Immigration hypocrisy: the golden door myth

THE ARGUMENT

March 26, 1995|By Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg,Special to The Sun

Since the advent of the thirteen colonies, Americans have debated who belongs here, who should remain, who should enter and who should be left out. Americans practice a politics of exclusion while expiating comfortable myths about our warm-hearted inclusiveness.

Like all myths, the ones that define our political culture foresee a future based on an unlikely past: an America where opportunities matched expectations, where everyone believed they belonged, where clean cities complemented bucolic pastures where, like the musical "Oklahoma," everything's going my way."

No way. The United States was never like that, and probably never will be. Our society is built on tension and dissent, on iconoclasm and indeterminacy, on uncertain experiments, frequent success, occasional tragedy and an almost congenital optimism.

Immigrants have been crucial to this mix, and our immigration policies have played critical roles in creating our economy and society. When other nations and economies fail we often gain -- and often their people come here. At the same time, we often try to limit access to "the land of opportunity" -- to close the doors after we have arrived. When things get tough -- when the economy feels weak, jobs seem scarce, social conflict increases -- we redraft our immigration laws. This spring, the new Republican congress will hold hearings on the bill to control illegal immigration, and more revisions to current legislation are pending.

Because immigration is always a policy problem, the 1994 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, sought a "more credible immigration policy that deters unlawful immigration while supporting our national interest in legal immigration." Despite its admirable concern for civil rights, its recommendations still highlight ways to keep people out -- border patrols, employer verification systems, computerized data. A study by the Washington-based Urban Institute of the costs to government of undocumented aliens shares some of these conclusions. But in an age defined by global trade and investment, migrant labor and interdependent economies, what we really need is a new discussion of our national interest" in immigration.

Peter Brimelow's acerbic commentary on America's contradictory myths about immigration -- "Alien Nation: Common Sense about America's Immigration Disaster" (Random House. 352 pages. Random House) -- does exactly the opposite. Instead, Brimelow defies all wisdom -- conventional and otherwise -- to argue that the U.S. is being "engulfed" by a wave of immigration that can only produce disaster. According to Brimelow, the United States treats immigration as an "imitation civil right" that contravenes our national interest. We let people in when we should keep them out.

His point of view deserves lucid argument -- all the more because the distinctions between liberals and conservatives are misleading in contemporary debates. Free marketeers often advocate open borders, but some conservatives (including Brimelow) adamantly oppose open entry; liberals may support the pluralism that open immigration creates, but equally often accept immigration quotas.

For Brimelow, immigration is a smokescreen that hides America's real problem. The decline of social harmony -- read: homogeneity -- is the true enemy, and immigration policy seems xTC the quickest corrective. He does not build from hypothesis or observation to conclusion. (Readers can find this task commendably undertaken by several conservative commentators in Nicolaus Mills' 1994 collection, "Arguing Immigration: The Debate over the Changing Face of America." Touchstone Books. 224 pages. $12). Rather, Brimelow's conclusions bridge his many prejudices. Hyperbolically, he calls our current immigration policy Adolf Hitler's posthumous revenge America."

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