“My opinion with respect to immigration is that, except of
useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions, there is no need of encouragement.”

—George Washington

In May 1991 rioting Central American immigrants looted and burned stores and destroyed police cars in Mount Pleasant, a declining, “multicultural” Washington neighborhood that overlooks the White House and Capitol Hill two miles away. Never before had the failures of anachronistic immigration policies been so blatantly displayed on the doorstep of the policymakers. A year-long inquiry into the riots by a D.C. special panel and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission not surprisingly fingered “police insensitivity” and the denial of “political voice” and “adequate services” to Latinos as root causes of the violence and cited the adverse effects of joblessness, crowded housing, and lack of social assistance on Central American immigrants.

The fact-finding commissions and D.C. city officials were nearly unanimous in ignoring immigration as a factor, except to score the Immigration and Naturalization Service for harassment of illegal aliens. Only city councilman Crawford (who is black) risked suggesting that the immigrants themselves might be causes as well as victims of joblessness and crowding and that they are in competition with local residents for jobs, space, and services. None of the city’s public officials were prepared to recognize the INS officers as guardians of urban peace protecting the community from an accumulation of just the sort of social tinder that flared at Mt. Pleasant. But Vernon Briggs, a labor economist at Cornell University, believes that urban tensions, a growing underclass, rising illiteracy, and chronic imbalances in the labor market are inevitable fruits of three decades of misguided immigration policies. these policies have, without much thought or debate in regard to the national interest, accepted mass immigration as a permanent transforming feature of our social landscape.

By Briggs’ definition, “mass immigration” implies more than just numbers. (The nation accepted its highest-ever annual influx in 1990 when 1.8 million immigrants received green cards, more even than during the peak years of Ellis Island.) For Briggs, immigration is also massive in its accumulated momentum and in its effects on American society and the American economy. Most troubling for the author is the fact that the current flood offers no prospect of a letup, such as the nation experienced between 1921 and 196S, giving the country an opportunity to acculturate the newcomers. Instead it persists and swells in disregard of economic trends and social stresses in the United States. With government statistics chronically understating the inflow, Briggs urges honesty in assessing the full magnitude of the immigration problem, which includes legal and illegal immigrants, refugees and asylees, unsuccessful asylum claimants who remain anyhow, and the proliferating category of long-staving temporary workers—all of whom account for 1.2 million new settlers per year. More than half of these entrants enter the labor market. Forty percent of the new job-seekers concentrate themselves in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami, all areas that have been plagued by major job deficits for the past two years or more.

Briggs, whose sensitivity in dealing with this loaded issue matches his courage in arguing it for nearly two decades, does not blame the immigrants, who are only responding rationally to opportunities stemming from America’s absence of mind. But their effect is no less pernicious. Huge numbers of unskilled and often illegal immigrants pour into labor markets awash in unemployment, into communities with low-cost housing shortages, onto the public assistance rolls of cities already deeply in the red, and into struggling urban public school systems already unable to produce literate graduates. And America’s political class will not even talk about it.

How did we inherit an immigration policy that in Dr. Briggs’ delicate phrase is so “unaccountable” for its consequences? Briggs traces the crisis to the 1965 reforms of the Immigration and Nationality Act. President Lyndon Johnson declared war on American poverty in 1964. Yet no irony was perceived the following year when LBJ and Congress agreed on sweeping new immigration legislation that would step up the importation of poverty. Washington ignored the connections between immigration, economics, and poverty, preferring to extend the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the spirit of the “Great Society” to the entire world. While the 1965 act is best remembered for its removal of national origin quotas, the measure also established family reunification as the dominant criterion for granting immigrant status. The fact of whom you are related to in the United States crowded out the question of what you might do for the country.

Already by 1965 the United States was well into a period of economic transition. The labor force was growing rapidly, and its composition was changing due to an influx of baby boomers, women, and minorities seeking jobs. Manufacturing was declining as a provider of high-wage, semiskilled jobs. Employment in services was spiraling, America’s public schools were lagging in providing the skills needed by postindustrial America. Industries were migrating to the Sun Belt, along with much of the population. The flight to tire South or to the suburbs left the inner neighborhoods of once-prosperous industrial cities crowded with poor and unskilled people chasing fewer and fewer jobs, while declining resources for social services and job training were stretched further still by rising numbers of needy immigrants.

What Briggs calls the “human capital” characteristics of the swelling immigrant flow have run completeK’ counter to the changing requirements of the job market. Immigration (partly illegal immigration) has become a major contributor to adult illiteracy in the United States. A majority of immigrants, like many inner-city Americans, lack the skills needed in a changing economy. I’hey must seek employment in declining sectors like goods-producing industries, services, and retail—such as eating and drinking establishments. These are the same sectors—and often the same urban labor markets—where less-skilled American minorities seek their jobs. The result, Briggs warns, is further racial polarization and the expansion of the underclass. Regarding the explosion in Los Angeles, he has since written, “Whether intended or not, the present immigration policy is a revived instrument of institutional racism. It provides a way to bypass the national imperative to address the employment, job preparation and housing needs of much of the urban black population.” Briggs speculates on what opportunities would exist for the country’s urban unemployed if immigrants had not collected in sensitive labor markets.

Social scientists such as George Borjas, Lars Jensen, and Barry Chiswick have documented the declining skills and adaptability of immigrants since the 1960’s: less education on arrival, lower earnings, higher rates of unemployment and welfare dependence, and poverty rates half again as high as the national average. These findings will come as a surprise to many Americans. Politicians glide over the realities of these trends with anecdotes about Vietnamese valedictorians, Chinese tennis champions, Russian emigre entrepreneurs, and Salvadorans with big savings accounts. In flight from the consequences of unselective immigration, politicians and commentators substitute nostrums and incantations for debate and inquiry. “Admissionists” suggest that immigrants do not use welfare (over 20 percent of California’s welfare clients are foreign born), pay more in taxes than they take out in services, provide needed skills while somehow taking only the jobs no one else wants, create jobs, and abstain from crime. A lot of immigrants do fit this mold. But a large and growing number do not and never will.

Sadly, in Vernon Briggs’ opinion, the 1990 immigration overhaul is just as blind to economic needs as the 1965 act was: immigration remains a political policy, not accountable for its economic effects; family reunification and refugee arrangements will produce higher numbers of immigrants than ever, and immigrants chosen for their skills will be fewer than 10 percent of the total; admission of long-staying temporary workers has become easier and more frequent, further discouraging the training and recruitment of American workers; the 1990 act offers little help in curbing illegal immigration, while opening the door to further settlement of the less skilled through virtually open-ended “temporary protected status.”

Briggs wonders how there can be looming shortages of less-skilled labor (an argument made in support of the 1990 reforms) in a nation with 36 million functionally illiterate residents. Spot shortages of skilled workers can be met by better training these Americans, by allowing market forces to operate. and by using in limited numbers and only as a last resort transitory foreign workers. Briggs’ alternative to immigration as a labor-market remedy is to “retrain the unskilled and relocate the skilled.” Meanwhile, the number of people entering the labor force will begin to increase again in the mid-1990’s: by 2005, almost three million will be added each year to a base level set in 1990. But apparently Washington’s faith in the self-adjusting powers of the financial market does not extend to its management of immigration and labor.

Now more than ever, our immigration system is more polities than economics, more ideology than policy. The unspoken justification underlying all national analysis or debate is nothing more complex than “We’ve always done it this way.” Policy choices are driven by special-interest pressure with rarely a nod toward any larger national interest or manipulated by the self-serving claims of church, ethnic, and civil rights lobbies who argue that the special interests are the national interest. Among the most effective players in this game are the wily lobbyists of the nation’s law industry, the American Bar Association, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Writing before the Los Angeles riots, Briggs warned that continuing the prevailing policy of unguided immigration can only worsen social tensions: “by providing competition and alternatives, the large and unplanned influx of immigrant labor will serve to maintain the social marginalization of many citizen blacks and citizen Hispanics. If so, the rare chance afforded by the employment trends of the 1990’s to reduce significantly the economically disadvantaged population and the underclass will be lost for another generation.”

Briggs’ conclusion is that American immigration policy has become “mechanistic, nepotistic, legalistic, and inflexible.” If that venerable American institution, the Federal Reserve, ran on similar principles, the money supply would be expanded in times of hyper-inflation; interest rates would be based not on current and future trends but on numbers and assumptions set in stone in 1965 and 1990; and preferential interest rates would go to relatives of yesteryear’s borrowers. But then money, unlike the welfare of American citizens, is something the federal government really cares about. 


[Mass Immigration and the National Interest, by Vernon M. Briggs, Jr. Armonk (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.) 287 pp., $49.95 (hardback), $19.95 (paperback)]