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.

The problem of unauthorized immigration is, above all, a problem of managing the immigrant flow from Mexico, whose citizens make up more than half the stream, and is unlikely to be solvable without the involvement of the Mexican authorities.8 If we shift, moreover, the framework of action from a unilateral to a bilateral one, then we can imagine a greater range of policies that could help to regulate immigration; we are not just stuck with restriction alone. A bilateral framework would enable us to envision ways to enlist the Mexican government to assist us in managing migration so that it contributes to both Mexico and the US.  In any event, an active role for the Mexican government would have to be part of any bargain, and it could help by directing potential immigrants towards legal channels (as the Mexican state did during the Bracero era).  Mexico could be encouraged to cooperate by, perhaps, compensating it for the loss of remittances that would occur if the total volume of immigration, legal and illegal, were to be reduced.  A bilateral framework would also prompt us to envision ways of facilitating the return of temporary migrants to Mexico, for example, by enabling them to invest more easily in their home communities through changes in banking regulations on both sides of the border.9 Such a shift of the frame of policy does not mean that we will be able to stringently limit immigration from Mexico—the situation has evolved past that point—but that we can channel much more of it through legal pathways and restore more circularity, i.e., return migration, to it. The challenges of managing immigration from Mexico are probably at their zenith right now, for population projections, reflecting the profound decline in Mexican fertility, indicate that the young-adult group, the greatest source of migrants at any point in time, is going to shrink in coming decades.10

Successful management of future flows still leaves the problem of the unauthorized or undocumented population (also called “illegal” by some), which has reached a size that makes it a major problem for US society.  The best estimates, originating with the demographer Jeffrey Passel, indicate that there are approximately 12 million people who reside and work here without any legal basis for doing so; if one includes the US-born children in their families, then the figure rises to 15 million, approximately 4 to 5 percent of the total population.11 This is a disastrous situation for any democratic society, as it leaves a substantial-sized body of the population vulnerable to exploitation and without any significant political voice.  It is one that cries out for an effective resolution; and since there is no prospect, thankfully, that the US will expel a large portion of its resident population, in the long run there is no alternative to creating a pathway to legal long-term residence for the immigrants and those of their children who are also unauthorized.  Even if some Americans refuse to accept that individuals they view as law breakers should be given legal status, it is hard to imagine the objections to doing this for their children, who have not made the choice to break American law.  According to Passel’s recent estimates, there are two million undocumented children in immigrant families who are being raised in the US and attend American schools.  They are Americans in all but legal title, and there is little prospect that they can return to their parents’ country of origin and integrate there.  Thus, they are in limbo, for when they leave US schools, they cannot be legally employed and consequently they cannot realize the fruits of their American educational credentials.   One would hope that any vision of the American future would include a place for these children.

In any event, if we accept as a nation that large-scale immigration is a vital aspect of our collective life in an era of globalization, then the comparison with Europe is once again useful.  For the Europeans continue to balk at the immigration they desperately need to accept from other continents and risk economic, cultural and social sclerosis as a consequence. All the population prognoses demonstrate that, without massive immigration, European societies will rapidly age and the youthful components of their population will shrink; the dependency ratio is expected to double by the middle of the century.12 This situation should not be viewed as simply a matter of having enough workers to support the increasingly elderly portion of society but of having enough young people to sustain the level of innovation—artistic, technological and commercial, among other ways—that is required to keep societies capable of responding to the quicksilver globalization of the 21st century.

The US is more dynamic in these respects, and one has to credit immigration with a very substantial role in this dynamism, one that it certainly has had historically.  The positive impacts of immigration on US society cannot be reduced to narrowly defined economic effects, for the economic analysis, as evidenced in the 1997 report of the National Research Council, shows that, on balance, the effects on national income and on the relative economic position of different population groups are modest.13 Yet it is in cultural and social respects that immigration has exerted its most profound impacts on the US.

During the 20th century, the US cultural influence on the rest of the world (for better or worse, one might say) was symbolized by Hollywood cinema and by television, where the contributions of late 19th and early 20th century immigrant groups, and especially but not exclusively of central and eastern European Jews, were profound and essential.  At the turn of the new century, the impact of the American computer industry, geographically marked again by a California location, Silicon Valley, is again supported extensively by immigrant creativity, as immigrants are estimated to account for at least a third of the engineers there and a quarter of the entrepreneurs.14

Skeptics of large-scale immigration, such the Harvard economist George Borjas, will say that these positive economic and cultural effects are determined by a small part of the overall immigrant stream and argue that immigration policy should target individuals who bring high levels of measurable human capital and restrict the entry of others.15 However, they forget the extraordinary ability of the US to provide a social escalator for groups that initially enter with low levels of education and occupational skills and to bring them to parity with other Americans within several generations.16 Here, the much-overworked analogy between the southern Italians of a century ago and the Mexicans of today is in fact relevant.17 Southern Italian immigrants, the majority of the ancestors of today’s Italian Americans, entered the US in the early 20th century with very low levels of human capital—roughly half were illiterate.  Yet today their descendants, who constitute 5-6 percent of the US population, are nearly at parity among college professors (4.6 percent of PhD holders who teach at colleges and universities), at parity among physicians (6.1 percent) and above it among attorneys (8.3 percent).18 That this escalator worked in the past is certainly not a guarantee that it will work in the future, but it ought to give Americans confidence at least that, with the proper willingness to invest in the educations of young people from immigrant backgrounds, they too will be able to contribute to the dynamism of American society.19


1 Aristide Zolberg, A Nation by Design:  Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2006).

2 Richard Alba, “Mexican Americans and the American Dream,” Perspectives on Politics 4 (June, 2006):  289-96.

3 Leo Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat. The Integration of Old and New Migrants in Western Europe since 1850 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005).  On Turks in Germany, see Necla Kelek’s Die Fremde Braut (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2005), written by a Turkish German.

4 Willem Maas, “The genesis of European rights,” Journal of Common Market Studies 43 (December, 2005):  1009-25.

5 See, for the case of Germany, the survey data reported in the appendix of Richard Alba, Peter Schmidt and Martina Wasmer, Germans or Foreigners?  Attitudes toward Ethnic Minorities in Post-Reunification Germany (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), especially the social-distance items.

6 Specifically, freedom of mobility has been granted at this time to citizens of the 10 new EU members by Finland, Greece, Great Britain, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.  According to the treaties signed when the eastern European countries joined, their citizens should have complete freedom of movement, including the rights to settle and work, throughout the EU space by 2011.  See Joanne von Selm and Eleni Tsolakis, “EU enlargement of the limits of freedom,” Migration Information Source (May 1, 2004):  http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?id=224.

7 Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand and Nolan Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors:  Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York:  Russell Sage Foundation, 2003). 

8 For the best estimates of the characteristics of the unauthorized, see Jeffrey Passel, “Size and characteristics of the unauthorized migrant population in the US: Estimates based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey,” Pew Hispanic Center (March, 2006):  http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=61.

9 Massey et al., Beyond Smoke and Mirrors.

10 See the population projections by CONAPO:  Consejo Nacional de Población,  “Proyecciones de la Población de México, 2000-2050”:  http://www.conapo.gob.mx.

11 Passel, “Size and characteristics of the unauthorized migrant population.”

12 For the latest demographic balance in Europe, see Rainer Münz, “Europe: Population and migration in 2005,” Migration Information Source (June 1, 2006):  http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?ID=402.  See also Louka Katseli, “Immigrants and EU labor markets,” Migration Information Source (December 1, 2004):  http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?ID=274

13 Specifically, the National Research Council report suggested that immigration brought an annual net positive gain to the US economy of about $10 billion in the late 1990s, a drop in the bucket of the total national economy;  see the National Research Council, The New Americans:  Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigration (Washington, DC:  National Academy Press, 1997).

14 AnnaLee Sanexian, “Silicon Valley’s new immigrant entrepreneurs,” CCIS, Working Paper 15 (May, 2000).

15 George Borjas, Heaven’s Door:  Immigration Policy and the American Economy (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999).

16 For a critique of this aspect of Borjas’s claims, see Richard Alba, Amy Lutz, and Elena Vesselinov, "How enduring were the inequalities among European immigrant groups in the U.S.?" Demography 38 (August, 2001):  349-56.

17 On the difficulties faced by southern Italians and the analogy to Mexicans and other contemporary immigrants, see Joel Perlmann, Italians Then, Mexicans Now:  Immigrant Origins and Second-Generation Progress (New York:  Russell Sage Foundation, 2005);  and Nancy Foner, From Ellis Island to JFK:  New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2000).  Also relevant is Nancy Foner and Richard Alba, “The second generation from the last great wave of immigration: Setting the record straight,” forthcoming at the Migration Information Source.

18 The data are from Richard Alba, “Diversity’s blind spot:  Catholic ethnics on the faculties of elite American universities,” forthcoming in Ethnicities, and from tabulations by Dr. Hui-shien Tsao of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis of the University at Albany.

19 On the contingencies, see Richard Alba and Victor Nee, Remaking the American Mainstream:  Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2003); and Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut, Legacies:  The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2001).