NEW YORK — New York. -- It is a strange turn of events for white America, which for all its long-time, deep-rooted hostility toward its own black population has always appeared -- in European eyes at least -- amazingly tolerant of immigrants, whatever their origin, color or hue.
The last few years have seen the first jump in immigrants as a percentage of population in nearly 100 years, but the number of newcomers is still modest by historical standards. A constant influx of new young immigrants stoked the boilers of America's economic engines. As recently as 1986 Gov. Pete Wilson was promoting legislation that allowed one million undocumented workers into California, a policy shift sought then by the state's agricultural business interests.
Now Governor Wilson pledges to restrict health and education benefits for illegal immigrants. This was the ploy, enshrined in the passage of Proposition 187 last month, that he used to restore his own diminished political fortunes in California.
Such electoral flim-flam is well-known to European audiences who, at various times, have had to deal with one anti-immigrant demagogue after another, paying many ugly prices along the way.
Immigration restrictions probably do the opposite of what their proponents intend. Instead of reducing racial and ethnic tensions, they exacerbate them. With closed frontiers and no threat from newcomers, yesterday's immigrants settle down and adapt to the secure and self- satisfied ways of the host country. Increasingly, they shun lower-paying jobs and unsocial hours. They no longer are prepared to uproot and move when the factory closes down. They join unions and become more adept at manipulating the welfare state. That is their right as hard-working taxpayers. But the pattern does provoke resentment.
The vigor and eagerness of the new immigrants, though not always a comforting challenge, appears less likely to cause prejudice and resentment than the lifestyle of the more ''mature immigrants.''
Moreover, modern-day industrial societies cannot live for long without a surge of new workers, whether refugees or economic immigrants. Industrial societies fall prey to hardening of the arteries. The longer they exist the more uncomfortably set in their ways they become. Unless societies are constantly fueled by new arrivals they tend to lose their vibrant edge.
Immigrant workers, by definition, are ambitious. The drive to uproot and cross oceans to settle in a strange land usually will propel them to work long hours, save their money and try their hands at small-scale entrepreneurial activities. Ugandan Asians run the 7-day-a-week corner shops in Britain; South Koreans keep the grocery stores open all night in New York.
Sealing the border and persecuting the illegals amounts to economic self-strangulation. President Reagan in 1981 called for ''open borders'' and his Council of Economic Advisers showed convincingly that migrants do not displace native workers. A new report published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group, challenges the popular view that immigrants increase unemployment and abuse the welfare system.
This tradition needs to be kept alive -- for the good of the Republicans (who lost most of the European immigrant vote at the turn of the century for similar anti-immigrant posturing) and for the good of America. No society can prosper and survive if it is afraid of its future. The last thing America should do is to shut out the new proletariat.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.