Hopkins professor proposes way to turn immigration tide

October 10, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Ivory tower university professors don't often find themselves riding in the curl of a swelling social and political wave, as Alejandro Portes is today.

The issue is immigration, a topic of turbulent discussion in this election year. It provokes questions to which he has answers: Why do people leave the lands of their birth? What pulls them here? How does this affect the way Americans live?

Dr. Portes is John Dewey Professor of Sociology and chairman of that department at the Johns Hopkins University. For several years now he has been telling Americans that the end of the 20th century will be like the beginning, a period of heavy immigration.

But the '90s are also going to be different in that most of those coming in these days are illegals and their numbers greater.

(Eighteen million foreign born people were in the United States in 1990 compared with 14 million in 1930.)

He also doubts they will revitalize the U.S. economy the way their predecessors did.

Alejandro Portes is an immigrant himself. He came here 34 years ago from Cuba. At 50 he has youthful slimness, an elusive smile, and still speaks in the accents of Havana, where he was born. He was naturalized in May 1968.

He described himself as "a political emigre," arriving in 1960. He was an anti-Castro activist before becoming a full-time academic.

His most recent book, "City on the Edge" (written with Alex Stepick, a sociologist at the Florida International University) describes the transformation of Miami by the influx of Cuban refugees over the years. It is published by the University of California Press.

His pessimism has nothing to do with the kind of people arriving now -- mostly Latin and Caribbean, as opposed to the earlier wave of Europeans -- but with the configuration of the economy they are entering.

Tomorrow and Wednesday Dr. Portes will give three talks at the University of Maryland College Park related to the highly politicized topic of immigration. These are the prestigious LeFrak Lectures, endowed 10 years ago by millionaire real estate developer Sam LeFrak. Their purpose is to illuminate problems that affect American urban life.

"In the past, the effects of immigration have been positive to the nation," said Dr. Portes. "It has energized the country economically." Today, however, illegal immigration "is at a phase that is triggering a backlash. The flow of illegals [possibly a million a year] is really uncontrollable."

There have been backlashes before. Reaction to the inflow of foreigners from Europe inspired the anti-immigrant laws of the 1920s, and virtually sealed the doors to most subsequent NTC would-be new Americans.

They were not opened again until the 1960s, and today there is evidence a similar reaction is setting in. The governors of two states with high immigrant populations -- California and Florida -- are suing the federal government for expenses they believe immigrants impose upon those states. Public attitudes, polls show, are turning against immigrants.

The arguments for and against generous immigration laws are known. One is that immigrants take jobs from American workers. The counter is they take the jobs Americans don't want.

Dr. Portes believes both these assertions are true. "By willingly .. accepting jobs at minimum pay, immigrants often drive away native workers not willing to work at these wages, or do them as enthusiastically," he said. "For employers it is a bonanza."

"This kind of competition creates a downward spiral for native workers," he said. "It happened in Miami, New York, Los Angeles."

Native-born workers are criticized as lazy for not accepting such jobs, he said. But they are imbued with attitudes that encourage them to believe Americans should not have to accept such lowly employment. Also, they often have alternatives, such as welfare.

This is the way it has always been in America for immigrants: they worked hard, endured the resentment of native-born workers, and advanced. Or at least their children did. But today that hard road upward is no longer available to immigrant families.

To illustrate the change, Dr. Portes suggests two metaphors: the pyramid and the hourglass. During the days of the pyramid the top was occupied by professionals, doctors, lawyers, white collar managers, executives. The middle levels were held by the skilled workers of the industrial sector. At the bottom were the low-paid: the unskilled.

"Today the middle is missing," he said. The de-industrialization of the American economy and the emergence of a service economy has brought into being the hourglass. At the top are all the high paying jobs still, but there is not much at the middle.

"At the bottom is this immense underclass," said Dr. Portes. "There is a passage between the two, but it is narrow and very few of the underclass can pass through. Unable to gain a foothold and climb, the children of immigrants remain at the bottom level."

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