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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While going through a mass of books and papers and magazines at home, I came across a review I had written fifteen years ago, published elsewhere. The subject of the review was Keith Fitzgerald's The Face of the Nation: Immigration, the State, and National Identity (Stanford Univ. Press, 1996). It's an odd feeling, reading an old review (can it really have been fifteen years?), but I was struck by the extent to which the "debate" on immigration in 1997 paralleled the debate in 2012. The review is too long to reproduce here in its entirety, but I have excerpted some chunks of it. One caveat: Fitzgerald's book (as I wrote at the time) "does not yield its riches easily. Its pages of tiny type are filled with jargon-infested sentences. Moreover, Fitzgerald is a maddeningly repetitive writer." Still, as you'll see, I wasn't sorry to have made the trek.

In the preface to the second edition of their excellent book Immigrant America: A Portrait (1996), Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut speak of "the sharply politicized and increasingly acrimonious public debate on immigration in the 1990s." Noting that "the twenty million foreign-born persons counted by the 1990 U.S. Census formed the largest immigrant population in the world, and admissions in the 1990s appear certain to eclipse the record set in the first decade of this century," they register at the same time higher levels of "public alarm and nativist resistance" to immigration.

Readers who have followed immigration issues for a decade or more will recognize a familiar paradox here. It was in the 1980s that attention began to be focused on the enormous surge of immigration in the wake of the landmark Immigration Act of 1965, including as well more than one million refugees from Southeast Asia. Critics of U.S. policy warned of dire consequences if immigration continued at such high levels; in response, immigrant advocates denounced the critics for nativism and xenophobia and often added the charge of racism as well, since the "new immigration" was substantially non-European. When Congress finally got around to updating and revising immigration policy at the end of the 1980s, the result (the Immigration Act of 1990) was actually a higher ceiling for immigration.

So it has gone in the 1990s as well. In 1995, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by Barbara Jordan, recommended that legal immigration be cut by roughly a third. President Bill Clinton initially endorsed the commission's recommendation, but as immigration reform bills wound their way through Congress, with the final compromise signed into law on September 30, 1996, the Clinton Administration backtracked, shifting the focus to illegal immigration. With regard to legal immigration, far from following the Jordan Commission's call for a substantial reduction, the 1996 law deals with procedural issues such as sponsorship, seeking to ensure that sponsors of new immigrants would indeed have the means to support them if necessary rather than adding to the burden of public assistance, Even these measures were denounced by immigrant advocates as "harsh."

Here, alas, is one of most durable features of immigration debate on both sides: the ramped-up rhetoric, the routine imputation of base motives. That hasn't changed between 1997 and 2012.

Fitzgerald's point of departure is the observation by various critics—among them the Cornell University economist Vernon M. Briggs, Jr.,—that U.S. immigration policy is "meandering" and "aimless," indeed irrational …. [In response, Fitzgerald draws on the insights of] the "new institutionalism," a school of thought which, in Fitzgerald's words, "puts politics back at the center of policy explanation." It emphasizes the way in which contingent historical circumstances—in particular, the structure, logic, and self-interest of bureaucratic institutions—shape the formation of policy ….

Now to anyone who has seen the film Advise and Consent (1962), or has merely served on a church committee, this theoretical debate may seem like much ado about nothing, a squabble among academics and of academic interest only. Obviously, at every level, from the local school board to the U.S. Congress, policy is shaped in part by institutions. And yes, politics matters; that give-and-take is not just an elaborate show. Yet Fitzgerald's book is not simply a theoretical treatise, for after laying this foundation he applies his approach by tracing the evolution of U.S. immigration policy. This "thick description" superbly conveys the byzantine twists and turns of lawmaking and administration related to all three varieties of immigration (front-gate, back-door, and refugee).

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