'Give Us Your Poor' - Really? ; Panic over Immigration Is Nothing New in the US. but by Now We Ought to Know Better

Article excerpt

In the decade before World War I, more than a million immigrants arrived in the United States every year. They clustered in ethnically homogenous ghettos, continued to speak their native languages, retained strong ties to their homelands, and often were here only temporarily. (Almost two thirds of Italian immigrants, for example, eventually returned to Italy.) They typically worked manufacturing jobs at wages that most American natives considered unacceptably low. By the start of the war, some 15 percent of the US population was foreign-born.

In Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right, Michele Wucker, a fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, adds such historical perspective to the sound and fury of the current debate over immigration. That "Great Wave" of immigrants, she laments, has been "mythologized" in our collective memory: We imagine the beginning of the 20th century as a time when hopeful Europeans arrived on American shores and were readily welcomed and smoothly integrated into a booming young society.

But in reality, that era was much like our own. The US was in the throes of "massive demographic change," "economic transformation," and "geopolitical crisis," and the crush of immigrants - especially given its ethnic composition (Southern and Eastern, rather than Northern and Western, European) - prompted warnings of social dissolution, economic collapse, and rampant criminality. As Wucker notes, when it comes to alarm over the dire consequences of large- scale immigration, "today's Cassandras are strikingly similar to those who preceded them."

The proportion of immigrants in the US population is now higher than at any point since the end of the Great Wave. A significant number of these immigrants - more than 10 million, by most counts - are undocumented workers from Latin America and Asia. According to polls, Americans rank immigration as one of our most pressing problems. The clamor to "do something about it" has carried over into the White House, Congress, and statehouses nationwide.

Ineffective US policies

But the difficulty, Wucker convincingly argues, is not the immigrants themselves but the way we deal with them. The American immigration system has taken shape through a series of "short-term measures that may sound good to a frightened public but in fact are making things worse." The product is a "mishmash of contradictory and ineffective immigration policies that work against our best interests and that today threaten our social cohesion and our economic well-being. …