Let's vote on a U.S. immigration policy


THE CLINTON administration's determination to keep fleeing Cubans out of the United States by holding them in Guantanamo Bay camps collapsed last week, and the only surprise was that it lasted so long. Months, even.

The 21,000 refugees, most of whom left Cuba in 1994, will be allowed in, but no more. After this, the United States will be really really tough, said really really tough Attorney General Janet Reno.

"Cubans must know that the only way of coming to the United States is applying in Cuba," Janet Reno said.

Sure. What do you think is going to happen the first time U.S. officials actually try to dump Cuban boat people on a dock in Havana, and the network news crews go photograph their distraught relatives in Miami?

Ms. Reno also said it wasn't really an increase in the number of immigrants, because the quota for Cuba was raised last year. So whose quota was reduced?

No one can blame the Cubans who already live in America from wanting to help their friends and relations escape from a hellhole cast back into the preindustrial age by the delicate ministrations of Fidel Castro.

No one should expect, either, that an American government would be able to resist their demands. Cuban-Americans are a political power in Florida, and the Democrats are going to need every state they can get in 1996 to keep Bill Clinton from looking as irrelevant as Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale.

The episode neatly illustrates, however, the thesis of Peter Brimelow's new book, "Alien Nation," that American immigration policy is derived far more from politics than from principle.

And furthermore, he told an audience in San Francisco recently, the policy has become a disaster since the 1965 law that made family reunification the principal criterion for deciding who could legally come to America.

Mr. Brimelow's book grew out of a long article he wrote for the magazine National Review in 1992. It generated a fierce debate that reverberated through the magazine's pages for months afterward, partly because at the time questioning the rightness and justice of immigration on a scale unprecedented in American history was simply not done.

Mr. Brimelow, an immigrant himself (from England by way of Canada) observed that his book makes him a living example of the popular saying that immigrants only do the unpleasant jobs Americans won't touch. In particular, he doesn't let himself be scared away from I tend to be sentimental about immigration, too, inclining to the view that everybody ought to be able to move anywhere he wants to. But it's not practical.

the subject by accusations that any disapproval of large-scale immigration is motivated by racism.

In modern American politics, he says, "a racist is anyone who is winning an argument with a liberal," and if he's winning decisively it's hate speech.

While he was working on the book, though, the debate over California's Proposition 187 showed that the subject, although it still could turn nasty, was no longer taboo. In fact, everybody was talking about it. And the talk showed that current immigration policy is highly unpopular overall, and even moderately unpopular with the most recently arrived Americans. how did it happen?

Mr. Brimelow goes back to the debate over passage of the 1965 law to show that like so many other social innovations of the decade, it was sold to the public under false pretenses.

"Our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually," said the bill's floor manager, Massachusett's Sen. Ted Kennedy. "Secondly, the ethnic mix of the country will not be upset . . . Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area."

Mr. Kennedy was, as usual, wrong on all counts. So was another Kennedy, the former Attorney General Robert, who testified that under the proposed law future Asian immigration would be about 5,000 the first year, and would "virtually disappear" after that. Actually, from 1968 until 1993, the total of Asian immigration was 5.6 million.

One can be sentimental about Asian immigration, as Mr. Brimelow says he is, and still recognize that an error of three orders of magnitude is reasonable grounds for reconsidering one's position.

I tend to be sentimental about immigration, too, inclining to the view that everybody ought to be able to move anywhere he wants to. But it's not practical. If there had been no net immigration after 1970, and other demographic trends had stayed the same, the population of the United States would have leveled off at around 244 million in 2050, somewhat less than it is now.

If immigration continues in its current pattern, however, the estimated U.S. population by 2050 will be 383 million. What will that do to the environment, especially if 100 million of them are living in California?

Immigration is not a basic human right -- although emigration is, provided you can find someplace that will take you. If that seems oddly asymmetrical, think about jobs. No one can force you to keep working if you want to quit. But once you do quit, you can't simply walk in the door of the next place you want to work and demand they hire you.

The American tradition, Mr. Brimelow says, is not constant immigration, but waves of high immigration followed by long periods of practically none, times when the country assimilates its new citizens and turns them into Americans.

That process is powerful, and perhaps it could still work even at the currently high levels of immigration, if there were the will to try. But the institutions of American life don't do that any more. Starting with the schools, they encourage new arrivals to resist Americanization and even discourage children from learning English well enough to succeed in their new country.

How much immigration is desirable? Good question. This is a democracy; let's put it to a vote.

Linda Seebach is the editorial page editor of the Valley Times (Pleasanton) and San Ramon Valley Times (Danville) in California.

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