The Changing Politics of Immigration vTC


December 10, 1992|By TRB

Washington. -- A new Census Bureau report predicts tha there will be 383 million Americans in the year 2050. That's 128 million more than there are now, and 83 million more than the bureau was predicting just four years ago, when it appeared that the U.S. population would peak and stabilize at about 300 million.

Part of the upward revision reflects an increase in the birth rate. But most of it is due to an increase in immigration. The Census Bureau expects an average of 880,000 new arrivals a year, legal and illegal. By 2050, a fifth of the American population will be folks who arrived here after 1991 and their children. Almost half the population will be ''minority,'' compared with just a quarter today.

Immigration has not been much of a political issue lately. In fact a 1990 law increasing the annual legal quota by 40 percent passed almost unnoticed. But the politics of immigration may be heating up. And the political coloration of anti-immigrant sentiment may be changing, too.

Despite the traditional association of the Democratic party with immigrant groups, what little opposition there has been to immigration in recent years has come from the left. Some environmentalists believe that immigrants contribute to overpopulation and strain the nation's natural resources. And some blacks (and white sympathizers) worry that immigrants are stealing opportunities from America's oldest and still most downtrodden minority.

What's new is the re-emergence of anti-immigrant sentiment on the right. Here it takes the traditional form of concern about the nation's ethnic character. This fits in with other social concerns about matters like multiculturalism and even gay rights: a sense that some classic and comfortable image of America is changing before our eyes. Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan sometimes included immigration in his riffs on this general theme.

Although 128 million extra people in the next six decades sounds like a lot, that is no greater than the increase over the past six decades. (And it's a smaller proportional increase.) Only environmentalist zealots believe that America would be better off if our population were still only 125 million (even assuming complacently that all readers of this column would be among the lucky 125 million).

There is no answer to the argument that ''at some point'' the country becomes too crowded, but there's no particular reason to believe we're at that point yet. Germany, with less than a third of America's population in a far smaller area, is currently accepting new arrivals in almost the same volume.

Germany may not seem the happiest example for my side of the immigration argument. There, immigration is producing social strain and neo-Nazi violence. Not to defend such xenophobic outrages, but Germany is different from the United States. Like most countries (Israel, to pick a sensitive example), its sense of nationhood has a large ethnic component. This is neither good nor evil; it's just a fact. Although any civilized nation should take in refugees from oppression, in other countries the concern about diluting the nation's ethnic stock has a certain validity.

Such concerns have no validity in America. In fact, they are un-American. If applied in earlier times, when they were raised with equal passion, they would have excluded the ancestors of many who make the ethnic-cultural preservation argument today. The anti-immigration literature seems to regard this point as a cheap shot. I cannot see why.

On the economic effects of immigration, there are studies to suit every taste. Immigrants take jobs from poor Americans; or they go on welfare and bloat the tax bill; or both; or neither. Basic economic logic suggests that even when a new arrival ''takes'' a job, the money he earns and spends will in turn create a job or so. The more the merrier is a tenet of capitalism dating back to Adam Smith.

The emerging case for curtailing immigration has many byways. There's the argument that we need ''time to digest'' the immigrant wave of the past couple of decades, just as previous waves were followed by periods of low immigration. There's the argument that today's ethnic assertiveness and social welfare apparatus mean that the machinery of assimilation no longer works to turn immigrants into middle-class Americans. There's the undeniable fact that instant communication and cheap transportation have eroded the natural restraints of distance and ignorance on the demand for places in America.

There are counterarguments to all these points. And counter-counterarguments. No one can know the effect of future large-scale immigration on our country. It has always been beneficial in the past, but that's no guarantee it will be so in the future.

Immigration is a subject on which very few opinions are changed because of arguments or statistics. Your views on immigration depend on your sense of what makes America America. For some it's endless open spaces. For some it's a demographic image frozen in time. For some that stuff on the Statue of Liberty still plucks a chord. All these visions of America have a large component of fantasy. But I know which fantasy I prefer.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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