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Philip Gleason

Melting Pot Redux

Someone is supposed to have said that the British acquired their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. A bit of whimsy, to be sure, but not without a certain relevance to the present situation of the United States vis-a-vis immigration. For without consciously intending any such result—or even fully grasping how it came about—the country finds itself dealing once again with immigration on a massive scale.

True, Congress did quite consciously change the law in 1965, getting rid of the odious "national-origins quotas" for Europeans and opening the door to Asian immigrants on the same basis as anyone else. At the time, however, no one expected these changes to make a significant difference in the overall level of immigration. But did they ever! And their effect was reinforced by several major refugee flows and by an upsurge of illegal immigration, much of which was brought about by the termination in 1964 of the bracero program, a temporary guest-worker arrangement with Mexico that had been in place since World War II.

The upshot is that between 1971 and 1994, over 16 million immigrants entered the country legally—along with an unknown, but quite substantial, number of illegals. In numerical volume, this rivals the great flood of immigrants of the early 1900s, al though the foreign-born constituted a much larger percentage of the total population in those days (14.7 percent in 1910; 7.9 percent in 1990).

Well, one might say, so what? We're supposed to be a nation of immigrants, aren't we? Why can't we deal with this latest wave on the basis of our rich historic experience?

These are rhetorical questions, of course, but legitimate ones. The problem in answering them is that history's lessons are (as usual) subject to very different interpretations.

First of all, when the latest round began, we hadn't really been a nation of immigrants for a long time. Immigration had been so effectively cut off in the 1920s that it seemed a purely "historical" phenomenon. In ...

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