Immigration Nation: A Guide for the Perplexed

Immigration Nation: A Guide for the Perplexed

A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning
of America
by Aristide R. Zolberg

A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America
by Aristide R. Zolberg
Russell Sage and Harvard University Press, 2006, 658 pp., $39.95

In absolute terms, the number of immigrants residing in the United States—approximately thirty-five million—is at an all-time high. In relative terms, the density of the foreign-born population is approaching the peaks reached in the two previous waves of immigration, the 1830s to the 1850s and the 1880s to the 1920s. Moreover, the current wave, which began in the late 1960s, has spread far beyond the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, the three areas of the country in which most immigrants of earlier times had concentrated. Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado now have large immigrant populations. And in these states and, indeed, throughout the country, immigrants have distributed themselves to second-tier cities and even small towns to a far greater degree than ever before. For this reason, immigration, in demographic terms, is arguably more of a national phenomenon today than at any other point in U.S. history.

Current immigrants also constitute the most diverse group of foreign born ever to come to the United States, and they are the first to be majority nonwhite, with most coming from Latin America; the Caribbean; East and South Asia; and, to a lesser extent, Africa. Finally, it is the most “illegal” wave of immigration in the country’s history, in the sense that as many as eleven million immigrants, representing about 15 percent to 25 percent of the total immigrant population, have entered the United States without a valid passport, visa, or green card.

Immigration should cause us to reflect on some of the most basic questions we can ask about ourselves as a nation: Does immigration strengthen the United States by providing it with fresh streams of young workers eager to pursue and, in some cases, to revive the American dream of opportunity for the common man and woman? Or does it make life harder for all of America’s poor, native-born and foreign born alike, by keeping wages low and straining the welfare state? Do immigrants become ardent patriots with a keen sense of the freedoms that America can offer or do they dull the popular sense of liberty by not knowing or caring much about the country’s republican inheritance? And, finally, what cultural outcome do we desire as the end point of immigration: Assimilation into an America that remains recognizably white and European? Hybridization that yields a cultural mix that is genuinely new and multiracial and that draws on the cultures of all America’s groups? Or a pluralist society characterized by the maintenance of broad cultural differences among America’s peoples?

If you pose these questions to family members, fellow workers, local merchants, or...

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