The McGill Report   7/27/02

What is Immigration For?
By Douglas McGill

When a person goes to college, gets married, or makes a large financial investment, some prior discussion aimed at defining the purposes of the venture is obviously a good idea.

Why not with immigration?

Yet this is not our national practice. Look at Rochester, Minnesota, for example. I set out to discover why the community of Rochester – the town of 81,000 where I live -- has changed its ethnic color from all-white to multi-hued in recent years. What policy, or national or local purpose, drove the waves of immigration behind the color-change in my town?

The change has been startling. In the years I grew up here in the 1960’s and 70’s, my friends ran the gamut from Johnson, Enquist, and Olsen to Plunkett, Skinner, Judge, Vanderheyden, Uhlenhopp, and Pine. In other words, it was not a wide gamut at all. We were Scandinavian Protestants or German Catholics; we ate hamburgers and hot dogs; we went to summer camps; we were Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; we put up Christmas trees.  

Today, one out of ten people in Rochester is an immigrant. They’ve come here from every continent in the world except Western Europe. These people are every color but white and they celebrate holidays like Eid and Dewali and Cinco de Mayo, and they wouldn’t know Oktoberfest, or the concept of Lutheran gloom, from a hole in the ground.

Illegal Immigrants

Somalis, Cambodians, Mexicans, Serbs, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Chinese  are Rochester’s major immigrant groups and they’ve left an indelible mark on life here. In some schools as many as half of the children speak English as a second language, and Rochester now has food shops, gift shops, restaurants, soccer teams, language classes, churches, temples, and law and medical offices that offer specialized products and services to ethnic groups. 

Some of our 8,000 immigrants came as humanitarian refugees (e.g., Bosnians, Somalis); some came as political asylees (e.g., Hmong, Laotians, Vietnamese); some came under work-related visas (e.g., Europeans, Iranians, Indians); and others came under the so-called “diversity” provisions of the INS, which awards a quota of visas by lottery each year to nationals of Eastern European, former Soviet, and other countries.

Finally, many of our newest 1,500 Mexican neighbors are here illegally – that is without a visa or “green card” allowing them U.S. residency. Yet they are allowed to stay because our national policy, in practice, is to enforce deportation only rarely so as to give our businesses access to cheap labor.

Rochester has been stable and prosperous enough to accommodate this influx so that new human energy, outlooks, and skills have been beneficially extracted to the benefit of all. Local business such as the Mayo Clinic and IBM have kept the local economy growing steadily for many years. At the same time, two traditional sources of labor for low-wage jobs – part-time farmers and women – have been steadily shrinking. New immigrants are taking those jobs and thus have enabled Rochester’s economic growth to continue.

La Reconquista

Many other U.S. communities, however, and indeed the U.S. as a whole, haven’t been so lucky. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 leads to the conclusion that mass immigration policy has left us vulnerable. What’s more, there is evidence that a shift in the popular notion of immigration – from the old ideal of assimilation to the newer one of multicultural mosaic – has had a harmful effect. In many communities, rates of income, home ownership, and citizenship have all declined
among immigrants since 1970, reversing more than 100 years of the opposite trend, studies by the Rand Corporation and other groups have found. More immigrants than ever before never learn English, and retain their old cultural identities. Assimilation is faltering.

In California, where in many places people live and die speaking only Spanish, demographic trends are on track to make as much as half the population Latino within 20 to 30 years. Already, Hispanic identity groups are rallying around the notions of “La Reconquista” and of Aztlan, a sovereign state merging Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Can a divisive and draining Quebec-style secessionist movement be far behind?

What’s missing from this picture is an articulated purpose for our national immigration policy. Currently the INS hands out visas on a case-by-case basis in response to the demands of three groups: people living outside the U.S. who want to live here; people living inside the U.S. who want to bring their family members to join them; and of U.S. businesses who want to attract cheap labor. These are the forces that drive our national immigration policy. There is not a mention of U.S. national interest there.


In the absence of articulated national interest, chaos reigns. Our national immigration policy is a cluster of policies, each with its separate rationale and its own gaping loopholes open to abuse and fraud. The most egregiously obvious example is the difference between U.S. policy, and U.S. practice, towards illegal immigrants. We let in more than a quarter million illegal immigrants a year and deport only a tiny fraction of them. Why? Because our economy, especially in the Southwest, is dependent on cheap labor.

Another example is the “family reunification” provisions, which account for two-thirds of legal immigration into the U.S. As many as four million people around the world are already approved to immigrate under these provisions, but will have to wait up to 40 years for their number to be called. The theory is that stable families provide a base from which all of its members can assimilate more easily into U.S. society. Yet in practice the system is abused, with distant cousins and other relatives coming in as brothers and sisters. As a result, rather than providing a base for assimilation into America, large extended families formed in this way provide an insular culture-within-a-culture, in which the original foreign language can be spoken at all times and no assimilation is ever accomplished.  

Of course, there are important humanitarian reasons to make family reunification a priority in immigration. Separation from family members is a painful and debilitating emotional experience. Yet there are far more family reunification visas granted each year than refugee visas, and surely the humanitarian case is stronger for refugees, who risk not discomfort but death due to war or drought or famine.

Linkages of Value

The point is that every immigration category – humanitarian, refugee, employment-based, and lottery visas – are shot through with similar contradications and inconsistencies. The root cause is that U.S. immigration laws have proliferated and been amended so many times over the past decades that U.S. immigration policy is just a messy hodge-podge entirely unsupported by a rationale based on our national interest.   

How might such a rationale be worded? Should we say that the purpose of immigration is to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people? Should we define it narrowly, to say its purpose is to improve our economy? Or broaden it, to include the improvement of our national quality of life?

Is humanitarian immigration important to maintain our self-image, and our reputation in the world, as a caring and humane people? Then we should say so. Maybe we should consider how immigrants bring into the U.S. certain types of global linkages that translate into real value. For example, such linkages make our country both more prosperous, by virtue of widened access to global markets, and more secure, by virtue of our relationship with immigrants deepening our friendship and our tolerance of other peoples.

Shared Skills

Maybe we should go whole hog.

Maybe we should say the purpose of immigration is to make Americans.

Maybe we should say that the purpose of U.S. immigration policy should be to shape and mold people who come to this country into citizens who possess a common base of cultural and language skills; that is, a set of skills that will allow them, working collaboratively as citizens, to interact more productively and more humanely with each other, so as to further the way of life and values we hold dear – freedom, pluralism, democracy, capitalism, and equality of dignity and of human rights.

It’s just a suggestion. Whatever we decide, at least at that point we will have chosen what kind of a people we want to be and how -- at least insofar as immigration policy is concerned -- we are going to get there.    

Copyright @ 2002 The McGill Report