Immigration and the Reshaping of America


The 1990s will be the decade of immigration. The immigrant flow during the final years of the century is likely to surpass the peaks reached during its first decade (1901-10) when annual entries reached a million or more.

Already in 1990, the foreign-born population stood at approximately 18 million, exceeding the previous high mark of 14 million reached in 1930. This record number will be amply surpassed in the coming decade thanks to two remarkable pieces of legislation: the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Immigration Act of 1990.

The 1986 law was supposed to bring illegal immigration under control. Instead, it created two immense new forces encouraging additional migration. First, the approximately 3 million former unauthorized immigrants legalized under the law have spouses, children and other relatives who sooner or later will become eligible for entry. Hence, the legalization program not only produced a large increase in the foreign population entitled to U.S. residence but also created an instant basis for millions more to claim this entitlement in the future.

Second, the enforcement provisions of the 1986 act, through which new illegal immigration was supposed to be prevented, contained a giant loophole that has allowed the flow to continue. In theory, the idea was to discourage new arrivals by fining employers of illegal workers. In practice, employers are only required to sign a form attesting that they have seen some document presented by the worker, but do not have to check its validity. Predictably, a giant underground industry of well-manufactured "papers" has emerged, allowing employers to fulfill the letter of the law and unauthorized workers to continue finding jobs with relative ease.

Further, the experience of the legalization program has given impetus to the clandestine inflow by indicating to prospective immigrants that they too could some day gain legal U.S. residence and by providing them with new sources of social support from recently legalized kin and friends.

These tendencies are further reinforced by the remarkably generous provisions of the 1990 Immigration Act. Under its new "fairness" doctrine, spouses and children of immigrants legalized by the 1986 act are granted reprieve from deportation, a measure immediately benefiting hundreds of thousands.

At the request of human-rights groups and the government of El Salvador, an estimated half-million Salvadorans have also been granted "safe haven" despite their illegal status. The law further provides 55,000 special visas for 3 years to facilitate family reunification and 55,000 "diversity" visas to encourage new arrivals from countries sending few immigrants in recent years. In practice, most of these "diversity" visas will be used to legalize the tens of thousands illegal Irish immigrants already living in Boston and nearby eastern cities.

If to the millions of Mexicans, Central Americans and others legalized under the 1986 act, one adds their immediate relatives, the Salvadorans and the Irish, the recent laws will entitle some 5 million new persons to legal residence in the United States.

This is not all, because the 1990 act increases the ceiling of legal immigration to 700,000 a year during 1992-94 and 675,000 thereafter and makes this "cap" easily pierceable by arrivals of immediate kin of U.S. citizens. Despite the new "diversity" visas, other provisions of the law insure that Mexico, the Caribbean and Asia will remain dominant as sources of immigration and that the inflow from each of them will accelerate.

The social and economic impact of this movement will be large. Cities like Los Angeles, Houston and Miami will repeat the experiences of New York and Boston at the turn of the century, when half or more of the local population was foreign-born. Traditional cities of immigration like New York, Boston and Chicago will re-enact their own past. In cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia where the immigrant flow during the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by a few thousand entrepreneurial Koreans, other groups will make their appearance, adding rapidly to the local ethnic mix. Already communities of Salvadorans, South Americans and West Indians are visible in these cities.

The administration and the Congress both believe that the effect of this massive wave will be benign. In signing the 1990 act into law, President Bush declared that it would be "good for families, good for business, good for crime fighting and good for America."

There is a great deal of evidence in support of this position. Immigrants are usually highly motivated and ambitious and can endow the communities where they settle with new entrepreneurial energies. Talented foreign professionals replenish and enhance the nations' high-level manpower while others revitalize decayed urban areas through their business acumen. Even semi-skilled and unskilled immigrants make a contribution by their willingness to accept harsh, low-paid work and the motivation that they bring to such jobs. Further the presence of diverse immigrant flows makes cities more cosmopolitan and more exciting as places to live.

But these benefits do not come free. The presence of large foreign populations inevitably produces cultural strains and conflicts with the native-born. Domestic minorities, in particular, may suffer the greatest impact as immigrants elbow them aside in the low-wage labor market and dilute their political power.

These strains and tensions are already evident in Los Angeles, which has rapidly surged as the prime destination for today's immigrants, and in other cities with large foreign-born populations such as Miami and Houston. While advocates of immigration note that they are among the most economically vibrant of American cities, they are also among the most politically volatile.

As during the turn of the century, the United States has again embarked on a vast social experiment that few other industrialized nations would risk undertaking. Reopening the immigration doors wide is based on the expectation that the benefits obtained from the newcomers' presence will outweigh the cost. As during earlier waves, this expectation is likely to prove correct in the long-term, but there will be more than a few bumps along the way.

For the cities targeted by the new immigration, the coming years will prove most challenging as the inflow transforms their demographic profiles, dilutes established power relations and does away with familiar cultural patterns. More is on the way than a few ethnic restaurants.

Alejandro Portes is professor of sociology and international relations at the Johns Hopkins University.

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