Immigration Spring 2007
Immigration has become one of the hot controversies in America. The flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border has triggered an intense backlash of protest and resentment. Some protestors are demanding deportation and a wall of separation. Others are insisting on more intense surveillance. Still others want immigrants to commit themselves to speaking English.
Immigrants have been a controversial issue ever since the beginning of the United States of America. They were obviously useful, filling up the Western lands with white settlers and providing cheap labor for burgeoning industry. But they also were a problem. The self-image of America was tied up with being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation. Hordes of Catholics and Jews, Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans, threatened the cultural and ethnic unity of the American people. In the middle of the nineteenth century a powerful new political party (the American Party) emerged on the political scene to demand an end to immigration.
The issue of “foreigners” was aggravated by the presence in America of a large “unassimilable” population of African slaves. Even for millions of Americans who were opposed to slavery, the thought of a future America filled with free blacks was not an attractive vision. Many abolitionists preferred the “return” of blacks to their African homeland, feeling that African-American race and culture posed a danger to a homogeneous nation. To these white Americans diversity had its limits if the nation was to continue a nation. Lincoln, early in his political career, advocated this “return” program.
The victory of the North in the Civil War subverted the power of the nativists. The Yankees were committed to the industrialization of America. This transformation was possible only with the availability of vast reservoirs of cheap labor. Whatever ethnic reservations the Yankee elite had about foreigners, no anxiety could effectively resist the prospect of becoming rich. America opened its doors to millions of immigrants seeking a better life. The only restriction was that immigrants had to be white. Europeans were welcomed, but Asians were discouraged – and sometimes barred from entering.
America was irreversibly changed by the massive entry of new immigrants after 1865. The first wave of Irish and Germans was followed by the second wave of Italians, Slavs, and Ashkenazic Jews. Catholics became the majority in dozens of American cities. Ethnic ghettos transformed the urban landscape and replaced the old with a new diversity. A shrinking rural America remained the heartland of Anglo-Saxon culture. But it was vanishing in many places and losing political power. Public schools softened the blow of change. They turned white immigrants into English-speaking imitations of the original Anglo-Saxon American. But the imitation was never quite the same as the original.
Again the nativists rallied. After the First World War, in 1924, they closed the doors to immigration. Only a small number of northwestern Europeans were allowed to enter. This xenophobia was accompanied by the absurd episode of Prohibition, a silly attempt to preserve Anglo-Saxon virtue with an attack on the “alcoholic” culture of Catholics and other immigrants. Prohibition failed. And so did the nativist campaign to keep America white and Anglo-Saxon.
The relentless demand for new cheap labor prevailed over the racism of the nativists. With the end of the Depression and with the coming of the new prosperity of postwar America, immigration revived. The Cold War cut off the access to the remaining pools of poor people in Eastern Europe. Two new groups arrived on the immigration scene to replace white recruits. Asians and Hispanics constituted the majority of the new arrivals. And all this racial change was preceded by a massive internal immigration, the transfer of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North.
While Asians tended to enter the middle class through their educational achievement and entrepreneurial skills, Hispanics became the new menial labor of America. From cherry pickers to construction workers, they filled the vacuum left by traditional white workers climbing into the middle class. Although the label Hispanic designates their language, it fails to designate their race. Hispanics are not Spanish. They are mestizo descendants of Amerindians (Mexicans). They are mulatto offspring of Latin American blacks (Puerto Ricans). They are an assault on the white self- image of old America.
Latin American poverty and rising expectation triggered a mass exodus of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Brazilians, and Dominicans from their homelands. “Gringoland” was the place of economic opportunity. Because U.S. immigration laws were unfriendly to unskilled labor, millions of Hispanics chose to cross the American border illegally. Today ten million people in the United States are illegal Hispanic immigrants. While they perform useful work, they also impose heavy burdens on public education and public welfare. Their persistence in retaining Spanish threatens the English-speaking self-image of other Americans. And their non-white racial characteristics threaten the vision of America as a predominantly white nation. We all know that if ten million Swedes were “swimming” across the Rio Grande illegally, the nativists would not be up in arms.
Driving out ten million illegal Hispanics is not politically possible. Big business and small business need their cheap labor. And legal Hispanics are a large minority with formidable voting power, especially in states like Texas and California. The Republican Party, the historic home of nativist sentiment, is hopelessly divided on this issue. The economic conservatives want to legalize the illegals and to provide for the entry of thousands of guest workers. The social conservatives want to drive out the illegals and to preserve the historical culture and racial character of America, no matter what the economic consequences. President George W. Bush has sided with the economic conservatives. But his Religious Right allies oppose him on this issue.
What is going to happen? Will the controversy irreparably harm the Republican Party? Will Hispanics be deported? Will a wall of exclusion be built along the Mexican border?
Realism provides the answers. The American economy needs cheap menial labor. The Hispanics remain the only available labor pool to service this need. A Republican determination to hold back the Hispanic tide will drive the Hispanics completely into the Democratic camp. The prevailing birth rates indicate that within fifty years the majority of Americans will not be white. While English will remain the world language, English in America will increasingly share space with Spanish. (In a global world, bilingualism is an asset, not a catastrophe.) America, like all the other countries in the developed world, is becoming a multicultural state. Anglo-Saxon America is fading away. Asians and Hispanics are on the rise.
Realism dictates that we make it easy for Hispanics to enter the United States. We need menial workers as well as well-educated immigrants. The present illegals should be legalized. Future illegals should be punished. The flow of temporary and permanent Hispanic residents needs an open door, not a closed one.