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Immigration: Now and the Future

The Editor

America is still a young nation. Not the youngest on the planet, but not as old as most of those in Europe or Asia. The majority of America’s citizens are the descendants of immigrants.

The influx of immigrants was relatively steady from the time of our country’s founding until the 1920s. At that time, fearful of an influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans, who would change our national character, limits were placed upon the number of immigrants, based upon the number of people in the population from their country of origin in the 1890 census. Washington State Representative to the U.S. Congress Albert Johnson, who chaired the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, which wrote the law, remarked that it was necessary to stem "a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed." He was particularly concerned about eastern European Jews, whom he labeled "filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits." Johnson was also strongly opposed to Asian immigration, a position on which he ran for office in Washington State.

After the sweeping anti-immigration laws of 1921 and 1924, the influx of new citizens slowed to a trickle (eventually less than 5% of the population) until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which placed an emphasis upon skills and family ties to determine immigrant priorities, rather than country of origin (although not doing away with such criteria completely).  In the next  50 years the percent of the population who were new immigrants almost doubled and is projected to reach nearly 18% of the population over the next 50 years. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the majority of new immigrants by then will be Asian.

There are many misperceptions about immigration. Currently, the largest number of new immigrants are from Latin America, although such immigration has leveled off and, in 2011 had reached a net of zero, where those leaving the U.S. were equal to those arriving. The majority of illegal immigrants are also from Latin America, primarily Mexico, but that number has also plateaued. As a group, new immigrants, including those from Latin America, are healthier and less likely to be arrested for criminal activity than already-resident Americans (despite Donald Trump’s claims). Although deportation of all illegal immigrants would alter the statistics in a major way, building a wall to stop illegal immigration from Mexico would do little, as the flow of immigrants has decreased to the same level as those leaving and future immigrants are more likely to come from Asia than Latin America.

The real issues with regard to immigration  are 1) what factors will affect immigration in the future? 2) is continued immigration necessary? 3) is continued immigration desirable? 4) does it matter where the new immigrants come from?

Predicting the factors that will affect future immigration is hazardous. The Pew Research Center predictions are based upon the assumption that current trends will continue for the next 50 years. There are at least three factors which may affect future immigration: Climate change—Just in terms of flooding by rising oceans, 8 of the 10 large countries most vulnerable are Asian (Vietnam leads the group). Drought and other extreme weather conditions as well as coastal flooding make a number of African nations vulnerable as well as the Asian countries. If such conditions produce refugees, as they no doubt will, then we should expect increasing numbers of Asians and Africans to come to ours shores. War—We are already seeing the result of Middle Eastern wars as they create refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Throughout Africa, civil wars have long been a source of refugees, although most stayed within Africa, and even from Central America, refugees have come to the U.S. from such places as El Salvador, where a civil war continues. Many of our refugees during the last century came from Europe as a result of war. There is no indication that we are nearing the end of the kinds of conflicts which displace populations and send them to other countries for safety. Politics—By far, the strongest influence on immigration to the U.S. during the last century was the Immigration Act of 1924 and its modification in 1965. Proposals to deport illegal immigrants or to allow refugees from the Middle East to enter the country could change the immigration picture dramatically.

Is immigration necessary? Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that without continued immigration, the U.S. population will fall slightly during the next 50 years. In some countries, such as Germany and Japan, dramatically falling birthrates are creating a crisis as more and more elderly citizens require government subsidization and fewer young people are entering the workforce to pay for such programs. Demographic indices do not suggest that such will be the case in America. On the other hand, global warming is likely to force population shifts from low-lying and equatorial regions of the world to countries which occupy higher ground and more temperate regions and America will be one of those countries. World population pressures may force greater immigration upon us.

Is continued immigration desirable? There has been an ongoing debate in Europe and America regarding the desirability of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism. For clarity we will call an increase in the plurality of ethnicities and a decrease in the dominance of a single ethnicity within a country an increase in diversity. An attitude that promotes the preservation of ethnic identity, language and culture within ethnic minorities within a country we will call multiculturalism. There are a limited number of studies of the effects of either diversity or multiculturalism upon such factors as the economy, crime, social capital and national identity. One study found that within the U.S. there is no straightforward relationship between diversity and economic well-being when comparing one state to another. In Europe there have been a few studies which have shown that countries which rank high on measures of multiculturalism have a higher number of immigrants who apply for citizenship and are satisfied with their treatment within that country. Although Angela Merkel has declared that multiculturalism has failed within her country, Germany does not rank particularly high on measures of multiculturalism. Neither does the United States. Those countries which do rank high include Australia, Canada, Sweden and Finland. The outcome with regard to acceptance of immigrants is mixed in these countries and what was once an open policy on immigration, praised by many, has come under attack within these countries as the number of asylum seekers from war-torn Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe has mushroomed.

Does it matter where the new immigrants come from? Skin-color may be a more determining factor in immigrant acceptance than ethnicity or country of origin. America has a history of racial prejudice that is still present. (America is not alone in this by any means, and even within some non-white countries, people with darker skin are victims of prejudice). By and large Western Europeans, Canadians and Asians are better accepted  within the U.S. than Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners, Africans or Latinos. Increasingly, religion has become a factor in acceptance of immigrants. Muslims, in particular, are associated in many Americans’ minds with terrorism and for some Americans, the religion itself is vilified. There is a myth that foreign-born blacks (from Africa or the Caribbean) do much better than American-born blacks. Salary comparisons by the Economic Policy Institute have shown that this is not the case and that, when such things as education are controlled for, with the exception of Caribbean-born black women, all other foreign-born black groups earn less money than American-born blacks and all groups do markedly worse, economically, than American whites.

So what does this tell us about Immigration, especially about what we should do with regard to immigration policy? First, there are few data to guide our decisions. Second, those statements made by politicians and political pundits routinely violate what data are available. Third, the largest factors determining the fate of American immigration policy are probably going to be global warming, wars and internal political struggles within the U.S. Fourth, new immigrants will continue to be discriminated against on the basis of skin color, religion and national origin. So, barring dramatic changes in our immigration laws, we can expect more immigrants in the future, and probably half of them (non-Muslim Asians and legal Latinos) will be welcomed, or at least tolerated and half of them (Africans, Middle Easterners, and Muslim Asians) will not be. Prejudice, discrimination and lack of economic opportunity contribute to social problems, increase the need for government interventions to rescue those who cannot survive on their own, and sow the seeds of alienation and hatred, which will lead to the blossoming of “home-grown” terrorists. If we want to live in a peaceful and economically thriving society we should prepare for more immigration by reducing racial, ethnic and religious prejudice within our national consciousness. Such prejudices may be at the root of opposition to  immigration and if they can be reduced, the perceived threat posed by immigrants will also be reduced.

Reader Comments (1)

Thank you, Casey, for this calm and reasoned essay on a subject that generally causes a lot of heat and little light. As an immigrant from Eastern Europe, I know from experience that there are deep-seated suspicions and prejudices against even white immigrants. My life as a professor of English and as a writer would have been made easier if I'd Americanized my name, as my naturalization officer tried to bully me into doing. But since his own name was Angelili, I rebelled against his "advice."

The emotional and professional background of immigrants will play a large part on how they'll accommodate themselves to their new countries. Those with severe trauma will be in need of help, and the need may extend beyond the generation that experienced the horrors of displacement. In turn, the native population, many of whom are not exemplary citizens, will resent help given immigrants that they perceive as being taken from them.

What we need , it seems to me, is a strong system of education that instills in people a sense of adventure and wonder and desire to learn. The Other then becomes interesting and exciting rather than just threatening. Unfortunately, such changes to the way we educate the citizenry in the U.S. may come too slowly to keep up with the pressures of climate change and wars. The countries that are most open to immigrants have these strong educational systems. If we have a bit of humility and learn from them, we may reform sooner than we think?

September 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos
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