THE GREAT THING about immigrant-bashing is that it doesn't require logical consistency.
You can hate immigrants for being unschooled ignoramuses who refuse to learn English. Or you can hate them because their obsession with education is overloading the public schools.
You can trash immigrants for keeping to themselves and refusing to assimilate. Or you can fume at the rising rate of intermarriage between US natives and foreign-born Asians and Hispanics.
You can despise new arrivals for being lazy leeches who come here to get on welfare. Or you can be furious that they take away jobs that would otherwise go to Americans.
What's logic got to do with it? The scapegoating of immigrants is one of the enduring prejudices in American history, and it doesn't bow to facts or reason.
"The new immigrants have remained strangers in the land, residing apart by themselves, and adhering to the customs and usages of their own country. It seems impossible for them to assimilate with our own people or to make any change in their habits or modes of living. As they have grown in number, the people of California see . . . great danger that . . . the state will be overrun by them unless prompt action is taken to restrict their immigration."
California Gov. Pete Wilson on the need for Proposition 187, the ballot initiative to cut off public benefits to illegal immigrants in his state? No, those words are from the Supreme Court's 1889 opinion in Chae Chan Ping v. US, upholding the constitutionality of the first Chinese Exclusion Act.
Similar fear and loathing have been voiced about every group of immigrants that has come to America.
Franklin lamented that the German immigrants of his day were 'generally the most stupid of their own nation'
A hundred years ago, Irish newcomers were reviled in Massachusetts; help-wanted ads specified "No Irish Need Apply." A hundred years earlier, Benjamin Franklin cursed the great wave of German immigrants as "generally the most stupid of their own nation. . . . It is almost impossible to remove any prejudices they entertain." As Eastern Europeans, Slavs and Jews poured through Ellis Island early in this century, President Coolidge declared: "America must be kept American."
But if the Irish didn't ruin America, and if the Germans didn't, and if the Chinese, the Slavs, and the Italians didn't, why are so many intelligent people willing to believe that Mexicans, Cambodians, and Haitians will?
In an editorial endorsing Proposition 187, the conservative journal National Review -- normally a fountainhead of rational thinking -- writes this week that the current anger toward immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, will continue to seethe "as the American nation resists its own dissolution." Preventing the "dissolution" of the American nation is indeed a worthy goal. But immigrants are the wrong target.
It wasn't immigrants who created this country's disastrous welfare system, which has sucked millions of women and children into lives of poverty, dependence, and degradation. It wasn't immigrants who imposed bilingual education on the public schools, thereby ending the once-universal emphasis on mastering the English language. It isn't immigrants who are infecting our common American heritage with the virus of multiculturalism, which denigrates traditional American heroes and condemns Western culture as racist and oppressive.
To quote Ron Unz, a California businessman who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Wilson in the Republican primary this year: "A country in which 22 percent of white children and 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock need not look to immigrants as the source of social breakdown."
Horror stories to the contrary notwithstanding, the United States is not experiencing an unprecedented wave of immigration.
Between 1981 and 1990, the number of immigrants entering the United States totaled 7.3 million. (Including undocumented aliens who were legalized under the 1986 Immigration Act.) By contrast, more than 8.8 million immigrants entered between 1901 and 1910. In absolute numbers, fewer immigrants are entering now than entered almost a century ago.
Which means the immigration rate -- the number of newcomers relative to US population, which is what counts -- is smaller, too. In the 1980s, the immigration rate was 3.1. In the 1920s, it was 3.5. In the 1910s, 5.7. The 1900s, 10.4. Far from being alarmingly high, immigration rates today are actually quite low.
Endless studies have been done on the use of public services, particularly welfare, by immigrants. Repeatedly, they reach the same conclusion: There is almost no difference in the percentage of US-born and foreign-born residents who collect benefits.
Illegal immigrants, meanwhile, are barred from welfare altogether. Many use phony Social Security numbers -- not to go on the dole, but to give to an employer when they get a job. "We rip off the illegals unmercifully," notes University of Maryland economist Julian Simon. "We take their taxes, and we don't give them any sevices because they can't legally request them."
If we've got problems with welfare, illegitimacy, and multiculturalism, let's roll back welfare, illegitimacy, and multiculturalism. Choking off immigration to cure our ills would be like choking a cancer patient to cure a tumor. It will do nothing to alleviate the real sickness, but it will be all too effective in cutting off the new blood that renews our energy and revives our spirit.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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