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America's Love-Hate Relationship with Immigrants

One college president questions the renewed animosity toward this group.
University Business, Nov 2006

With a divisive issue like immigration, the cartoon character Pogo perhaps summarized it best: "We have met the enemy, and he is us.'' Today, even some anthropologists suggest Native Americans immigrated here and displaced the then-current indigenous people. The point is simple: All Americans came from somewhere else-whether voluntarily or involuntarily. At one time, we were all immigrants.

Why then is there a renewed animosity toward immigrants? There's the legal issue, of course: Those who enter the country illegally avoid some taxes while reaping some social service safety net benefits, like education. But these individuals have fewer protections than those who legally enter the workforce. Even legal immigrants cost the country more than they initially contribute to it.

A case can certainly be made against illegal immigration. But why is it suddenly an issue today? Former President Ronald Reagan opened amnesty to all illegal immigrants as late as 1986. The vast majority of Americans did not object.

Historic trends may help to explain the current animosity. It appears that when Americans believe their per-capita income is growing, there are relatively few negative feelings toward recent immigrants. Conversely, when income is not growing, Americans shun immigrants.

The 1840s recessions resulted in strict immigration restrictions. Post-Civil War, when the national economy was booming, restrictions were lifted and immigration was encouraged.

During the 1890s and early 1900s panics, strict immigration limitations were enacted. They were liberalized during the 1920s economic boom.

The Great Depression produced strict limitations on immigration again. But post-World-War-II's economic boom witnessed a much more open policy.

The economically lethargic 1970s saw another wave of restrictive policies. By the mid-1980s, the situation again reversed itself. In 2000, Pat Buchanan was the only anti-immigrant candidate. He lost so badly, he changed parties.

Americans close the door to immigration when they feel their own economic status is in peril.

These circumstances may be an oversimplification of historical periods. But the love-hate relationship with immigrants stems more from feelings of economic well-being than it does from fear of crime or public support for those who pay fewer taxes than citizens do. Americans close the door to immigration when they feel their own economic status is in peril-and welcome immigrants when full employment means entry-level workers are needed.

Americans are hardly alone in these on-again, off-again immigration attitudes. West Germany encouraged thousands of Turkish immigrants during the boom years of the 1980s. It reversed those policies after reunification forced limited resources to be shared with East Germans, which resulted in higher taxes and, hence, less personal income for West Germans.

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (Random House, 2005), Harvard professor Ben Friedman explores in depth the changing public opinion for and against immigration. He points out that a country's economic well-being (an increase in personal income) creates a more tolerant and fair society. By "fair," he means having both the resources and the inclination to help those in need. Economic growth stimulates acceptance and tolerance.

Looking back upon the broad swath of immigration in this country, it's relatively easy to see the inevitable relationship between economic well-being and tolerance of new arrivals. This broad-based understanding may not help us address the immediate and sensitive issues of illegal immigrants today. But the realization will remind all of us that this country of immigrants cannot survive without the work ethic, values, and often entrepreneurial spirit that our newest Americans have traditionally brought with them.

Michael A. MacDowell is president of College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa.

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