America: Still A Melting Pot?

Few Americans remember Israel Zangwill, but he was a transatlantic celebrity in the years before World War I. Poet, novelist, dramatist and political activist, Zangwill was a founding father of the Zionist movement and an ardent suffragist. He knew Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and he was a prolific, if preachy, writer. Here is a bit of dialogue from Zangwill's greatest hit, a four-act melodrama that opened in Washington in 1908. The speeker is David, a young composer:

America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming....Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians--into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American!

The imagery comes from steelmaking, which was state-of-the-art technology then. The play is "The Melting-Pot," a phrase that has lived ever since. Zangwill, despondent at the eclipse of many of his political ideals, suffered a nervous breakdown and died in England in 1926. America had already turned its back on his optimism and, in an orgy of blatant racism, virtually cut off immigration. Two generations later, immigration is running full blast-and Americans once again are asking fundamental questions about the desirability of accepting so many newcomers and the very idea of the Melting Pot. They believe, with some justice, that the nation has lost control of its borders. They are frightened about the long-term prospects for the U.S. economy and worried about their jobs. They think, erroneously, that immigrants are flooding the welfare rolls and are heavily involved in crime. And they are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that almost all the New Immigrants come from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.

The latest Newsweek Poll reveals the public's sharply shifting attitudes. Fully 60 percent of all Americans see current levels of immigration as bad; 59 percent think immigration in the past was good. Fifty-nine percent also say "many" immigrants wind up on welfare, and only 20 percent think America is still a melting pot.

All this--an incendiary mixture of fact, fear and myth--is now making its way into politics. The trend is most obvious in California, where immigration is already a hotbutton issue, and it is surfacing in Washington. Recent events like the World Trade Center bombing, the arrest of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and the grounding of the Golden Venture, an alien-smuggling ship crammed with nearly 300 Chinese emigrants, have revived the 10-year-old controversy about illegal immigration. "We must not--we will not--surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice," Bill Clinton said last week, announcing a $172.5 million proposal to beef up the U.S. Border Patrol and crack down on visa fraud and phony asylum claims. On Capitol Hill, the revival of an issue that many had thought dead is shaking both political parties, and Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California are scrambling to neutralize nativist backlash. "Some of the people who opposed me totally 10 years ago are now saying, 'What's happening to our country? We gotta do something!"' said Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a perennial advocate of tougher immigration enforcement. "It's ironic beyond belief. Attitudes have shifted dramatically, and it's coming from the citizens."

This is not the 1920s--a time when most Americans regarded dark-skinned people as inherently inferior, when the Ku Klux Klan marched through Washington in a brazen display of bigotry and when the president of the United States could tell an Italian-American congressman, in writing, that Italians are "predominantly our murderers and bootleggers...foreign spawn [who] do not appreciate this country." (The president was Herbert Hoover and the congressman was Fiorello La Guardia.) The civil-rights revolution changed everything: it gradually made overt expressions of any ethnic prejudice into a cultural taboo. Almost accidentally, the moral awakening of the 1960s also gave the nation an immigration law that reopened the Golden Door. This law, passed in 1965 with the firm backing of Robert Kennedy, Edward Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, has slowly led to a level of sustained immigration that is at least as large as that of 1900-1920. It inadvertently but totally reversed the bias in U.S. law toward immigration from Europe, and it created a policy so complicated that almost no one understands it. The policy, in fact, is a mess, whatever one thinks of the desperate Chinese on the Golden Venture or the young Latinos who scale the fence at Tijuana every night.

Bill Clinton's goal, like that of most defenders of continued large-scale immigration, is to drive home the distinction between legal immigration (good) and illegal immigration (very, very bad). Illegal immigration is undeniably out of control. Congress tried to stop it in 1986 with a law called IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was based on a two-pronged strategy. IRCA offered amnesty and eventual citizenship to an estimated 3.7 million illegal aliens and, at the same time, aimed at shutting down the U. S. job market by making it illegal for employers to hire undocumented aliens. The act has failed. Despite the amnesty, the estimated number of illegals has once again risen to between 2 million and 4 million people. "For the first two years there was a significant drop...because folks thought there was a real law here," says Lawrence H. Fuchs, acting chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. "But the word got out" that IRCA had no teeth, Fuchs says, and the influx resumed. Fuchs concedes that as many as 500,000 illegals now enter this country each year, though he admits it is impossible to know for sure.

The concern over illegal immigration is fueled, in part, by two conflicting fears. Illegals are vulnerable to exploitation by employers and are often victimized-extorted, kidnapped, raped, tortured and sometimes killed--by criminals and smugglers. At the other extreme, in cities like Los Angeles, they flood the labor market and set off bitter competition with American workers and legal immigrants for jobs.

But the real problem is the subversion of U.S. law and policy, and that creates two dilemmas for the federal government. The first is what to do about the undocumented aliens who have made their way into this country since IRCA: another amnesty, obviously, would only encourage more illegal immigration. The second dilemma is worse. There is no particular reason to believe that the current influx of illegals cannot rise from 500,000 a year to 600,000 a year or even beyond. This is conjectural but not necessarily alarmist: as Fuchs says, the word is out. Looking around the world, "one can't find the natural forces that will bring down the flow," says Harvard University sociologist Nathan Glazer. "The first impact of prosperity will be to increase it. Look at China. These people don't come from the backward areas, they come from the progressive parts. As they learn how to run a business, they say to themselves, 'Why not go to the United States and do even better?'"

The same applies to Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Mexico or the Philippines. The dynamic, as Fuchs says, is rooted in powerful macroeconomic forces now at work all around the globe--rising birthrates and the conquest of disease, prosperity or the hope of prosperity, even modern telecommunications. (The glittery materialism of American TV shows is now being broadcast everywhere.) Much as Americans tend to regard the new immigrants as poor, uneducated and less skilled, the vast majority are surely enterprising. What they seek is opportunity-the opportunity to hold two jobs that no Americans want, to buy a television set and a beat-up car, to start a family and invest in the next generation. Immigration is for the young: it takes courage, stamina and determination to pull up your roots, say goodbye to all that is dear and familiar, and hit the long and difficult trail to El Norte. illegal immigration, with all its hazards, is for the truly daring: the Latino men who wait on Los Angeles street corners, hoping for day--work, have faced more risk than most Americans will ever know.

You can argue, then, that the distinction between legal and illegal immigration is nearly meaningless. Immigrants are immigrants: how they got here is a detail. And, in fact, the arcane system of regulation created by the 1965 law, together with its amendments and adjustments since, implicitly accepts this argument. The law recognizes three reasons to award immigrant visas--job skills, especially those that somehow match the needs of the U.S. economy; a demonstrable reason to seek refuge from war or political persecution, and kinship to an American citizen or a legal alien. This triad of goals replaced the national-origin quota system of 1924, which heavily favored immigrants from Northern and Western Europe and severely restricted immigration from everywhere else. It is a matter of lasting national shame that Congress, throughout the 1930s and even after World War II, refused to adjust the law to admit the victims of the Holocaust. That shabby record outraged Jews and had much to do with the passage of act of 1965. So did the old law's bias against Slavs, Poles, Italians, the Chinese and the Japanese.

But all three of these goals have been steadily distorted--chipped at, twisted out of shape--by the realities of immigration since 1965. Kinship to U.S. citizens, known as the "family-reunification policy," has become the overwhelming favorite of visa seekers and the primary reason the pattern of immigration has shifted so hugely to the Third World. it was never intended to be: given the fact that most immigration to the United States had always been from Europe, those who voted for the act of 1965 generally assumed that family-reunification visas would be used by Europeans. They also assumed that there would be no large increase in immigration to the United States. "Our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually," Sen. Edward Kennedy told a subcommittee hearing. "Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration [about 300,000 a year] remains substantially the same...."

That is not what happened. Immigration from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, a trickle in 1965, has steadily widened so that it now comprises about 90 percent of the total. Legal immigration from 1971 to 1990 was 10.5 million people--but if 3 million illegals are (conservatively) added in, the total is pretty much the same as 1900-1920, the peak years in American history. Owing partly to a further liberalization of the law in 1990 and partly to the IRCA amnesty, the United States now accepts more immigrants than all other industrialized nations combined. (Upwards of 80 percent are persons of color: so much for the myth that U.S. policy is racist.) Proponents of further immigration argue that the current influx is actually lower than the 19001920 peak when considered as a percentage of the U.S. population. They are right: it was 1 percent of the population then and about one third of 1 percent now. But it is still a lot of people.

And the law is full of holes. A majority of those who get family-reunification visas (235,484 in 1992) come in with no numerical restriction at all: for them, at least, immigration is a form of entitlement program. Others game the system by forging documents, faking job histories and hiring smart American lawyers to get them eligible for resident visas and green cards. This is known in federal jargon as "adjusting status," and in most years it works for more than 200,000 immigrants. The asylum hustle is the newest wrinkle. By claiming political asylum, would-be immigrants circumvent the normal rules and, because the jails are full, are usually freed to stay and work. Many simply vanish into the underground economy. "We didn't [expect] the asylum problem," says Lawrence Fuchs. "We thought of it as the ballerina in the tutu saying, 'I defect, I defect'."

Immigration policy is simultaneously a statement of America's relationship with the rest of the world and a design for the national future: it is, and probably should be, a mixture of altruism and self-interest. Current U.S. policy contains elements of both--but it is a blurry, heavily brokered policy that has been cobbled together over the decades to reflect the changing fads and competing interests of domestic politics. A purely selfish policy would accept only immigrants who could contribute to economic or social progress. But this idea--awarding visas on the basis of talent or skill--has always been opposed by organized labor and other groups, and it is a minor feature of today's law, totaling about 140,000 out of 810,000 visas annually. Conversely, providing a haven for refugees is in the best tradition of the American conscience, and the United States has taken a lot of refugees since 1970-1.5 million Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Cubans, Russians and other oppressed nationalities.

But the vast majority of those who get here are ordinary folks pursuing a better life--and although this, too, is part of the American tradition, the question can and should be asked: What's in it for us? What does all this immigration do for America and Americans? Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist, says he knows the answer: more immigration means more economic growth--more wealth and more progress for all Americans, period. Pat Buchanan, the talk-show host and erstwhile presidential candidate, has a different answer: more immigrants mean more social friction and the slow erosion of the English-speaking, hybrid European culture we call "American."

There is a third issue as well: how many people, really, can the territorial United States support? Immigration now produces about a third of U.S. population growth, and projections for the future range from a population of about 383 million in 2050 to 436 million by the year 2090. All of these projections are shaky -based on complex assumptions about birth and death rates as well as immigration policy. Some environmentalists (and many Californians) think the United States should immediately halt immigration to protect the ecosystem and the quality of life. Fuchs says his commission has consulted environmentalists and population experts. "They persuaded us that the population growth is terribly serious on a planetary scale, but not in the United States," he says. "So migration to the United States perhaps has a beneficial effect on the global environmental problem." Still, Congress took no notice of this question when it voted to increase immigration in 1990--and given the wide disparity of current views, picking the "right" number of future Americans is ultimately a combination of taste and guesswork.

The further question is one that troubles Pat Buchanan and many others: can America absorb so many people with different languages, different cultures, different backgrounds? The answer, broadly, is yes--which does not mean there will be no ethnic friction and does not mean that assimilation is easy for anyone. Assimilation is a generational thing. The first generation--the immigrants themselves--are always strangers in the land. The second generation is halfway between or (kids will be kids) rejects the immigrant culture. The third generation is hyphenated-American, like everybody else, and begins the search for Roots. The tricky part, which worries Fuchs considerably, is that America's "civic culture" is unique in all the world. It is the belief, as embodied in the Constitution and our political tradition, "that it is individual rights, not group rights, that hold this country together." So here is the question for all of us, native-born and immigrant alike. At what point do policies like affirmative action and minority-voting rights stop being temporary remedies for past injustices and start being permanent features of the system? The whole concept of group rights, as Fuchs says, is tribalism the road to Bosnia, not East L.A. And that, surely, is not what Israel Zangwill had in mind when he described America as the crucible of a new civilization.

The United States accepts more immigrants than industrialized nations combined. In fiscal 1991 the United States government granted 1,827,167 people legal permanent residence. Seventy-nine percent of these legal immigrants, looking for everything from freedom to financial opportunity, chose the seven states below as their new homes.

When Los Angeles erupted in rioting last year, tensions grew between the black community and immigrants; roughly 2,000 Korean-owned businesses were among those looted or damaged by fire.

IMMIGRANTS BY COUNTRY Mexico 69% Philippines 4% El Salvador 3% Vietnam 3% China 2% Others 19%

Although many are just passing through in search of opportunities, Arizona's Mexican immigrants often feel at home amid the state's Hispanic heritage.

IMMIGRANTS BY COUNTRY Mexico 86% Vietnam 2% Others 12%

Texas and Mexico share some 1,200 miles of porous border, along which the INS has apprehended about 380,000 illegal aliens so far this year.

IMMIGRANTS BY COUNTRY Mexico 80% El Salvador 4% Vietnam 2% Others 14%

More Poles live in Chicago than any other city in the world except Warsaw. The Polish community continues to draw new immigrants to the Windy City.

IMMIGRANTS BY COUNTRY Mexico 54% Poland 9% India 5% Philippines 4% Former Soviet Union 4% Others 24%

Ellis Island closed as a port of entry in 1954, but New York City still lures more immigrants than any other U.S. city.

IMMIGRANTS BY COUNTRY Dom. Republic 12% Former Soviet Union 10% Jamaica 6% China 5% India 5% Others 62%

Asian Indians, one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in New Jersey, speak as many as 20 different languages.

India 9% Dom. Republic 7% Colombia 6% Mexico 5% Peru 5% Others 68%

Fleeing Haitians are the latest wave immigrants to Miami, but record numbers of Cubans continue to cross the 90-mile stretch on makeshift rafts.

IMMIGRANTS BY COUNTRY Mexico 30% Haiti 21% Cuba 6% Jamaica 4% Colombia 4% Others 35%

PERCENTAGES ARE OF TOTAL LEGAL 1991 U.S. IMMIGRANTS CALIFORNIA 735,732 (40%) ARIZONA 40,624 (2%) TEXAS 212,600 (12%) ILLINOIS 73,3888 (4%) FLORIDA 141,068 (8%) NEW JERSEY 56,164 (3%) NEW YORK 188,104 (10%)

SOURCES: IMMIGRATION AND NATURALIZATION SERVICE AND NEWSWEEK SOURCES JULIE SHAVER--NEWSWEEK

America: Still A Melting Pot? | News