The Rise of a New American Underclass

The real issue is not how many people to let in, but how to help them all fit in.

By Ellis Cose

Dec. 31, 2007 – Jan. 7, 2008 issue

Immigration has always evoked outsize, even irrational, reactions. But the irony of this presidential season is that candidates are getting all worked up over an issue about which they largely agree. The major candidates have effectively reached consensus that America should provide a path to citizenship (just don’t call it “amnesty”) for many now in the shadows, while more effectively discouraging illegal immigration. This ideally would be done with the help of the Mexican government, which also has a stake in a rational immigration policy. Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, believes we may be at a historical pass. There is “a small but sufficient window of opportunity, a chance that can be seized just before the 2008 election, or just after it” for a bold, visionary step in immigration policy, he argues in his new book, “Ex Mex.” Yet even a coherent immigration scheme would take us only so far in answering the key questions that this—and every—U.S. immigration debate has raised: What does it mean to be an American? How do we shape our constituent parts into a cohesive whole?

The percentage of immigrants (including those unlawfully present) in the United States has been creeping upward for years. At 12.6 percent, it is now higher than at any point since the mid-1920s. The number (an estimated 37.9 million) is bigger than at any previous time in history. In the 1920s, we worried not only that we had too many immigrants but too many of the wrong sort. “If we want the American race to continue to be … of the same stock as that which originally settled the United States, wrote our Constitution, and established our democratic institutions … easily assimilable, literate, of a high grade intelligence,” Harvard University climatologist Robert de Courcy Ward wrote in Scientific Monthly in 1922, then the country should limit immigrants to the ethnic proportions of those present in the 1910 Census. With the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress went Ward one better, setting quotas pegged to the 1890 Census. That ethnicity-driven approach controlled U.S. policy until 1965, when—with the civil-rights movement in full flower—Congress shifted the focus from ethnic purity to family reunification.

We are not about to go back to the days when Congress openly worried about inferior races polluting America’s bloodstream. But once again we are wondering whether we have too many of the wrong sort of newcomers. Their loudest critics argue that the new wave of immigrants cannot, and indeed do not want, to fit in as previous generations did. As Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo put it during a debate in New Hampshire: “We’re not just talking about the number of jobs that we may be losing, or the number of kids that are in our schools … or the number of people … taking advantage of the welfare system. … What we’re doing … is testing our willingness to actually hold together as a nation.”

We now know that the eugenicists were wrong. In time, Italians, Romanians and members of other so-called inferior races became exemplary Americans and contributed greatly, in ways too numerous to detail, to the building of this magnificent nation. There is no reason why these new immigrants should not have the same success. Yet demonizing them makes it that much harder to address the very real problems they are having with assimilating.

Although children of Mexican immigrants do better, in terms of educational and professional attainment, than their parents, UCLA sociologist Edward Telles has found that the gains don’t continue. Indeed, the fourth generation is marginally worse off then the third. James Jackson, of the University of Michigan, has found a similar trend among black Caribbean immigrants. Telles fears that Mexican-Americans may be fated to follow in the footsteps of American blacks — that large parts of the community may become mired in a seemingly permanent state of poverty and underachievement. Like African-Americans, Mexican-Americans are increasingly relegated to segregated, substandard schools, and their dropout rate is the highest for any ethnic group in the country. “Public schools are the single greatest institutional culprit for the persistent low states of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans,” Telles and co-author Vilma Ortiz write in “All Things Being Equal.”

We have learned much about the folly of excluding people on the presumption of ethnic/racial inferiority. But what we have not yet learned is how to make the process of Americanization work for all. I am not talking about requiring people to learn English or to adopt American ways; those things happen pretty much on their own. But as arguments about immigration heat up the campaign trail, we also ought to ask some broader questions about assimilation, about how to ensure that people, once outsiders, don’t forever remain marginalized within these shores.

That is a much larger question than what should happen with undocumented workers, or how best to secure the border, and it is one that affects not only newcomers but groups that have been here for generations. It will have more impact on our future than where we decide to set the admissions bar for the latest wave of would-be Americans. And it would be nice if we finally got the answer right.