May 1995 Volume 2 Number 5
Immigration is a major public policy issue at the end of the 20th century, as it was at the beginning. What do the lessons of history teach about the current debate over immigration?
About one million immigrants arrived annually at the beginning of the 20th century, and about one million are arriving annually today. It is widely believed that the immigrants arriving in the early 1900s came to settle, and made their way in the US without welfare assistance, while some of the immigrants arriving today allegedly come to get public assistance.
The population in 1900 was smaller, so the number of arrivals per 100 residents--the rate of immigration--was larger. But Americans and immigrants had large families then, so the immigrant contribution to population growth then was lower than it is today--immigrants accounted for about 20 percent of population growth in the early 1900's and 30 percent today.
In the early 1900s, most Americans were farmers and rural residents, while most immigrants moved to cities. This means that immigrants were a large fraction of the clients in public hospitals and similar institutions--since such institutions existed mostly in cities.
Nathan Glazer notes that the expansion of the welfare state--in a time of low immigration, and when there was no expectation that the US would ever again become a nation of mass immigration--left the US vulnerable to e.g., elderly immigrants who never worked in the US depending on an SSI system designed for elderly Americans who did not accumulate sufficient credits for social security and pensions.
Glazer argues that the US today is both more tolerant of minorities and less optimistic about its future. Instead of Americanization, he notes, there is bilingual education; and the combination of falling real wages and worries of over population and environmental degradation make it harder to assume there will be unidimensional progress with or without immigration.
The US is likely to restrict and reform its immigration policies in the 1990s. Glazer argues that it should begin by making immigrants ineligible for affirmative action and similar preference policies, and Frederick Rose argues that immigration in this century has gone through a hump shape in terms of perceptions of immigrant success.
Early 1900s immigrants were perceived to include many persons dependent on the meager public assistance programs then available. The immigrants arriving after numerical restrictions were imposed in 1921 led to a high proportion of very skilled and talented immigrants, a trend that was maintained by the 1965 lifting of the ban on Asian immigrants.
However, the rising number of especially Hispanic immigrants in the 1980s has led to a reassessment and a perception that, once again, immigrants include many people who are in need of public assistance. Although most researchers note that, in an economy with 132 million workers, of whom no more than 10 million are unskilled legal and illegal immigrants, the nation's economic fate is not tied to immigration, a reassessment of immigrant progress by George Borjas that argues that Mexican immigrants who lagged Northern Europeans in education and income a century ago continue to have slower upward mobility.
Frederick Rose, "The Growing Backlash Against Immigration Includes Many Myths," Wall Street Journal, April 26, 1995, A1. Nathan Glazer, "Debate on Aliens Flares beyond the Melting Pot," New York Times, April 23, 1995, E3.