Looking Beyond the Moment: American Immigration Seen from Historically and Internationally Comparative Perspectives
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Richard Alba is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at University at Albany, State University of New York. His most recent book, co-authored with Victor Nee, is Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration (Harvard University Press, 2005).

The great void in the US discussion of immigration policy, which today seems to split the society as well as its political representatives, is the absence of a clearly articulated vision of the role of immigration in the society’s future.  It combines dangerously with the deeply rooted sense of American exceptionalism, which keeps many Americans from recognizing that we can learn from other nations’ experiences and inspires far too many to believe that we can solve our immigration dilemmas by ourselves.  Accordingly, the current discussion is excessively and narrowly focused on the border problems of the recent past and the present, most critically of course on the growing magnitude of unauthorized immigration, while these issues are stripped of the historical contexts that might help Americans better understand and transcend them.

In this essay, I would like to apply historical and international perspectives in order to expand the frame of the discussion, especially of unauthorized immigration, and to sketch how the current problems might be resolved by relating them to a vision of the future.

There is one aspect, however, for which those of us interested in immigration should be grateful:  Most Americans acknowledge immigration for making an overall positive contribution to the US and are confident that the vast majority of immigrants want to work hard here and to take advantage of whatever opportunities for economic and social advance they can find.  The collective self-understanding of Americans that theirs is an immigration society gives them a confidence about the ability of the US to take in and successfully incorporate immigrants that citizens of many other societies now receiving immigrants lack.1 The doubts that plague many western Europeans concerning the willingness of immigrants and their descendants, particularly Muslims, to integrate into the societies receiving them find much less echo here. Granted, some Americans fear—against the evidence of cross-generational linguistic assimilation, one should add—that Latin American immigrants and their US-born children could form a separate Spanish-speaking subsociety.2 But as someone who is engaged in systematic investigation of the European experience with immigration, I find that the conviction in, say, Germany that the main Muslim immigrant group, the Turks, is forming a parallel subsociety, oriented more toward the society of origin than that of reception, far more profoundly shapes the view of immigration there than do the doubts about the assimilation of Latin Americans coming to the US.  Many Europeans view these immigrants and their children as taking advantage of what they see as the overly generous provisions of welfare states.3 In parts of Europe, one consequence has been a political blockage against policies that would allow much-needed legal immigration on a sizable scale for economic purposes.  Instead, much of what legal immigration occurs results from marriages that unite the children of legally resident immigrants with partners from their homelands; and these marriages, frequently cited as proof of the unabated homeland orientation of the second and third generations, stimulate further doubts about the legitimacy and value of immigration for the society.

Yet there are some critical respects in which we can learn from European societies, and one concerns the way that they have handled immigration from their neighbors, who often enough had previously been traditional enemies.  When Europeans began in the 1950s to conceive of ways to integrate their societies into a common economic space, they recognized at the outset that mobility of workers, i.e., future immigrants, was inextricably linked to the mobility of goods and capital.  This recognition predates the beginnings of the Common Market, now the European Union, in the 1957 Treaty of Rome and was present in the documents that formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951.4 Europeans may well have felt anxieties about opening their borders that were similar to those many Americans now have about the US-Mexican border. Certainly, Germans could have feared being overrun by destitute southern Italians, and in fact the tabloid newspapers of the period carried numerous reports about dark-skinned Italian workers pursuing blond German women that could have stoked anxieties.  But the Europeans went ahead anyway, and now immigration among the western European countries is viewed as unproblematic, if not a resounding success.  In Germany, almost no one today would regard the Italians in their midst as the cause of difficulties.5 It is undoubtedly the confidence gained from this experience that allowed the European Union to expand eastward, to incorporate much poorer countries such as Poland that have long been a source of immigrants to the west.  Although freedom of entry for eastern Europeans has been postponed by most western European EU members, there is little doubt that eventually the core principle of free mobility will be upheld.6

In forming the North American Free Trade Zone with Canada and Mexico, the US, the dominant voice in the group, ignored these lessons, and the pact made insufficient provision for the mobility of labor.  The US has paid the price for this blindness ever since, in the swelling numbers of unauthorized immigrants, roughly half of whom come from Mexico.7 The US legal frame for immigration was utterly inadequate to handle the movements of Mexican workers unleashed by growing economic integration.  For integration has had both direct effects on migration—by creating ever more cross-border traffic—and indirect effects—for instance, through the expansion and subsequent contraction of the maquiladora factories, which assembled a large, mobile work force just across the Rio Grande, and through the economic dislocations, such as those in Mexican agriculture, resulting from free trade.  And as many writers have noted, the problem of unauthorized immigration was greatly exacerbated by a system of legal entry that stingily assigns Mexico the same quota of green cards that are allotted to any other country—Jamaica, say—despite its large size and immediate proximity to us.

The US also failed to observe another critical lesson in the European experience, that migration issues are best addressed in a bilateral or multilateral fashion.  Instead, too many Americans persist in believing—in the face of all the contrary evidence—that we can solve these issues by our actions alone.  Hence, the disproportionate weight in the current discussion to strengthening border enforcement, although even those who advocate it are surely dubious of its effectiveness.  Moreover, even if border enforcement could work, it can, we should keep in mind, solve only half the problem, since many unauthorized immigrants arrive legally in the US and become unauthorized by violating the conditions or periods of their visas.  The only hope of reducing unauthorized immigration by US efforts alone is through stringent internal controls—for instance, requiring employers and institutions such as hospitals to check legal-status documents rigorously and to report the unauthorized, who would then be promptly incarcerated and deported.  Such measures, in particular a system of employer verification of the legal status of potential employees, are included in the legislation under consideration in the US Congress.  How effective they can be in the long run is, nevertheless, open to question.  Certainly, they will require a wholesale change in the generally tolerant American attitudes towards immigrants in our midst; and if employer verification does become law and is implemented successfully, one consequence will almost certainly be an expansion of the informal sectors of the labor market, to evade the new controls on the employment of low-wage unauthorized immigrants.