Immigration and America’s Unchosen Future

Those who stay and struggle to change things for the better — the Lech Walesas of the world — are the real heroes.

— John Tanton

It is possible that things will not get better than they are now, or have been known to be. It is possible we are past the middle now . . . Now we are being given tickets, and they are not tickets to the show we had been thinking of, but to a different show, clearly inferior.

— Robyn Sarah, “Riveted”

And gentlemen in England, now a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.

— William Shakespeare, Henry V

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Immigration and America’s Unchosen Future

America Headed in the Wrong Direction

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The first decade of the twenty-first century brought the United States a mix of conflicting and mostly unsettling indicators of where the nation was headed, and public opinion polls registered a steady increase in pessimism. Presidential candidates in 2008 encountered a public telling pollsters that 81 percent of them “say the nation is headed on the wrong track,” reported The New York Times in April, 2008, the highest level of dissatisfaction with the country’s direction since polls asked this question in the early 1990s. Public loss of confidence had plenty of sources—a stalled economy further weakened in the autumn, 2008, by a collapse of financial institutions, a widening gap between lower/middle and elite classes, a mounting public debt, surging petroleum prices with predictions of an historic peaking of global production as demand insatiably grew, predictions of disruptive climate warming atop pre-existing environmental troubles from agriculture to oceans, repeated evidence of governmental incompetence including a misguided and costly war in Iraq as the main response to the terrorist threat.

Was another major cause of public worry the four decades of ever-larger runaway immigration invited by the 1965 Act, one-third of that influx now illegal? This took time to work its way up the “it’s broken” list. Mainly negative public responses to polls about large-scale immigration, especially the illegal sort, persisted on the edges of public discourse through the last three decades of the twentieth century.

Yet the issue was politically contained, making no appearance in the presidential elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, or 2004. Then, late in 2007 as the 2008 presidential campaigns geared up, there it was in the large— immigration as one of the top five issues agitating the public and discomfiting the presidential candidates.

How did it get there? The expansionist 1965 Act and subsequent liberalizations rode on the wings of a myth about our national immigration experience—that, however large and however composed, immigration had brought and always would bring only good things, Einsteins and Gershwins and boatloads of nation-building workers and settlers, taking English and civics classes at night. That myth about the costless impacts of  immigration eras far back in the national story joined with a new multiculturalist ideology to stifle public criticism when it began to mount in and after the 1980s. Criticism escalated because the myths were no guide to modern America as it absorbed post- 1965 mass immigration. The sustained arrival of foreigners, invited and uninvited, brought rising costs felt acutely in the middle and working class layers of American life—labor market competition, fiscal costs to local and state governments. While elites happily employed cheap immigrant labor in suburban homes and watering holes, in agribusiness and meat factories, most Americans over four decades of mass immigration experienced escalating costs in their neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and other social infrastructure. These costs were felt first in the four southwestern border states, but by the end of the twentieth century had expanded across the south and midwest, deep into New England and the pacific northwest. Daily life in neighborhoods and communities was the incubator of social resentment.

Otis L. Graham, Jr

Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including “Debating American Immigration, 1882-Present” (with Roger Daniels) and “Environment Politics and Policy, 1960s to 1990s”. He lives in Santa Barbara, CA.

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