Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Immigration policy as a generational issue

As a long time editorial page editor and political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, Peter Schrag has been watching immigration and the "immigration issue" as it ebbs and flows in California for decades. He's the author of two of the best books on this wacky state, Paradise Lost and California. And now he's issued Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America. More here on "race" and immigration in this valuable book.

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."

The basic drama has been reenacted again and again. Replace Irish or Italian or Slav or Jew with Mexican or Muslim, and what comes from immigration restrictionists now could have come from the opponents of immigration a century or more ago; again and again history proved them mostly wrong.

But his study of the history has shown him something that seems contradictory:

At the same time, that history also tells us that the greatest social and economic progress of the last century -- and probably of any period in our history -- took place in the forty years [1925-1965] when the nation's immigration was the lowest it had ever been and, most likely, would ever be again. It was the period when new and old Americans forged the powerful industrial unions that helped produce the great middle class, sent their children to common schools, fought together at St. Lo and Anzio, on Guadalcanal and at Bastogne, often against their cousins and uncles from the old country, went to college together on the GI Bill, and became neighbors in the same developments. It was the half century of the New Deal and the Great Society and the period when the millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, the once-unmeltable ethnics of the prior two generations, were "whitened" and became Americans.

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.

...as demographer Dowell Myers argues, most of the millions of American boomers who will retire in the first two decades of the twenty-first century will have to be replaced in the workforce in large part by recent immigrants and their children and grandchildren. There simply aren't enough other Americans to fill all the jobs, which means that better education and training for that new generation become absolutely essential. By 2039, the nation's working-age population will be 50 percent minority, many of them now in school or college. It's not merely the general economy that will depend on them but the home values and the pensions of the retiring boomers. For for everyone's sake, that means the nation had better invest in their education. ...

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!

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