Time to regulate immigration, scholar says


August 31, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

The greatest wave of immigration since the early 1900s has washed over the United States in the past decade, literally changing the face of the nation.

Even Maryland, despite being a bit off the well-worn paths of immigrants, has been altered. Nearly 150,000 immigrants, mainly Asians and Hispanics, came to live here in the 1980s, and the number of residents who don't speak English very well more than quintupled.

Alejandro Portes, 49, chairman of the Johns Hopkins University sociology department, has both studied immigration and lived it. A native of Havana, Cuba, Dr. Portes came to the U.S. in the 1960s and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1968. Since then, Dr. Portes has written extensively on immigration. He is co-author of several books, including "City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami," to be published this fall by University of California Press.

QUESTION: What has caused the recent wave of immigration?

ANSWER: Immigration is caused by both push and pull factors. The push is the enormous differences in living standards among countries and the increasing awareness in the poorer countries of conditions in the richer countries. TV and mass media make that awareness global.

The pull has two parts. The 1965 and 1990 U.S. immigration acts were very generous. They opened the door fairly wide. The second part is the interest of many employers for whom immigrants have become workers of choice.

Q: Are immigrants treated differently now than they were at the turn of the century?

A: Back then, most immigrants received the same treatment. They were not particularly helped by the government. They were subject to discrimination. They found the lowest jobs and gradually climbed up.

Now the treatment varies. Southeast Asian refugees are entitled to a vast panoply of government benefits. We Cubans who arrived in the 1960s were greatly helped. Other groups are not so lucky. Mexicans are subject to much discrimination, even if they are legal. Haitians, the group in worst shape, face a government that is actively hostile to their arrival and widespread discrimination because they are black.

Q: Polls show that most Americans feel that immigrants take jobs away from native-born workers and threaten U.S. culture. Are they right?

A: On jobs, the jury is still out. It is not a zero-sum game. Many jobs that immigrants take are lowly paid, menial jobs that it is doubtful Americans would accept.

By having immigrants do certain jobs, other supervisory and white-collar jobs are created for Americans.

There is no evidence whatever that cities where immigrants have concentrated, like Los Angeles and Miami, experience higher rates of unemployment. But it is clear that the arrival of massive immigration creates a whole new ballgame in the labor market. While many Americans may benefit, others may lose.

Immigrants' effect on American culture is probably highly exaggerated. Even the kids of Latins in the middle of Miami who go to private, bilingual schools prefer English and speak it among themselves.

Q: Without a large pool of immigrant labor, would U.S. employers be compelled to train underprivileged native-born workers?

A: In some cases, that is true. In others, American employers would simply move away or close up shop.

Industrial employers in electronics and textiles in places like Los Angeles are there because of immigrant labor. But in New York restaurants or Washington construction sites, there probably is displacement of native-born workers.

Q: European immigrants came here when good blue-collar jobs were available. Where do today's immigrants fit in an information-based economy?

A: Mostly at the bottom, some at the top. The American economy that earlier immigrants entered resembled a pyramid. Now we have an "hourglass economy" where the center made up of unionized, blue-collar workers is thinning rapidly.

Q: You recently studied the children of immigrants in Miami and San Diego. What did you find?

A: We found that some immigrant groups, even if they are nonwhites like Indians, Chinese or Koreans, do very well because their parents are professionals or have created business enclaves. Universities are full of their offspring.

But the children of manual workers, mainly Mexicans, Haitians and Central Americans, appear very much at risk.

If the children of these immigrants don't find ways of climbing in ++ this new type of economy, the country might well in the 21st century face a rainbow underclass of many nationalities and much bigger than the problem we have today.

Q: How does the experience of recent black immigrants differ from that of other groups?

A: Haitians in Miami face the possibility of downward assimilation. Their parents have the dreams of all immigrants, of succeeding through education and hard work. But their kids go to inner-city schools. You see the Haitian kids arrive in school well-dressed and obedient to their teachers, and then they are ridiculed by their peers and even beaten.

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