In this post, I want to take up what Schrag writes about current policy debates. I learned a lot from his insights, though I don't always agree with him.
Schrag knows he's seeing nothing new when a Tom Tancredo or a Sharon Angle or a Lou Dobbs thinks they can make political hay by screaming about an "alien invasion."
But his study of the history has shown him something that seems contradictory:
I read that -- and I think, yes -- but correlation is not causation. It's not surprising that the decades when the United States was reaching an historical pinnacle of prosperity and power were also a time that when space opened for great social progress, for greater equality before the law and in society, as well as economically.
What's that got to do with immigration policy? Schrag maintains that a sort of pause in immigration, created by the nativist restrictions of the mid-1920s that came in reaction to the vast southern and eastern European population influx of 1890s through 1920 helped calm people down and make them more able to assimilate progress. It's an idea that accords with human nature, but does it tell us anything about current debates?
Not really, because we aren't going to get another prolonged "pause." Since 1965, the most egregious of the racial restrictions built into immigration policy have been clipped back (though some remain.) Immigration both legal and undocumented has spiked because people want to come here -- and, until the current recession, there was work for them.
Schrag's formulation does however point to a significant way that the current political debate plays out that I haven't seen explicitly recognized. People who came of age in the United States before about 1970 lived in a country in which they had little exposure to immigrants. The previous waves of newcomers, for many their own parents and grandparents, were just part of the national landscape. I'm of this generation. The only new immigrant kids I remember being incorporated into my elementary school in the 1950s were a few whose parents were refugees from the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. Immigration was about rare humanitarian emergencies. Mass migration to the United States as a "big deal" was history.
For people who came of age after 1970 (by which time the loosening quota policies begun in 1965 began to show results), this perspective is simply quaint. Ever since then, immigrants have come from all over the world and they don't look like the grandparents of long time residents. As current residents always have, younger people may fear the competition (both realistically and unrealistically), but they don't usually have the visceral recoil from the sheer strangeness of the foreign name or unfamiliar clothing that is so common in older citizens. (Click on the chart for a larger view.)
Since one of the themes of our present political moment is that Republicans are becoming the party of the frightened, the old and the white, it's no wonder that they'd also be the party of restricting immigration and of xenophobic reaction to the arrival of unfamiliar people. As so often in our history, the newcomers serve as a target for demagoguery.
Schrag points out another reality that ought to encourage the old to be more generous in envisioning immigration policies, even though it probably won't.
For the boomer generation, it is simply in our economic interest to make migration to the United States more easily accomplished and to smooth the transition to citizenship for people already here. If we were smart enough to add our demographic heft to demanding this outcome, there'd be no stopping a more equitable, sensible immigration policy. We need this in our own way, almost as much as the rawest new arrival!