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February 1999, Volume 6, Number 2

US Immigration Debated

Capaldi, Nicholas. Ed. 1997. Immigration: Debating the Issues. Amherst, NY. Prometheus Books. />
Millman, Joel. 1999. How the Press Paints a False Picture of the Effects of Immigration. Columbia Journalism Review, January/February.

D.W. Miller. 1999. Scholars of Immigration Focus on the Children. Chronicle of Higher Education. February 5. />
The Capaldi book has five-parts and 19 chapters that include contributions from many of the protagonists debating how the US should deal with immigration and integration. An appendix reprints selected immigration data. The book is one of about 20 titles in the Contemporary Issues series, which features books that include contributions by both two sides on abortion, euthanasia, smoking and other issues.

Books that attempt to provide the reader with both sides of the argument can be useful, but this book lacks a strong introductory essay and focus, and is outdated. The introductory essay by Capaldi asserts that the US has a "liberal culture" which requires a belief in individual rights, the rule of law, representative government, and a market economy (p. 11). The assertion is: "legal immigrants are welcome to the extent that they ...preserve and foster liberal culture" in the US and abroad. (p17)

The essays included will give readers a flavor of the debate, for example, the lead essay is the June 1992 cover story by Peter Brimelow that eventually led to the 1995 book Alien Nation. This essay is followed by Peter Schuck's review of Alien Nation, in which Brimelow's arguments are divided into demographic, carrying capacity, economic impacts, cultural assimilation, and politics, and his assertions in each area are challenged.

The historical and legal background is a confusing set of excerpts from old and new material, and simply leaves the reader with the conclusion that immigration divides Americans, and that administering US immigration laws is a difficult job. The first contribution of the economic and politics section is misleading--it is titled as a contribution from a publication that summarized the views of Vernon Briggs and Stephen Moore, but only Moore's contribution is included, a curious oversight for a book that tries to include both sides. The cultural challenge section is similarly uneven, mixing together a timeless essay by Arthur Schleisinger with magazine clips that are sadly out of date. Finally, the section on English includes mostly excerpts from those opposed to bilingual education.

Joel Millman is a Wall Street Journal reporter who favors immigration, as indicated by the title of his book, The Other Americans: How Immigrants Renew Our Country, Our Economy, and Our Values. In a review of press reports of how immigration is affecting particular US cities and regions, Millman argues that press reports are skewed, accentuating the negative rather than the positive. For example, he takes the Financial Times to task for writing about his hometown, Framingham, Massachusetts, which has attracted Brazilian immigrants. The Financial Times concluded that immigration could move ethnic conflicts to the suburbs: "middle-class Americans -- many of whom thought they were opting for homogeneity by moving to the suburbs -- are thrown into contact with people from very different cultures," while Millman reads the data to suggest that crime rates have fallen and the local economy has boomed as the immigrants moved in.

Millman also tackles stories on Zip Code 11373 in Queens, New York, billed in USA Today on October 13, 1997 as the most diverse neighborhood in America. Millman says that data such as the fact that the median household income is $36,382, almost the national median, suggests that "the cost/ benefit ratio [of immigration] in zip code 11373 is just fine."

Millman is especially critical of University of Michigan demographer William Frey and Harvard economist George Borjas. Frey was one of the first researchers to help answer an apparent paradox in labor economics. Economic theory would predict that adding immigrants to the labor supply should lower wages and/or increase unemployment rates for workers most similar to the immigrants. But studies could not find that Blacks or other groups thought to be similar to immigrants were worse off in Los Angeles than in Atlanta, and many researchers concluded that, because wage depression and job displacement could not be measured, they did not exist.

Frey showed that those most likely to compete with the immigrants moved away from immigrant gateway cities, so that any wage depression and job displacement effects of immigration were quickly spread throughout the US. In some renditions of this story, it was noted that many of those leaving southern California in the early 1990s, when immigrants continued to arrive despite a recession, were non-Hispanic whites, which led to titles such as "the new white flight."

George Borjas's major research contribution has been to examine economic mobility--will newcomers with little education succeed in the US? Borjas believes that many will not catch up in earnings to US-born residents because the gap between immigrant and US-born levels of education is rising, what he sometimes terms "the declining quality" of immigrants. Borjas has also emphasized that a higher percentage of immigrants than US-born residents receive federal means-tested welfare assistance, reflecting: (1) the eligibility of refugees for welfare assistance; (2) the fact that elderly immigrants who did not work in the US are not eligible for Social Security; and (3) the lower earning of many immigrants.

The Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed research on the progress of second-generation immigrant children in the US. Michigan State University sociologist Ruben G. Rumbaut said that "The main legacy of the new immigration is not going to hinge on the fate of immigrant adults, but on their children." The research emphasizes that the extremes of smooth and no integration are probably wrong. Rumbaut says that "Children of immigrants are adapting faster than ever before," with 90 percent of immigrant children in a Miami-San Diego study preferring to speak English by 12th grade.

However, many of the immigrants come from families with little education and live in areas with many poor residents. If they integrate as well as their peers, they may still wind up at the bottom of the US job ladder. In a process termed "segmented assimilation," immigrants and their children with high levels of education succeed economically and move to the suburbs, such as Koreans, Chinese, Indians and Cubans. However, many Latin Americans and Mexicans, "struggle at the bottom as a source of cheap labor and try to avoid getting their kids caught in the underclass."

Barnard College sociologist Charles Hirschman, says that "100 years from now people will wonder why we were so worried about immigration. This is one of America's greatest achievements -- the fact that we were able to absorb wave after wave of immigrants."