who wouldn't have dared the Atlantic as the first settlers did, see a multiethnic America and think Yugoslavia or Rwanda.
People more in touch with America's soul picture a U.S. Olympic team—or a nobly grief-stricken Oklahoma City—and insist that color is a division we shall overcome.