Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Immigrants have changed US -- again and again

The Pew Research Center has issued a new report marking the 50th anniversary of the 1965 revision of U.S. immigration law which set the contours of our contemporary demographic trends. The headline take away is that the law revision enabled this country to move into a new and different demographic reality, by enabling migration of more and different people.

This fast-growing immigrant population ... has driven the share of the U.S. population that is foreign born from 5% in 1965 to 14% today and will push it to a projected record 18% in 2065. Already, today’s 14% foreign-born share is a near historic record for the U.S., just slightly below the 15% levels seen shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The combined population share of immigrants and their U.S.-born children, 26% today, is projected to rise to 36% in 2065, at least equaling previous peak levels at the turn of the 20th century.

... As a result of its changed makeup and rapid growth, new immigration since 1965 has altered the nation’s racial and ethnic composition. In 1965, 84% of Americans were non-Hispanic whites. By 2015, that share had declined to 62%. Meanwhile, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population rose from 4% in 1965 to 18% in 2015. Asians also saw their share rise, from less than 1% in 1965 to 6% in 2015.

The Pew Research analysis shows that without any post-1965 immigration, the nation’s racial and ethnic composition would be very different today: 75% white, 14% black, 8% Hispanic and less than 1% Asian.

If you live in California, it's easy to yawn about this -- so yeah, what else is new? But obviously these changing realities are what drives much of the terror that riles the crazier white corners of the land.
When I was accidentally thrown into working on migration politics by the California immigration panic of 1994 (otherwise known as Prop. 187), I knew next to nothing about the history of immigration to this largest slice of an underpopulated continent. This report is full of items that might have given me a fuller picture -- and still do.
  • The new United States' very first law in this area, the Naturalization Act of 1790, "excluded non-white people from eligibility to naturalize. " Our white forbears wanted more workers, but not those people, however defined over the decades. This prohibition was not removed until the Reconstruction era 1870 naturalization act allowed "eligibility to individuals of African nativity or descent."
  • In the late 19th century, the white people of the west sought and got Chinese (and other East Asian) Exclusion Acts. Tough workers from Asia were a wonderful tool for building the transcontinental railroad, but they weren't having any more of those people. In 1903, federal immigration law also banned "anarchists, beggars, and importers of prostitutes." Restrictions of various sorts on Asian immigration lasted until well into World War II and beyond. They were only removed for Chinese when we found ourselves promoting our benevolent variant of imperialism as an alternative to Japan's. Competition with Communism led to further openings to Asia in the 1950s.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 set a hard cap of 165,000 annual immigration visas, and used national-origin quotas to confine this to persons of English-speaking or other northern European origins. The restrictionists had got their way, notably in ending mass migration from southern and eastern Europe. Pew doesn't say this -- and correlation does not equal causation -- but The Great Migration of African Americans from the south to take up factory work in northern cities might never have been possible without the 1924 immigration restrictions. Industrialists needed somebody in those jobs.
  • The 1965 revision changed all this. Pew opts for the safe explanation, attributing its radical opening to mass worldwide immigration to multiple factors without pulling out a dominant thread.

    Scholars attribute passage of the 1965 law in part to the era’s civil rights movement, which created a climate for changing laws that allowed racial or ethnic discrimination, as well as to the growing clout of groups whose immigration had been restricted. The economy was healthy, allaying concerns that immigrants would compete with U.S.-born workers. Some, however, say that geopolitical factors were more important, especially the image of the U.S. abroad in an era of Cold War competition with Russia. Labor unions, which had opposed higher immigration levels in the past, supported the 1965 law, though they pushed for changes to tighten employment visas. And political players changed: President Lyndon B. Johnson lobbied hard for the bill, and a new generation of congressional leaders created a friendlier environment for it

    And so, in the Sixties, the United States once again affirmed itself a "a nation of immigrants" without much sense of the implications. (I bet the capitalists knew where we going, but it took the rest of us, and the new Americans, awhile to catch up.)
  • Meanwhile, throughout the country's history, Mexican and Latino immigration had been a constant. For Mexicans, the border crossed them rather than they crossed the border. When the Southwest needed labor, the Mexicans served. They weren't included in naturalization systems and quotas. When the bosses were done with them, they sometimes literally packed them in trains and sent them back. But in the new era of (more) civil rights, some began to exercise citizenship. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act sought to regularize the legal status of millions of people in legal limbo; roughly 2.7 million people acquired legal status. They and their children have gradually taken up their role as citizens in the states where immigration is largest: California, Florida, New York and Texas.
And so here we are today with another 11 million people living among us without a documented legal status. President Obama's executive initiatives (DACA and DAPA) have done something to sort this out; Republicans are still screaming for the cattle cars to try to stop the tide of history.

Pew makes a couple of points about contemporary legal immigrants that I found new:

Asia currently is the largest source region among recently arrived immigrants and has been since 2011. Before then, the largest source region since 1990 had been Central and South America, fueled by record levels of Mexican migration that have since slowed. Back in 1970, Europe was the largest region of origin among newly arrived immigrants. One result of slower Mexican immigration is that the share of new arrivals who are Hispanic is at its lowest level in 50 years.

Compared with their counterparts in 1970, newly arrived immigrants in 2013 were better educated but also more likely to be poor. Some 41% of newly arrived immigrants in 2013 had at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1970, that share was just 20%. On poverty, 28% of recent arrivals in 2013 lived in poverty, up from 18% in 1970. In addition, fewer of the newly arrived in 2013 were children than among the newly arrived immigrants in 1970—19% vs. 27%.

Obviously, if you have any interest in immigration issues -- and who can not? -- Pew's entire report is worth exploring. it is highly accessible, full of graphic enhancements, and waiting for a click. Give it a look.

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