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The Face of the Nation: Immigration, the State, and the National Identity
The Face of the Nation: Immigration, the State, and the National Identity
Keith Fitzgerald
Stanford University Press, 1996
300 pp., $57.50

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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

The Face of the Nation

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Of course this won't satisfy readers who are impatient with "politics," who blithely issue demands for "comprehensive immigration reform." Don't bother them, for instance, with the messy story of how 38,000 refugees from Hungary were resettled in the United States after the failed uprising of 1956.

About 5,000 of the Hungarian refugees were admitted under the provisions of the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. That act, however, required a security check (to avoid admitting subversives who came in the guise of refugees), which most of the uprising refugees did not have the documentation to pass.

These remaining refugees could not be admitted through the front gate. The national-origins quota system codified by the Immigration Act of 1924 was still in place, and by 1956 front-gate Hungarian immigration had already "borrowed" from the annual quota of future years to such an extent that several decades of quotas were "mortgaged." Faced with this dilemma, the Justice Department responded by making use of an obscure parole provision of immigration law, originally "intended to meet such situations as the provision of emergency medical care or allowing a witness to aid prosecution." It was never intended to accommodate large-scale admissions. "Nevertheless," Fitzgerald writes, "the attorney general used the parole provision to allow 15,000 Hungarians in before Congress could even convene to consider the question." Given the outpouring of public sympathy for the refugees, Congress was not inclined to dissent, and ultimately almost 30,000 of the Hungarian refugees were admitted under the parole provision.

This action, which developed not from any central planning but rather was an improvised institutional response to a particular event, had far-reaching consequences. As Fitzgerald observes, "an astounding precedent was set enabling the executive branch to admit large numbers of aliens outside the ordinary legal framework of immigration policy." …

Fitzgerald's account should arm the reader against sweeping, simplistic generalizations about U.S. immigration policy. Yet there is one respect in which his own study is strangely reductive. Like many of the scholars with whom he is debating on theoretical grounds, Fitzgerald debunks what might be called the founding story of American immigration, imaged by the Statue of Liberty. "The evidence … provides persuasive documentation that immigration policy in the United States contrasts with the values crystallized by the immigration mythology," Fitzgerald writes in his concluding chapter …. What makes this reductive judgment strange is that it is so thoroughly contradicted by the nuanced story Fitzgerald himself has told, in which discrimination, exploitation, and the interests of the state are interwoven with a genuine commitment to freedom and equality ….

Thus we return to the paradox with which we began. Amid all the talk—the jeremiads of the immigration-control faction, and the victim-talk of the immigrant advocates—people keep coming to America in greater numbers than ever before. The face of the nation is changing; that much is certain. Yet exactly what it will mean in the America of the twenty-first century, no one knows.

Flashing forward fifteen years, we are into the second decade of the 21st century. The face of the nation is changing, yes (as it has time and time again). Legal immigration levels are not as high as they were in the record-setting 1990s, but they remain high. Illegal immigration is lower than usual right now, due largely to economic circumstances, but that lull is unlikely to last. For all the grim forecasts about national decline, the United States continues to attract would-be immigrants, rich and poor and in-between, from around the globe. We muddle on.

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