New Wave of Immigration

November 28, 1991

This is a special Thanksgiving season for tens of thousands of Americans -- new Americans. Under the Immigration Act of 1990, which went into effect in October, about 700,000 immigrants will be allowed to enter the country in each of the next three years, then the limit will be reduced to 675,000. That compares with an average of about 500,000 a year in the past. These are official and net estimates. Some demographers believe about 9 million immigrants came into the country to stay in the 1980s (legally and illegally) and that about 10 million to 12 million will do so in the 1990s.

Some have criticized the new law because one of its provisions results in special status for Europeans. This has even been called racist. It is not. It merely adjusts earlier immigration formulas, which in effect penalized -- almost halted -- European immigration for a quarter of a century. Immigration in the 1990s will continue to be predominantly black, Hispanic and Asian, but not as disproportionately as in 1990, when it totaled 85 percent.

That this immigration will change America in the years ahead is no doubt true. But that has been this continent's history since colonial times, and it has been this nation's history in the last two centuries. It is one source of the national strength and a major shaper of the American character. Critics of the next wave of immigration -- those saying it will be too white and those saying it won't be white enough -- misread history and mistrust the Americanizing process.

To think of immigration as having a profound impact nationally is quite wrong. The impact is isolated to a few states in its early stages. A projection for the 1990s by Leon Bouvier, a demographer, shows about half of all immigrants settling in California, New York and Texas. Adding in Florida, Illinois and New Jersey accounts for 75 percent. Nonetheless, even small increments provide a spice of new life to many communities. Maryland, which became home to some 90,000 immigrants in the 1980s, is expected to receive between 125,000 and 167,000 in the 1990s. That is enough to provide added diversity and strength.

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