Increased immigration is humanitarian and healthy Controversy: Neither side of the debate clarifies the issue, and the truth favors open borders.

The Argument

November 10, 1996|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As the United States evolves into the Disunited States, publishers offer dozens of books about one of the alleged underlying causes - immigration. Few of the books are subtle, even though immigration is an issue imbued with subtleties. Instead, like the politicians capitalizing on the national debate about immigration, the books' authors almost all see the issue as an either/or proposition.

Representing the "either" side are authors advocating restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed into the United States, combined with deportation of immigrants already in this country illegally. On the "or" side are authors who favor nearly unrestricted immigration as the humanitarian course in a nation that owes its richness to its melting pot tradition.

The rare citizen who examined those dozens of books about immigration would uncover a telling correlation: Authors whose books focus on individual immigrants tend to support open borders; authors whose books focus on statistics to the almost total exclusion of individual cases usually support restricted borders.

Those authors who focus on individuals are in the minority, but they are also correct. Restricting immigration beyond current limits will cause more problems than it will solve; easing restrictions is not only the humanitarian course, but also healthier for the nation.

The restrictionists say immigrants grab jobs that could be filled by currently unemployed citizens. They ignore an equally large problem: the jobs (look at the help wanted section of any newspaper) going begging, causing employers to hire illegal immigrants or even close local plants.

The restrictionists say schools cannot handle more immigrants. They ignore the richness immigrants bring to the schools, at relatively little extra cost compared, for example, to paying contractors for shoddily repaved roads.

The restrictionists say immigrants are causing causing overpopulation that degrades the environment. Yet, simultaneously, many of those same restrictionists criticize so-called liberals for spreading environmental alarmism.

The restrictionists say heavier immigration will mean increased racial and ethnic tension. They gloss over the truth - that most of the tension is not initiated by the immigrants, but by the racists, white and black, among the long-time citizenry. Most immigrants want to go along to get along, but xenophobic whites and blacks refuse to give them a chance.

Two new books symbolize the difference. Dale Maharidge's "The Coming White Minority: California and America's Immigration Debate" (Times Books/Random House, 331 pages, $25) focuses four individuals - a first-generation Mexican-American woman who represents Los Angeles in the state legislature; a black male deputy sheriff in Sacramento; a Chinese/Vietnamese-American woman student at the University of California-Berkeley; and a Caucasian male businessman on the city council in Dana Point, a wealthy Orange County town.

Maharidge, a newspaper reporter now teaching journalism at Stanford University, discusses immigration in the context of those four California lives. His underlying theme is that the U.S. borders should be open to immigrants who want to better their lot in life.

Sure, their arrival complicates policymaking. But what policymaker is godlike enough to decide who should be turned away, who allowed in?Besides, most persons with the initiative to immigrate are going to use that initiative to make themselves cultural and economic assets in the areas where they settle.

Roy Beck's book, "The Case Against Immigration: The Moral, Economic, Social, and Environmental Reasons for Reducing U.S. Immigration Back to Traditional Levels" (Norton, 287 pages, $24), differs dramatically from Maharidge's in style and substance.

It examines no lives in depth. It is a book of prodigious macro research, filled with abstractions and statistics. When Beck introduces individuals, they are talking heads offering brief opinions that might - or might not - be well-informed. Hard to tell. Impressive job titles and pithy judgments might not equal depth of understanding or compassion.

Beck, a reporter for general-circulation and religious publications, is not cold-blooded. Knowing he might be perceived as callous about foreigners trying to escape poverty and persecution, Beck says:

Nostalgic tradition

"Immigration is such an emotionally charged issue that it is difficult to tackle it publicly without subjecting oneself to speculation about motives. There are plenty of ugly motives to be found among people on all sides. At the extremes, there are racists whose prime aim of restricting immigration is to keep out foreigners because they are not white, and there are racists who support high immigration because it provides them with a way to keep from having to hire native-born black Americans."

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