By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report   6.10.02

Immigration is good for America. It boosts the economy, it enriches our culture, it strengthens democracy, and it helps people who are in need.

Yet we need to limit immigration in order to protect our country against terrorist attack, and to reverse the continuing creation of a permanent underclass that may ultimately undermine the American dream.

We need to make it harder to get into this country, harder to stay here, and harder to become an American citizen.

I’ve been disappointing my liberal friends at lunches, dinners, and weekend barbecues recently with this argument. I’ve been surprising myself, too, because I believe immigration is the genius of our nation, and because I spend four hours every week teaching immigrants how to speak English and how to apply for U.S. citizenship. I consider inclusion and care for the weakest among us to be the noblest and most crucial pillars of public life.

Yet our immigration policy has gone too far. The civil rights-inspired Immigration and Nationality Amendment of 1965 threw open the doors to an unprecedented wave of immigration. There are 31 million foreign-born people living in the United States today, about 11 percent of the population. A similar number of “non-immigrant” foreigners also visit the U.S. each year for a period of days, weeks, or years as tourists, students, or workers.

"Just Visitors"

As this immigration wave progressed throughout the 1990s, debate over immigration grew more heated. An unlikely coalition of big business (which likes immigration because it supplies low-wage labor) and progressive groups argued for continued openness. Meanwhile, an equally odd matching of “restrictionists” -- labor unions, environmentalists, and cultural conservatives -- argued for closed borders.

Then came 9/11. The restrictionists, it turned out, were substantially right.

Even today, my liberal friends fail to see the connection between 9/11 and America’s immigration policy. “It’s not a matter of immigration, it’s a matter of security,” one said to me.

I think of these friends as disconnectionists, as in “failure to connect the dots.” The Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar is a disconnectionist. “We are not talking about immigration, we are talking about evil,” he said at a recent hearing on post-9/11 policy.

The disconnectionists say the terrorists weren’t immigrants. They were visitors on visas. Yet getting a visa to enter the U.S. is the first crucial step in the immigration process. Just because the two steps are administered by two different bureaucracies – the State Department for step one, and the INS for step two -- is no reason to see them as conceptually distinct.

Green Cards

Over the years, plenty of terrorists have been immigrants. Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Muslim cleric who helped to mastermind the first World Trade Center Bombing in 1993, emigrated from Egypt to New Jersey, where he received an employment-based green card in the “Minister of Religion” category.

Most important of all, though, is how the disconnectionists fail to see that immigration can become too much of a good thing -- like parents who adopt needy children far beyond their ability to educate and socialize and love them. At that point, compassion becomes its opposite.

We’re at that point as a society now, and it’s clearer than ever that this was true even before 9/11. Throughout the 1990s, study after study began to show that the realities of immigrant life in America weren’t matching up to the rosy pro-immigration picture.  

In contrast to earlier waves of immigrants who, despite many difficulties, stayed upwardly mobile, immigrants in the post-1965 period have largely remained economically disadvantaged. They have been less skilled than their pre-1965 counterparts; they have earned less than their native counterparts throughout their lives; and they have been more likely than their native counterparts to receive welfare assistance. They are forming a permanent underclass in the United States.

Blend and Meld

The presence of these immigrants has its economic rewards. But the key question is, where and to whom are the rewards distributed? The answer is that manufacturers and consumers have benefited from open immigration because wages and prices stay low. But the overall tax burden has risen, and the stresses on institutions such as schools, hospitals, and the courts have been major social costs of the policy.

We’ve got to take a breather. Our present national immigration policy is a combination of two lethal attitudes: the disingenuous “free market will fix anything” arguments of big business, and the civil rights values of fairness and inclusion which were appropriate to 1965, but can’t be applied to society in the same way today.

We’ve got to make immigration tougher for a while, and limit the number of immigrants who enter the country. We should use the time we make for ourselves to blend and meld more. We should start a great national discussion with the goal of connecting the dots: who we are, and where we’re going.

Copyright @ 2002 The McGill Report